Airline rewards programs

Traveling on the Cheap: Japan Case Study

I travel a lot, and I spend very little money on my travels. A big chunk of the savings comes from stuff I write about on this website: home exchanges for free lodging, ridesharing for cheap transportation, crowdsourced delivery to pick up some extra cash or other useful services (like a ride from the airport), peer-to-peer tours for interesting local experiences. I end up using a lot of the research I do writing for this website, which I see as the payoff since I’m not actually making money on here. But that doesn’t cover one of the biggest expenses for travel: airfare. And it doesn’t help if you need to stay in a hotel for a few nights. So, at the suggestion of my brother, I’m going to put up a few posts on ways you can get cheap or free travel when peer-to-peer stuff isn’t an option.

To start off, in this post I want to give an example. I’ve planned a trip to Japan for two weeks this year, with a 3 day stop over in Taipei. And I anticipate paying very little for this trip. But I’m not using any sharing economy services for the big expense items like lodging and transportation because they just aren’t available.

Here’s how it’s breaking down:


  • American Airlines miles one way to Hong Kong
  • British Air miles from Hong Kong to Taipei
  • Lufthansa miles from Taipei to the south of Japan
  • American Air miles from Tokyo back home

I happen to be flush with AA miles this year, and they have some good partnerships with Cathay and Japan Airlines, which offer nice flight experiences. Because these are super long flights (and I had enough miles) I booked our tickets in business class. I anticipate a very pleasant trip. Although I did have to earn the miles, it costs me almost nothing to spend them: for instance, the Tokyo flight home cost me $39.16 per person out of pocket. The BA miles from Hong Kong to Taipei were negligible, and the Lufthansa miles were earned years ago on a credit card sign up bonus and about to expire so I got lucky that I could use them for that part of the trip.


We will be staying in hotels and moving around every few days to explore various parts of Japan. I usually don’t book hotels so my focus has never been on earning hotel points. But I do have a few credit cards that give me free nights, so I used all of those up on the highest category option, which means we have some very fancy lodging booked. I also used some Ultimate Rewards points transferred to Hyatt to book a few hotels that seemed like reasonable deals relative to the cash cost. And I used some IHG points to book a few nights. And lastly, for one night I used up some Orbitz rewards I had earned from bookings I made through that site over the past few years.

My out of pocket cost will be very low but not zero because some of these hotels were a better deal as points + cash bookings so I paid a portion in cash. My total cash cost for 15 nights of (relatively luxury) lodging for two people is $225.

Transportation within Japan

I plan to get a Japan rail pass for 1 week. This will cover all our needs to get from the south of the country to Tokyo if we start it the day we leave Fukuoka and end the day we arrive in Tokyo. These aren’t cheap but they are a good value for tourist travel in Japan and the trains there are really nice. Also I enjoy train travel. It looks like this will cost $251 per person (I can’t buy these until closer to the trip). I am planning to put this purchase on my Barclay Arrival card to use those points to pay for the tickets. There are reports that this doesn’t code properly as train travel but that I have a good shot at getting the customer service folks to help me recode it after the charge is made. I don’t currently have enough points to pay for two tickets, but I could ramp up my spending on that card for this purpose. If I only use the points I currently have I’ll end up spending about $300 out of pocket on these rail tickets.

Entertainment & Food

This is where I will be spending money on my trip. I really enjoy food tourism and Japan and Taiwan have some of my favorite foods, so I definitely plan on eating well. But this does not mean I have to go to fancy/expensive restaurants. There is plenty of really good cheap food in Taipei and Japan. I also don’t tend to do many organized tourist activities, but there will be expenses like tickets to the top of the Taipei 101 tower to take in the amazing views. And perhaps a visit to an Onsen in Tokyo. With the rest of the trip costing so little, I don’t have a hard time justifying these entertainment costs. Of course, I’ll make sure to bring a credit card that doesn’t have a foreign transaction fee, and that earns bonus points on restaurant spend.

Sound awesome? Too bad I’m not telling you how to get all these points, miles, and free flights here, but I thought an example might peek people’s interest. Stay tuned for an overview of how to get started collecting miles and points.