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Flow Of Ideas – Flying For Free And Rooming For Cheap: The Travel Secrets Of A Magic Grinder

Gavin Verhey shows you all the major ways to save time and money on traveling all over the country to grind the infinite Magic events that are taking place next year. The best time to be a grinder!

There is more reason to be a Magic grinder now than ever before.

Next year is going to be the Yukon gold rush of Magic tournaments. With the expanded schedule of events, dedicated players will end up rushing around to Grand Prix or StarCityGames.com Open events almost every weekend—and then to PTQs on the weekends without them. Not only are there more great events to play at, but with the brand new Planeswalker Points system there is higher incentive to play in as many events as possible.

Maybe you’re among these individuals and want to travel a lot and climb to the top of the system. Prepare yourself. Your home will begin to feel like a hotel room, and you’ll spend time memorizing the layout of airports so you know where all the best food is. I’ve been there. By the end of this year, I’ll have flown about 110,000 miles, all within North America. For reference, that’s roughly equal to taking 115 one-way flights from Seattle to Los Angeles, or 41 one-way flights from Seattle to Florida. It can be crazy at times.

However, it’s also some of the most fun you’ll have. The friends you make and the unexpected adventures you have would be impossible to come across any other way. It is truly an experience impossible to find in any other way.

Maybe you’re looking to just hit up a few events. You aren’t really aiming to be a true grinder but want to make enough events to improve as a player and potentially snag a coveted Pro Tour invite. Your schedule will be a little less rigorous than the full-on grinder. But even then, knowing how to travel safely, quickly, and cheaply will no doubt end up a major boon.

I’ve been going to most of the North American Grand Prix and Pro Tours for years, and there are tons of ways you can set up travel and all kinds of little secrets to know about. I’ll list as many as I can.

Non-Flying Methods

There are many, many ways you can get to an event, but at their core there are really two main distinguishing methods: non-flying and flying.

Car

The most common method to get to an event is likely a car. I’m sure we’ve all been there. You either take your own and find a bunch of people to put in your car or (more likely) find somebody who owns a car and doesn’t mind driving. It’s assumed that all of the passengers will give the driver some money for the ride.

This is fairly self-explanatory, so I won’t get into the process too far. What I will say is that you should always keep this avenue in mind. Eight-hour road trips aren’t nearly as bad as they sound. Talking with Magic players makes travel go surprisingly fast, as there’s always a story to tell, a play to discuss, or someone in the car to make fun of. Depending on your level of preparation, you can even have a laptop with Magic Online and a satellite card. Driving is usually a very cheap option, and it means you get to hang out with people you (hopefully) like; it’s not all that bad.

You haven’t really been indoctrinated as a Magic grinder until you’ve been on a Magic road trip. If you’re looking to get to an event, don’t be afraid to look for people who are driving.

Passengers: be kind to your driver; don’t scrooge them on gas money; and please, give everyone a warning if you’re going to throw up.

Drivers: if you get a ticket for speeding, it’s all on you; don’t expect the car to share the cost. Also, don’t kill everybody. (I’ll never forget the 5 am wake-up call I got from Chris Mascioli and Christian Calcano. Me: “Whaa… Chris… Huh, did the PTQ start already? How did our deck do?” Chris: “No, we’re actually going to miss the PTQ because we ALMOST ALL FELL OFF A CLIFF AND DIED!”) 

Like I said, you’ll be fine.

If going via car isn’t an option though, you have two other main options on the ground: Amtrak and Greyhound.

Train

We’ll talk about Amtrak first. Amtrak is all about trains, and while trains seem to be the forgotten part of the “planes, trains, and automobiles” trifecta these days, they’re actually pretty awesome to ride on. Despite how outdated they sound, they really aren’t. They’re more or less just planes that run on the ground. Like a plane, they’re mostly unhindered by anything else so you don’t have to worry about traffic. (Okay, so once there were a bunch of cows sitting on the tracks, and we were held up 20 minutes to get them moved. But other than that, I haven’t had any issues.)

The west coast trains pretty much mimic planes. Compared to planes, they usually have better food and drink options, worse movies, and more comfortable/roomier seats. They also have community areas where you can sit down (to, say, draft or playtest), and on overnight trips there are usually beds available.

Some of the east coast and midwest trains are a little different because they’re older and have been more heavily used. Some of them can be pretty bare bones, though I’d still say a good amount of them are newer models with most of the amenities.  

As far as prices go, trains will cost you less than a plane ticket, but more than a Greyhound bus or going in a car. What you get back in cost though you lose in time. To state the obvious: Trains move much slower than planes. Taking the train from Seattle to Los Angeles is about $100 cheaper… but it’s also 35 hours instead of two. Unless you’re really hard up for money, I would not recommend taking the train super long distance.

The earlier you buy a ticket, generally the cheaper it’s going to be. In my experience, the price remains pretty static until about a week out, when it begins to tick upward at alarming intervals. As is a common theme you will see repeated throughout this article: buy early.

It is more valuable when you’re just hopping 100-300 miles and can’t find a driver. I’ve taken the Seattle-Portland train (about a three-hour trip) for PTQs and other events numerous times and been happy doing so. I’d still look into a driver first, but the train is a good plan B for short jaunts. You can book an Amtrak train at Amtrak.com.

Bus

If you’re looking for a low-cost option you can look to Greyhound busses. I’ll give you fair warning though: I wouldn’t take them long distance if you can help it.   

I’ve taken the Greyhound a few times and have since sworn it off whenever I can. First of all, the busses are seldom on time in my experience. We’re not just talking airport or train late here; we’re talking up to two or three hours late.

The problem is that busses can get stuck in traffic, and they wait for all busses who have passengers connecting with that bus to arrive before the bus departs. This means that every single traffic delay creates a huge ripple effect that slows down an entire section of busses. If you’re planning to Greyhound somewhere for a specified event, give yourself plenty of extra time.

Greyhound busses do tend to be a little cheaper than trains. Oddly, in the Seattle to Los Angeles example, the train is actually $30 cheaper, but that’s normally the case in my experience. However, once again, unless you really need the small amount of money you’re going to save, I would not recommend Greyhound for anything long distance. They are acceptable (though not optimal) for short-distance trips when they’re the only option, but hopefully you can find other options.

Like trains, bus prices don’t tend to change too much until about a week beforehand. They will rise as people buy them and thus the quantity becomes scarcer, but that’s difficult to predict unless you know there’s a big event/holiday that weekend.

Note that Greyhound busses are not to be compared to public transportation busses, which are actually a gigantic money saver and will be discussed later.

There are a few other ways of travelling via ground, and different areas of the country may have different long-distance shuttle services. However, I have yet to find one more economical or more rapid than the train or bus.

Airplane

Ah, yes, the human dream: flight! After travelling every other way save for jetpacks and in a police call box, I can definitely say that flying is what you should be using for anywhere you can’t reasonably road trip to. It’s the quickest route of transportation and comes with numerous perks.

Flying can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a lot of ways you can offset your travel costs. It’s not that hard to fly all around the country for much cheaper than what most people pay if you know some of the secrets of flying. 

But first, a quick word about flying. I know quite a few people who are scared of flying. They will take any way but plane. Usually, this is because of the fear of crashing. Being thousands of miles up in the air with no control over your vehicle can be frightening, and for logical reason. It’s out of your hands.

In reality though, it’s incredibly safe. It’s safer than having your friend drive you to an event, an event which equally takes control out of your hands. It’s estimated that between four and five million people fly every single day. There are thousands and thousands of airplanes in the air at any given time. If you get freaked out by turbulence, just think of it being like a car hitting a pothole. It may shake the vehicle a little bit, but it doesn’t threaten to crash it. There’s no reason to worry about flying: you’re plenty safe.

With that out of the way, I want to talk about the two different ways you can choose to fly: loyal or cheap.

Flying Cheap

Cheap is how I flew up until this year. Simply put, you want to minimize all costs in the short term so you always book the cheapest flight available. There are a few ways to help you with this.

First of all, there are some excellent flight aggregators out there. These are websites that basically search every airline for the flight you’re looking for on the days you’re looking for and find you the best prices.

The flight aggregator I use most often for finding flights is Kayak.com. It has a very clean interface and provides information in a simple-to-understand way. If you want to search within a three-day window, by times, or only by certain airlines, it can do that for you. There are others some people like to use (such as hipmunk.com), but I prefer Kayak’s interface.

Now, this can tell you which the cheapest flights out there are. Since we’re booking cheap, you shouldn’t care about anything but the price.

Now, theoretically you could just book this, but there are a few other options. I’ll cover them as the flying section goes on, but the one I want to look at right now is Priceline.com.

Priceline.com is very unique. It has a feature called “name your own price,” which is more or less a way of getting cheaper flights but at random times. Airlines have extra seats on unwanted flights they need to get rid of, so they go through Priceline to sell them off at cheaper-than-normal prices.

All you do is enter in a price and a few other pieces of information, such as departing and arriving airport, day, and billing information When you click okay, the computer does some calculations and checks your price against the tickets that the airlines are trying to get rid of. If it finds a match, you automatically buy the ticket at whatever time an airline that had seats was trying to get rid of for the price you set.

That’s right: you don’t get to choose the airline, time on the day you want to leave, or anything else besides the absolute bare bones. However, in return, you usually get somewhere from 10-30 percent off. In rare cases where next day seats were just going to go to waste, I’ve heard of tickets going as low as 90% off! Priceline can certainly generate some deals, and I’ve had a couple of friends who have definitely flown across the country for under $100 thanks to Priceline.

There are various rules, such as you can only use it so many times per day without switching your requirements and so on, but it’s pretty easy to sidestep that with more accounts. There are a lot of small things you can do to game the system, and, seeing as how we are gamers, you can have an absolute field day if you just grind Priceline and don’t mind taking flights at obtuse hours. There are various websites and forums out there dedicated to Priceline strategy, so feel free to Google for those if you’d like to find out more.  

Flying Loyal

Flying cheap is like the Jund of airlines. You’re just trying to pick the best value flights individually, and eventually you put them all into one itinerary. To contrast, flying loyal is like the tribal of airline miles. It’s a linear strategy. Though each individual flight looks worse, it ends up being much more cohesive.

Basically, you start by picking an airline (tribe) and then exclusively fly on that airline and their partners. This can end up being a little more expensive, as one carrier and their partners are unlikely to always have the cheapest flights. However, you reap the rewards over time.

It’s all thanks to the various reward systems that airlines have. Every time you fly, you earn miles equal to the distance of the flight. Miles are more or less just currency; if you gather enough miles, you can redeem them for free travel. You also get various other perks at mileage thresholds, called an “elite status.”

Elite status works exactly like the Magic Pro Player’s Club. If you hit a threshold in one year, you get all of the bonuses for the rest of that year and the year after. Just like the Pro Player’s Club, there are different levels you can reach (usually three or four) each with their own line of benefits.

Different airlines use different thresholds, but as a reference, the airline I am loyal with (Alaska Air) has thresholds at 25,000 miles, 50,000 miles, and 90,000 miles. This means if I fly that many miles in a calendar year on Alaska Airlines, I hit that threshold. All it looks at is how many miles I actually fly, so if I spend some of those miles on a free ticket, I don’t lose my status.

Now, each threshold gives me various perks here and there. Free alcoholic beverages, fast track security lines, free checked bags, preferred seating, and so on. It even gives you a very high chance of being automatically upgraded into first class for free, which is always a great way to start your tournament weekend off.

However, those perks are largely irrelevant in the overall picture. Yes, first class is nice, but once you’re off the plane, the upside basically equates to a free meal. There are a few perks, though, which make being loyal pay off.

The first is mileage multipliers. Like I said earlier, whenever you fly you will earn miles equal to the length of the flight that you can redeem for more flights. Elite statuses give you multipliers on those miles.

For example, at my 25k mileage threshold, I start earning 50% bonus miles. That means if I fly 2k miles, I get an extra 1k added. At 50k, it kicks up to the next level, and I get 100% bonus miles. Therefore, if I fly 2k miles, I just get a bonus 2k miles! (Note that these bonus miles do not count toward status thresholds.) If I manage to hit 90k miles in a single year, I get the big bag of gold at the end of the rainbow and pick up an extra 50k bonus miles as a reward.

Let’s break this all down. I said earlier that I was going to fly 110k miles this year. Now, let’s assume I had absolutely no status on Alaska to start. My first 25k miles gives me exactly that in the mileage bank. However, my next 25k miles gives me 12.5k miles because of the 50% multiplier, and the 60k miles to total 110k miles after that gives me 60k more miles because of the 100% multiplier, plus an extra 50k for hitting 90k miles. All in all, that’s 232.5k miles by the time all is said and done!

I know with all of these multipliers and thousands this is starting to sound like the planeswalker points system, so I’ll get to answering the question: what does that do for me? Well, that’s nearly enough miles for eight round-trip tickets to New York from Seattle, or four round-trip tickets to Europe! Now granted, I probably spent a little extra over the course of the year, but for what was probably no more than an few hundred dollars, I will end up with enough miles to cover a ton of flights for next year.

The other main bonus is that changing your flights (and flying standby) becomes free.

How many times have you thought about booking a Sunday night return for a GP but didn’t know whether you’d be in contention for the GP or doing well in a side event PTQ? On the flip side, how many times have you booked your flight for Monday, done poorly on Sunday, and just wanted to leave and get home? Normally there are some pretty steep flight change fees, around one to three hundred dollars depending on airline. Most airlines have elite levels that remove that charge.

So which should you choose, cheap or loyal? Well, in general I would try and plan out your year and figure out how much you’re going to be travelling. How many miles are you going to fly? Which status upgrades would you hit? After travelling for years going cheap, this year I have been much, much happier flying loyal—and I don’t think it’s just all of the first class upgrades.

If you’re not going to fly enough for it to make a difference, then fly cheap. Otherwise, I would recommend flying loyal. It’ll pay itself back significantly in the long run.

Mileage Plans

Loyal flier or cheap flier aside, you should be earning miles on every single flight you take.

There are tons of travelling Magic players out there who aren’t earning miles for their flights—and it blows my mind. It’s absolutely free to sign up, and you get free things in return, plus you get to watch a number tick upward. It’s like the definition of value and all things gamers love! Even if you’re on the flying cheap plan, over time you will accrue enough miles to get a free flight on one of the airlines you fly on.  

Even if you’re flying cheap, keep tabs on all of your miles. There are various websites that will do it for you, and you can always view it on each individual airline’s website, but I keep all of my information in a folder so I can pull it up quickly on the go.

It’s also important because airlines have partners. For example, if I fly on American Airlines, I can credit the miles to my Alaska Airlines account because the two airlines are partners. (A list of partner airlines is on each airline’s website.) Even if you’re flying cheap, enough of the airlines you fly on will be partners that you can funnel most of your miles into one general account. 

If you’re planning to fly loyal and don’t know where to start, I recommend doing a little research. Every airline is a little different with what perks they have and where they fly. Some airlines fly to Europe often; some don’t. Some fly direct between coasts often; some don’t. Most of the information is available on the particular airline’s Wikipedia page, but you can also find it on their website.

You’ll also want to identify which airlines have “airport hubs” near where you live. An airport hub essentially means that it’s a base airport for an airline, and a lot of flights for that airline go in and out of that airport. For example, Delta has a gigantic hub in Atlanta. This means that if I lived in Atlanta and was looking to fly loyal, Delta would be a very good choice because they have tons of direct flights from Atlanta.        

After that, you should have a good idea of an airline to pick to go loyal. If you have a couple competing choices, look over their perks, thresholds, and which one flies to where you want the most; then make a decision on which is the best for you.

Finally, on top of airline miles, you can also get points by booking through a third-party site. The one I normally use is Expedia.com, so I’ll use that as an example. If you book through Expedia, then you not only net all of your miles on the flight as usual, but you also earn points on Expedia, which can be redeemed for a free flight. It’s essentially doubling up and gives you a way to help get free flights even if you’re on the plan of flying cheap.

Bonus Miles

In addition to getting miles for flying, there are other ways to accrue miles. Now, normally these won’t apply toward status upgrades, but they’re still spendable. You’ll have to check under the promotions section of each airline to see what’s offered, but usually there will be offers on specific routes or when buying items through specific companies.

One guaranteed way to earn a ton of miles that basically every airline has is the credit card. The way it works is you get some large amount of miles when your card is approved (usually enough for one free domestic flight!), and then you get additional miles for every dollar you pay off on the card. Not only are these insanely high value, but there are many ways you can game the system.

For example, often there will be different cards you can apply for (each for different credit scores), and if you apply for all of them over time, starting from the bottom and moving up every few months, you will earn a ton of miles. Similarly, I have heard of people taking the card for the minimum timeframe (usually a year or 18 months), cancelling it, then applying for it again, and getting another free flight.

Make sure to read the fine print to make sure everything you’re doing is in the clear, but I presume you guys won’t have any problem finding ways to bend the miles system in your favor.

When to Buy your Ticket

One of the largest mistakes I see people make is waiting until the last minute to buy their ticket. Most of the time, you’re just throwing money out.

Say there’s a tournament coming up that you’re qualified for and you absolutely know you’re going to. Is there any reason to not buy your ticket? What would have to happen to cause you to not go? If the answer is something akin to a robot unicorn invasion or a sudden allergic reaction to cardboard, there’s no reason to not book your ticket in advance.

There is a time and place for last-minute booking, but that’s only when the extra time to make your decision is worth the cost. For example, if there’s a tournament coming up that you’re not sure if you’ll be able to go to, then waiting and paying $100 for a more expensive ticket is likely better than risking a $250 cancellation fee. However, if you’re sure you’re going to go, then buy your ticket.

The sweet spot for ticket buying is generally between 1-2 months in advance. Any earlier, and prices may actually be higher. But once you hit the month range, the price is likely to just increase. (It may lower from its increased price during many times in that month, but it is unlikely to come down under the one month out price.) 1-2 months out is also where a lot of specials and deals are, so always be on the lookout for those as well.

However, it’s more than just the general time: the day can influence prices as well!

Generally, tickets are cheapest to buy on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Over the weekend, some airlines generally raise their prices to see what everyone else does. If the other airlines raise their prices, then those prices will stick. If not, then they will re-lower their prices come the start of the week. Hence why Tuesday is a good day to buy airfare.

However, Wednesday is also good. A lot of airlines send out deals on Wednesday. It is also a day where many airlines revamp their fares. However, it can be tricky to know if they’re going to go up or down from Tuesday’s prices.

Fortunately, there’s a little trick you can use through some airlines. Some airlines will allow you to hold a spot on a flight for 24 hours at the listed price. If you buy it within those 24 hours, then it is yours; otherwise it gets released back into the wild. The trick then is to hold it halfway through Tuesday, then wait and see what happens on Wednesday. If it goes up, then buy it! Otherwise, you can release the fare and potentially reconsider.

If your airline doesn’t allow you to hold reservations, then I would go safe and plan to buy on Tuesday. Keep in mind this is just the norm and that sometimes fares are increased on Tuesday and lowered over the weekend. However, most of the time, this is how airlines operate. Also, note that the day matters less the further out you are, but you can especially see these trends when you’re buying within two weeks of your flight.

Finally, there are a few sites in recent years that aggregate flight pricing data. They can predict whether or not a fare is going to rise or fall, as well as show you its history. The one that I normally use is Bing’s Faretracker, which can be found at http://www.bing.com/travel/.

Faretracker does have some limits, but as long as you’re searching round trip on all airlines it should work fine. Simply enter in your dates and see what percentages you get. If there’s a high percentage it’ll go down, I’d trust the faretracker. Only once has it ever really messed with me when the price spiked up when it was supposed to go down, and it has saved me money numerous times   

Flying Standby

Standby procedure is something not a lot of people are familiar with, and might need some clarification. It offers you the chance to get on the flight you want despite it not being the ticket you have. You can be put on a wait list and, if somebody doesn’t show or the plane isn’t full, you get put on the flight.

However, standby has been tightening up a lot in the past several years due to abuse. It used to be that you could just get put onto flights with empty seats for a nominal fee without having a ticket in the first place, but many airlines have been cracking down. A lot of airlines won’t let you fly standby anymore; others require a fee just to give you the chance of maybe flying standby.

Flying standby also has its risks. You never know if it’s going to work or if you’re just going to be stuck in the airport all day. Every airline has its own standby rules, so you’ll have to investigate those on a per-case basis. However, I would like to bring up one particular system that is perhaps the best standby deal available—provided you’re in the right age group.  

Airtran Airlines has a program called Airtran U, which is only available for people ages 18-22. You don’t have to be a student, but you do have to be in that age group. If you are, it opens up one of the most insane programs out there.

Airtran U lets you fly standby on any flight without any ticket at all for somewhere between $49 and $99. You just show up to the airport two hours early, talk to the person at the front desk, and get a standby ticket. Go to the next gate for your destination and get on the standby list. If there’s room on the flight for you, you’re on!

On top of the insane price, you also get miles (called A+ Rewards) for all of this! So not only are you getting insanely cheap flights, but you’re also building toward free flights.

Now, there are a few catches. The largest one is that you have to pay for a standby ticket per segment. So, for example, if I want to go to New York from Seattle but there are no direct flights, that means I could do something like fly to Detroit and from there go to New York. In doing so, I’d have to pay for two standby fares. But even then, it’s still a very good deal at a maximum of $200 for a ticket to New York. For more information on the Airtran U program, check out the site at http://airtranu.com/.

Trip Vouchers

The easiest way to freeroll a flight is to get a voucher, although it is a bit random. Here’s how it works.

Most airlines overbook their flights. They want to guarantee each flight goes out full, so on many popular routes there will be more people booked on a flight than there are seats available. The airlines want to make sure everybody who really needs the flight can get on.

The solution? Offer you free stuff to step down!

If a flight is overbooked, they will announce that they are taking volunteers to step down over the intercom at the flight desk, followed by what they’re offering you. Most often, it’s a voucher good for (roughly) the cost of the flight. In addition to the voucher, they will rebook you to the next available flight. The end result is you have a voucher for a free flight at the low cost of waiting until the next flight! (Usually only 1-3 hours.)

If they call it over the intercom, you need to move fast. There are usually a couple other people with the same idea, and it is first come first serve. However, once you’re there, you have a little bit of haggling room. After all, they’re the ones that desperately need you to step down. In the past, I’ve gotten them to throw in everything from guaranteed first class upgrades, to meal vouchers to compensate for the time I’m waiting, to bonus miles.

Now, like I said, it’s a little random when this happens, and you just have to seize the moment and go for it. I’d say it happens on 15 to 20 percent of my flights. However, you can tip the odds a little in your favor by purposely booking routes that are prone to overbooking, such as early morning coast-to-coast flights or certain cities when there’s a major event like the Superbowl going on.

Better yet, if that flight was just a connection to your final destination, it can even sometimes end up even more in your favor because they can rebook you on a direct flight! If you ever have the opportunity to take a voucher, it’s almost always worth it.

The other way you can get vouchers is when something goes wrong.

In my experience, airlines hand out vouchers like crazy to fix their problems. If anything delays your flight or otherwise causes problems on your flight, you can usually get some compensation for it. To make an analogy, it’s kind of like when something goes wrong on Magic Online and you file a refund request. (Sorry Lee Sharpe!) They respect that they messed up and your time is valuable, so they are willing to reimburse you for their mistake to make the customer happy.

If something goes wrong to delay your flight at all, talk to the person at the front desk. It’s important you are firm about it. You don’t have to be mean or aggressive, and it’s important to be kind (their job is hard!), but you do have to be firm that it’s what you want.

If you tell them, “hey, can I maybe get a refund for this delay, it’s not a big deal or anything,” then there’s no reason for them to do anything because you clearly don’t care that much. However, if you say, “Hello, I booked this flight with the expectation that I would reach my destination on time. I have plans, and my time is valuable. This 45-minute delay is wasting my time, and I need to be compensated for it,” you are far more likely to receive something. Most of the time they see no reason not to compensate me, and I end up with a voucher of some variety.   

Airline Lounges

The fact that most airlines have lounges throughout the airport might be a well-kept secret from most people, but they’re there if you look for them. Sometimes they’re just a door; sometimes you have to take an elevator, but they are generally very nice, spacious, and can be worth it.

Lounges typically have free Wi-Fi, free food and drink (including an open bar), very comfortable chairs, newspapers, a nice view of the runway, and televisions, and occasionally they will have showers, video games, sleeping areas, or other unique amenities. I always enjoy my time on the occasions I feel buying a pass will be worth it.

The cost to get in for one day ranges from about $35 to $50 depending on the airline. Keep in mind that one day applies to every airport, so if you pay in Orlando in the morning; then you can use it there until your flight leaves, then use it during your connection in Minneapolis, and then once you arrive back home in Seattle to go hang out there for a little while if you want to. Considering the cost of Wi-Fi and eating/drinking in airports, there will be times when it pays for itself.

Potentially more worthwhile, however, are yearly passes for a specific airline. If you map out how often you are going to fly and think that the $300 to $500 dollars (depending on airline and status) for 365 days will cover most of your eating expenses while in airports, in might be worthwhile to pay for the pass all on its own since you get so much extra on top of it. It’s also worth noting that usually having a pass allows you to take some number of friends in with you, so if you travel with specific people a lot you might be able to split the costs.

For more information on the specifics, check the website of the airline you’re travelling on.

Flying Odds and Ends

Booking Flights Individually—Don’t always just look for a round-trip ticket. Sometimes, airfare one-way will be cheap, but it will be expensive the other. In these cases, I’ll often just buy half of my itinerary while the price is low and then watch the other half carefully. 

Look into Other Cities and Combine Methods—Sometimes you can fly into a different airport than just the obvious one. If you’re flying into California, there are usually 2 or 3 airports in the same general area, and some of them may be cheaper than others. Also, you can often combine multiple methods of travel to find the best route. If you’re flying to Canada from the United States, it is usually cheaper to fly into the U.S. and then take a bus or train up. (For example, I’m flying into Burlington and bussing up to Montreal this weekend for the Grand Prix.)

Don’t Check Bags—I never check bags, even with the free checked baggage my status provides. An unfortunate number of checked bags are lost every year, and you can sidestep that issue entirely. Granted, the odds that your bag will be lost are incredibly low, but if you’re just taking one suitcase with you anyway, why not keep it with you? Not only does it mean your bag is safe (provided you don’t lose entire suitcases easily), but it also makes leaving the airport easier because you don’t have to wait for your bag. Plus, you can’t usually do things like fly standby if you have checked luggage.

Value Miles—When booking a trip, if you’re on the flying loyal strategy, sometimes it will actually make sense to take a roundabout way to your location (if it’s roughly the same price) just for the miles. For example, when going to GP Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, I connected in New York from Seattle and flew from there to Pittsburgh. It was the same cost and only took 30 extra minutes, but netted me an extra 900 miles at virtually no delay to myself. That may not seem like a ton, but do enough small incremental value plays like this, and it can add up to quite a bit.

Flyertalk—If you have any questions about flying, your program, what you do and can’t do, how to cheaply get from one place to another, upcoming deals, or anything else related to flying, check out flyertalk.com. It’s a gigantic forum (seriously, it has over 350k members) full of extraordinarily helpful people that will spend their time helping you however possible. There is also just some cool stuff on there worth reading for fun, such as various threads where pilots talk about their experiences and field questions.

Hotel

So we have the transportation down… Now where do we stay?

Well, one answer is to ask everyone you know in the area and see if there’s someone who doesn’t mind if you stay with them for a couple days. Especially if they’re also Magic players, it can end up being a great time. However, if that doesn’t pan out, it’s time to figure out a hotel!

Which Hotel?    

There are a few factors that go into hotel choice.

First up is proximity to the tournament. This is worth far more than it sounds. That half an hour walk every morning doesn’t seem like a big deal until you have to do it each morning and when you’re coming back at night. Worse yet, when you have to do it in the morning and you’re already running late.

Having a close hotel also just means easier access to your stuff. Various things are prone to happen, and having a close hotel is convenient. Forgot a card in your room? You can go back. Need to drop something off? It’s easy to head back. Want to take a lunch break? You can just go grab food from your room. After doing it the hard way for a lot of tournaments, I’m at the point where I’m willing to pay a little more for a hotel near the site.  

Another big factor is reviews. Not every review is to be taken at face value, and it is true that some staff members plant good reviews, but if a place has 100 reviews and averages 1 star, I’d stay away. Webites like hotels.com and tripadvisor.com have tons of reviews to look over, and they will warn you if all of the rooms smell like smoke. (Or, in the case of one Providence hotel, if the hotel is haunted.)

Finally, the amenities do play a small factor. If you’re going to eat breakfast every morning, it’s definitely worth it to pay $15 more for a hotel with free breakfast since your room would be spending more than that anyway. I also like to have free Wi-Fi whenever possible, though it’s not a complete deal breaker with the advent of smartphones.

Getting a Room

Like with airfare, it’s always wise to book your room early. It’s even more of a no-brainer too because you can usually cancel rooms until 24 hours beforehand and they don’t require money up front. Hotel rates aren’t as fickle as airfare, but they will occasionally jump up, and occasionally there are deals for booking early. (Always check the PT/GP website and see if they’ve rented out a room block for players—they usually do!) One of the main things to worry about is actually the hotel you want becoming booked up. If you think it’s a good hotel, it’s likely other gamers think the same.

Like booking airfare, I recommend booking it through a third party site (like Expedia) if you can to grab extra points. There’s no reason not to maximize the amount of points you can get. Additionally, many hotels also have a frequent visitors program of sorts that is worth signing up for. Not only can it help you book free rooms, but it can also upgrade you to suites and such eventually which is very nice.

Also like airfare, you can also Priceline “name your own price” on hotel rooms! It works the same way as it does on airfare; only there are some ways you can trick it. It asks for various stars of hotel you are willing to stay in, and each one you select causes the program to lower the price it’s willing to take.

However, if you do your research ahead of time and select 2 star hotels in an area that has no 2 star hotels, well, it’s just going to be even easier to get a good hotel for cheap. In general, I would highly recommend Pricelining hotels if you don’t mind a little research to understand how the system works. It can easily get you 20 to 30% off a night, which is huge—especially when you’re splitting rooms!     

Rooming Arrangements

Once you have your room taken care of, you need to find people to go in it! It makes little sense to pay for a room that can fit two double beds by yourself, so it’s pretty much always right to split it. The only question is: how many people do you want to split with?

Splitting a room has less and less value the more people you put in it. To illustrate what I mean, let’s say a room is $100 a night. The first person you split with will halve the price, bringing it to only $50, which is pretty nice. The second person you split with brings it to $33, which is 17 dollars less: still reasonable, but not nearly as good. However, the fourth person just brings it to $25 a night, eight dollars less, and the person after that only $20, five dollars less. At some point, you have to wonder if having a whole extra human being making noise in your room is worth a total of $10 to you.   

I’ve found the right number for me, based on happiness via ability to sleep and total money saved (four), though it can be slightly more or less depending on costs. Four is easy though: two to each double bed is usually plenty of room, and nobody has to sleep on the floor.

There are exceptions depending on how much you’re trying to cut costs. I’ve certainly taken a fifth several times before as long as they understand that the floor is their domain. However, while your eight-person split to save six dollars all sounds good while you’re working it out in your head, when it actually comes to the tournament and your room is chaotic and you’re unable to sleep because people are coming in late, it begins to hinder your performance significantly. Tournaments are exhausting enough; you don’t need your own sleeping arena to work against you.

Bedbugs

One of the largest threats to the constant traveler, especially if you’re constantly on the east coast, is bedbugs. A lot of players don’t take them seriously and think it’s a waste of time to check for them in their rooms, but it’s worth the five minutes.

These tiny, tiny leeches can wreak havoc on your body, causing you to wake up with bites all over. If you think loud roommates are going to impact your performance, wait until you have to deal with these. Worse yet, if you accidently bring one home with you they’re basically impossible to get out of your house without very serious pest control.  

You can find out a lot by Googling and Wikipediaing the topic. However, I will make a few simple suggestions to help avoid the dreaded bugs.

First, when you get into a hotel room, check both beds. The places you want to look are under the sheets, around the edges of the bed frame and where the sheets are tucked in, and under the headboard. It also doesn’t hurt to take a close look underneath the bed and the area around it on both sides.

To help prevent hitchhikers, keep your clothes and suitcase away from the bed area. When you get home, the very first thing you should do is instantly put all of your clothes into your washing machine and wash them.

There are various things you can do to your suitcase—one of the most commonly recommended is putting it in a garbage bag and keeping it somewhere very warm so anything alive inside will die—but at the very least a visual inspection and light hand washing will help prevent anything from spreading. It’s unlikely you’d bring any back without noticing marks on your body first, but it doesn’t hurt to be safe.

Transportation to Hotel

An important question is always how you are actually going to get to your hotel from the airport. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a friend pick you up, it can be tempting to just grab a taxi by yourself and go.

That is usually an expensive mistake.

At the very least, you should try and find people to split your cab with. If you can’t arrange something ahead of time, asking random people works too. If you can peg somebody walking around at the airport as going to the tournament site (usually not that difficult), you can see if they’re interested in cabbing with you. It doesn’t really matter if you know each other because saving money is in both of your best interests. And hey, maybe you’ll make a new friend.

However, cabs are usually a last resort. First, some hotels have free shuttles to and from the airport. If this is the case, you’ll definitely want to take it—make sure to look into the situation ahead of time.

Aside from that, most cities have some kind of public transportation from the airport, whether bus, train, or otherwise. Though they may take a little longer, you can easily save $30+ this way, so I usually find it’s worth a little hassle. You can usually find it by poking around on the airport’s website, or by using Google Maps to create a route from the airport to your hotel and choosing the public transportation option.  

If that doesn’t work out, I would look into a SuperShuttle.

SuperShuttles pick you up at tons of specified locations across the country and take you to where ever you need to go nearby (like an airport to a hotel) for a flat rate. It’s door to door service, and it’s usually cheaper than a cab by anywhere from 20-50%. However, unlike a cab, SuperShuttle is per person instead of per party, so if you can find people to cab with, then that may be a more viable choice. You can find more at supershuttle.com. If they don’t service your local city, there is likely a similar shuttle company that does.

In general, there are far better options than paying full price for a cab.

AAA

There are few paid travel organizations worth being a part of, but AAA (aaa.com) is pretty much the top one and can easily pay for itself if you’re a frequent traveler.

If you plan on road tripping a lot, AAA membership offers you a ton of various safety nets in case something goes awry. Battery go out or gas tank empties in the middle of nowhere on the way to a PTQ? AAA has your back.  

More than that though, they offer a ton of discounts and offers worldwide. Most notably, a membership with them provides offers on hotels if you show your membership, to the point where you can chop off 10% the cost (or more) on a lot of hotels. When you’re staying in hotels every other week, that can really add up fast. For about $70 a year, you easily end up saving much, much more than that.

Link Index

There’s a lot of information here, and if you’re like most people you probably skimmed parts of this article for the pieces you were looking for. However, you may have missed some useful links in the process. Here at the end is a compilation of all the important links I referenced in this article with a very short description of each.

Aaa.com—Offers a paid membership which provides many benefits, including reduced costs at hotels.

Amtrak.com—A major train provider. If you’re looking to book train travel, check out their site.

Airtranu.com—Offers insanely cheap standby flights to people ages 18-22.

Bing.com/travel/—The Bing faretracker predicts whether ticket prices for a particular set of days is going to drop and also contains long-term pricing data.

Expedia.com—A third party to book travel through that awards points you can spend to get free flights/hotels (like miles) when you book through them enough.

Flyertalk.com—Message board all about flying that contains tons of useful information and with users that will answer any questions you have. 

Greyhound.com—A major bus provider. If you’re looking to book a long-distance bus ride, check these guys out.

Hotels.com—A hotel aggregator that contains links to plenty of reviews on hotels. (You can also use tripadvisor.com or kayak.com for similar services.)

Kayak.com—A flight and hotel aggregator. You can use it to find the available flights (and cheapest flights) for any given day

Priceline.com—A third party to book travel through which has the “name your own price” feature. Given enough effort and ample gaming the program, you can get insanely cheap flights and hotels.

Supershuttle.com—A shuttle from your hotel to the airport, or vice versa. Is cheaper than a cab for one person, but usually needs to be scheduled ahead of time.   

So, Where To?

The next year is going to be filled of travel plans for many aspiring players, leading to a whole new generation of Magic grinders. With major tournaments practically every weekend and a new rating system that rewards those who constantly play Magic, it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how it turns out.

I’ve extensively laid out most of the techniques I know to travel here, but if you have any questions or would like any specific help, contact me either in the comments below, over Twitter, or via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com and I’d be happy to point you in the right direction.

If you felt I missed anything, please let me know as well! I know a lot about travelling, but I by no means know everything, especially when it comes to travel outside the US. I am always looking to broaden my knowledge!

Speaking of travel, I’ll see you guys this weekend in Montreal as we bid farewell to M12 Sealed! I hope to see you there!

Gavin Verhey

Rabon on Magic Online, @GavinVerhey on Twitter
www.Designspaceblog.com