For Tortuga company retreats, we've stayed at:
- A small apartment in the heart of San Sebastían
- A 5-bedroom house in Montreal's Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood
- A Lisbon flat across the street from the São Pedro de Alcântara View point
- An 8-bedroom plantation house in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans
The best part of these accommodations is that they were all free. Yes, free.
We paid for them with Airbnb credits.
I stumbled into the world of referral programs accidentally. When I wrote a post on Airbnb competitors, I included my personal referral link on a whim.
The post started to rank well on Google for popular searches about Airbnb competitors and alternatives. People read the post and signed up using my link. I started to notice a trickle of email alerts from Airbnb. I filtered them out of my inbox and didn't think much of it. The next time I logged into Airbnb, I had hundreds of dollars in credits waiting for me to use.
In this article, I'll outline how referral programs work. If you're already familiar with them, skip ahead to the "Best Travel Referral Programs" section to get a discount on your next trip.
How Referrals Work
Airbnb, like many modern travel sites, encourages referrals as a way to incentivize "word of mouth" marketing at a reasonable cost. Referral marketing works much like affiliate marketing except that the buyer benefits just as much as the referrer or affiliate.
Most sites use a similar offer:
- You invite a friend to the service by sharing your personal URL or sign up code.
- When your friend uses the service, s/he saves $X on the first booking.
- After s/he's paid for the booking, you get the same $X in credits for your next booking.
Before you start referring friends, you should know about two caveats that come with using these programs:
- Referral programs are only valid for new users. If you refer someone who is already signed up for that site, neither of you will get credits. Travel sites use referral programs to get new customers, not more bookings from existing customers.
- Referral programs are meant for your personal connections, not the general public. How and where you refer people can be a gray area, but most companies have specific policies in their terms of service (TOS). Read the below example which used to be on Uber's site for more details.
[Y]ou can share your invite link with your personal connections via email, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, personal blogs, etc. where you are the primary content owner. However public distribution on sites where you are a contributor but not the primary content owner (e.g., Wikipedia, coupon websites) is not allowed. Promoting your referral code via Search Engine Marketing (e.g., AdWords/Yahoo/Bing) is also not allowed.
I recommend operating within each company's guidelines for referrals so that you can maximize your credits and don't lose them because of a TOS violation. I might have run afoul of these rules once or twice in the past.
Next, we’ll discuss the specific sites and apps that offer the best referral programs.
The Best Travel Referral Programs
Depending on the destination, I stay in Airbnbs, local guesthouses, or hotels where I have status and points.
Airbnb is often my first choice because of cost and location. Unlike hotels, Airbnb apartments are located in the most interesting neighborhoods of a city. If you're traveling with a group, the cost per person goes down with each bedroom that you add. At a hotel, those costs scale linearly.
Join Airbnb here for $40 off your first stay.
After you've joined or if you're already a user, go to Airbnb's Invite Friends page. Find the "Share a link" section, and you'll see a link that looks like this:
Share that link. When someone signs up for Airbnb through that link, you'll earn $20 in credits when they travel and $75 if they host.
I've used the Airbnb referral program for thousands of dollars in free stays on business trips and to book the accommodations for our team retreats.
For a few years, Airbnb was my most lucrative referral program. Ironically, a post I wrote about Airbnb competitors ranked well in Google and drove a lot of traffic to my referral link. I racked up thousands of dollars in credits. Then my account started getting buggy.
After some back-and-forth, Airbnb informed me of a new cap of $5,000 in total referral credits. Since then I've received conflicting messaging and had problems redeeming my credits.
I love staying in Airbnbs and have tolerated the hassles given how much money I've saved through their program. You shouldn't have any issues earning or redeeming credits.
When I travel last minute, I turn to HotelTonight. (Update: Airbnb acquired HotelTonight in 2019.)
If you prefer credits toward hotel stays, check out HotelTonight. The HotelTonight (HT) app offers discounted rooms. The tradeoff is that you can only book up to a week ahead. HT started with "day of" booking but has since expanded to "week of" booking. You can download the app for iPhone or Android.
Use the invite code FPERROTTA for $25 off your first booking.
To find your share code, download the HotelTonight app. Click the icon in the bottom right corner to go to your profile. Scroll down and click the "Invite Friends" button. On that page, you will see your share code. Like my code (see above), yours will be based on your name.
When you refer a new user to Hotel Tonight, they save $25 on their first booking, and you get $25 in credits towards your next stay.
Before Uber, San Francisco was woefully short on cabs. You couldn't get a ride at peak times or to/from remote locations. Ridesharing has been a game changer in the Bay.
Set your exact pick up location, track your car while you wait, and, most importantly for me, pay with your credit card, not cash. Paying through the app streamlines your ride and means that you can earn more credit card points.
For ridesharing services, I use Uber at the start of each month because of the $10 monthly credits I get through my American Express Platinum Card.
Join Uber here and get your first ride (up to $10) free.
After you've joined or if you're already a user, you can find your invite code in the app. Click the hamburger icon (three horizontal lines) in the top left corner. Then click "Free Rides." The next page includes your invite code.
When you refer a friend to Uber, you each get a free ride worth up to $10.
Read more about using Uber's promos and credits in their Help Center.
After I use my Uber credits for the month, I switch over to Lyft. The service and app are similar as is their referral offer. Both companies are in an arms race to win a ridesharing monopoly.
Use the invite code FRED303 for $10 off your first ride.
Download the Lyft app, open it, then click the gift icon in the top right corner. The next page will include your referral code and contact list for easy sharing.
Like Uber, both you and your referrals get $10 in credit with their first ride.
Go Forth and Refer
The newest generation of travel sites and apps will offer you credits for referring your friends. Everyone benefits: you get credit toward a future trip, your friend saves money, and the company gets a new customer.
If I missed any good referral programs, let me know.
Disclosure: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. If you sign up or buy something through an affiliate link, I make a small commission at no additional cost to you. I use these products and highly recommend them. If you think my recommendations can help you, use them. If not, don’t.