During Tortuga 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 apartment across the street from the São Pedro de Alcântara View point
- An 8-bedroom plantation house in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans
Aside from the company (and food), 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 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.
First, I'll outline how referral programs work. If you're already familiar, skip ahead to find out the best travel referral programs and 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:
- Invite a friend using a custom URL or sign up code
- When your friend uses the service, he saves $X on his first booking
- After 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 for lead generation. They want to get new customers, not give away free money to existing ones.
- 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 not lose them because of a TOS violation. I might have had this problem once or twice.
Next, we’ll discuss the specific sites and apps that offer the best 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 for 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.
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.
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.
Hotel Tonight Referrals
When I travel last minute, I turn to Hotel Tonight.
If you prefer credits toward hotel stays, check out Hotel Tonight. The Hotel Tonight (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.
Use the invite code fperrotta for $25 off your first booking.
To find your share code, download the Hotel Tonight 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 from remote locations. No driver would take you outside of the city center. 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 with 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 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 Uber's referral program under "Using 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 on Twitter.
Disclosure: I have included my referral links and codes in this post. If you use them, I may receive a small credit at no additional cost to you. If you think that’s self-serving, don’t use them.
I use and highly recommend all of the services on this page. I included them to practice what I preach. Using these codes in the past has taught me how to succeed with referral programs so that I can help you do the same.