Travel hacking is really just a cooler way of saying “I reduce the amount I spend on travel by earning rewards points, frequent flier miles, etc.” It’s basically taking advantage of a system to make traveling more affordable. While travel hacking might sound sexy or hip or even a little complicated, actually learning how to travel hack is really pretty simple.
I’ve read blog posts from people who are travel hacking so hard that they’re able to take week-long Hawaiian vacations for less than $25, but that’s not how you start travel hacking. That’s next level stuff that takes a serious amount of dedication and organization to work up to. My goal today is to just help you get started with some travel hacking basics.
In this beginner’s guide to travel hacking, I’m going to cover:
- What is travel hacking?
- Using frequent flier miles for travel hacking
- Travel hacking with credit card rewards
- Popular travel hacking rewards cards
- How to reach the minimum spend for the sign-up bonus
- Travel hacking tips for success
- Taking your first trip for free
What is travel hacking?
Most people use the term travel hacking to refer to getting credit card reward points or miles that they can redeem for free flights and hotels, and I’m going to go over both of these. It’s something anyone can start doing, i.e. you don’t have to be some international jetsetter to start travel hacking. Regular people do it all of the time.
All you need to start travel hacking are a frequent flier account and/or a good credit card for travel hacking – that’s really it.
Travel hacking can be as simple as booking a free flight with credit card points.
Honestly, travel hacking is really just drastically reducing the cost of traveling or making it a little more user-friendly… think using FourSquare to find free Wifi, using a TV to charge your electronics, marking your luggage as fragile, that sort of thing. The points, miles, and rewards can save you a ton of money on travel, which is why I like talking about them, but you can get creative and still call it travel hacking.
I’d love to know your most creative travel hacks – leave them in the comments below!
Travel hacking with frequent flier miles and hotel points
These days, I’d say that probably every airline and major hotel chain has some kind of loyalty program. There is a ton of competition out there, and these programs are used to keep your business.
It’s a slower game to travel hack with frequent flier miles and hotel points, but they are less riskier than opening credit cards for travel hacking. But, if you combine the two – loyalty programs and credit card points – you can up your game and get an even larger return.
To travel hack with frequent flier miles and hotel points, you’ll need to do a few things:
- Sign up for every frequent flier or hotel rewards program out there, or at least with all of the companies you use. They’re all free to join, and you’ll need to sign up to collect your loyalty rewards.
- See if you can find any promotions and take advantage of them if they work for you.
- Never travel without banking your rewards.
- Become loyal and repeat customer with the companies that you love. You won’t get much out of having a few hundred points or miles banked with a bunch of different hotels or airline carriers.
- Get your spouse, partner, and children signed up with their own reward accounts. This is especially important with frequent flier miles. However, there are some airlines that allow families to pool their miles, like JetBlue, Frontier, and British Airways.
Frequent flier and hotel loyalty programs offer other perks like priority boarding, elite status, free checked bags, free nights, etc.
Some airlines have hotel partners that let you earn even more points. And if you use a companion credit card through the carrier you prefer to fly or stay with, you can typically earn even more rewards.
M$M tip: There is a lot of information out there about learning how to travel hack, and here’s where you can learn the 10 Things You Need to Know to Start Travel Hacking.
Travel hacking with credit card rewards
Using credit cards to travel hack is probably one of the most popular ways to travel hack, and it’s actually how my wife and I have been able to take some really awesome vacations in the past year. Learning how to travel hack with credit cards is pretty easy and a faster way to earn rewards, but it is a little risky (I talk about this farther down).
The bulk of this article is about using credit card rewards because it offers you the highest turn around in the shortest amount of time… or the best bang for your buck.
The basic idea of travel hacking with credit cards is something like signing up for a credit card with a large sign-on bonus and then using that to pay for airfare, hotels, etc. You’ll see offers for things like 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days. The points typically equal around $0.01, and you can get more out of your points when you book flights through your credit card provider’s website.
The other travel perks you get with credit cards will vary from card to card, but they can include things like:
- Free checked bags
- Priority boarding
- Airline credits
- Credits for Uber or Lyft
- No foreign transaction fees
- Access to airline lounges
- Application fee credits for TSA Pre✓® or Global Entry
- Travel insurance
The sign-on bonuses and perks are really tempting to new cardholders, but there is one major caveat – ONLY USE CREDIT CARDS FOR TRAVEL HACKING IF YOU CAN PAY YOUR BILL OFF EVERY MONTH.
I am super serious about paying your credit card balance off every month. Paying interest rate charges on your brand new shiny credit card will negate the rewards you get from the card in the first place.
You will also need to have a pretty good credit score to be approved for the best travel hacking credit cards, so don’t go and wreck your credit because you want some bonus points. It’s just not worth it.
Using your credit card points for travel hacking
Once you’ve reached that minimum spend amount to earn the sign-on bonus, you’ll need to redeem those points. Your points will be worth more if you book through your credit card provider, and you will be able to see your points and how to redeem them when you log into your credit card’s website.
Depending on the card you use and the trip you’re taking, you might be able to get a free round-trip ticket, which that alone is really cool. You also don’t have to book through your credit card. Websites like Kayak and Skyscanner help you find great deals on airfare, and you can bank those miles in your frequent flier program to earn even more travel rewards down the line.
You also don’t have to use your rewards for airfare, that’s just one of the most popular options. You could use it to book hotels, an Airbnb, or even redeem as cash that you use to pay for gas on road trips.
Popular credit cards for travel hacking
Because I love using credit cards for travel hacking, I want to mention some of the most popular credit cards. But remember this: what works for one person might not work for you. And that’s okay! The goal is to help you save money on travel, and if one of these cards doesn’t fit into your lifestyle or with your travel hacking goals, it can end up costing you money.
When you’re learning how to travel hack with credit cards, there are a few things you’ll need to pay attention to:
- The minimum spends for the sign-on bonus (are you able to spend that much and pay it off?)
- Annual fee and whether it’s waived the first year
- Points multiplier (how many points you earn for each dollar spent)
I’d say that a lot of beginner level travel hackers start with this Chase card – Chase has other cards, but this is a good starting point. The current offer is 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after you open your account. That translates to $750 towards travel when you book through Chase.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card comes with:
- $95 annual fee
- Points multiplier: 2x points on travel (airfare, hotels, taxis, and trains), 2x points on restaurant purchases, 1x point on all other purchases
This card was recently revamped to give users serious rewards for dining and grocery spending. The sign-on bonus is 35,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months. These points are worth $700 when redeemed through American Express.
You earn 4x points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000/year, then 1x after that), 4x points on restaurants worldwide (includes takeout and delivery), and 3x points on flights booked through amextravel.com and directly through airline websites.
The American Express Gold Card includes:
- Annual fee of $250
- $120 dining credit – up to $10 in monthly statement credits at participating restaurants
- $100 airline fee credit – select one qualifying airline per year and receive up to $100 in statement credits for checked bags, in-flight drinks, and incidentals
This Capital One card is a favorite because you earn 2x points for every dollar you spend. And the sign-on bonus is 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 in the first three months. This equals to $500 in travel credits when booked through Capital One.
What you need to know about the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card:
- $95 annual fee
- $100 credit when you use this card to apply for Global Entry TSA PreCheck
- Points transfer to over 10 different travel loyalty programs
How to reach the minimum spend for the sign-on bonus
One of the hardest things to wrap your brain around when you’re beginning to travel hack with credit cards is how the heck are you going put around $4,000 on a credit card in just three months. If you have low monthly expenses or don’t use a credit card, this probably sounds insane…
You’ve been told to avoid debt and credit cards, so why in the world would you want to put that much on a credit card!?
Remember, you’re going to pay your balance off every month. And, I’m about to give you some tips that help you see how you can make that minimum spend happen while still being the financially responsible person you already are.
Tips for reaching the minimum sign-on bonus spend:
- Plan around large expenses. If you’ve been saving up for a new computer, washer or dryer, or major home repair, then find a card with a large bonus to use for that purchase. You already have the money in the bank to pay it off, so why not gain some rewards along the way?
- You can pay your taxes with your credit card. While there will be a processing fee, you can use a rewards card to pay your taxes. Think of those points as a reward for dealing with the hassle of doing your taxes.
- Pay your bills with your credit cards. You may not be able to pay all of your bills with a credit card, but you can use them to pay for things like cell phone, internet, and some utilities. Again, you have already budgeted for these things and have money in your account – you’re just using a rewards card to earn points.
You should not go into debt when learning how to travel hack… that’s the opposite of what you’re trying to do. The goal is to leverage your planned expenses to earn rewards.
Travel hacking tips for success
When you are learning how to travel hack, especially when you read crazy schemes that get you a free trip to Disney (or something like that), it’s really easy to get overwhelmed. There are people who turn travel hacking into a hobby. Seriously, it can get intense, but it doesn’t have to be with the travel hacking tips I’m about to give you.
Set a goal before you start travel hacking
When you go in with a goal of what you want to use your rewards for, the steps ahead become easier to see. Your goal could be something like, “I want to open a travel hacking card to pay for a portion of my summer vacation.”
You’ll then find a credit card that works for you, and open it at least four months prior to your trip (it can take a billing cycle or two for those points to hit your account), plus time for booking. You can see how to take your first trip for free at the end of this article.
Like I said, learning how to travel hack can feel overwhelming, but you don’t… I mean shouldn’t… go in super hard and fast. Start with one rewards card and one trip. If it feels like something you’d like to do more of, then go for more complicated travel hacks after doing a couple of simple travel hacks.
Find a rewards card that fits your lifestyle
While credit cards specifically for traveling offer the highest return on travel rewards, there are other cards that might be a better fit. There are rewards cards that have higher points multipliers for gas or food spending. You can still use those points to book travel.
Keep track of everything
Because there are a lot of factors that go into getting the most out of travel hacking, you’ll need to find a way of keeping track of it all. My wife is our travel agent and she uses spreadsheets to keep track of each new card we open for travel hacking. She also notes the minimum spend, how much we’ve spent, the points multipliers, when the card was opened, the annual fee, etc.
AwardWallet is a popular app that you can use to keep track of frequent flier miles and credit card rewards.
Once you learn how to travel hack and get more serious about it, keeping track of everything will help you stay organized so that you can save even more money on travel.
It’s okay to close the cards you use for travel hacking
Closing a credit card can ding your credit score a little bit, but closing your travel rewards card might be in your best interest after you’ve earned and used your bonus. The reason being is that some of the best cards for travel hacking come with hefty annual fees. The Amex Platinum Card, one of my personal favorites to use for travel hacking, has a $450 annual fee.
Unless you are taking advantage of all of the additional perks, that’s just an extra $450 a year you’re spending for no reason.
I’d say keep any of the cards open that you’ve had for a long time (the age of your credit is an important part of improving your credit score), but it’s okay to close some of the credit cards you’ve recently opened so that you’re not hemorrhaging money by paying a bunch of high annual fees.
How to take your first trip for free
I’ve just given you an insane amount of information about how to start travel hacking, and I’ve just barely scratched the surface. If you are just starting out, what you really want to know is actionable advice on how to take your first free trip, and here it is:
- Set a goal for travel hacking.
- Find and open a rewards card that works for you.
- Reach the minimum spend to receive your sign-on bonus.
- Redeem your points.
Sound simple? That’s because it is.
Final word on learning how to travel hack
That outline I just gave you is honestly the best place to start. I know it looks really simple, but learning how to travel hack actually is really easy if you can sort through all of the advanced level stuff and find a starting point. If you started today, you could book your first free trip, or at least a free flight, by the end of this summer.
My biggest piece of advice is to always keep your finances in check while travel hacking – know what you can actually spend and always pay your credit card balance in full. I want to help you save money and leverage the good choices you’re already making.