Travel Hacking: A Guide to the Basics

Caroline MacComber

“Is that still possible?” I hear someone say, referencing an article they’ve read about a free vacation, honeymoon, or first class flight. The tone screams: “This is too good to be true, right?”

I can’t help but eavesdrop on such conversations, primed to perk my ears at the mention of this subject ever since becoming a travel writer within the “travel hacking” niche five years ago. Yes, it’s possible. I think to myself.

As I explained in an article about how we travel for free, free travel through travel hacking is not too good to be true. It can howeverbe a pain in the a** to figure out, especially when you’re starting out.

Sometimes, you need just a simple discussion on the basics and that’s exactly what this article is for. We’ll discuss what travel hacking is, what it isn’t, and take a beginner’s look into earning miles and points.

What Is Travel Hacking?

At its most basic level, travel hacking is trying to find the cheapest, most lucrative angles of any travel promotion, or mileage bonus, for the sake of free travel.

This often involves credit cards. Specifically, signing up for travel rewards cards to get the mileage bonuses they offer. For some cards, you get this bonus simply by signing up. For most however, it requires spending a certain amount within the first few months. We’ll call this the “spend requirement.”

What Travel Hacking Isn’t

This is usually the part of the discussion where people start worrying about their credit scores.

Keeping a Good Credit Score While Hacking

Credit History
To keep your average age of credit history up, make sure you keep any card that has no annual fee, even if it goes unused. Your credit score considers the average age of your credit lines. Since travel hacking may require you to cancel cards to avoid accumulating too many hefty annual fees, you need to counter balance those short credit lines by keeping any no annual fee cards that you can. For instance the Chase Freedom card.

About Hard Pulls
Applications cause “hard pulls”, but they’re not as scary as you think. Credit card applications cause “hard pulls” to your credit score. This is simply a little mark that may cause a small dip in your score for a short amount of time, and indicates that someone needed to access your credit report. In my experience, this won’t significantly affect your credit score, and is generally nothing to worry about. Even so, some people try to space out their applications, (for example 3 months between applications from any specific bank).

Don’t Overspend
Most importantly, make on time payments and don’t spend more than you can afford. If you sign up for a credit card because it advertises a mileage bonus, but then you reach the spend requirement by justifying that high dollar item that’s been sitting on your wish list for a long time, you’re doing it wrong. In fact, in that case you may as well have bought flights with cash instead of trying to earn miles on a credit card. The idea is to spend less on travel, not to spend more just because you’re earning miles now.

Earning Miles and Points

What To Earn

There are three major currencies a person can earn via credit card bonuses.

Airline Miles

When an airline collaborates with a bank to create their own credit card, that card will connect with a card holder’s frequent flier account and will earn frequent flyer miles for that airline’s reward program. For example, the American Airlines credit card earns American Airline miles that go directly into the card holder’s AAdvantage account.

Bank Points

Sometimes a bank creates its own rewards program, then partners with various hotels and airlines to provide redemption and transfer options for their card holders. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card earns Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, which can be transferred into United Miles, SouthWest points, British Airways Avios, and various others.

Hotel Points

Just like airlines, some hotels collaborate with a bank to create their own rewards card. The system is quite similar, with points going directly into a card holder’s loyalty account.

It’s best to try to cover your greatest expense first, and for most people this will mean focusing on earning airline miles and bank points before worrying about hotel points. Both of these currencies can help you cover an expensive international flight.

How To Earn

By far the most common travel hacking strategy for earning miles and points is through credit card bonuses.

Put as simply as possible, you’ll follow these basic steps.

Sign Up For a Rewards Card Bonus

If your credit score is strong enough (we’ll say higher than 650), apply for a card with a decent bonus (generally around 50,000 points or more) in a program you find useful. There’s no sense in earning SouthWest points for example, if you are wanting to fly to Europe. Nor does it make sense to earn Capital One Miles without first figuring out what a Capital One Mile is. (Spoiler: it’s not a frequent flyer mile.)

Reach the Spend Requirement.

Find an affordable way to reach the spend requirement. You can do this through a process called “manufactured spending,” or by putting all of your ordinary expenses on your rewards card. While we won’t discuss manufactured spending too deeply in this article, it’s essentially the practice of purchasing something that can be turned back into cash. For instance there was a time when the US mint let people buy gold dollar coins on a credit card with free shipping. (While this isn’t possible anymore, it perfectly illustrates the core concept of manufactured spending.)

Cancel, or Downgrade the Card

Cancel, or downgrade the card before the annual fee kicks in, unless you find the card beneficial beyond simply the bonus. Downgrades are not a possibility for all cards, but in some cases, you can ask for the card to be downgraded to a no annual fee version, thus keeping open the credit line without needing to pay the annual fee.

Apply for another rewards card and return to step 2!

Get to know the travel hacking basics.

Author’s Credit Card Picks

Knowing these tips is helpful, but there are still so many credit cards to dig through. How does a person know which cards to apply for?

As I mentioned above, most people will want to start out earning a currency that can help them out with that largest travel expense: flights. Also, the most beneficial cards are going to be the ones that not only give you points with your spending, but also offer a significant bonus on top of that, somewhere in the range of 50,000 points.

With that criteria in mind, there are two cards I’ll highlight as my current favorites:

Chase Sapphire Preferred

This card earns Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, and is currently offering a bonus of 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, (plus an additional 5,000 points for adding an authorized user.) It has a $95 annual fee, but it’s waived for the first year. (There is apparently a 75,000 point targeted offer circulating as well.)

A few notes about this card: Even when the bonus is at its lower, 40,000 points, I still recommend this card. First of all, Chase Ultimate Rewards points are only truly valuable to travelers if they can be transferred to airlines, a benefit only offered with various Chase cards, Chase Sapphire Preferred being one of them and Chase Ink Plus the other. Secondly, the transfer partners for Chase Ultimate Rewards points happen to be ones I find very useful. United Airlines for example, is a great transfer option because they do not charge fuel surcharges on their award tickets. SouthWest Airlines is another great transfer option.

Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage World Mastercard

I affectionately abbreviate this to “the American Airlines card.” This card earns American Airline miles directly into an AAdvantage account and is currently offering a bonus of 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. It also has a $95 annual fee, but it’s also waived for the first year.

A few notes about this card: When you apply for this card, be sure to include your AAdvantage loyalty number on the application, otherwise a new account will be created for you and you’ll have to make a number of calls to figure out what the AAdvantage account information is. I recommend this card highly because American Airlines also, for the most part, does not charge fuel surcharges on their award tickets.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that each of these cards has a spend requirement for their bonuses. As suggested above, a big part of this whole travel hacking strategy boils down to finding a way to reach those spend requirements without spending money you wouldn’t have otherwise. This can be done by funneling all your current expenses through the card, or by spending money on something that can be turned back into money.

And remember, you can take this as slowly as you need. Start with one card. See how it goes.

There are so many other strategies that fall under the travel hacking umbrella, but these basics will hopefully help you make sense of the many resources available for diving deeper into the travel hacking strategy for free travel.

TL;DR

Travel hacking involves earning airline miles, hotel points, and bank points via credit card bonuses.

To Maintain a Strong Credit Score:

  1. Keep your average age of credit history up by making sure you keep any card that has no annual fee, even if it goes unused.
  2. Applications cause “hard pulls”, or marks on your credit score. These don’t greatly effect your score. Still, some people space out applications from any specific bank by up to 3 months.
  3. Most importantly, make on time payments and don’t spend more than you can afford.

To Earn Miles & Points:

  1. Apply for a good rewards card offering a bonus of preferably at least 50,000 points in a program you find useful.
  2. Reach a rewards card’s spend requirement by either strategizing the spends you’re already making, or by manufacturing spends, (spending money on things that can be turned back into cash.)
  3. If the card is no longer worth it after you’ve gotten the bonus, cancel it before the annual fee.

Recommended Credit Cards:

  1. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is currently offering a bonus of 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, (plus an additional 5,000 points for adding an authorized user.) It has a $95 annual fee, but it’s waived for the first year.
  2. The Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage World Mastercard earns American Airline miles directly into an AAdvantage account and is currently offering a bonus of 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. It also has a $95 annual fee, but it’s also waived for the first year.

Image Credit: Unsplash