The Lazy Person’s Guide to Travel Hacking

Laura Lopuch

Hand to God: I haven’t paid full-price for an airline ticket in roughly 4 years.

Yet, I’ve clocked 10+ flights in the last 2 years. Those years have been my lowest traveling years in the last five years when I’ve gone to:

Whew.

What’s my secret? And how can you do the same?

Travel hacking.

What is Travel Hacking?

The general idea behind “travel hacking” is to sign up for credit cards and complete the spending minimum within a specific time frame to earn the miles/points bonus.

Points are redeemed on travel, like hotels or flights. Because the travel industry is a “nice to have” industry (i.e. not a necessity) they reward loyal customers by dishing out big mile or point bonuses. 

Travel hackers sign up for multiple credit cards with the intention of completing the spending minimums to earn the bonuses — with the goal of redeeming those miles on travel.

Who Should be Travel Hacking?

Love to travel but hate spending thousands of dollars on hotel, plane, or Airbnb expenses?

Get a perverse pleasure from “hacking” the system by using legit loopholes endorsed by companies to get the exact same “paid for” results… but without the big expenses?

Travel hacking is perfect for you.

Personally, I got into it because I didn’t want to shell out $8,000+ on a two-week trip to Europe.

There’s gotta be a better way, I figured.

There is: travel hacking. I got that two-week trip for $2,000 (or one-fourth of the original price).

3 Huge Myths About Travel Hacking Debunked

#1 Myth: Travel Hacking Takes TONS of Hours

“This seems really complicated and involved. Like I’ll need to devote tons of hours to it. Where the heck do I fit THIS into my busy life?”

Travel hacking is only as complicated as you want to make it.

Consider this: I taught my brother (and my parents) how to travel hack. My brother tracks his spending and miles using a spreadsheet. He’s that kind of guy.

I track my miles and points (and my husband’s) using software. Which I check roughly 1x/month. It takes me 5 minutes. Total. To check both accounts.

Some people get super involved and track every, single mile flowing into their accounts. Others take the financial planner’s approach: hands-off, just note important dates (like when your miles expire) and set it on autopilot.

How you do it is up to you.

#2 Myth: Travel Hacking Means Spending More Money

Maybe you’re looking at the spending minimums required to get certain bonuses.

$3,000 for this card. $2,000 for that card. Sheesh, that adds up to $5,000. Your budget isn’t built for that kind of hard riding.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to change your spending habits. With travel hacking, you re-route your money a little and make it work harder. 

How? Let me explain.

I never use cash anymore. Think of it as making my money work twice as hard for me. My favorite way to hit the spending requirement is to use my credit card for everything I buy.

That includes paying my monthly bills (like energy, cell phone, car + home insurance), groceries, gas, eating out with my credit card. I’ll even pay my mortgage with a credit card if I really need to. 

Yes, there is a fee involved. I view the fee as a minor road bump to getting me those 50,000 points that’ll let me save thousands of dollars on my next trip.

Use a spreadsheet to keep track of your running totals. (Here’s a link to the one I use.) This will help you hit those spending requirements and not spend wildly — or not enough.

And no, I see your cocked eyebrow, it won’t take tons of time.

Set a reminder on your phone, so once a month, you go into your online credit card portal and look at your recent charges. Add those into your spreadsheet. Ten minutes later, you’re done.

Important: I’m not recommending you jack up your spending and not pay off your balances on your cards every month. Please don’t. That behavior will ruin your life. What I’m recommending is that you spend like you normally do and pay off your credit cards, in full, every month.

#3 Myth: Travel Hacking is Cheating Credit Card Companies

I see where you’re coming from.

Travel hacking feels… sleazy. Slightly dirty.

Like you’re counting cards and aiming to take down the house.

Let’s get real. Counting cards is illegal. Casinos — and governments — have very specific rules about that.

Cashing in on credit card bonuses is not illegal. If you read the fine print of credit card offers, you’ll see that banks are aware of what they’re offering. As such, they place specific rules around how you can earn these huge mile bonuses. For example, spend $3,000 in 90 days to get these 50,000 miles.

If you play by their rules, you’re not cheating them out of money. You’re simply figuring out the rules of the game and capitalizing on them, thereby maximizing your results.

A casino wouldn’t fault you for learning how to play poker well and then winning huge windfalls. Instead, that’s called being a professional poker player.

 

3 Cards You Must Have & Why

Chase Sapphire Preferred

This pretty, blue metal card from Chase is your BFF in your pocket. Why? Because it earns 2 points back on every $1 you spend in the categories of travel and restaurants. If you travel a lot — and tend to eat out semi-frequently — you’ll love this card. Plus, it comes with top-notch car rental and travel insurance.

And — if you ever call their customer service — you never wait to talk to a human representative.

Why It’s Stellar

Right now, you’ll get 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months. (Full disclaimer: a $95 annual fee is waived for your first year.)

These 50,000 points you earn are universal. Meaning they’re not miles or points tied to a specific hotel or airline.

To use your points, you transfer them into 4 types of hotel points or seven types of airline miles. In other words, you fill up the hotel or airline accounts that you need to make your plans a reality.

Need a hotel? Transfer your Chase Ultimate Reward Points to Hyatt, wait for your points to post to your Hyatt account (usually happens instantly), and book your hotel. For free.

Think of them like the US dollar: widely accepted and used to accomplish any of your travel goals.

Chase Southwest Premier

Southwest Airlines is amazing for domestic flights. Now, they’re expanding into the Caribbean and Mexico, with plans to fly to Hawaii in 2018.

Nine out of my last ten flights have been on Southwest. Never, have I had any hassles about carry ons (or sizes). They generously dole out free snack and drinks en route, have friendly stewards, and if you buy too much on your trip:  2 free checked bags are included, per ticket.

And, their flights are hardly ever delayed.

Why It’s Stellar

Earn 40,000 miles (enough miles for 2 roundtrip tickets) after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days.

Shop one of Southwest’s frequent sales, and you’ll probably stretch those miles into another one-way (or roundtrip) flight.

Or, stack two Chase Southwest cards to earn the coveted, and 100% awesome, Companion Pass.

Bank of America Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines is poised to take over the world.

Oh, the places you can go with Alaska Airlines miles. With the Bank of America Alaska Airlines card, you get 25,000 miles after approval of your application and payment of the $79 annual fee. And a $99 companion pass to use with a paid fare.

Why It’s Stellar

Thanks to some awesome partner redemptions — like American Airlines, Emirates, Finnair, Icelandair — you’re not restricted to USA domestic travel flying Alaska.

Here are the basics of using your Alaska Airlines miles.

If you redeem airline miles with the same airline (ex. American Airline miles on a American Airline flight), you’re restricted by that award redemption chart. But with partner redemptions, things get more interesting; and your miles go further.

How to Use Your Points

Diving into the world of travel hacking is intimidating for some people.

With so many offers, credit cards, mile bonuses, and spending requirements, how do you keep them all straight and figure out which to get?

Easy, answer this one question:

What’s your travel goal?

If you want to fly to Europe during peak season and not spend half of your 401k doing it — airline miles are your goal.

If you want to sleep in swanky hotels without forking over 4-figures/night for it — building up hotel points is your goal.

If you want to do both of the above — getting a large cache of airline miles and hotel points is your goal.

Once you figure out your goal, select an airline or hotel that’ll give you the most value for your points. That’s the credit card you’re looking to get: one that gives you a minimum of 40,000 miles or points to accomplish your goal.

Pro tip: any mile bonus less than 40,000 — with the exception of the Alaska Airlines 25,000 bonus — is not worth it. As your credit will get a hard check and that small mile bonus won’t add up quickly.

How do you figure that out?

Spend 30 minutes Googling. Within the first couple minutes, you’ll find which airline is best and soon after, you’ll know how to redeem your miles for airline tickets. 

Software to Simplify the Numbers

Award Wallet

This is the granddaddy of all award program apps; it’s free, easy to use, and pretty darned awesome. 

This is the app I use. It supports 600+ loyalty programs, has been around for the past 10 years, and is super easy to use. Link your loyalty programs to it, hit refresh, and check out your award balances.

TPG To Go

This app helps you track credit card sign-up bonuses and minimum spending requirements. Why is that important? Because you don’t miss out on a 50,000 mile bonus by miscalculating the end of your minimum spending requirement window. Ouch.

TripIt ($49/yr)

Did you know that TripIt’s paid version tracks your reward-program points? I didn’t either, but it does.

Which means TripIt just became useful for more than organizing your reservations.

Resources

Feeling jazzed by the possibilities of where you could go and want to dive deeper into travel hacking? Maybe, even invest more than two hours a month doing it?

Awesome. Continue your travel hacking education with these articles:

TL;DR

Travel hacking is a superb, low-expense way to see the world. Spending dozens or hundreds of hours per month managing your frequent flyer miles and points isn’t necessary.

Figure out your travel goals and which credit card bonuses help you accomplish that goal.

Use a spreadsheet to track your spending.

And that’s it, folks.

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