The Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking for Free Flights and More

Laura LopuchCaroline MacComberShawn Forno

Travel hacking is a superb, low-expense way to see the world. You don’t have to spend dozens or hundreds of hours per month managing your frequent flyer miles and points. Figure out your travel goals and which credit card bonuses help you accomplish that goal.

Hand to God: I haven’t paid full-price for an airline ticket in roughly 6 years. Yet, I’ve clocked 20+ flights in the last 4 years, thanks to travel hacking. Those years have been my lowest traveling years in the last five years when I’ve gone to:

Whew. Oh, and I didn’t pay for more than 60% of my hotels on those trips either. What’s my secret? And how can you do the same? Travel hacking.

If you’re new to travel hacking, this guide will take you through what travel hacking is and how to do it, so you can start earning miles and points for free travel too. Here’s how to travel hack:

What is Travel Hacking?

At its most basic level, travel hacking is a strategy people use to earn airline miles, hotel points, and bank points, then find the most lucrative ways to redeem those points or capitalize on of travel promotions and mileage bonuses to get free travel.

Travel hacking often involves 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, they have a spend requirement, or requirement to spend a certain amount within the first few months to earn the bonus.

Before we get into how to start travel hacking, let’s first debunk three common myths.

Does Travel Hacking Take a Lot of Time?

Although you need to be organized and stay on top of your mile and point accrual, as well as your spending, travel hacking shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes every month.

Do You Need to Spend a Lot of Money to Travel Hack?

A $3,000 spending limit may seem intimidating, but you don’t have to change your spending habits to meet it. If you have a limit to meet, pay for everything with that card, including bills. Pick up the group tab at dinner and have everyone pay you back. Buy gift cards.

I’ll even pay my mortgage with a credit card if I really need to. Yes, there is a fee involved but I view it as a minor road bump to getting me those 50,000 points that’ll let me save thousands of dollars on my next trip. Just spend like you normally do and pay off your credit cards in full every month.

Is Travel Hacking Legal?

Yes, travel hacking is legal. Cashing in on credit card bonuses is legal. 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.

How to Start Travel Hacking: Earning Points and Miles

The first part of travel hacking is earning points and miles. To accrue points quickly:

  1. Sign up for a rewards card in a program you find useful, like an airline or hotel rewards credit card. This might depend on your goal and travel style: if you’re looking to save on airline tickets, focus on accruing airline miles or transferable points. For hotels, focus on hotel points. Try to stick to cards that offer at least 50,000 points or miles. My one exception is the Alaska Airlines 30,000 mile bonus, which comes with a free companion ticket.
  2. Hit the rewards card’s spend requirement. Either strategize the spends you’re already making, or by manufacture spends by buying gift cards to places you frequently shop at, like Amazon, Starbucks, or your grocery store.
  3. Keep track of your points in a simple spreadsheet (Here’s a link to the one I use!). I update mine monthly, and I store the login information for each program right in the spreadsheet too. This will help you hit those spending requirements and not spend wildly — or not enough.
  4. Pay off your credit cards in full each month.
  5. If the card is no longer worth it after you’ve gotten the bonus, cancel it before the annual fee. If you do not currently have any credit cards, though, it’s important not to cancel the first credit card you’ve ever opened in your life.

If you’re not sure what credit cards to sign up for, read more about our top picks for travel debit and credit cards to explore your options.

How to Maintain a Strong Credit Score

Sometimes people worry that travel hacking will have a negative impact on their credit score. This is not usually true, as long as you’re responsible and take the following steps:

  • Space out applications from any specific bank by up to three months, if you’re worried about the “hard pulls” that credit card applications cause on your credit score. 
  • Keep cards with no annual fee, to keep your average credit history up, even if it goes unused.
  • Make payments on time and don’t spend more than you can afford.

The Best Travel Credit Cards for Travel Hacking

  • Bonus: 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months.
  • Annual Fee: $95, waived for your first year.
  • Redeeming Points: You can transfer points for redemption on four hotel and seven airline programs, like Hyatt. Think of them like the US dollar: widely accepted and used to accomplish any of your travel goals.

This pretty blue metal card from Chase is your BFF in your pocket. Because it earns 2 points back on every $1 you spend in the categories of travel and restaurants. 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.

  • Bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $2,500 in the first 3 months.
  • Annual Fee: $99, waived for the first year.
  • Redeeming Points: Redeem on any American Airline or partner airline flight

I affectionately abbreviate this to “the American Airlines card.” This card earns American Airline miles directly into an AAdvantage account. American Airlines mostly does not charge fuel surcharges on their award tickets. So you’re not charged for the fuel used by the aircraft. Also, American Airlines is a member of the One World Alliance. Meaning: you use your AA miles on 12 other airlines crisscrossing the world.

When you apply for this card, be sure to include your AAdvantage loyalty number on the application or 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.

  • Bonus: 40,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days. 
  • Annual Fee: $99, not waived.
  • Redeeming Points: Your bonus is enough for 2 roundtrip tickets. Redeem on any Southwest flight.

Southwest Airlines is amazing for domestic flights, and have expanded into the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii. 9 out of my last 10 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: you get 2 free checked bags per ticket. Oh, their flights are hardly ever delayed. Win-win, my friends.

Earn 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.

  • Bonus: 40,000 miles after approval and a $121 companion pass to use with a paid fare.
  • Annual Fee: $75
  • Redeeming Points: On Alaska Airlines or any partner flight.

Alaska Airlines is poised to take over the world. Thanks to some awesome partner redemptions — like American Airlines, Emirates, Finnair, Icelandair — you’re not restricted to USA domestic travel flying Alaska. Here’s 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 specific award redemption chart. But with partner redemptions, things get more interesting.

How to Keep Track of Your Points and Miles

A simple spreadsheet is a popular way to keep track of your awards points and miles, but these apps and software will also help:

The granddaddy of all award program apps. Free, easy to use, and pretty darn awesome. This is the app I use. It supports 600+ loyalty programs, 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.

Helps you track credit card sign-up bonuses and minimum spending requirements. So you don’t miss out on a 50,000 mile bonus because you miscalculated the end of your minimum spending requirement window. Ouch.

Did you know that TripIt’s paid version tracks your reward-program points? Me neither. But it does. Which means TripIt just got way more useful than holding all your travel plans in one spot like a forgotten date on the red carpet.

Next Step: How to Spend Your Points and Miles

Once you have built up points it’s time for part two of travel hacking: maximizing how to use them. Often, transferring points is the best way to use them effectively, but this will vary between programs.

Refer to your credit card’s website and study the awards charts for all of the details. Be sure to read the fine print and pay attention to the fuel surcharges that some programs add. Below are some common ways to spend your hard-earned miles and points:

Buy an Award Ticket Through Your Airline or a Partner Airline

One of the most popular ways to redeem points and miles is on an award ticket for a flight. If you earned miles on a specific airline, like United, you can redeem miles for a flight on one of their routes or any partner in their airline alliance. For example, Alaska Airline miles are redeemable for a Japan Airlines flight, even though Alaska doesn’t fly outside of North America. For these partner flights, the price of an award ticket will depend on whose points you’re using, not with whom you’re flying. So in this case, Alaska Airlines miles.

To figure out if you’re getting a good deal on your flight, do some quick math to calculate the cash cost of your award flight. For this, The Points Guy has a great breakdown of the cash value of different miles and points programs. For example, a flight that costs 15,000 miles on United is worth $195 cash, but a flight that costs 15,000 miles on Alaska is worth $300 cash.

If you’re transferring points to miles, you’ll want to figure out which airline will give you the best deal for your transfer. For this, use AwardHacker to compare award ticket prices across all programs for your route. For example, a round trip ticket from the US to Europe can be as high as 95,000 Delta Sky Miles, but only 60,000 American Airline miles.

How to Avoid Fuel Surcharges

Some airlines’ rewards programs come with steep fuel surcharges. To avoid these surcharges:

  • Plan flights within the Americas
  • Earn United Airline Miles
  • Earn American Airline Miles

United Airlines does not have fuel surcharges, and American Airlines will only have fuel surcharges when you redeem for British Airways or Iberia flights.

Look for Flights with Stopovers

Stopovers are awesome if you can get them for free (or close to it), and you know what to do when you land. Check the fine print on what type and length of stopover are allowed by the airline you’re flying. For example, you could fly from Hanoi to Houston with a 4-hour layover in Tokyo, or a 2-day stopover—for the same price. To learn more, check out the Best Airlines for a Free Stopover.

Where to Learn More About Travel Hacking

Feeling jazzed by the possibilities of where you could go and want to dive deeper into travel hacker? Maybe, even invest more than two hours a month — gasp — doing it? Awesome. Get your travel hacking education on with these articles:

 

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