The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Credit Cards, Flights, and More

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

We’ve all got that one friend who jets all over the place yet never seems to pay for a ticket. “It’s easy,” they say, “All you have to do is….” and right about there our eyes glaze over lost in a sea of rewards cards, points shifting, and blackout dates. If you’re like me, you’re interested in travel hacking and you know you “should” be doing it, but you’re also a tad bit overwhelmed by the thought of it. So, instead of diving in, you procrastinate, and keep paying for the flights and hotels your friends are getting for free. I understand. That was me too.

The good news is that you don’t need to “go big or go home” where travel hacking is concerned. You can start small and focus on the types of reward programs that will serve you best. 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.

Baby steps. You can do this.

Travel Hacking Basics

If you’re a total newb where travel hacking is concerned, don’t worry. It’s not that complicated. We’ll start with the travel hacking basics.

Travel hacking involves earning:

  • Airline miles
  • Hotel points
  • Bank points

You do this by using credit cards and leveraging their bonuses.

Earning Miles and Points

The key to accruing points quickly is to apply for a good rewards card offering a bonus of preferably at least 50,000 points in a program you find useful.

Next, be sure you 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).

If the card is no longer worth it after you’ve gotten the bonus, cancel it before the annual fee.

Keep track of your points in a simple spreadsheet. I update mine monthly, and I store the login information for each program right in the spreadsheet too.

Read more about travel debit and credit cards to explore the options.

Which Credit Cards are Best?

Well, that depends. Some cards are better for airline miles (depending on which airlines you fly  most often, the card will vary.) Others are better for hotels. Determine where your priority is and choose accordingly.

Expert travel hackers consistently recommend Chase Sapphire Preferred because of their healthy sign up points bonuses, and their flexibility in redeeming and transferring points. The Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage World Mastercard is also a popular one.

Read the Lazy Person’s Guide to Travel Hacking for more on getting started, simply.

Making the Most of Rewards

Once you have built up some points it’s time to figure out how to use them. Refer to your points card 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.

Keep in mind that, often, transferring points is the best way to use them effectively. Pay attention to the network of airlines or hotels that will allow points transfer and use the one that will give you the most bang for your buck.

Airline Alliances and Awards Tickets

Most of the major airlines belong to an airline alliance. This means that an airline’s miles can be used for flights with other airlines within their alliance. Some airlines have separate prices for “partner flights,” however,  the price of an award ticket will otherwise depend on whose points you’re using, not with whom you’re flying. In other words, to find out how many American Airline miles your Cathay flight will cost, do not look at the Cathay award chart, look at the American Airlines award chart.

Fuel Surcharges

Some airlines’ rewards programs come with steep fuel surcharges. To avoid these surcharges, plan flights within the Americas, or earn United Airline Miles and American Airline Miles. United Airlines does not have fuel surcharges, and American Airlines will only have fuel surcharges when redeeming for British Airways, or Iberia flights.

And of course, fly economy if you want your miles to really last.

Read more about how to manage your rewards points.

Maintain a Strong Credit Score

Sometimes people worry that travel hacking will have a negative impact on their credit score. That’s not usually true. If you are worried about the “hard pulls” that credit card applications cause on your credit score, space out  the applications from any specific bank by up to three months.

Keep your average credit history up by making sure that you keep any card that has no annual fee, even if it goes unused.

Most importantly, make payments on time and don’t spend more than you can afford.

Stopovers and Cheap Flights

Not all travel hacking involves points and cards. There are ways to get great travel deals even if you’re not a travel hacker, or if you live outside the USA (where the best points deals live).


Stopovers are awesome if you can get them for free (or close to it), and you know what to do when you land. Plan your trip in advance, down to the last detail, and be ready to soak up every second of fun on your mid-trip holiday.

  • Layovers are short — stopovers are long (know the difference)
  • Be a savvy planner – do your research
  • Search hard – Don’t forget to check out traditional airlines, discount sites and award travel options
  • Get creative – Even if it’s not part of your original itinerary, stopovers can provide grand adventures
  • Pound the pavement – Search the small print, call the company, leverage your award credit card, book one way

Check out the Best Airlines for a Free Stopover.

Low Cost Flights

Finding inexpensive flights will take a little work but can pay off if you don’t have quite enough points for your flight, or don’t want to spend them on a smaller trip.

These are the strategies that will help surface the most affordable flight options:

  • Set up airfare alerts and sign up for newsletters
  • Be flexible in your dates and the airports you fly in and out of
  • Do your research and know when to buy
  • Follow the flight deal sites
  • Use Paypal to avoid fees and bid on cheap upgrades

Read more about How to Find Cheap Flights.

Leveraging Referrals

Some travel sites and programs offer referral bonuses that can add up to big savings on your next trip. Airbnb is an excellent example. They’ll credit your account for every new customer you send their way. 

Read more about how Fred earned $1850 in referral credits on Airbnb (and you can too).

Hacking Airport Lounge Access

You got your flight for free, or close to it, enjoy your travel day more by gaining access to airport lounges. With these hacks, the comfort of lounge access is no longer reserved exclusively for first-class travelers. If you know how to work the system and are willing to shell out a few bucks – lounges are accessible to everyone.

  • Do your research – check to see if there are lounges in airports through which you typically travel
  • See if any credit card offers/incentives work for you
  • Know there are paid lounges and day passes available
  • Google your airport lounge access and search for deals
  • Lounges are out there – take advantage of their offers

Looking for more inspiration? Follow these travel hackers and learn from the best.


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