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How to Start Travel Hacking

In this article, I cover everything you need to know to get started with travel hacking: which credit card(s) to use, how to accumulate points and how to keep track of them, and finally how to redeem them and how to use your credit card in the most efficient way.

airplaneOne thing I noticed this year was how many people actually don’t use their credit cards for travel hacking, and it surprised me. I am so used to being surrounded by people in the travel-sphere, fellow long-term travelers, digital nomads.. All people who are travel hacking wizards. But meeting people outside of the travel circle reminded me that not everybody knows about travel hacking, which is why, after educating people on how to use their credit cards strategically, keep track of points and redeem them for hotel stays or free flights, I decided that it was time to share some of the tips I passed on to friends here on the site as well.One friend, who replied to my comment ‘Oh you’ve got a Chase Sapphire card, great for travel points’ with ‘I have no idea what you are talking about’ is now, only a few months later, looking to book her first hotel stay completely paid by points.. And it makes me feel good that I was able to educate her on credit card points, rewards and basically saving money on travel, so I am hoping to do the same thing for you.

Depending on your spending habits, you could soon fly everywhere for FREE! Here is my beginner’s guide to travel hacking:hotel pool

1) Choose the right rewards credit card.

We are all using credit cards, so why not put them to good use at the same time. Which means using them strategically. Every dollar spent on your rewards credit card is automatically transferred into points, which can then be redeemed for air miles, hotel stays or in some cases simply cash back.Some rewards credit cards offer double or triple points for every dollar spent in a certain category, for example dining or travel. One of the cards that offers double points is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which gives you two points on every dollar spent on travel and dining. While you not might be spending crazy amounts on flights all the time, this card also gives you double points on dining, and if you eat out as much as I do, these points add up quickly.luxury hotelThere are other rewards credit cards that offer special double or triple points incentives in certain spending categories, but I don’t want to confuse you, so in this post, I’ll focus on Chase as a great example to make a rewards credit card work for you, and simply because their Chase Ultimate Rewards program, which I’ll explain in more detail below, is awesome. Plus: The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, which is great for travelers. And I have seen on one of my British credit cards how fast these transaction fees add up!The redesigned UltimateRewards.com which I mentioned lets you redeem your points easier than ever before. You’ll find more on points redemption under #3 below, but just a quick word on the Ultimate Rewards website: Once you’ve got your credit card, it pays off to go through the reward system’s specific rewards website when you are looking to buy items from a specific retailer. This website will direct you right to the retailer’s website, but it logs your points. For Ultimate Rewards, this includes retailers like Macy’s, Kohl’s, Sephora, Lowe’s, Colombia, The North Face, Petsmart, RadioShack, Walgreens, HomeDepot, Old Navy, the Apple Store, even Groupon, but also travel websites like Expedia, hotels.com and various airlines and hotel chains. And this is just a tiny selection. It’s an extra click to make your purchase, but it earns you up to 2 points per dollar! Especially at this time of year, when you shop for Christmas gifts, using the right credit card can make a huge difference to your points account. So if you are using a rewards credit card already, make sure to go through the specific rewards website when you shop for gifts. Purchasing gift cards can also help you piling up these points!

In Chase’s Ultimate Rewards shopping mall, you’ll also find a personal dashboard which shows all your recent points purchases, plus special reward offers from travel and retail partners. The special deals are specifically tailored to the spending habits of each individual cardholder, which means if you book a lot of flights, you’ll see all the current flight specials. And for all you travelers, UltimateRewards.com even has handy travel guides for worldwide destinations, including hotel, restaurant and sightseeing recommendations! Ultimate Rewards is available to Chase Freedom, Chase Sapphire and Ink from Chase cardholders.luxury hotelNow that you know how to accumulate points, let’s talk about how to keep track of them and how to redeem them, but one more extra tip for your card application: When applying for a credit card, check out the sign-up incentives currently offered by the card issuer. These bonuses are changing frequently and usually include waiving the credit card fee in the first year plus a number of points (up to 50,000!) when you spend a certain amount of money using the card within three months – usually around $3,000. This might sound like a lot, but if you’re planning a bigger purchase like a new phone or laptop in addition to your daily expenses, you shouldn’t have a problem reaching that number, which gives you enough points to pay for an international flight. The current sign-up bonus for the Chase Sapphire Preferred is $40,000 points if you spend 4,000 within three months, which pays for a couple of nights in one of the world’s most exclusive luxury hotels (think Ritz Carlton and the likes)!

2) Keep track of your points.

Once you start spending money on your credit card, you’ll have to start keeping track of the points you accumulate. If you only use one credit card issuer, their interface, like the Ultimate Rewards website, will do that for you. If you use credit cards by various issuers, you’ll have to find a way to keep track of all these different points. The most popular service to do this seems to be AwardWallet which doesn’t only keep track of your balances (especially when you have several cards) but it also reminds you when they’re about to expire so that you don’t lose any of them. It might seem a bit daunting to keep track of all these points, but trust me, once you’ve signed up for AwardWallet and entered all the information for your various cards, it’ll do most of the work for you. And the best thing: AwardWallet is free!

infinity pool3) Redeem your rewards.

Every credit card issuer has specific companies they work with and that let you redeem your rewards with them. In the case of Chase, the main travel suppliers are:

  • Hotels: Club Carlson, Fairmont, Hyatt, La Quinta, IHG Rewards, Marriott, Ritz Carlton, Wyndham
  • Airlines: British Airways, Continental, Korean Airlines, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, United, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic
  • Car rentals: Avis, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Thrifty
  • Trains: Amtrak

Please note that these are just a few examples – there are more to be named, especially in the airlines and hotels categories. When you are ready to redeem your points, you can decide if you just want to get cash back (starting at 2,000 points, which is equal to $20), or if you’d like to transfer the points at a 1:1 ratio into points at one of the above travel partners, or if you’d like to use them for some exclusive offers, such as movie premieres or VIP access to concerts and sporting events.

Tip: The best use for your points are the travel partners, i.e. free flights or hotel stays. But during the Holiday Season, you might also consider using your points for gift purchases which will save you a lot of cash in this expensive time of year.

4) Be smart when you use your credit card.

Use your credit cards in the most efficient way – here are my two extra tips for this, and I recommend strongly you follow them:

– Use your credit cards as if they were the cash you have at your disposal in the moment you make the purchase. And by that I simply mean: pay them off each month, otherwise the interest rates negate all the points you accumulate.

– Stay up-to-date. To maximize your point earnings, it pays off to always know about special deals and offers. The best way to do that is by subscribing to one of the popular points blogs, for example ThePointsGuy.com, MillionMileSecrets.com, OneMileAtAtime.com. It pays off to educate yourself on all the different loyalty programs, and once you get the hang of it, it will all make much more sense to you. You will get savvier with every purchase you make, and you’ll be a points wizard in no time, trust me!

Do you use reward programs for travel or generally? If you are an experienced travel hacker and have any tips to add to my beginner’s guide, please share them in the comments below!

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27 Comments

  1. I love my Chase Sapphire Preferred! Had it for less than a year & have already gotten one round trip free flight, and two one-way domestic flights just by always using it for dining out/ travel purchases. Plus I love that it gives me car insurance while traveling so that saves me additional money.

    1. YES!! That’s amazing, Anna. And thanks for mentioning car insurance – totally forgot about it but that’s another major advantage, and like you said, saves you money yet again!

  2. Dani,
    Sorry, but I’m not convinced hacking a credit card is worth it. I already have several cards and I don’t want any more. I do not want to do business with huge corporations and I don’t think using them is a bargain. I don’t eat or stay in places where you can use a credit card, as they cost way more than the benefit of the points you’d get by going there. At the least, I don’t feel comfortable rubbing elbows with the people who stay or eat in such places either.

    Also, the time required to bounce around the web, gathering all the information to take advantage of these points is worth way more to me traveling than sitting, looking at a screen.

    Buying airline tickets is restricted to those airlines that work the scam of giving points for higher priced tickets. They are more expansive than shopping for the best priced flight w/o points. I have looked into the points system many times over the years and have always concluded it’s not worth it. Maybe you could include a non-biased website that makes the case for the points system, as I have not found one.

    Sorry, but that’s my take on it. Nothing is for free in our capitalist system. If you’re a big time spender and you have someone else doing all the work to take advantage of this “rewards” program, have at it. It’s not for me. 🙂 I see no value in spending more to get something for “free”.

    1. Hi Steve, thanks for commenting! Everyone has the right to voice their opinion here, no matter if you agree with what I’m saying or not. But I have to disagree with your comment – for me, it is totally worth ‘playing the rewards’ game. For example: when I spent the summer in New York this year, I lost my debit card, and had no access to cash. I survived solely on my credit card, using it everywhere I went.. and yes, I spent way too much money in NYC, but now calculate all the points I got simply by eating out and spending money on traveling. These points really add up quickly and I didn’t have to do a thing for it – I simply used my credit card to pay for stuff I would’ve bought anyway. No work involved at all, but free travel as a result 🙂

  3. Credit cards are the way to go in the world of travel hacking and what Steve C is missing is that some cards can be used for cash rewards or wiping out charges you’ve incurred. This gives you an incredible variety of ways to redeem your rewards without having to hobnob with people in fancy places, if that’s your preference. I love a good hostel, a family run guesthouse, or a nice campsite – but also the luxury of an overwater bungalow on a tropical island. And that last one is only possible for me with travel hacking! For those who can manage their credit and finances wisely, maximizing credit card bonuses is the key to free flights and hotels. I highly recommend picking one or two points-earning blogs like those Dany mentioned and subscribing. It doesn’t take much effort or time to earn points for spending money you were already planning to spend and the rewards are huge. I also want to recomment evrewards.com for all online shopping – check there for the store you wish to buy from and it tells you how to get the most points for your purchase.

    1. I agree completely, Marbree! And I am the same – I love me a good hostel, but a splurge every now and again is so nice 😉 And thanks for recommending evrewards.com – didn’t know about the site but am bookmarking it right now, what a great resource for travel hackers! 😀

  4. Marbree, I think you missed my point. I do have credit cards and I do use them for credit. I would also use them for wiping out charges I’ve incurred it that charge is incorrect. As for cash rewards, I have yet to see ANYTHING that is offered to be redeemed with rewards points that I would already be buying anyhow.
    I’m not suggesting that you should not hack cards, as you’re so convinced that you’re getting a good deal. I think the main point I made was missed. You’ve got to spend money ‘that you were already planning to spend’ to get “Huge” rewards. Maybe your monthly cash flow allows huge rewards, mine does not.
    A good analogy would be the ten cent refund per gallon from Safeway when you buy your gas at Chevron. I do not buy Chevron gas as it’s generally the highest priced gas in town. Why would I spend $4.10 per gallon (for instance) just to save 10 cents per gallon when I can go to another gas station and pay $3.80 per gallon? Sounds great doesn’t it? I’m 20 cents ahead by careful shopping. Using the “lucrative” 10 cent a gallon refund from Safeway, you’d be spending 20 cents a gallon more than me, without any gimmick.
    Do the math. (I don’t even shop at Safeway anymore as their prices are like Chevron’s gas, some of the highest prices in town).
    As I always want to learn, I will check out your suggested website: evrewards.com, as I do a bit of online shopping. If you’re right, I stand to be corrected.

    BTW; That bungalow over the water on a tropical island is NOT something I would ordinarily spend my money on. I’d be down the beach at a place at a quarter the price, and be staying with people who are not trying to flaunt their wealth. Your ‘free’ flights and hotels are not free. Our capitalist system only works on making a buck. Too many times, we are hoodwinked with scams and double talk, while thinking we’re getting a good deal.

    1. De’Jav – I know, I thought it was crazy that so many people I met this year weren’t taking advantage of it. It felt good to educate them and hearing them talk about points now all the time 😀

  5. Hey Dani! As you know, I’ve paid the year-long trip I am on right now using miles I accumulated over 18 months. And I did it as a poor graduate student making an income that was just above poverty level. I was really lazy about it, too – people earn as many points as I did (just under half a million) in one month if they are REALLY committed. But on this trip I’ve already flown to New York to Iceland, to Germany, to Thailand, and then to New Zealand and used just 117,500 of the miles I earned. I still have so many miles/points left over to use for the rest of my trip (and future travel)–and I’m still earning points every time I use my credit cards overseas with no transaction fees (woop!). I feel bad for people who don’t know the secrets to miles-earning travel hacking, so I share a bit about how to get started on my blog, too. It’s great you’ve shared some of the tips here so your readers can be exposed to ways to fly cheaply. But travel hacking is so much more! It’s also about getting free accommodation which often result in more authentic travel experiences–like through the house-sitting you do or through couch surfing! There’s so much

    1. Rikka, you are an amazing travel hacker!! I think I can still learn so much from you about travel hacking. I love that you say you were really lazy about it but still you earned so many points that you’re flying around the world for free now. Amazing, and what’s not to love about it?!

  6. Hey Dani! As you know, I’ve paid the year-long trip I am on right now using miles I accumulated over 18 months. And I did it as a poor graduate student making an income that was just above poverty level. I was really lazy about it, too – people earn as many points as I did (just under half a million) in one month if they are REALLY committed. But on this trip I’ve already flown to New York to Iceland, to Germany, to Thailand, and then to New Zealand and used just 117,500 of the miles I earned. I still have so many miles/points left over to use for the rest of my trip (and future travel)–and I’m still earning points every time I use my credit cards overseas with no transaction fees (woop!). I feel bad for people who don’t know the secrets to miles-earning travel hacking, so I share a bit about how to get started on my blog, too. It’s great you’ve shared some of the tips here so your readers can be exposed to ways to fly cheaply. But travel hacking is so much more! It’s also about getting free accommodation which often result in more authentic travel experiences–like through the house-sitting you do or through couch surfing!

  7. Dani,

    First of all, I want to apologize for “hacking” your blog, potentially ruining your relationship with Chase. If they’re helping you to keep on traveling, they’re doing it with the idea of getting something out of it for themselves. You’re both using each other for business gains, and that’s OK with me.

    Second, this is directed towards Rikka, the graduate student above. I went to Rikka’s blog and read all that she had to say about credit card hacking. From what I read, I don’t know who is scamming who the worst. I am no fan of large corporations, much less of large banks after what they have done to the world’s economy.

    You have described your methods very well, including what to say to them when you’re trying to get credit from them. You covered quite a bit in those two blogs. With your education, you might have made as much, if not more working a “real” job, considering all the time consuming, internet work you did. Do you work in the value of your time into the benefits you seem to have “earned”? (hacked value divided by hours spent) Don’t give me the excuse that it’s fun and not work. I personally, think my time is worth more than what I suspect you have accepted.

    As a fellow credit card user, all the benefits that you have scammed from those companies are costs in their budget, that will be recovered from all the customers that do business with them. (like me) Granted, you’re only taking advantage of what’s being offered, but what you are doing is not what they anticipated. I personally, like to conduct business with integrity, even though I know companies like Chase are not.

    All opinions are 100% my own. 🙂

    Buy hey, it’s Christmas eve. Truce? I wish all the best to both of you in the new year. Happy Holidays! And happy traveling.

    1. Hi Steve C,

      “First of all,” please do not assume how I spend my time. I spent no more time exploring the internet for ways to earn the money to fund a round the world trip than the average person spends staring at a newsfeed on Facebook or getting lost in the monotony of YouTube, neither of which I spend my precious time doing.

      That’s actually why I love earning miles through credit cards – you can make it as time consuming as you like. As I earned those points, I had two “real jobs” working full time in a university provost office and extra time as a research assistant for a distinguished professor while I completed my dissertation. Most PhDs will tell you the dissertation in and of itself is a full time job.

      This means I spent only a tiny fraction of my time signing up for credit cards and learning how to pay for world travel after graduation. Time well spent, in my 100% opinion, as I saved thousands and thousands of dollars on airfare for this trip. Hopefully that can help you with the math.

      Of course, I have no proof of this aside from a PhD, money saved up in the bank to fund other parts of traveling for a year, and nearly 500,000 miles earned.

      I can agree with you about banks, however. Like you, I despise Chase and other world-dominating, economy-destroying credit card companies. But they are realities in our world that are not going away anytime soon. And when simply renting an apartment or taking out a loan requires one to have a credit score in the US, credit cards are a fast, easy, and often unavoidable necessity for building a good score to receive approval. Might as well take advantage of what they offer and the loop holes that exist if I have to give in anyway just to live.

      But I’m not an expert on economics. So I’d be interested to hear exactly how you’ve worked out that my under 500,000 miles earned are stealing money from your pocket?

      Happy holidays to you too!

      Kindly,
      -Rikka-

  8. You know, I honestly didn’t take the time to consider all the benefits/rewards you could get from credit cards before I started traveling. Now I know better! If only I’d had this post before I started…great stuff as usual, Dany.

    1. Thanks, Rebekah! I hope you’ll get into travel hacking now!! You’ll have to tell me when you score your first free flight 🙂

  9. Thanks for posting this. Great explaination. So many people don’t know how affordable travel is – esp. when they make a plan. We all have to pay for stuff, might as well get something back.

    1. Thanks, Paula! It always surprises when people think travel is super expensive. It doesn’t have to be! My mission: I want to get more people to realize that in 2015 and to travel more often 🙂

    1. That’s nothing to be guilty of, Hannah 😉 Be proud of it! 😀 I could spend hours reading about all the benefits of each card… there are so many in the U.S.! So many good deals to be had indeed 🙂 Happy New Year!

  10. But what if you cannot have any credit card due to bad credit history? in my country the bad credit history stays with you for many many years. I wonder if it`s possible to travel around like you do without a credit card? (and without huge savings)

    1. Hi Tina, that’s an issue, yes 🙁 But remember that I am German and I can only ever collect points/miles on my partner’s credit cards. I myself don’t have credit cards that save me much and have been traveling the world for years before having access to a points credit card – so yes, it’s definitely possible. You just have to be very smart with your spending.

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