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In this article, I cover everything you need to know how to start 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. I am using the Chase Ultimate Rewards program to explain in detail how it works with one specific credit card.
One 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, and 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 and tell you how to start travel hacking.
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, and 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, explained with the example of the Chase Ultimate Rewards Program:
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. Easy peasy! That’s the basics of starting travel hacking.
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.There 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, via 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 program 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 also 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! Using the right credit card can make a huge difference to your points account, especially at this time of year when you are shopping for Christmas gifts. 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 start piling up the points!
In Chase’s Ultimate Rewards shopping mall, you’ll also find a personal dashboard which shows all of 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.Now 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. A great incentive to start travel hacking!
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 Chase 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!
3) 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. That’s what most people start travel hacking for. But during the Holiday Season, you might also consider using your points for gift purchases which will save you a lot of cash at 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!