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You might have heard of people “hacking” their way to free business-class flights or swanky hotel stays—and you might have thought it sounded too good to be true. But travel hacking is a legitimate (and fun) hobby that can save you serious money on everything from luxurious beach getaways to backcountry road trips.
Travel hacking can seem daunting at first, but the good news is you can make it as simple or complex as you want. In this guide to travel hacking for beginners, we’ll cover the basics of how to travel hack your way to free trips.
The Basics of Travel Hacking
There are two basic tenets to becoming a travel hacker. No matter how detailed you want to go, whether you just want to give it a whirl or you’re hoping to become a Jedi Grandmaster Yoda-level hacker, it all boils down to this:
- Earning the most points and miles possible, and
- Finding creative ways to redeem your points and miles to get the most value out of them.
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Step 1: Earning Points and Miles
The best place to get started travel hacking is learning how to maximize the points you earn. The faster you rack up points, the sooner you’ll have enough for your dream vacation. Here are some of the simplest ways to accrue points as you learn how to travel hack.
The obvious way to earn points and miles is by traveling. Airlines, hotels, and rental car companies all have membership programs to encourage you to stay loyal to them, so every time you fly or spend the night, you get points.
This doesn’t mean you need to go signing up for a hundred accounts as soon as you start travel hacking. But every time you fly a new airline or stay in a new hotel chain, be sure to join their program so you can score those points. This is an important lesson for travel hacking beginners: Never leave points on the table!
Feeling overwhelmed already? I was too, even when I used to only fly one airline—because I could never remember my login info. Once I started travel hacking and got a few frequent flyer numbers, I made a spreadsheet to keep track of my login info. It’s made the whole process so much easier.
Airlines and hotels often run promotions, like “Book a flight in the next two months and get 5,000 bonus points” or “Stay two nights and earn double points.” These can be very useful to travel hackers.
You usually have to register for promotions, which just means clicking a button. It’s helpful to log in to your loyalty accounts every couple of months to register for any promotions that have popped up, in case you end up booking something in the near future.
Last February I booked seven nights at a Hyatt in Maui using points. It totally slipped my mind that I had already registered for their 2022 New Year promotion. After my trip, I was surprised to find 2,022 bonus points for every two nights deposited in my account, which amounted to over 6,000 free points—for a stay that didn’t cost me a penny.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be on the road (or in an airport) every weekend to score serious points and miles. That’s because there are lots of ways to earn points other than traveling. For instance, many major airlines and hotel chains have dining “portals,” where you can earn extra miles or points when you eat out.
Not all restaurants are on the portal, but for the ones that are, you can usually earn a few points per dollar. All you have to do is make an account for free and add your credit card information to link your card. Then when you visit one of the restaurants on the list, be sure to pay with your linked card to earn points.
Keep in mind these points are separate from any travel points your credit card earns (we’ll get to those in a minute).
The best part of dining portals is their promotions. Most will have one when you first sign up—for instance, when you join Southwest’s Rapid Rewards dining program, you’ll get 500 bonus miles the first time you dine as long as it’s in the first 30 days. Besides earning some extra points, it’s a fun way to discover new restaurants in your area.
Most airlines also have online shopping portals, which work a little differently. Once you’ve set up your account with your frequent flyer number, you click through the portal’s link to the online store you want. Then when you make a purchase, you earn extra points.
The number of points per dollar varies depending on the retailer and the day. For instance, right now on United’s MileagePlus shopping portal, you can earn 1 mile per dollar at Groupon and 5 miles per dollar at Sephora. Petsmart usually earns .5 miles per dollar, but they recently had a special where it increased to 10. I was almost out of dog food anyway, so you can bet I stocked up.
Travel Credit Cards
I saved the best—and trickiest—for last. If you live in the US, credit cards are the biggest avenue to earning points when you become a travel hacker.
But in order for them to be worthwhile, you have to use them wisely. This means following the two cardinal rules of travel cards:
- Thou shalt not carry a balance on thy credit cards.
- Thou shalt not spend more than thy normally would just to earn points.
If you have or expect to have credit card debt, this particular travel hacking method isn’t for you (yet). This is because travel credit cards have sky-high interest rates, so whatever points you earn will be offset by the interest you end up paying.
If you’re comfortable with using credit cards responsibly and paying your balance in full every month, you’re ready to learn how to travel hack with credit cards—so read on.
Choosing the Right Card
The good news is, there are so many travel cards out there nowadays, there’s bound to be at least one that’s a great fit for you. The bad news is, the options can be overwhelming at first.
For travel hacking beginners, I always recommend starting with a long-term strategy in mind. Find a card that’s a good fit for your lifestyle (more on that in a minute), and that you’ll want to keep in your wallet for years to come.
Advanced travel hackers are constantly adding new cards, and sometimes canceling old ones, and they might have as many as 30 cards at any given time. I’m not there yet—I have a grand total of five cards, and I started out with just one.
Choose one or two cards that make sense for you in the long run. Look at cards’ benefits, which include:
- Bonus points on certain categories of purchases, such as groceries, dining, or drugstores.
- Free travel. For example, the Southwest Priority card provides $75 in statement credits on Southwest purchases per year, while the World of Hyatt card provides one free night at a Hyatt hotel per year.
- Travel perks. Many cards offer perks that make travel more comfortable, like elite status at a hotel chain or access to airport lounges.
- Other perks. These are as varied as the credit cards that offer them, ranging from Peloton membership to statement credits on groceries. If you use them, these perks can save you some serious cash.
Don’t forget to look at cards’ annual fees, too. Many people shy away from cards with fees, but trust me: they can be worth it. Just be sure to weigh the fee against the perks and points to make sure it’s worth it for you.
When people ask me what the best travel card is, I say it depends. It’s all about finding the right fit for you when you start travel hacking. If you’re loyal to a particular airline or hotel chain, you should look into their cobranded credit card options. If not, there are plenty of great all-purpose cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Capital One VentureOne.
My favorite resource for anyone who wants to learn how to travel hack is The Points Guy. They have a ton of information, including detailed reviews of pretty much every travel card on the market.
Scoring the Signup Bonus
Once you have an idea of the right card for you, the first thing to consider is its signup bonus. To try to win your business, credit card companies offer lucrative signup bonuses of tens of thousands of points. When redeemed for travel, these bonuses alone can be worth thousands of dollars.
But you have to make sure you can earn the signup bonus, which usually requires a certain amount of spending in a certain amount of time, such as $4,000 in the first three months. This might seem like a lot, but it’s attainable for most people with some planning.
Going back to the second cardinal rule, don’t buy something you don’t want just to get the signup bonus. However, if there’s a big purchase you’ve been considering, it’s a good idea to time your new credit card to coincide with it. I’ve timed past credit cards with booking big trips, buying new furniture, and even getting LASIK in order to put these high-dollar purchases toward the signup bonus.
If you aren’t redecorating your home or getting eye surgery anytime soon, the holidays are a good time for many people to get a new card. Wait until you’ve got that card in hand before buying gifts for your whole family.
If that’s still not enough to reach your signup bonus, there are more creative ways to “inflate” your spending. Ask family members if you can buy their new furniture/Xbox/plane tickets and have them pay you back. When you go out with friends, pay the tab with your new card and have everyone Venmo you.
Which Card to Use?
When you become a travel hacker, you learn the importance of staying organized. It’s essential to keep track of your credit card perks and points, especially once you have two or three cards in your wallet.
I have a spreadsheet summarizing each card’s point structure, so I know which card to use for which purchases. For instance:
- I use my Chase Sapphire Preferred at restaurants and to book flights and hotels, because it earns 3 points per dollar on dining and 2 on travel.
- I use my Chase Freedom Flex at drugstores, which earn 3 points per dollar.
- I use my Southwest Priority card on Southwest purchases, which earn 3 miles per dollar, and on cable and internet bills, which earn 2 per dollar.
- I use my World of Hyatt card for Hyatt purchases, which earn 4 Hyatt points per dollar, and for gym memberships, which earn 2 per dollar.
- For everything else I use my Capital One Venture One, which earns a flat rate of 1.25 points on all purchases.
The goal is to get as many points as possible on stuff you’d be buying anyway. Of course, you want to make sure the points are points you can actually use. For example, If you always stay in AirBnBs when you travel, it makes no sense to earn Marriott Bonvoy points on a cobranded Marriott card.
If this sounds too complicated, I get it. I was overwhelmed at first, but after a while it started to make sense—and it started to be fun. You might hear some travel hackers referring to “the points and miles game,” because that’s what it feels like. It should be fun, so go as in-depth (or not) as you want.
Now that you know how to accrue points, the next step in learning how to travel hack is making the most out of them when you redeem them. We’ll cover this in the next blog post. Until then, happy earning!
Step 2: Redeeming Points and Miles
If the first step of learning how to travel hack is earning as many points and miles as possible, the second is redeeming them. There are as many ways to redeem points as there are to earn them, so we’ll start with the heavy hitters to kick off your travel hacking journey.
Credit Card Portals
Most travel card companies nowadays have their own travel “portal,” a website where you can book flights, hotels, rental cars, and more—and a place where you can spend the points you’ve earned on your card.
Sometimes you can book travel on these portals and pay directly with your points; other times you’ll pay cash and then get reimbursed as a statement credit. Either way, it comes out to free travel!
Usually the rate is one point to one cent. So for instance, a $500 flight would cost 50,000 points, giving you a value of 1 cent per point. Sometimes it’s a little higher—like on the Chase portal, where you can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a value of 1.25 cents per point, lowering the cost of your $500 flight to 40,000 points.
This is the easiest way to redeem your miles, but not the most valuable. Since the second step to becoming a travel hacker is getting the most value from your points, you want to aim for more than 1 cent per point.
The Points Guy regularly updates their points and miles valuations, which you can use as benchmarks for your redemptions. For instance, Chase Ultimate Rewards points are currently valued at 2 cents per point. So most travel hackers would consider a “good” redemption one where you get at least 2 cents each out of your points.
However, as with credit cards, it all depends on what works for you. If you just want the simplest way to spend your points, there’s no shame in using the portal—and you’re still getting free travel that you otherwise would have to pay for.
But if you’d like to go a little deeper into how to travel hack, here are some other ways to get even more value from your points.
Generally the best, or most lucrative, way to spend your points is by transferring them to travel partners. This can send the value of your points skyrocketing—but it can also get complicated pretty fast. Let’s walk through the basics.
Credit card companies like Chase, Capital One, Amex, and Citi all have a roster of travel partners, including airlines, hotel chains, and sometimes rental car companies. This list varies from company to company, and new partners are added fairly often. You can transfer your credit card points to your membership account on one of these transfer partners.
For example, since United is a transfer partner of Chase, you can go into the Chase website, type in your United frequent flyer number, and tell Chase to deposit some of your points into your United account. (Typically you must deposit them in increments of 1,000.)
Then when you go into your United account, you’ll suddenly have miles—even if you’ve never flown United in your life. You can then use these points to pay for award flights on United.
Returning to our earlier example, the $500 flight we looked up on the Chase portal might only cost 20,000 United miles when booked through the United website. This comes out to an excellent value of 2.5 cents per point.
Transfer partners are a great way to use your points, but there are some things to consider. First of all, you’ll need to set up a loyalty account with the airline or hotel you want. You often need to do this just to search for award flight/night availability, so it’s helpful to set up those accounts early.
Also, keep in mind that once you transfer credit card points to travel partners, you can’t transfer them back. Only transfer them once you know that partner has the flights/nights you want, and make your award booking immediately after transferring the points—because the price could change at any time.
I used this technique for my first big hack, when I was still a beginner to travel hacking. I had just gotten my Chase Sapphire Preferred card and earned a whopping 100,000 points for the signup bonus, plus a few thousand more from the first few months of spending. I found a Hyatt hotel in Maui that cost only 15,000 points per night when booked using Hyatt points. I had just enough Chase points to cover seven nights.
I had never stayed at a Hyatt in my life. But I made a loyalty account, transferred 105,000 Chase points to Hyatt, and a few minutes later had booked a week in Maui entirely free of charge. To book this hotel in cash would have cost over $300 per night, plus taxes and fees (which Hyatt doesn’t charge on award stays). I ended up paying exactly zero and getting a value of 2.2 cents per point—not bad!
Free Travel or Better Travel?
If you ask the experts how to travel hack, the answers will be mixed because there are a couple of different approaches. One is to get as much free stuff as possible so you can stretch your dollars over more trips.
Another is to use points and miles to elevate your travel experience. This means relaxing in airport lounges, getting more comfortable airplane seats, or enjoying the perks of elite status at hotels for much less than these things would normally cost.
When I was first learning how to travel hack, I was in the first camp. But I’ve recently started to understand why so many travel hackers are prioritizing travel luxury over savings when harnessing their points and miles.
On a recent trip to Paris, I wanted to pay for my and my partner’s flights with points. I had a stockpile of Capital One miles, and Air France is one of their travel partners. I found economy seats for around 60,000 Air France miles round-trip, for flights that normally would have cost upwards of $1200. This came out to a value of around 2 cents per point, compared to the valuation of 1.85 cents for Capital One miles.
With free plane tickets in hand, we’d cut the cost of our Paris trip down by over half. But when we checked in for our flight the night before, we started exploring seat upgrade options. We thought we might spend an extra $50 per person to get a little extra legroom. Then we saw that we could upgrade to business class—including lie-flat seats—for $400 per person. We’d never flown business class, and a business-class flight to Paris would normally cost over $3000, so we decided to splurge and try it.
After sleeping through the overnight flight in the comfort of my own personal pod, complete with three-course meal and hot towels, I was hooked. Now I’m planning to learn how to travel hack not just for free trips, but to make my travel experiences more memorable.
Final Thoughts: How to Travel Hack
If you want to become a travel hacker, you can choose whatever style works for you. When you start travel hacking, think about your travel and financial goals and how you can use points and miles to achieve them. There’s no right or wrong.
But I think I’ll add a third cardinal rule to my list: Travel hacking should be fun. Think of it as a game. You’re not competing with anyone else, just solving points and miles puzzles to go on whatever trip you want.
Don’t stress about learning all the ins and outs of how to travel hack just yet. Start with a couple of small steps, and go from there. Explore some travel hacking blogs and sign up for their newsletters (I read the Points Guy’s religiously). Learn at your own pace, and soon you’ll be hacking your way to your dream vacation.
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