I thought I had already written this post years ago. Apparently instead I just sent people to other people’s posts about it, or answered questions directly to people when they ask me. How unusually inefficient of me!
I’ve had an uptick in interest among friends lately because I just got Isaac and me a trip to Australia and New Zealand for this fall for about $360 total using travel hacking. I actually am kind of annoyed that it cost that much (the flight between Sydney and Queenstown cost $95 each in taxes and fees) since I got all four of us to South Korea and Hawaii in 2016 for under $250, but still, we’re saving $3,000+ on the 15th anniversary trip of a lifetime, so I probably shouldn’t complain.
Amount we paid, plus a crap ton of United points.
Anyway. Stand by for details. First: disclaimers.
1. This is NOT for you if you already have credit card debt and/or do not intend to pay off the entire balance on your card(s) on time every month.
Yes, that needs to be bolded and
underlined. The interest and fees you will pay if you don’t pay in full on time will negate the benefits of the points you accrue. As soon as you get a new card, log in to the site and set it up to autopay in full on the due date every month; then there’s no way you’ll mess it up!
2. Don’t expect to travel right away.
Unless you do this hardcore, which most of us can’t do because we have jobs or kids or whatever, it takes time to accumulate points. Of course it can vary greatly, but start planning now for a trip a year from now – or farther out, even.
3. If you don’t have good credit, you may not be able to do this yet.
Work on building up your credit and the fun will come later! I would suggest trying to get a no annual fee credit card to help out your debt-to-credit ratio. And pay it off every month!
4. Hack at your own risk.
🙂 Just in case: if you do this and for some reason it doesn’t work out or you screw up your credit, it’s not my fault.
What is travel hacking?
Travel hacking is using airline miles/credit card points to travel, typically but not always internationally, for much less money than usual. You will pay only the taxes and fees for the flights, and any annual fees for the credit card(s).
Why is it called hacking? My theory is because you’re not doing it the way “they” tell you to do it. Also because almost every little tip or alternate way of doing something is called a hack these days, just like every scandal is “-gate”.
Where does one get those credit card/airline points?
The primary means of getting points is by getting credit cards when they are offering large bonuses. You get the bonuses by meeting a certain spending threshold (usually $1,000-3,000, but sometimes higher if the bonus or points are worth more) within a certain time frame (usually 90 days after you apply for the card). After you receive the bonuses, you use them to book award travel on whichever airline gets you where you want to go.
OK. So how do I do it?
1. Figure out where you want to go. Once you know that, type your departure and arrival airports into this, which searches every award program to tell you how much each one would require to get you there. This tool also tells you which loyalty programs each airline is affiliated with, which helps you choose which cards to get. Once you know which program(s) you need to earn points for, you will focus on getting cards that get you points for that program, or that can be transferred to that program.
Reading some of the love locks
Rose-shaped ice cream in the freezing cold
Example: When we decided to go to Seoul, we figured out that United was one of the cheapest, and we could add a stopover in Hawaii on the way home for no additional cost. That sealed the deal. Chase cards are transfer partners with United, so we could get United cards and/or Chase cards to reach our goal. If I remember correctly we each got one regular Chase card and also each got one United card. Those bonuses, combined with Chase points we had been accruing for about two years since I found out about travel hacking, were enough to get us the trip we wanted.
2. Apply for the cards that will get you there. How do you find them? I really like this list, which is updated every month with current offers. If you don’t know which programs are affiliated with which cards, Google it. Bonus offers change frequently, so keep checking back until you get a good one.
Before you apply take note of what the minimum spending threshold is and how long you have to meet it. (Note: this clock almost always starts from the date of application, not the date you receive your card.) Some people make spreadsheets. I screenshot my application confirmation and note the date on the Word doc I save it in. You could write it on your calendar. It’s also a good idea to screenshot the bonus offer just in case, although I’ve never had a problem getting one. I just add that to my Word doc.
3. Meet the minimum spend. Put everything you can on that credit card until you hit that threshold! Mortgage/rent, utilities, internet, cell phone bill, gas, food, clothes, sports games, movies, Netflix, charitable giving, Starbucks… anything you buy that you can pay with that card, you put on that card. Some banks, landlords, and utilities charge a fee for paying via credit card. In those cases do the math on whether it would be worth it for you. (If you won’t meet the spend without it, it’s probably worth it.) For our SK/HI trip we were able to get multiple cards at once because we had just bought a house and had a lot to buy for it. We just put everything on those cards and met all the spends quickly! That’s not typical for us, though we do use cards for everything since we get rewards and aren’t liable for fraud.
4. Book your flights! The billing cycle after you meet the spending threshold the points will appear in either your card account (if you’re earning Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest points, American Express Membership Rewards, etc.) or your airline account (if you got a United card earning MileagePlus Rewards, Southwest card earning Rapid Rewards, etc.). If they are in one of the card accounts you’ll likely need to transfer them to the airline you intend to use. That’s usually very simple, but Google is your friend for how to do yours specifically if you can’t figure it out.
Once your points are in your airline rewards account, go to that airline’s site and search for award travel. It is typically an option you can check, or in a dropdown box. Some days/routes may cost more than others; you have to choose the ones you want that you have points for. If you have enough points for the trip you want, book it! It’s pretty much a normal airfare booking from there – except you pay a whole lot less!
Note: One thing I will add is that you should Google what each airline’s award rules are. They may allow you to go two places for the price of one. On our Korea trip we stopped in Hawaii for six days on the way home. Sadly, United no longer allows that, but on our upcoming trip we have a free stopover in Sydney on the way to New Zealand because they are the same award area with United. You are also allowed an “open-jaw” ticket on United, which means you depart from a different airport than you flew into. As our time is limited, we are flying into Queenstown, NZ and out of Auckland, NZ. It’s up to us to get from one to the other. In searching for those flights I used the Multi-City search option. I chose our departure airport-Sydney-Queenstown-Auckland-arrival airport. It was 80,000 points and about $180 roundtrip per person (or, three 50,000 card bonuses + points from the spending to get the bonuses) – or, a savings of about $1800/person based on current pricing for that trip.
A few more things:
- Most people can go anywhere with just two card bonuses. Roundtrip to Australia and New Zealand can be had for 80,000 points from the USA. South Korea and Hawaii was 80,000 points total from the USA. Most of the time you can get 100,000 with two card bonuses – but it could take you six months to do so if you don’t spend much. Hence disclaimer #2: don’t expect to travel right away.
- Most of these cards have annual fees, and most of the fees hit in your first month and don’t count toward your spending threshold. Is the annual fee worth it? That’s up to you. Even with the annual fees from the cards we got to go to Seoul and Kauai our total cost was under $500 for four people. Yeah, those fees were worth it! Just don’t forget to factor those into your total cost.
- Keep track of the cards you apply for and when. It would really suck to miss out on a bonus because you thought you had an extra week.
- Sometimes awards will cost more than other times; just like regular flights, prices fluctuate and cost more on holidays, etc. Keep that in mind and try to be flexible. We wanted to go to Aus/NZ over Christmas break to limit the boys’ time off from school and be on our trip on our actual anniversary, but it cost 100,000 points each way instead of 40,000, so hahahahaha no.
- My favorite credit card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Isaac and I both got this to get our SK/HI trip and I’ve kept mine since then because the perks are so good that it’s even worth the annual fee to me. We’ve had basic Chase cards since 2005, which were later converted to the Freedom. Using the Freedom and Sapphire together builds points quickly and makes them very flexible. We use the quarterly 5% back categories on our Freedom, and transfer those points to our Sapphire, which we then transfer to airlines! That said, if you are trying to get your whole family on a trip using Chase cards, I suggest not getting the Freedom yet. Work on getting the high bonuses first; don’t “waste” a Chase card on a freebie. (Both of those links up there are referrals, but you can find non-referral links pretty easily. The offers are the same.)
- For some reason people think that getting more credit cards makes your credit score go down. This is a myth. About 1/3 of your credit score has to do with your debt-to-credit ratio, and 1/10 has to do with credit pulls. Each time you apply for a card your score goes down slightly for the pull, but if you’re approved it goes up because your debt-to-credit ratio just got much better! My credit score has gone up about 50 points since I started travel hacking!
- PAY OFF YOUR CARDS IN FULL AND ON TIME EVERY MONTH! Seriously.
Questions? Comments? Or check out my favorite way to test the waters with a very easy card/hack!