These opinions are all my own. I am not receiving any compensation for the products or ideas in this post.
Being a couponing advocate I’m always looking for ways to save on the things I need. But what about saving on the things I like? Well, admittedly there are a lot of ways to save on my favorite clothes and retailers. But I struggled on saving really effectively on my travel plans. Last year my husband and I went on an Alaskan cruise, and I did everything possible to save money on that trip (You can read about that here.) But we still paid a large chunk of change.
I felt there had to be a better and easier way. Especially since I don’t plan on giving up travel anytime soon. And if I agree with Positive Health Wellness’s article that says traveling can be good for your health, this makes travel a “need,” right? So it was time to find a solution. This started me on my path to discover all the secrets of what the travel pros call “travel hacking.” Not gonna lie, it’s my new obsession, but it’s a lot easier than people realize. I only wish I knew about it sooner. Read on for a couponer’s guide to free travel.
What Is Travel Hacking?
In a nutshell, travel hacking is the art of earning points and miles through credit card spending and redeeming them for FREE TRAVEL. Yes, I said free. Or at the very least, significantly less expensive. And while earning points and miles through your normal credit card spending is great, it’s not nearly as lucrative and earning sign-up bonuses. The real trick that people play is by signing up for new credit cards that offer large sign-up bonuses by meeting a minimum spend typically within the first 90 days. These bonuses are typically much more than you can hope to earn with your normal spending within a year. So a combination of both of these techniques aids travelers in redeeming free travel.
I will also point out that many of what I would call “hard core” travel hackers constantly sign up for new cards and utilize a method called “manufactured spending” to not only help them meet all the minimum spends, but also to constantly “churn” miles and points on their existing cards in order to have an unlimited supply. This is all well and good, but completely unnecessary for the normal family. I mean, if you’re a working person, it’s unlikely you even have the vacation time to really take advantage of all this free travel. Overall I do not recommend most methods of manufactured spending as they are getting harder and harder to even pull off. However, if you are interested in understanding what manufactured spending is read here.
Overall, if all you’re wanting to do is take your family on one or two trips per year, “hard core” travel hacking is completely unnecessary. All it takes is some upfront planning on your part to determine the trip you want to take and the credit card sign-ups you’ll need to make it necessary. And then earning those sign-ups by applying for the cards in increments (not all at one time or you’ll have a large amount of spending to meet) and meeting minimum spends with your NORMAL spending on bills, groceries, gas, etc.
A Note on Credit Cards
Before I move on with more specifics, first let me give a side notes about credit cards:
- I DO NOT RECOMMEND under any circumstances to apply for credit cards if you cannot responsibly manage your finances and pay off your balance every month. Carrying a balance is never a good idea and essentially defeats the purpose. That travel isn’t free anymore when you are paying high interest rates on your balance.
- Avoid applying for credit cards within the same time frame as applying for a loan such as a mortgage.
- It’s always a good idea to know what your credit score is. Many banks these days such as Chase and Bank of America provide their customers with their free FICO credit scores. Another alternative is to check out the free Credit Karma service.
- If your credit score is not currently high enough to be approved for new cards due to lack of credit history, consider asking a willing family member with a higher credit score and longer history to add you as an authorized user to their own account (even if you don’t use it). This will help raise your own score.
- Contrary to popular belief, applying for and owning several credit cards does not hurt your credit score in the long term, and in fact can actually help raise it (I can testify personally to this). You can read more about how this affects your score here.
- Closing credit card accounts CAN affect your credit score. Read here and here about how to minimize these effects. It is also recommended to keep your longest standing credit card accounts open to help increase your average age of credit.
- If you own a small business, you can also apply for the business versions of credit cards in addition to the personal versions.Read more about that here.
Getting Started Earning Free TraVel
First off, when getting started, I would recommend setting a travel goal. This will help you to know how many points and miles you will need in order to accomplish this particular travel plan. Even if you don’t have a travel goal in mind, you can still get started earning points with some of the more basic and flexible travel cards and apply those to a future travel goal.
In either case make sure to sign up for the airline and hotel loyalty programs you anticipate using, especially if you are earning specific hotel or airline miles with your credit card. Always make sure you sign up for the appropriate loyalty program before you start trying to earn any points for it. Many times you will have to link your member number to the credit card in order to earn or transfer miles/points.
The next step is to start earning points and/or miles. You can earn miles in one of several ways as below:
1. Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses
The most lucrative way to earn points and miles is through credit card sign ups. Most of the time these sign ups are more points than you could hope to earn normally in a year.
There are several types of travel credit cards that you can get started with. First there are flexible travel rewards cards that earn points through the banks earning program that can be redeemed for a variety of ways including on discounted travel through the program’s own unique portal. There are also cash back type cards that can be redeemed for statement credits on your travel purchases (or depending on the card, any kind of purchase). And finally, there are co-branded credit cards which earn points or miles towards a specific travel loyalty program such as hotel brands or airlines. You can read here about some of the better cards for beginners to start out with.
Do be aware that many times these cards carry an annual fee (not always), but sometimes the fee is waived the first year or the benefits of the card and sign up bonus far outweigh the fee. Also, several banks now have restrictions regarding earning the same sign-up bonuses more than once. For instance, AMEX only allows 1 sign-up bonus per card per person per lifetime. Chase on the other hand will allow the same bonus on the same card per person 24 months after the first bonus was received. Read here to learn about the major banks restrictions on credit cards.
Personally, I recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. It is one of the most flexible travel rewards cards out there, and it is the one my husband and I started with. It is great in that when you redeem your points through their travel portal you can redeem at a rate of 1:1.25, meaning an extra 25%. Plus the card comes with great transfer partners at a rate of 1:1 that include Southwest Airlines, United, Hyatt, Marriott, and more. The icing on the cake here is that with the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, you can transfer points across any Ultimate Rewards earning credit cards you have. This means that is you have the Chase Freedom and the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you can transfer points between the two (and you can even transfer between spouses).
2. Normal Spending
You can always earn points through your normal spending habits. Any card that you have will typically give you at least 1 point per dollar on any purchase. There are far more lucrative ways to earn than with just 1 point per dollar, however normal spending is still lucrative when meeting minimum spends. In this case it is recommended to put every single bill possible on your credit card to meet the minimum spending requirement. Unfortunately rent and mortgages, which tend to be your highest spending per month, cannot be paid with credit cards. If you are desperate, however, there are a few online rent paying services available such as Plastiq and Rentler (see details here) that will allow you to pay with a credit card along with a 3% fee. Under normal circumstances the fee just isn’t worth it, but could be considered a small price to pay in earning a large sign up bonus.
3. maximizing Point Earnings
You can earn more points and miles just by simply maximizing your earnings. For instance, say you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Chase Freedom Unlimited cards. The Chase Sapphire Preferred allows you to earn 2 points per dollar on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar on everything else. The Chase Freedom Unlimited earns you 1.5 points per dollar on every purchase. In this scenario you can maximize your points by only using the Chase Sapphire Preferred card on your travel and dining purchases to effectively earn 2 points per dollar, and then use the Chase Freedom Unlimited card on every thing else to effectively earn 1.5 points per dollar. Thus, you are earning points 1.5 – 2 times faster on every purchase you make. Plus being Chase Ultimate Rewards you can then pool these points together.
4. Bonus Points Through Portals
Many times each of these credit cards or loyalty programs offer some type of shopping portal that allow you to earn even more points. For instance, say you want to purchase something online at Best Buy (or purchase online and have it shipped free to the store). You may go to the Chase Ultimate Rewards shopping portal and see that they are offering 3 points per dollar at Best Buy by clicking through the portal and then making your purchase. You end up spending $50 and paying with your Chase Unlimited Freedom card to earn 1.5 points per dollar. So in essence you just earned 4.5 points per dollar, or in this case a total of 225 points instead of just 50 points.
If you are a member of several different programs, I highly recommend evreward as a way to see which portal will pay out the most. For instance they will show Chase, Amex, and Citi programs, as well as hotel and airline programs such as Southwest and Hilton. Be aware that it lags a little and so is not always up to date accurate, but it at least will give you an idea and place to start.
5. Bonus Points Through Dining Programs
Several airlines and hotel chains will offer a dining program where you can link your credit card and earn extra points by dining at certain restaurants available in the program. These programs are typically free and can be found right on the airline or hotel website. Most of the time you cannot link the same credit card to more than one dining program, however you can link separate cards. But if you plan on participating it is recommended to link the card(s) with the best bonuses for dining.
I personally find the selection of restaurants in these programs to be minimal, but considering it’s a free program, it never hurts to link your card and find a few extra points later for dining at one of the participating restaurants.
Well once you’ve earned the travel points/miles, you can then redeem those towards the travel of your choice. Like I’ve mentioned several times already, your best bet for earning the most points is by applying for new credit cards that will award you large sign-up bonuses.
Let’s give a more specific example of how this can work. Say you live in Dallas and want to take your family of 4 on a 5 night trip to Disney World in Orlando in the month of June of the next year. Firstly, I would recommend signing up for the Southwest Personal Plus card which currently is offering a bonus of 50,000 miles with a $69 yearly fee. The flights would cost about $150 per person each way for a total of $1200. OR it would cost about 8300 points per person each way. Essentially the miles you just earned from the bonus would allow you to get 3 free roundtrip flights while paying only for the last family member and the taxes not covered by the miles (usually about $6/person each way) for a total of 49,800 miles and $348, plus the $69 fee.
If you’re willing, you could also apply for the Southwest Personal Premier card a couple of months later, also currently offering a bonus of 50,000 miles with a $99 yearly fee. This would allow your entire family to fly for only the cost of 66,400 miles plus about $48 in taxes and $168 yearly fees. And if you’re really smart, after meeting the minimum spends of a total of $5000 and then stragetically spending another $5000 on the cards, you’d have earned 110,000 miles, enough to earn you a Southwest Companion Pass (essentially a buy one get one free on Southwest flights). Thus you would get all 4 roundtrip flights for 49,800 miles plus $48 for taxes and $168 yearly fees. Plus, you’d have 60,200 miles left over to use in the future as well as the Companion Pass to be able to utilize until the end of the next year you earned it (learn more about earning the Companion Pass here). Not only that, but being able to fly on southwest gives you the ability to check 2 free bags per person (especially useful for families with small children), and has no change fees, meaning that if you find a lower price later, you can re-book and be refunded the difference in points!
Now, you’ve already saved at least $800 on flights, but what next? Well, then yo’d need to find a place to stay for 5 nights, right? Well, say you want to stay off-resort. The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Hotel is right in the middle of Orlando with shuttles to and from the Disney parks. Rates at the hotel go for about $250 or 15,000 points per night for a total of about $1250 or 75,000 points for 5 nights. Well, by applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card with a current sign up bonus of 50,000 points with a $99 fee waived the first year, you can effectively transfer 45,000 points to Hyatt to get 3 free nights plus $500, and have 5000 points to spare.
And if you’re willing to go even further, a little while later you could apply for the Chase Hyatt credit card with a bonus of 2 free nights and a $75 yearly fee. This would essentially get you those last 2 nights free. Plus the card comes with elite status that includes complimentary wi-fi, late check-out, and an upgrade to a preferred room when available. Either way, you would be saving at least $750 on the hotel. That plus the at least $800 on the flights save you a good $1550 which is about 60% of the original cost! And if you go all the way on both flights and hotel, you’d save $2150 or about 88%. That’s no small chunk of change. And with this savings, you can better afford the high-cost of Disney park tickets (which are NEVER on sale).
Good luck to you all in your endeavors to earn free travel. If you are interested in learning more in-depth about the in and outs of travel hacking, credit card bonuses, and airline and hotel programs, I highly recommend The Points Guy. You can get started on his sight here.