You hear the word “hacking” a lot nowadays. Traditionally, hacking was thought of as something negative. Something we would not want our kids to do.
We think of a recluse living in his parents basement trying to break into a federal organization. Or a group trying to take down a big evil organization’s website (which is pretty cool depending on who the big evil organization is).
But hacking has evolved recently. Now you see articles about hacking your sleep or hacking your parenting. You can find hacks to make it easier to cook dinner or decorate your home. A hack is essentially a quick shortcut to make your life better.
The term travel hacker has also been in the media lately. You read about people that have taken month long expeditions around the world for free (disclaimer: it’s not really free). I’ve talked to many people about travel hacking and most shrug their shoulders and adopt a “must be nice” attitude.
As in, “must be nice for them but I would never be able to do something like that.” While not everyone has the time or resources to travel hack their way to around the world trips, I will show you how pretty much anyone can travel for a lot less money.
Levels of Hacking
I’ve played basketball since I was a little kid. I still enjoy playing it whenever I can get time. Technically, I would call myself a basketball player.
You know who else is a basketball player? Steph Curry. While he is a (slightly) better basketball player than me, we’re both basketball players. He is just on a (much) higher level.
The same thing applies to travel hacking. If you just look at those “Steph Curry’s” of travel hacking who make elaborate trips to every continent with points, you will get disappointed.
But travel hacking, specifically travel hacking with credit cards, is a very accessible endeavor that can be scaled up as much as you wish. It just depends on how much time you’re willing to put in.
I’ve been doing some low level travel hacking with credit cards for a few years now. My wife is from the West Coast so we make trips there every so often. Our goal is to at least make those trips with points along with a couple of vacations per year. This is very attainable with a few hours of planning per month.
If you want to travel with your family of 5 to fancy European cities in first class, this is attainable as well. But it’s going to take a lot of work. It will amount to a full time job between signing up for credit cards, and staying on the phone with airline reps. But it is possible, if you’re willing to put in the work.
My strategy: Get the most lucrative credit card offers I can find and use those points to take our eventual West Coast trips. This is essentially getting the “low hanging fruit” of travel hacking and optimizing it as much as possible.
It’s kind of like the 80/20 rule. Give 20% effort to get 80% of the results. That’s good enough for most people. If I want to get better results, I need to give more effort but the work will be a lot more. I currently don’t have the inclination to work 20+ hours a week to get better point redemptions, but I can if I choose to.
Anyway, here are the nuts and bolts of my current travel hacking strategy.
3 Steps to Travel Hacking
BIG Disclaimer: Travel hacking with credit cards should not be an option if you plan to make late payments and not pay your balance off in full. Any interest or late fees will quickly erase the reward benefit. You have been warned!!
Without further ado here are the three steps it takes to get started in travel hacking:
1. Apply and get approved for a credit card with a great sign up bonus. (See some examples at the end of the post.)
You will need a pretty good credit score to get approved for most reward cards. While there is no hard and fast rule, a credit score of 700 or above is usually good enough.
2. Meet the minimum spend to snag the sign up bonus.
If a card offers a bonus of 50,000 points, for example, you will have to meet a minimum amount of spend in a certain amount of time to get those points. A common one is spend $3,000 in 3 months.
While there are a ton of ways to increase spending artificially (and there are many blogs that will teach you how in depth), start with a bonus offer that is attainable with your regular everyday spending. You can always scale up to a bigger offer once you feel comfortable.
3. Repeat with another card.
You should cancel the first card if it has an annual fee and you don’t plan on using it. If there is no annual fee, just keep the card and stick it in a drawer since having more credit will improve your credit score over time.
Something for Everybody
And that’s all there is to it. There are so many strategies involving finding the best cards to apply for and when to apply. Countless methods also exist to “manufacture” spend which will allow you to spend more to meet sign up bonuses without actually spending any of your own money. So this stuff can get deep.
You can take a deep dive if you wish to find out more about these strategies. Two sites that will provide you the advanced strategies you need for travel hacking are Million Mile Secrets (where I was featured once here!) and Frequent Miler.
But if you want to just stay on the surface and do one credit card bonus at a time to get easy rewards every few months, that’s okay too. Travel hacking has a place for everybody.
Here are some good credit card bonuses that are currently available and some brief information about them (I don’t make anything off of these links):
Chase Sapphire Preferred: Get 50,000 Ultimate Reward points after spending $4,000 in 3 months. This is the go to card for many people including myself. It gives you double points on travel and dining purchases. And Ultimate Reward points are very versatile. You can use them for cash back, flights or transfer to airline or hotel programs.
Chase Freedom: Get $150 cash back after spending $500 in 3 months. This is a great cash back card to have since the bonus is easy to get and it features 5% categories each quarter. So one quarter of the year you will get 5% cash back on dining purchases, for example, and the next month will get 5% on gas purchases.
Chase Southwest: Get 40,000 Southwest points after spending $1,000 in 3 months. I fly Southwest a lot and I know a lot of people that do as well. Southwest points are pretty valuable, and this sign up bonus can easily get you $500 worth of flights.
American Express Premier Rewards Gold: Get 25,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000 in 3 months. AMEX has many good travel cards and this is one of the best. Membership Reward points can be used to book flights directly and can be transferred to other programs. This card also gets you double points at restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations.