There are several travel urban legends floating around out there. One is about the guy who got halfway around the world for less than $100 or the guy who went to Rio for $5 or the one that upgraded to the Etihad First Class apartment for free. Well, these aren’t urban travel myths but realities for the select few who know how to travel hack.
Travel Hacking is the art and science of free and discounted travel. It’s using mileage programs, credit cards, shopping portals and a little know how to get free hotel stays, free flights or upgrades and entry into about any in worldwide travel lounge.
I was curious about these Gods of travel hacking but still considered myself a novice at gaming the system. I had the frequent flier cards, occasionally got Silver or Gold status or an upgrade to first class but I was nowhere scratching the surface of a prominent travel hacker.
I am embarking on a quest to figure out how to fly for free or get pretty darn close. I am slowly discovering how to book award tickets that include two or three extra destinations for the price of one, which credit cards are the best for miles and which airlines require the least amount of miles for international travel. This is the start of a series of articles detailing different types of travel hacks.
I should start off by saying there is no way to travel for free unless you have a rich and benevolent Uncle or people just love to buy you things. The key is using a combination of methods from high mileage signup bonus credit cards, shopping portals, insider travel sites and online coupon and promo websites like Cash Back Monitor.
Miles for Dollars
Perhaps the easiest way to start your journey is from the signup bonuses associated to mileage credit cards. You can earn anywhere from 25,000 – 60,000 miles as long as you hit minimum spend targets, usually $3,000- 4,000 in a three or four month period.
Caveat: Credit cards are not free money and they come with hefty interest if balances are not paid off each month. Only use them if you CAN afford to use them, otherwise, you are better off paying for travel the old fashioned way, by saving for it.
In addition to the mileage signup bonuses, the beauty of these cards are the category spending points. These are the points earned from each dollar spent using the card in certain categories. Some cards have double, triple or even quintuple miles for certain purchases. For example, the Citibank Thank You card offers three miles for every $1 spent on gas and Chase Ink offers 5 miles for every $1 spent at office supply stores.
For example, I recently got the Chase Sapphire Preferred card that has 40,000 miles for a spend of $4,000 in three months and a couple weeks later a Citibank Thank You Premier card which gives 50,000 miles for a spend of $3,000 in three months. I used the Citibank Thank You Premier card to book a hotel room and received 3X the bonus points. Note: Both credit cards have a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year.
Signing up for these two cards netted me 90,000 in points/miles. That is enough for a round-trip ticket to from Atlanta to Hong Kong in economy class on Etihad or almost business class on Airitalia (95,000 miles).
Please note that opening several cards at once, temporarily dings your credit report for a couple months. This only lasts a short while and falls off your credit but overall having the credit cards improves your credit rating (only if you carry low or no balances).
Picking the Right Card
This is where a solid travel hack strategy and research come in handy. There are many cards and hypothetically you could sign up for several at the same time and many have done this with varying degrees of success but crafting a strategy around your travel goals produces the best results. Answer a couple questions:
- What are your future travel plans? Domestic or international?
- What is your home city airline?
- What is more important, free flights or hotels?
For example a round trip flight (economy) from Charlotte to Paris, is 60,000 award miles with United Mileage Plus program but only 40,000 with AAdvantage’s program. If you live in Charlotte and want to go to Paris, it makes sense to sign up for the AAdvantage Platinum Select card or another credit card that offers 1:1 transfers to American. There is a great site called Milez that calculates mileage award tickets for anywhere you want to go on over 75 frequent flyer programs.
Travel hacking strategies could consist of one or two cards or as many as five or six as you learn how to use their signup bonuses and spending categories to your advantage. Chase, Barclays, Citibank, and a host of other banks issue their own mileage cards in addition to cash back cards. I would segment the cards by the airline or hotel you want to earn miles for but be careful about signing up for too many at the same time as the clock starts ticking on minimum spending for each. I started out with 2 cards initially and this seemed to work well for me.
Stay tuned for the next article on learning how to meet the necessary minimum credit card spends. For some, it will be easy, for others more challenging.