Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking

If you are a fan of travel and have not tried travel hacking yet, you are truly missing out. Travel Hacking is using credit cards to score free flights & hotels. There are a million and one experts in the world on travel hacking but I’m here to give you the absolute basic 101 on how to get started if you haven’t yet.

Disclaimer: If you are not good with credit cards or managing your finances, tread lightly. The perks may not be worth the consequences!

Overview of Travel Hacking

Travel hacking is using points and miles as a way to score free or discounted travel. There are a million different ways that you can use points but the two most popular choices are flights and hotels. Most cards have systems where you can book directly through them, such as the Chase travel portal. You can also transfer points to certain partners that the credit card companies work with. Depending on the partner, the points may be worth more or less so it’s important to pay attention to that. 

There are also cards like the Capital One Venture card that has a feature where you can use points to “erase” previous travel expenses. This feature is a very simple 100 points per dollar rate. Most people tend to stay within the realms of Chase, Amex, Citi or Capital One when starting out but there are a plethora of other “rewards cards” out there depending on your interests and usages.

My Personal History of Travel Hacking

Growing up, I got my first glimpse of the perks of credit cards and points with my Dad. He regularly put business expenses on credit cards and was rewarded by cheaper or free Delta flights for most of our family vacations. He even upgraded us all to First Class once as a treat using points!

I personally didn’t get my first travel credit card until 2013 when I graduated college. It didn’t take long before I realized that with a poverty level salary, I’d need to find some alternative ways to get some travel in my life. The first card I started with was the Capital One Venture card which offered a great 2 points per dollar on everything rate. (It also typically comes with a good sign up bonus but looking back through my statements, I didn’t see that I achieved that? Weird.) 

Capital One was a great starter card because it didn’t force me to really think forward at all, I could just erase things after the fact. I used points to save money on the following trips over a 5 year span: Scotland, Mexico, Nashville, Iceland, Nashville (again), and Colorado. Across these trips I used 130,889 points total equalling $1308.89. Even after subtracting the 5 years of annual fees, it still saved me over $1000 on travel. Not too shabby!

Free Iceland flights

When we started going full speed ahead on renovating our house, I decided to take advantage of all the expenses and open up a Chase Sapphire Preferred card. Read any blog on the entire internet and I will guarantee you that they recommend that this card be in your wallet. I was able to hit the minimum spend and get 60k points after spending $4000. (THIS BONUS IS UP TO 100k POINTS NOW SO IF YOU HAVEN’T SIGNED UP YET, NOW IS YOUR CHANCE!)

This has been my primary spend card over the last year so I have racked up an additional 30k points. I also bought a flight back in February that cost me 21,152 points, so I’d be well over 50k additional points now.

What Card is Next?

I finally decided to pull the trigger on getting another card as of this week, which is what inspired this blog post! I’ve got a couple big expenses coming up so I’m going to try to do a couple cards back to back. The one I just got approved for this week is the Chase Freedom Flex card, which only requires a $500 minimum spend to get 20k bonus points. I then hope to do the Chase Freedom Unlimited right after it with the same minimum and bonus. The grand total coming to 40k points that I can transfer over to my Sapphire Preferred

We have a trip to Barbados coming up in January that we have not bought flights for yet so the plan is to use that 125k(ish) points for that. The Freedom cards are GREAT for every day use. The Freedom Flex has 5% back on grocery stores this quarter as well as a bunch of regular spend bonuses. And Chase makes it easy to transfer or combine points so this will be a great way to maximize what I can accrue.

Downfalls of Travel Hacking

It would be irresponsible for me not to mention the pitfalls of travel hacking. RULE #1: You NEED to be financially responsible. Do not bother getting into travel hacking if you can’t pay off your credit cards to $0 every month. The interest will far outweigh the benefits and it will not be worth it.

Be careful and aware of annual fees. My Venture card was only $59 a year and my Sapphire Preferred is $95 a year, neither of those are bad. I well exceed those costs in points. Some cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Amex Platinum are VERY high fees. Like $600+ high! You have to be a very frequent traveler to really maximize these. But the benefits of these cards when used to their fullest extent make the fee worth it.

If you are good at planning ahead, you can max out the benefits of the card and drop it down to a no annual fee option before the next year fee hits. I did this with my Capital One card when I decided to switch to Chase. I had just enough points left to grab a couple gift cards and then dropped it to the no annual fee Venture One card. 

Don’t cancel credit cards if you can avoid it. Travel hacking in general won’t affect your credit score enough to make a difference but closing out of a bunch of cards WILL. Our credit scores take into account length of credit and available credit so it won’t hurt you to keep any open as long as you’re not accruing interest or unnecessary annual fees. 

One last thing to keep in mind is the Chase “5/24” rule. Many travel hacking experts agree that the Chase Cards and Ultimate Reward points are the best but Chase will not let you get more than 5 cards in 24 months. Any credit card can count into that, not just Chase cards. So most gurus recommend maxing out the Chase cards in your 5 before adding in Amex or any others. It’ll help to keep a spreadsheet of credit cards and when you opened them so you’ll know when you have another spot open in your “5.”

If you Plan on Signing Up…

Use my referral links! Don’t just sign up through a google search! The credit card companies pay out “commissions” in the form of points to users who get others to sign up. Don’t let those commissions go into the big Google pockets! I sprinkled my referral links throughout this whole blog but I’ll list them here for ease as well. 

CHASE SAPPHIRE PREFERRED – The one card to rule them all! Love this card, and get it NOW to score 100k points after spending $4000!! (That equates to about $1,250 in Chase Ultimate Rewards!) $95 annual fee, tons of perks through programs with Peloton, Lyft, etc, and many travel benefits.

CHASE FREEDOM FLEX or CHASE FREEDOM UNLIMITED – You really can’t go wrong with either of these cards! Figure out which one works best for your lifestyle and fire away! 20k points after $500 spend, $0 annual fee, tons of earning and bonus options, 0% APR for 15 months.

CAPITAL ONE VENTURE ONE  – I don’t have a link for the actual Venture card anymore but the Venture One card is a nicer starter card as well. 20k points for $500 spend, $0 annual fee, 1.25 miles per dollar on all purchases, 0% APR for 12 months.

Let me know if you have any other cards that you would recommend for beginners in the comments below. I’d also love to hear your travel hacking success stories if you have any. Don’t forget, if you need help planning any upcoming trips, check out InMotion Adventures to see what I can do for you! Until next time

Stay Wild and Adventure On!

Travel hacking can be SO rewarding but extremely complicated. Here's a simple guide on how I got started with credit card travel hacking and which cards I recommend!

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