There are entire forums dedicated to the fine art of using credit card points to score thousands of dollars in free travel, or travel hacking. People get really into it, which made me assume travel hacking was a laborious hobby that, like couponing, only paid off if you were extreme about it. I was wrong. Travel hacking is easy.
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While I’ve long used credit cards for cash back rewards, I didn’t open a credit card for the sole purpose of travel hacking until 2014. Since then, I’ve booked flights to Hawaii, Tokyo, Texas, New York, Copenhagen and a few other places I’ve likely forgotten about.
I don’t spend hours plotting which cards I should use for specific purchases. I don’t churn cards (open up a card, close it, open up another one, repeat). My credit has not taken a hit—in fact, it’s improved! (But we’ll get to that later.) That said, the travel rewards game can be risky, so if you want to play, make sure to play responsibly. We’ve got a few guidelines.
Find a Card With a Big Sign-Up Bonus
In 2014, I booked two flights from Los Angeles to Hawaii to Tokyo and then back to Los Angeles. Without the leg in Kauai, the whole trip would have been free, but I still paid very little. All six flight legs cost me $400 and 45,000 points.
I used the Chase Sapphire Preferred to land the sign-up bonus of 40,000 points. That massive bonus is the primary way travel rewards hackers get free flights. The catch is I had to spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of opening the card, which meant I put every purchase I had on the card: groceries, bills, pretty much everything short of rent. This card also had an authorized user bonus. If I added an authorized user to the card and they made at least one purchase, I would get another 5,000 points. So I added my now-husband and we got even more points.
There are dozens of websites that will help you compare cards and find the ideal pick, but the thing is, most rewards enthusiasts recommend the same basic cards:
Each of these come with tens of thousands of sign-up points and some have other perks like lounge access, free Global Entry, and that sort of thing. Pay attention to the annual fee, though. Our Chase Sapphire Preferred card came with an annual fee of $95 (waived the first year). We later canceled the card to avoid the fee. However, we didn’t do it right away because we were still earning loads of points…
Pay for Everything With Your Card (But Pay It off Every Month)
Sign-up bonuses are great, but most cards reward you with points for spending, too. You get 1-3 points for every purchase, depending on the type of purchase. I didn’t think these points would add up, but they did. I earned about 10,000 points for the next year of owning that card, which was enough to score a couple of free domestic flights.
The key to doing this is to put every expense on your credit card. As a personal finance writer, I kind of cringe at the thought of that, but again, if you play the game carefully, it’s not that hard to win. Here are some rules I follow when I budget with my credit card:
- Pay off the card in full and on time every month
- Always make sure I have more in my checking account than I do on the card. However, my credit card balance vs. my checking account balance is not a budget, so I also:
- Track all of my spending using Mint.com.
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It should go without saying, but if you’re racking up late fees and interest on your card because you’re not paying it in full and on-time every month, the “rewards” are totally pointless.
Many rewards enthusiasts use different cards for different purchases. Rewards cards usually have “bonus” months in which they double or triple your points earned for certain expenses, like restaurants. Some folks who will actually write down these categories on their individual cards so they know which one to use for which purchases. For me, that’s just too much work. It sort of feels like shopping at five different stores to save $10 on groceries. I use one good card for all purchases and I’m still able to squeeze a couple of domestic flights out of it by the end of the year.
Sign Up Before a Big Purchase
Another way to hack the system? Take advantage of a card’s sign-up bonus before a major purchase. My husband and I signed up for the highly publicized Chase Sapphire Reserve. It came with a massive 100,000-point sign-up bonus if you spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months. With a wedding to pay for, we had no problem hitting this bonus and then some. (Again, we had already saved up the cash for the wedding, so we just paid the card off in full immediately.)
If we really wanted to play our cards right, though, we could have opened up another, separate card in my husband’s name to score another sign-up bonus, paid for the wedding on two cards, then paid them both off in full. But that can get tricky with fees and budgeting.
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Our 100,000 points paid for two flights From Los Angeles to Denmark to Sweden to Norway and then back to Los Angeles (our honeymoon, basically). This would have otherwise cost $2,000. Since then, though, Chase has dropped the bonus to 50,000, which still isn’t bad (it’s still worth around $1100). Not only that, but the Reserve also comes with other great perks (and it better, with a massive $450 annual fee): $300 travel credit, free lounge access, and $100 credit to cover the application fees of Global Entry or TSA Pre✓. Their points-per-dollar spent isn’t bad, either: you get triple points for travel and dining, so in addition to our honeymoon, I’ve also earned enough points this way in the past year to afford two free domestic flights.
Whether it’s a wedding, a home renovation project or any other major purchase, any time you plan to spend a lot of money on something is a great time to look into credit card signup bonuses. The same disclaimer applies: make sure you’re not spending money you don’t have just to earn rewards.
Look for the Cheapest Flight
Cheap flights usually mean fewer rewards points, too, which means you can save some of your rewards for future flights.
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Also, I’ve found that sometimes it’s cheaper to book flights through the credit card’s rewards portal rather than directly with the airline. For our Denmark trip, for example, it cost several thousand points more to book the flights through Swiss Air than directly with Chase.
Word of warning, though: it’s usually better to book directly with the airline in case you need to make a change. There was a mistake on our booking which Chase said they couldn’t prove was their fault, so they charged me $50 to fix it. Plus, it was a massive pain to pick seats and stuff through Chase’s portal.
Some people spend more time than this opening and churning card after card to score free travel. And they travel often and in luxury! If you’re too lazy for all of that, though, it’s totally possible to still benefit from travel hacking without spending too much time on it. In the past three years, I’ve only opened two cards and I’ve still saved thousands in travel.
Opening cards can definitely affect your credit, but maybe not in the way that you think. Thanks to a concept called credit utilization, my credit score actually went up after opening these cards. This is only because I paid them off, though, so while I had a lot of credit available, I wasn’t actually using any of it, which meant my credit utilization is low. To keep your score (and your spending) intact, you want to keep your utilization low.
One final word of warning. If you plan to buy a home or take out any other kind of loan, avoid opening up a card until the whole process is over. When you apply for a new card, this activity shows up on your report, and your credit will take a temporary hit. Mortgage companies and other lenders don’t like that. It makes them nervous because they think you’re going to get into a bunch of debt and default on your loan.