You may have seen Instagram posts of luxurious hotels, airport lounges, and first-class seats with claims that it is possible to travel in style for free without any social media following. It may sound like a scam, but it is 100 percent legitimate!
Travel hacking is the art of getting free travel by utilizing the loyalty programs set by credit card companies, airlines, and hotels. It is completely legal and an increasingly popular hobby amongst travel and personal finance enthusiasts.
This post discusses best practices related to rewards travel, so you can make your travel goals a reality for next to nothing without going crazy with credit cards.
Know Your Travel Goals
When choosing which travel hacking cards to sign up for and retain, it is important to tie each card’s purpose to your travel goals. Ask yourself:
- Is there a particular trip you want to travel hack in the next 6-12 months?
- Who flies to that destination?
- What are the hotel options there?
Once you have a clear travel goal in mind, it becomes much easier to tailor your credit card signups and spending to maximize points for that trip. Research which credits card currencies are transferable to the airlines that fly to that destination and which hotel loyalty programs will be most valuable to you.
If Hilton has a great promotion on their co-branded credit cards right now, but you do not intend on traveling to any destinations with good Hilton hotel options in the foreseeable future, then those cards are not currently a good fit for your personalized travel hacking strategy.
Mind Your Credit Score
When done correctly, travel hacking can actually increase your credit score. The key is to set up all of your credit card statements to automatically be paid in full each month. Travel hacking credit cards have some of the highest interest rates of any credit cards, and the interest payments from carrying a balance from month to month will negate the value of travel benefits earned.
Additionally, before signing up for travel hacking credit cards, you will want your credit score to be at least 700-750. Experian provides some tips for better understanding how your credit score is calculated, and how to increase your score.
Strategically Plan for Sign-Up Bonuses
The majority of the points earned through travel hacking credit cards come at the beginning through the sign-up bonus. Typically, these bonuses are with hundreds (sometimes more than $1000) of dollars worth of points in exchange for meeting a minimum spend on a card. For example, the CapitalOne Venture card has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3000 in the first 3 months from account opening.
It is crucial that you meet the minimum spend and get the sign-up bonus, since this is where you will get the most value from the card. However, you want to avoid inflating your budget and spending an unexpected $3000 just to get the bonus. Therefore, it is important to time your credit card sign ups and have a clear plan for how to meet the minimum spend.
Signing up for a high-rewards credit card shortly before large purchases such as tuition payments, car down payments, wedding down payments, or holiday shopping can make it easy to earn points off of expenses you were going to incur anyway.
Keep Track of Bonus Categories
Many travel hacking credit cards include special categories for which they earn additional points for each dollar spent. For example, the World of Hyatt card earns 9 points per dollar on Hyatt stays, 2 points per dollar on local transit and commuting, restaurants, coffee shops, and gym memberships, and 1 point per dollar for everything else.
If you are juggling multiple credit cards, it is important to keep track of bonus categories for each card. Simply sticking a piece of masking tape on each card that says “use for groceries” or “use for misc” will help you to easily maximize the number of points you earn from everyday spending.
Justify Your Annual Fees
There will often be an annual fee associated with many of the travel hacking cards. Many people will use the annual fee as an automatic excuse to avoid signing up for a card, but it is important to objectively calculate whether or not the fee is justified.
For example, the IHG Rewards Club Premier credit card has an annual fee of $89. Along with other benefits such as automatic Platinum Elite status, this card comes with one free IHG hotel night every year. Given that most hotels cost more than $89 per night, this card’s annual fee is justified if you plan on spending at least one night in an IHG hotel each year.
When justifying your annual fees, it is also important to avoid double-counting redundant benefits. For example, both the IHG Rewards Club Premier credit card and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card come with a Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit of $100 every four years. If you can use these credits for multiple family members, great! If you are single and would not benefit from multiple TSA Precheck credits, then you should not include this benefit multiple times when justifying the annual fees of each card.
Keep in mind that travel hacking is a marathon, not a sprint. While it is tempting to sign up for all of the credit cards in a short period of time, it is important to pace yourself. Keep track of rules like Chase’s 5/24 rule, which limits how many credit cards you can sign up for in a given period of time.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of information available about travel hacking, along with all of the latest credit card offers and conditions. To keep all of the information organized, set up a free Feedly account and add some of your favorite bloggers to keep up with the latest information. Some suggestions include The Points Guy, Frequent Miler, and (of course) Geobreeze Travel.