Travel hacking is cool.
It can also be complicated… if you let it be.
I was going to try to write a guide to travel hacking but I realized why do it myself when I can ask a pro? (especially since I'm not a pro!)
The first person that came to mind was my friend Lee. He runs BaldThoughts.com and I wistfully wonder how much fun it'd be to travel everywhere for free, stay in luxurious resorts, and pay for things with points even when it doesn't make sense because you have too many freaking points.
If you wonder too and don't feel like tracking loyalty programs with a spreadsheet, get ready because Lee is going to give you the 20% of action that yield 80% of results.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret.
I travel the world being spoiled in the air and staying at top-notch resorts while everyone else is cramped in the back of the plane.
And all I pay are some taxes and fees that are a fraction of what you're paying for your Economy seat and your reservation at Motel 6.
In December, my wife and I traveled in Business Class from California to Rome and stayed at high-end resorts like the Waldorf Astoria in Rome and Park Hyatt in Milan.
If you were to pay cash for our week-long trip, it would've been over $12,000. Instead, we paid less than a grand. All thanks to airline miles and hotel points!
When you're first starting out with travel rewards, reaching this level will take some time. I go a little crazy with credit cards and points-earning strategies that not everyone else is going to do.
What I want you to focus on, instead, is using miles and points to help save some money on your next trip. Get used to the concepts and approach, then decide whether you want to continue dipping your toe into the pool… or dive into the deep end.
6 Steps to Travel Hack the Easy Way
When people talk about travel hacking, the idea of traveling for free sounds pretty amazing, right?
But once they get into the details, it can sound like more trouble than it is worth.
Like most things in life, you do things the easy way or the hard way. And if you’re a fan of this blog, the easy way is definitely the right way.
Here are 6 easy ways to earn enough airline miles and hotel points to save a bunch of money on your next vacation:
Earn rewards with every purchase
One of the fastest ways to earn a ton of miles and points is to get a new credit card and earn the bonus. Usually, you’ll need to spend a couple thousand dollars within 3 months to do so. If you time larger bills, like car and home insurance, tuition, or major home repairs, with your application, you’ll hit the minimum spend in a hurry.
Some of the richest rewards are from these travel cards:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. (or if you are truly baller, consider the Chase Sapphire Reserve)
- Chase Ink Business Preferred: Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
- Chase Freedom: $150 bonus afte ryou spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months
- Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express: compare this card with others
- Capital One(R) VentureOne(R) Rewards Credit Card: compare this card with others
- See our list of best credit card bonus promotions
If you're going to use rewards credit cards, always pay your balances off in full each month. No rewards are worth the 10-30% interest that most credit cards will charge you!
Register for Dining Rewards
Whether you eat out every day or once a month, if you're not earning miles and points for your meals, you're missing out on a great opportunity to fund your next vacation. And best of all, once it is set up you don't have to worry about it ever again.
I generally don't pick restaurants based on their participation in this program. Instead, I like being surprised when I receive an email notifying me that I just earned some extra miles. If you're willing to plan your meals or try new restaurants based on their participation in the program, you can earn a ton of miles. Pick a program from the 7 major airlines that participate and look out for promotions to supersize the rewards.
Automate Your Bills
Once you're approved for a credit card that earns rewards, use the card for everyday purchases and automate your bills to be charged to your card instead of writing a check or using a debit card. The points add up in a hurry!
And I like not having to worry whether or not I paid a bill so I can focus on the fun things in life.
To protect your credit and avoid fees, sign up for automatic payment of the minimum amount due. I always pay the balances off in full each month, but life sometimes gets in the way. Having that automatic payment has saved me from late fees a couple times while I was traveling or heavily focused on projects at work.
Concentrate Your Loyalty
The idea here is to pick a favorite brand and stick with it. You'll earn rewards faster and benefit from perks along the way. And if you picked their co-branded credit card, you often start out at a higher loyalty level and earn even more points on your stays.
Frugality can be cool, but it can get in the way of maximizing rewards. When searching for hotels, don't always go for the lowest price option. Many times, if you pick a hotel that costs a few dollars more, but is part of your favorite brand, you'll come out ahead thanks to perks like early check-in, late check-out, free breakfast, upgrades, and nice welcome amenities.
Sign Up For Promotions
Emails clutter your inbox. It's a fact of life. However, make sure that you opt-in to promotional emails from your favorite hotel and airline brands. You'll be among the first to learn of promotions and they often have deals that are reserved only for members.
I just earned two free nights at Marriott thanks to their MegaBonus promotion that I stacked with a new account bonus for my wife. Those two nights will cover a future vacation for our family.
Double Dip With Your Spouse
If you're married, have a significant other, or a friend that you like to travel with, you can supersize your travel rewards by having them participate and double-dipping on these steps. Some credit cards offer free nights as a sign-up bonus or annually upon renewal. If both of you have these cards, you can book the free nights consecutively to cover a longer vacation. How cool is that?
Advanced Strategies That Take Time
Ok, so we just talked about some simple steps that don't take much time but put you on a path towards a free (or heavily discounted) vacation.
If you're willing to invest a little (or a lot) more time, here are some advanced strategies if you are willing to dedicate extra effort.
Keep in mind that some strategies also come with risks.
Down the Rabbit Hole of Research
There are a lot of strategies and tactics out there and many are shared in these private groups. If they were made public, they could be shut down. You have to join the community, be engaged, and then invited to join these private groups.
Be warned… these are time sucks. You will blink and realize that hours and hours have passed as you move from thread to thread and get engaged in deep conversations and marvel at how ingenious some of the hacks are. (is that so bad?)
Manufactured spend is the process of using your rewards credit card to buy gift cards for the express purpose of turning them into money orders, which then get deposited into your bank in order to pay off the credit card.
Some people think this is illegal or some type of money laundering, but it is not. However, banks and credit card companies do not like this activity and could close your accounts. This is primarily due to concerns about terrorism, theft, and gangs, so tread very lightly in this arena.
One way to “manufacture spend” but not really manufacture it is to pay your mortgage or rent with a credit card. A service like Plastiq will charge your card and send a check to the recipient, like your landlord. You pay a fee, a few percent to cover the merchant fees associated with a credit card, but if you need it to reach a statue tier or other bonus, it could be worth it.
Finally, another common method of manufacturing spend is by chasing bank promotions, some of which allow you to make an opening deposit with a credit card!
Gift Card Reselling
One of the more popular activities recently is gift card reselling. The key is to buy gift cards during sales and promotions (like 15% off iTunes gift cards from Staples or your grocery store) and then selling them to certain sites at a discount to face value. Most often, you will make a small profit or break even on the sale with the credit card rewards as your payday for your effort.
Reselling Concert and Games Tickets
When you have certain cards from American Express, Citibank, and others, you often have pre-sale access to tickets using their special code. If you're willing to float the money, you can buy the tickets during the pre-sale then list them on ticket reselling websites for a profit. I recently did this with tickets to Hamilton in Los Angeles to earn over 4000 points on the purchase and about $150 in profit on the sale.
The Bald Thoughts
These 6 steps to travel hacking the easy way are designed for people who want to travel but just don't have the time to dedicate to a “second job.” You can do all 6 of these steps in less than 30 minutes and then never worry about them again. Or this could be the beginning of a new passion for you. I know that travel hacking has opened up a whole new world of travel for me and my family.
Which will it be Neo? The red pill or the blue pill? Come join me. 🙂
If you liked this post and want to learn more, get my free email course from Bald Thoughts.