A tenant of this blog is the desire for everyone to have a little more freedom, and be free to do more of the things that they enjoy. For most, this would include traveling, whether it’s a weekend trip to cool spot within your state, or across the ocean flight and two week journey through a new country.
And with all the many options of where to go, you also have many options for paying for it. Got money to blow on a trip? Cheapskate who wants to sleep on the side of the road? Many trip options start with a budget, and then hotels are picked, flights are booked, but one thing is constant: nearly everyone chooses to pay for their vacations with their own hard earned money. What if you had the option to travel for free? Guess what, you do! It’s called travel hacking.
“Travel hacking” or “credit card hacking” refers to applying for a credit card and redeeming the lucrative sign on bonuses that major credit card company’s offer. For example, the famous Chase Sapphire Reserve card recently had a promotion: spend $4,000 in 3 months, and you receive $1,000 in cash. Best part about this offer? If you use the $1,000 towards travel through the Chase website, your $1,000 is now worth $1,500!
Are there any catches?
Be aware that if your credit score isn’t good, you may not be eligible for every card out there (and the best deals require higher scores typically). Take note: travel hacking can get complicated quickly; my hope is that this post serves as a guide for beginners. There are many, many individuals who apply for dozens of cards each year, and make tens of thousands of dollars a year doing this. This article will not go into this, but there are plenty of other resources available in this regard. As the complexity (number of cards applied to at one time) increase, the spending requirements go up, which can easily result in thousands of dollars wasted in unnecessary spending.
How does it actually work though? Essentially, each card has a spending requirement you must reach, and once you reach this number, you receive a bonus in the form of that specific company’s “points”. Points are where people typically get confused, but think of a point as a penny, typically 100 points = $1 (give or take). Some cards, like specific airline cards, have miles (instead of points) that are still worth money, but can be used to redeem flights. Points and miles can also be transferred to partnering companies (card specific).
Confused? Southwest provides possibly the easiest and most readily available example. Go and try to book a flight with Southwest, and it gives two options: dollars and points. If you click on the “points” button, you can see the cost of the same flight in terms of points. These points are the same that you would receive if you had a Southwest account and applied for, say the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards card (see example below). NOTE: points can transfer, but in general one airline’s points/miles are NOT redeemable for a different airline.
How do I do this?
Every great trip has some sort of plan. Think about the next year, and how much time you have to travel and where you want to go. Now, how much do you think this is going to cost?
Next, lookup the best signup bonus offer cards out there. Some cards I recommend checking out:
Chase Sapphire Reserve (Spend $4,000 in 3mo, receive $500 or $750 when used for travel)
Chase Sapphire Preferred (Spend $4,000 in 3mo, receive $500 or $625 when used for travel)
Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards (Send $2,000 in 3mo, receive ~$500 worth of Southwest points)
*Chase at the time of this post has one of the best and most flexible offerings when it comes to their Ultimate Rewards points, not only being worth cash but can transfer to a variety of partners.
Once you find a few cards with good signup bonuses that you can meet its spending requirements, apply! My personal advice is to find 2-3 cards per year that offer great sign-up bonuses and every 3-4 months apply to one. I believe anyone can manage this approach, and benefit tremendously from the rewards. There are many different card options out there, so be sure to find one with a spending requirement you will be able to reach.
- January- Apply for the Sapphire Reserve card, and spend $4,000 over the next 3 months
- March- Receive $750 in travel from spending
- April- Apply for the Sapphire Preferred card, and spend $4,000 over the next 3 months
- June- Receive $625 in travel from spending (running total: $1,375)**
- July- Apply for Southwest Rapid Rewards, and spend $2,000 over the next 3 months
- September- Receive 50,000 points towards SWA
Use the Southwest points to book flights for your trip directly with Southwest, and then use the points from the Reserve and Preferred cards for hotels, car rentals, etc. For roughly 30 minutes of work, the above plan would net you approximately $1,875 in travel that you earned for free.
Still not sure if this is for you? Start with one card, and see how it works. As you get your feet wet, you can learn more about the process and get paid to do it through rewards. Taking it one card at a time can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed, and also limits any commitment to a long term plan. Questions? Post a comment below!
- Never spend more on your credit card than you can afford to pay off immediately, as credit card interest rates will cost you and you shouldn’t take on new debt to reach these goals
- Watch out for any associated fees (for example, the Sapphire Reserve has a $450 annual fee, which can be offset by various benefits such as a $300/yr travel credit). In general, it is recommended not to hold cards with fees once you receive the points- just don’t cancel the account before you redeem or you’ll lose any points you’ve accrued (if you have multiple cards with one company, you can keep one and keep any points you have)
- Plan ahead: Bonuses take time to post, make sure to apply well in advance to guarantee you will have the points to spend if you’re planning for a specific trip
- Know the Chase rule: If you’ve applied for more than 5 cards in the past 2 years, Chase will automatically deny your application
- Check your credit scores: Apply for cards that you are eligible for based on your credit
- Wait to reapply for the same card: Typically you can reapply for the same card and receive the bonus again after waiting a period of time (typically 2-3 years).
- Points may not transfer: Each company has different policies, so use cards that will give you points with companies you use. This is why Chase is a high recommendation: their Ultimate Rewards points offer great flexibility.
**If you keep the Reserve card, its 50% bonus will increase this by another $125