There is a way to book flights and hotels all over the world without spending your own money. It’s called travel hacking, and it’s something that hardcore travelers around the world do with almost religious like fervor.
Travel hacking is the art of collecting as many airline and hotel points as possible in order to travel for free. This is done through the use of credit card sign-up bonuses, mileage promotions, online shopping, point transfers, and much more.
The ins and outs of travel hacking can fill a book; in fact, I wrote just such a book recently. A lot of travel hacking begins with credit cards because it’s an easy win – you receive a large sign-up bonus, as well more points for your everyday spending. Since the majority of Americans have at least one credit card they regularly use, it makes little sense to have one that doesn’t give you points, even if you don’t travel a lot. Let the points accrue for when you do want travel.
My view is that if you are going to spend the money anyway, there is no reason to not get something extra for your spending. Otherwise, you are leaving free money on the table. (Note: If you don’t pay off your balance in full each month, do not get one of these cards – the higher interest rates negate any positive affect they have towards free travel.)
A lot of people worry about the fees associated with these cards, as well as hurting their credit. While most good travel rewards card have yearly fees, it’s usually waived the first year you sign up. When that first year is up, you can either cancel the credit card or, in many situations, switch to a no-fee card. They will often waive the fee if you threaten to cancel.
(MORE: 9 Easy Ways to Save Money on Your Next Vacation)
Secondly, if you are opening up one or two new cards, the ding from the credit inquiry is very temporary. Within a few months, it disappears. Additionally, one of the major factors to your credit score is the debt/credit ratio, which having a new card increases. I have opened many cards (I currently have 17), and my credit score is currently 791. Use your credit to your advantage.
The payoff for all this work is the ability to travel for free – from family vacation to first-class international flights and suites in five-star hotels. To get you started, here are a few tips for ensuring that some portion of your next vacation is free.
Free Domestic Flights for the Family
Looking to take a family vacation? Travel hacking can help. For a family of four, there are a couple of easy ways to get enough points for flights within the U.S.:
• Get the British Airways Avios credit card. With a current sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles (up to 100,000 if you meet certain spending requirements), this is a great card. Avios is a distance-based reward system, meaning the further you fly, the more miles it takes to redeem. Luckily, round-trip US domestic tickets can be as little as 9,500 miles so you and your family can fly for free without much effort or risk.
• Get another airline credit card. All U.S. carriers have branded credit cards with bonuses of around 50,000 points. Most U.S. carriers charge 25,000 points for a domestic round-trip flight, so if you and your spouse each get a separate card, you should have enough miles for four round-trip tickets. To get the bonus, you’ll need to meet a minimum spending requirement (usually $1,000 in 90 days) so depending on your monthly spending, it may take a few months to get a free flight. Don’t spend extra money just to get the miles – only use your regular spending.
• Shop online through airline portals. Every airline has an online shopping portal that allows you to earn on average three to four miles per dollar spent. All you do is sign up with your frequent flier number, and go through the airline’s links to merchant. There are no added costs, and bonus miles post within 60 days. With Christmas coming up, this is a good way to earn triple (sometimes a lot more than that) points per dollar spent instead of the normal one.
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• Sign up for newsletters. Airline newsletters feature mileage deals and promotions so you can jump on those quick deals to supercharge your point balance.
• Get creative. Airlines offer all sorts of ways to get miles. Look up current deals and offers on an airline’s website. You can get extra miles for signing up for Netflix to renting cars and even opening a bank account. Get creative and you’ll get the miles you need.
Free First-Class International Flights
All the above can be used to jumpstart your mileage account, but to gain even more miles for a first-class flight, here are some other tips:
• Do mileage runs. While this is not free, many travel hackers book what are known as mileage runs – super cheap flights purchased mainly to accrue miles. You can find cheap fares on Flyertalk forums.
• Get a general rewards card. Chase and American Express’s membership programs allow you to move travel points to many airline partners. These programs allow you to stay flexible and transfer points to multiple airlines and hotel partners to maximize rewards. By getting a branded airline card and a non-branded airline card, you’ll be able to merge the two balances to get a free flight faster.
• Buy it on the cheap. Alaska Airlines lets you purchase 10,000 extra miles when booking a ticket for $190. Buy a refundable ticket, purchase the extra miles, and then refund your airline ticket. Since the extra miles are considered a separate transaction, they credit to your account even if you don’t take the flight. For $1,900, you can purchase a business or first-class ticket anywhere in the world. That’s not free, but still a steep discount off a normal ticket price.
Free Hotel Rooms
Hotel rooms are the easiest to get. All you need to do is sign up for a hotel card and you’ll have points that can be redeemed for freebies. Quick, simple, easy. For example, Hyatt’s credit card offers two free flights, and Hilton offers 50,000 points, enough for up to four free nights. Starwood offers 25,000 points for new cardholders, enough for up to six free nights!
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Additionally, if you have a Chase or American Express card, you can transfer points to one of their hotel partners too.
To stay up-to-date of the latest rewards and promotions, the following sites are the best:
I hack when I need to reduce or eliminate the cost of upcoming trips. Start with a goal, work towards it, and you’ll find that out-of-reach vacation to Paris suddenly is no longer out of reach. Neither is any other trip you ever want to take.
Matthew Kepnes runs the award-winning budget travel website Nomadic Matt and is the author of the recent book, The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking.