Travel Hacking Primer

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Points paid for our hotel in Thailand and my parents, too.

One question that is often asked is, “How do you afford to travel so much?” Travel has always been a budgeted part of our monthly expenses, however, lately we have also been using “travel hacking” strategies to get more for our dollars. Travel hacking is using credit card rewards (miles, points, benefits) to reduce the overall costs of traveling. Doing so smartly can even make travel free. New to travel hacking? Here is what you need to know.

To be clear, when I say reduce costs, I mean it. Free airport food, reimbursed TSA pre-check, free flights, free flight upgrades, free hotel upgrades, free hotel stays…the list goes on. Coming up we have 13 nights in Sri Lanka and the Maldives plus flights for 4 totally covered with benefits and points. Sound good? Read on to find out how to make your cards work for you, too.

Step 1, make a plan.

Budget 

  • As I mentioned, travel is part of our monthly budget. Even if we don’t take a trip that month, we are still setting aside money for an upcoming trip. We never go into debt to travel.
  • When planning to use credit cards to get points, don’t be tempted to spend more because you get points. This defeats the purpose of using travel hacking to stretch your existing dollars. Buy what you normally would, and pay the card off monthly.

Understand Travel Hacking Basics

  • With this system, you sign up for a card, use it until your reach the spending minimum for the bonus, and then move to the next card (applying shortly before the bonus would be met to have the next card in hand in time, but not so early that you are tight on the bonus schedule).
  • When travel hacking, your credit does not take a large hit. As long as your bills are paid on time, the effect on your overall credit score is minimal. In the last two years using this strategy, our personal credit score has actually increased by 5 points going through around 15 cards. 
  • When deciding on which card to begin with keep in mind the rules that companies have regarding frequent card changes. 
    • Chase has a 5/24 rule- if you have signed up for more than 5 cards from any issuer in the last 24 months, Chase will restrict you from their top cards/bonuses. You can maximize your bonuses even with this rule by utilizing business cards if you have a small business (rental property, consulting, direct sales, online boutique, ebay, etc) as most major issuers Amex, BoA, Barclays, Chase, Citi don’t count business cards into this formula (they don’t show up in your personal credit report). Some business cards do not fit this, so be sure to double check. 
    • Amex has a 1 bonus per lifetime rule- each individual can only get a bonus for a specific product (ex Amex Platinum) one time. You can, however, get the bonus on different AmEx cards (both AmEx Hilton Aspire and Amex Hilton Ascend).
  • Active duty military? Thanks to the Service Members Civil Relief Act and the Military Lending Act, banks/cards can waive certain fees, such as annual fees. Amex and Chase particularly. This is helpful to know when choosing which cards to apply for.
  • Each spouse should get their own card in turn. Spouse 1 gets card A, spends to get the bonus. Spouse 2 gets cards A, spends to get the bonus. This is different than spouse 2 being added as an authorized user on the first account, as it allows both spouses to earn the lucrative bonuses. Additionally, Spouse 1 should send their referral link to spouse 2 when signing up for an additional bonus. We learned this the hard way, adding me as an authorized user to a card we applied for early on thinking it would make it easier to hit the minimum spend if we both had a card. However, we lost out on thousands of points! Now we put the card as the saved card in frequently used online sites and then pass the physical card back and forth when we need to shop/spend locally. 
  • Current accounts with no annual fee can remain open as you do this as length of credit is a determining factor in a healthy credit score. However, if the card has an annual fee, strongly consider whether the benefits are worth keeping when the card is up for annual fee renewal. 

Got all that? Get ready to pick your cards….

Creating a personal plan

  • Consider personal goals and compare cards. There are hundreds of sites with card comparisons and bonus explanations. It’s worth it to see what’s out there!
    • Annual Fees aren’t always a bad thing. Do some basic cost/benefit analysis. Do the benefits outweigh the annual fee? The no annual fee military benefit shines here!
    • What type of travel will you be doing? Domestic US? Southwest might be good. Travel frequently for business? Maybe a hotel card. 
  • What are the current offers on the card you are considering? Some cards change their bonus offers frequently, the Ritz card sometimes offers 3 free nights and other times, 2 free nights. See if you can find a short history of the card and determine what bonuses have been offered. You may also have success by calling the card company and asking them if you have any incentive offers. 
  • Generally good cards to begin with: Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve (an individual can only hold one of these at a time, 24 months between). We started with Chase and exhausted our options there (due to the 5/24 rule) and then moved onto AmEx. 
  • It helps to establish a plan a few cards out to work toward a goal. We keep a spreadsheet to map out our strategy.

Ready for action? Let’s do it! See part 2 here. 

Questions? Let me know below!

Signing up for an American Express card? Please consider using my referral link. We both get a nice bonus if you do!

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This JW Marriott hotel stay (plus breakfast, afternoon snack and drinks, and an upgrade)? Free.

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