Travel Hacking – The 6 Best Strategies

Are you interested in saving money on your next vacation? The answer to saving money while enjoying travel is travel hacking.

What Is Travel Hacking?

Travel hacking is a fancy term that entails using existing systems to your advantage to get discounted and free airfare, hotels, car rentals, and more. 

Here are six steps to travel hacking that any beginner can use. 

Six Steps To Travel Hacking

These six steps are things anyone can do. You can get started on steps 1-4 today easily and then steps 5-6 are ongoing steps that you will use over and over again as you get more familiar with travel hacking.

Once you get these six steps down, you can start to look to maximize your points and miles, but for now, we’re focusing on the 80/20 principle and the basics to get started. You can worry about eeking out every possible dollar from travel hacking later down the road.

1.  Sign Up for Airline Rewards Programs

First things first, you need to sign up for an airline rewards program.

It’s best to pick one airline you can frequently fly from your home airport. Signing up is the easy part, but accumulating miles takes time. When you spread yourself across a few airlines, you also spread those miles across various airline programs (typically, you cannot combine miles from different airlines).

Accumulate Miles Fast

The largest airlines in North America are below, in case it helps narrow down your selection:

  • American Airlines
  • Delta Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • Air Canada
  • Alaska Airlines
  • JetBlue Airways
  • Spirit Airlines

Of course, you can also wait until you book your next flight before signing up. That way, you make sure you sign up for the airline you will use.

2. Sign Up for Hotel Rewards Programs

Similar to airline miles, hotel points are best when accumulated with one hotel brand. Try to sign up for one and stick with it where you can.

Luckily, most hotel loyalty programs are at the corporate level and cover a wide variety of hotel chains. For example, Marriott hotels encompass a few familiar hotel chains:

Marriott Hotel Brands

  • Marriott
  • JW Marriott
  • The Ritz Carlton
  • Sheraton
  • Westin
  • Courtyard
  • Fairfield
  • Aloft
  • And more

A big hotel chain like Marriott has close to every major city covered in the US. There are a few other large hotel companies that you can consider signing up for that will have similar coverage to Marriott:

Other Major Hotel Brands

Like airlines, you can always wait to sign up for a program when booking your next hotel. Sometimes, they offer deals for new members of their loyalty programs that you can take advantage of too.

3. Research Credit Cards

The most important (and most beneficial) step to travel hacking is researching credit cards.

Every credit card will have its advantages, but there is no doubt that some are better than others. Especially when you consider all of the perks that credit cards could offer, including:

  • Sign-up bonuses (usually bigger with premium credit cards)
  • Cashback or point rewards
  • Fraud protection
  • Purchase protection
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • TSA pre-check
  • Free checked bags when flying
  • And more

Rewards For Certain Spending Categories

One massive difference between credit cards lies within their cashback and points programs. While many will offer a standard 1% or 1.5% cash back (or point) reward, just as many other cards provide specific rewards for certain spending categories, like groceries or travel. This matters a lot for consumers like you!

If you spend a lot on groceries, you want a credit card with generous grocery rewards. Similarly, if you spend heavily on travel, you’ll want a card that rewards travel spending.

Do your research to understand which credit card offers you the best point rewards program and other perks. If you need help with the investigation, use this calculator to find the best credit card based on your past spending habits.

Pro tip: Open a credit card with the hotel or airline you signed up with above, and you could accelerate the rewards you would get.

4. Apply for a Credit Card

Once you’ve researched and selected what rewards card you’d like to get, it’s time to apply.

Before doing so, check your credit score to ensure your score is high enough to get approved for the card you selected. 

Once you have the first card, you should:

  • Spend enough money in the introductory period to get the sign-up bonus
  • Then, wait a few months (three to six months should do it)

Sign Up Bonuses

Usually, the sign-up bonus details will sound something like “spend $3,000 in the first three months to get 50,000 bonus points.”

While $3,000 is a ton of money, you want to do it because 50,000 points is a ton of points! Even if you don’t spend this much money naturally, there are ways to move up typical expenses to qualify for the bonus within the specified time. Some common strategies include:

  • Pre-paying for an annual gym membership (rather than monthly)
  • Buying a lot of shelf-stable groceries
  • Pre-paying for insurance (car, home, life, or other insurance)

The last thing you want to do is go on a shopping spree to get the bonus! It’s better to cover it with ordinary expenses.

5. Use Your Points and Reward Programs

Once you’ve gotten your credit card bonus and accumulated some points over the first three to six months, consider using your points and rewards!

It depends on how big of a trip you want to plan.

A sign-up bonus can likely cover a couple of domestic round-trip tickets, but if you want to cover an entire vacation, you might need to wait 6+ months to earn enough credit card points.

Example: 5-Day Trip from Chicago to Arizona

For example, I took a 5-day trip to Arizona (from Chicago) and covered my flights and hotel with 74,534 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points. That’s a little more than Chase’s typical 50,000-60,000 point sign-up bonus with its Sapphire cards.

The other factor is that you likely have not accumulated any hotel points or miles. Steps 1 and 2 above got you started, but you need to take a trip for that to happen.

So, it’s up to you if you want to book a shorter trip immediately, or wait a few months to accumulate more points and book a more extensive trip

6. Get a New Credit Card Every 6 Months

To continue travel hacking, you should get a new credit card about every six months. This is not the exact number of months you need to follow, but it’s a reasonable guideline.

There are a few details within step six that are important for beginners to get right.

Get New Sign-Up Bonuses

Earning everyday credit card points is excellent, but they come at a much slower pace than sign-up bonuses. Sticking with our example above, you could earn 50,000 points when you spend $3,000 with a sign-up bonus. That’s over 16 points per dollar spent!

With ongoing rewards, you’ll likely earn points at a 2% cashback rate (at best). This is just an average, but it would only equate to 2 points per dollar spent. Getting a sign-up bonus provides an 8x better reward than your typical, ongoing credit card rewards. This is why many “expert travel hackers” are continuously opening new credit cards.

Don’t Hurt Your Credit Score

The vital balance to strike with opening credit cards is not to damage your credit score. Opening a new credit card will result in a hard credit check on your credit score, sending your score in a negative direction.

That said, with responsible use of credit, your score should bounce back to normal within a few months. The hard credit check only results in a short-term negative impact. Waiting approximately six between opening cards give your score time to rebound and not take too much damage. Plus, it allows you to make sure you can get the sign-up bonus with every card that you open.

Don’t Pay an Annual Fee Twice

Lastly, when opening credit cards with annual fees, it’s usually worth putting a calendar reminder on your phone (or wherever you put calendar reminders) for 330 days later (just under a year) to close out the card.

Likely, by this time, you would have attained and used the sign-up bonus, and closing the card before a year means you won’t have to pay the annual fee again.

Know How Closing a Card Impacts Your Credit Score

Closing cards can affect your credit score in two ways:

  • It will lower your credit limit and increase your credit utilization
  • It will change your length of credit history if it’s your first card

The first is hard to avoid. By closing this card, you’ll want to ensure your credit utilization does not spike too high.

The second is avoidable by having the first card you ever open be a card with no annual fee. This way, you never have to worry about closing it, and you will be able to keep your length of credit history intact.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.


Kevin runs the personal finance website Just Start Investing, where he focuses on making investing easy. Just Start Investing has been featured on Business Insider, Forbes, and US News & World Report, among other major publications for his easy-to-follow writing. Check out Just Start Investing to learn the simple strategies to start investing today, as well as ways to optimize your credit cards, banking, and budget.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button