Traveling Frugally: Travel Hacking

The best definition I’ve found of travel hacking comes from a post I found on Mom and Dad Money:

Travel hacking is essentially the process of signing up for a new credit card, spending enough to earn the sign-up bonus, using the points you earn to book free travel, and basically repeating that process over and over again.

Using credit cards benefits to earn free flights, free hotel stays, and other travel benefits is a popular way to save big on travel expenses. Travel hacking has been around for a while, but these days it typically involves using multiple cards at the same time to reap the most benefits. Most major airlines offer big rewards when you sign up for one of their credit cards and reach a certain spending goal during a specific period (usually within three months of signing up). Bank cards also offer similar big travel rewards: every iteration of the Chase Sapphire card, Capital One’s Venture, and American Express Gold Card, among others, all offer substantial travel rewards after signing up and charging a certain amount within a set period of time. Hotel chain credit cards rewards include free stays, discounts, and other perks for signing up and charging a pre-set amount within time limits.

These deals are especially easy to acquire when signing up for the first time. We know of people who set out on their travels with over 500,000 airline miles banked, all acquired from sign-up bonuses they received. Of course, they had to spend quite a bit to get those bonuses, and they also risked damaging their credit score because of all the new card sign-ups (multiple hard credit inquiries in a short period of time, and greater credit risk because of multiple credit lines). If they use the cards responsibly though, neither of those should be a problem. Experienced travel hackers however recommend signing up for different cards over a long period of time versus all at once or within a few months.

There is no “perfect” travel card – each one offers something different and the goal in getting started should be to find ones that work best to achieve whatever travel goals have been set. There are some important things to look for though when applying for a travel card:

  • No fee or low annual fee
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • A large (i.e. huge) initial bonus
  • Low required spending minimum
  • Special perks for travel-related items
  • Added points for special spending categories (i.e. groceries, gas, restaurants)
  • The bonus is something that can actually be attained.

Travel hacking is a great way to acquire some significant travel benefits but only if you already use credit cards responsibly and pay off your balances every month. If you don’t, they’re an easy way to quickly descend deeply into debt. Tracking all open cards and their accompanying expiration dates and spending limits also requires real effort, although a newer app, Award Wallet, helps track all awards in one place, including deadlines, and notifies the user when deadlines are approaching.

Besides free travel benefits, the big pro of travel hacking is that it’s easy to get started and find good deals; lots of points to cover flights and other travel costs can be acquired quickly.

A big reason against travel hacking however is that after acquiring the good upfront deals, finding new ones gets harder and harder. Points earned can become more difficult to use and the money spent to acquire all the upfront points may be more than expected or afforded. If too many sign-ups are done too quickly, one’s credit rating can be damaged, and credit card companies have been known to cancel accounts for those using too many cards of the same brand.

Our primary credit card when we travel is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. We took advantage of its sign-up bonus years ago, but we still use it to rack up generous reward points (which we usually redeem for a cash deposit to our bank account). It also provides some serious benefits that match those that come with travel insurance (car rental insurance, missed or cancelled flights, lost luggage, and a few others). Every month since we’ve been back on Kaua’i we’ve received a sign up offer for the Delta American Express card, with a bonus of 75,000 miles if we spend $2000 within three months after receiving the card. Delta is our preferred airline but we haven’t bitten. All Delta flights only go to and from the U.S.; we can’t use them to fly between international destinations. Also, we’ve had American Express cards in the past, but rarely used them, and honestly don’t think we need another card to track while we travel. Still, we think from time to time that it would be nice to have those miles banked if we need them.

8 thoughts on “Traveling Frugally: Travel Hacking

  1. I have four travel cards that I’ve acquired over the years that are really helpful. I got them over a span of nearly ten years, so they didn’t affect my credit score at all. First was an American Airlines MC, since my husband I and flew to Fiji many years in a row, and Fiji Air is a partner. Next I got a Capitol One Visa for work, and continue to use those points now even being retired! Then a few years back, around when we met, I applied for an Alaska Airlines Visa when they had an onboard promotion. I get a companion ticket every year with that as well. And just this past year, I finally bit on the Delta Amex! It was offered when I checked in online, and I saved my baggage fees as well. I had a $1500 tax bill to pay, so I was easily able to rack up the $2K needed to get those 70K points. I’ve used them to book two trips!

    One of the things I do is track the closing dates on each account. I then use that card the week after it has closed, so I’m getting a few more weeks out of using “their” money until I pay the bill. And then I pay them off in full every month.

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    1. The Delta offer is very tempting – if we were going to do more traveling around the U.S. we would go for it. We are currently looking at one of the Capital One cards – they have some good offers right now, but so far we have been satisfied with the Chase card.

      You should check out Award Wallet – supposedly it’s great for reminding you when you need to pay, buy, etc. so you don’t lose out on any awards.

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  2. Our primary card is a Costco visa. No fees, and we earn a lot of cash back ($2k this year). The amount you earn varies by your purchases. We also like booking via Costco travel, which earns you additional cash back.

    We have a secondary card (an Alaska Air) credit card, which is our secondary card & rarely used. However, we’ve kept it for the companion fare & a few small perks (discounts on food/drinks made while on board.) Alaska is our primary airline, so that works well, but we prefer the cash back from Costco.

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    1. That is a LOT of cash back from Costco! We do well with them, but don’t shop as much there now as we did in the past when the girls were all at home. We do use Costco travel for car rentals and hotels – those expenses go toward our annual membership reward.

      When we lived here before we had a Hawaiian card. There was a GREAT bonus, and both Brett and I got it although I had to go through the Consumer Protection Agency because the bank tried to claim that I hadn’t fulfilled the purchase requirement. I had all the receipts, the contract, etc. and they eventually awarded me the miles but were very snippy about it so when we left last time I cancelled the card! We also have a mileage card through our credit union that has great rewards, and between it and our Chase card we feel like we’re covered. We’re really not interested in owning a lot of cards at this point in our lives, but the rewards are very tempting.

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  3. Delta flies to Europe and I have flown Delta from Israel to the USA. Also, it is a good idea to have credit cards from two separate entities when traveling. One card can be hacked, or blocked for what the bank decides is suspicious activity, or swallowed by a cash machine, then you need the spare.

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    1. I completely agree about having more than one card and the reasons you give! When we arrived in Hong Kong, Brett was exhausted and allowed his debit card to be swallowed by the machine – yikes! I had my card but we hated traveling with just one card (he got a new one right after we arrived in Japan)

      All Delta flights have to originate or be going to the U.S. We don’t have any plans to return to the U.S. for at least a couple of years and can’t use the miles to travel in between international destinations.

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  4. We were on a flight and they were offering a card with rewards. It was very tempting to apply but we decided not too. My co-worker love playing the rewards game and does a really good job racking up the points.

    Also, I finally got around to buying the orange oil to make the carrot salad. It was so good! As my husband said, “None of these ingredients should go together but they do and it’s delicious!”

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    1. I’m so glad you like the carrot salad. I had wanted to make it when the girls were here, but there were so many requests for other things I never could fit it in! I have found a few drops of the orange oil to be a great addition to other recipes; I though it would end up sitting on the shelf but it gets used quite a bit!

      We just don’t feel at this stage of our lives that we need more credit cards to manage so we mostly pass.

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