Travel hacking has become a widely embraced practice by people looking to buck conformity. Given my own passion for traveling the world, embracing strategies to see more of it at cheaper rate made a whole lot of sense. After watching a CreativeLive Course featuring a travel hacking pioneer, Chris Guillebeau, I went full steam ahead with this new way of life. Now, I’m sharing my experience getting my system setup with you to do the same!
In its essence, travel hacking is about maximizing the amount of miles or points that can be earned to travel more for less cost (ideally free!). Beyond simply earning miles from flying on airlines, there are numerous ways to earn travel rewards. The most important by far is leveraging credit cards. In addition, you can earn a ton of points by shopping, dining, filling out surveys, and much more.
Whether you’ve been consciously earning points to travel more for free or are just getting started, it’s my hope that the following 10 step process that I used will be a catalyst to take your efforts to the next level. Here goes…
1. Set goals that motivate you to pursue travel hacking
Like any endeavor, beginning with the end in mind is always an effective strategy. Setting some SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely) goals is a great idea when getting into travel hacking. Think about why it makes sense for you to invest significant time into developing a system to earn a tremendous amount of miles. Where are you going to go with all these earnings? How long is it going to take you to get there? Who are you going to go with? Most importantly, how many points do you need to make your dream a reality? These are all important questions to ask when setting out on your travel hacking journey.
2. Sign up for airline reward programs in each alliance
You can’t play the game if you aren’t on a team. There are basically three teams or alliances when it comes to the airlines. Alliances are basically cooperatives with many airlines from around the world that allow rewards to be used across carriers in partnership with each other. So with aspirations to travel the world, you’ll need to sign up for a rewards program with an airline in each of the alliances (i.e. you have to join all the teams!). Here are some obvious suggestions:
Once you’ve got a member number from each of these programs, you’ll then be able to link up your mile earning credit cards and other sources to funnel them into a some primary accounts.
3. Sign up for more of the right kind of credit cards and stop using cash
Before jumping into travel hacking, I only had two credit cards (really only using one of them). It wasn’t apparent to me until doing some research that there is a totally logical reason for having multiple cards and/or obtaining new cards on a regular basis. The simple rationale is that sign up bonuses are usually the biggest source of points and different cards give point bonuses for different spending categories.
My suggestion, as I did, would be to apply for a few new credit cards right away which provide significant airline rewards either at signup or for spending in specific categories (e.g. dining). Besides the rewards, keep in mind the basic terms of a credit card: Credit Limit, Interest Rate, and Annual Fee. The first two are negotiable in time so look to increase and decrease them respectively as soon as you can. Depending upon your credit history, this will take take longer.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- American Express Gold Card
- United MileagePlus
- American AAdvantage
- Delta SkyMiles
After three months of getting my travel hacking system setup, I now have ten credit cards and my credit limit has risen nearly $65,000. My score did drop slightly (roughly 20-30 points) due primarily to the number of inquiries on my report and the amount of new accounts setup in such a short period of time. It actually got to the point where I started getting turned down for cards.
Learning how to manage this credit responsibly is super important. As much as possible, you should try and pay off your credit cards in full each month. There are times however, like when bootstrapping a new business, where it makes sense to keep a balance until it can be paid off. This is a little out of scope of this post but should be considered.
In cooperation with the initiative to earn points, I highly recommend signing up for a credit monitoring program like FreeCreditReport.com that gives you good insight into how your situation changes over time.
Just to note, my strong suggestion is to stop paying with cash as much as possible! The two reasons being 1) you don’t earn points with cash and 2) you can’t track spending easily with sites like Mint.
4. Sign up for dining programs and eat at participating restaurants
Earning points when eating out is a great way to get more for your money on things you are already doing. Once registered with a rewards program like MileagePlus, you can sign up for a dining program and then link your credit card to provide multiple points per dollar spent at participating restaurants.
- MileagePlus Dining: Register to earn points for United and other Star Alliance airlines
- AAdvantage Dining: Register to earn points for American and other OneWorld airlines
5. Sign up for shopping programs and earn points when making big purchases
Shopping programs are another great opportunity to earn extra points. Whenever making “big” purchases (e.g. electronics, home supplies, clothing, etc.) always check to see if you can earn multiple points per dollar with an eligible credit card. My shopping program of choice is the following:
- MileagePlus Shopping: Register to earn points for United and other Star Alliance airlines
6. Sign up for survey programs and spend a free moment earning some extra points
Travel points are often used as an incentive to collect marketing information via surveys. By spending a few minutes filling out a survey, you can earn a few points here and there that can add up. There are a few options out there but I prefer to stick with the MileagePlus points system given their well organized activities and programs.
- Opinion Miles Club: Register to earn points for United and other Star Alliance airlines
7. Sign up for hotel programs and address the other big ticket item during your travels
Much of efforts involved in travel hacking are directed towards earning airline miles. However, it’s just as important to earn points that can be used for discounted or free stays at hotels around the world. Depending on your preference, most hotelier conglomerates have an awards program that can be rather lucrative when played right. Here are some of my top suggestions:
- Marriott: Earn Marriott Rewards by staying at their hotels or spending on their credit card which comes with an attractive sign up bonus
- Starwood: Earn Starpoints by staying at their hotels or spending on their credit card which comes with an attractive sign up bonus
8. Find creative ways to earn more points faster
There are a number of advanced strategies that can be creatively thought up or discovered that can earn you a lot of points in a short amount of time. By singing up for services like Travel Hacking Cartel, you can get notified of the latest promotions that can earn you points for all sorts of things.
My favorite creative way to earn points thus far has been to purchase prepaid debit cards specifically the Vanilla Prepaid Reload (VPR) Cards with credit cards at CVS that can be used to pay for rent and car payments. Prior to working out this system, I was spending $3,200 per month on these two expenses in cash (i.e. not earning any points). Now I’m able to earn more than 38,000 additional miles per year despite it taking a little time to find stores that have VPRs in stock each month. Here’s the breakdown of the system:
- Sign up for an American Express BlueBird Account – a checking and debit alternative – that can upload VPR credit
- Select the credit card(s) that you want to use for rent, car, or other traditionally cash payments (besides earning points, this strategy is a great way to meet minimum spend requirements too)
- Find stores in your area that have VPRs in stock and purchase them with the selected credit card (the only store that I’ve found to have them in stock is CVS despite their website listing others)
- Scratch off the pin on the back of purchased VPRs with up to $500 each added at the store and visit the VPR website to upload credit to your BlueBird account (you’ll need your debit card with 16 digit number).
- Each day, upload $1000 worth of VPR credit to your BlueBird account (max allowed) until all credit has been uploaded
- Get pre-approved to write a BlueBird check for a certain amount online and write code on check (can take up to a day) or simply transfer money or withdrawal cash from an ATM locally that’s qualified
Each VPR costs $3.95 no matter how much is added up to $500. As a rule of thumb in travel hacking, miles should not cost more than $0.01 each. In this case, if $3.95 is spent for 500 points that would mean $0.008 each which passes the test.
If you have other creative strategies to earn points that you recommend, be sure to let me and others know in the comments section!
9. Develop an organized system for tracking your credit and rewards activity
Organization is crucial in pursuing travel hacking given the amount of data that is involved. I’ve put a workbook together in Excel that keeps track of all my credit card information and well as points earned over time. As a reader of the blog, I’m offering a free download of my own travel hacking custom tracker when you subscribe here:
Other things that I’ve done to stay organized are recording all login details in 1password, connecting all cards to Mint, and setting up automatic bill pay after linking my checking account to the various credit card websites.
10. Continue your education and connect with other travel hacking masters
There are some very knowledgable people sharing their travel hacking expertise online. Start connecting with the well-known travel blog sites and thought leaders to get more insight into how to take this start up guide to the next level. Here’s a few resources to start checking out:
Results of my first three months of travel hacking
I’ve had some significant expenses during this past quarter (e.g. business startup costs) which have resulted in a good deal of points simply from spending. Despite this, following the setup process above, I’ve earned over 300K points across airlines and hotels! This will enable my family and I to travel extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad over the coming year.
Let the travel hacking continue!