How many times have you walked past business class seats on an airplane and thought, “If only…”. This was me for years as I walked back to my cramped seat in economy class. I bet you thought those seats were only for the rich or people whose companies paid for them. Now I know better because I fly all the time in business class and pay only taxes and fees. Many of those seats are taken by people who know how to travel hack!
What in the world is travel hacking you say? Well, let’s give you a short introduction to the world of travel hacking and then help you learn how to travel hack your way to a great location – like Vietnam. Go enjoy some of the great beaches in Vietnam, plus the amazing food!
What is Travel Hacking
Travel Hacking is a way to pay very little for travel. The idea behind it is to apply for a credit card that offers bonus points, if you spend so many dollars with it, in a certain amount of time. For example, they might offer 60,000 reward or bonus points if you spend $3000 on the card in three months. That $3000 is called the minimum spend and is essentially your part of the bargain you entered into to get points. Once you complete that spending, the credit card company transfers those bonus miles into your account. Depending on what type of card you apply for, you may use those points for airline tickets or hotel stays. The key ingredient to travel hacking is to do it over and over again with different credit cards so that you always have a stockpile of points to use for your travel needs.
Pick a Credit Card
The first step is to pick out what credit card you want to apply for. The main types are Airline Branded Credit Cards, Hotel Branded Credit Cards and Transferable Point Credit Cards (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or an American Express Credit Card). With the transferable point credit cards you can use them to transfer points for certain airline or hotel partners. We always say the best first credit card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card because it offers Ultimate Rewards and is an easy transfer partner.
However, you may want an airline card from your favorite airline or a hotel card from your favorite hotel. Pick the card that works best for you. We also offer free credit card or travel consultations on our blog if you are interested. When you first get started travel hacking, don’t get too bogged down with which card, just pick one and try it out.
Remember that term minimum spend? That is the amount you have to spend in a certain amount of time, usually 3 months. It is easy! Really. You just put everything you would normally spend with cash or a debit card or as a bank payment on this credit card. If you add up everything you spend on, I bet it is over $1000 a month. Here’s a list of items that you can pay for with a credit card to meet your minimum spend.
- Groceries, Dining Out, Entertainment
- Phone bills
- Internet and Cable
- Car Insurance
- Memberships and Subscriptions
- Medical Expenses
- Gift Cards
- Prepay for upcoming travel plans
- Business expenses
- Income taxes, property taxes
Add up what you spend on those items and I bet you see that it is pretty easy to meet minimum spend!
Your Credit Card Score
Many people worry that travel hacking will affect their credit scores adversely. Not true. I have been travel hacking for almost 3 years and my credit score is over 800. The most important thing is to pay your credit card bills off each month. Keep your oldest account active and pay on time. Travel hacking is NOT free if you carry a balance.
Yes, credit cards come with annual fees. Some are waived the first year, many are not. They are totally worth it for the bonus points one gets though. For instance, say I get 60,000 points that for a $95 annual fee. I could use 60,000 points for a round trip ticket to Europe in economy class. That $95 just got me a seat worth about $1000. If I am lucky, I might get a one way ticket in business (and to be honest, I always use my points for international business seats). That ticket is worth $4000+!! Yep, that is why I have no problem paying for that annual fee.
You can decide the next year when that annual fee comes up if the benefits merit you paying the bonus again. At that time you will have 30 days to decide if you want to cancel, downgrade to a no-fee credit card, or keep the card. Several hotel credit cards offer a free night stay after you pay the annual fee so I usually find benefit in keeping those cards because I use that free night for $200+ hotel stays.
Not only can you get personal card bonuses, you can also get business cards and those bonuses. Here’s some things you might do as a side gig that lets you qualify for a business card:
- Sell on eBay, internet or classifieds
- Teach sports or music lessons
- Babysit or nanny
- Make or sell anything
- Blog or freelance write
- Uber driver
Chances are you make some money somewhere other than your main job that will qualify as a business and you can get business cards too. We love finding more ways to get those points.
Because we want all the bonus points we can possibly get, we never apply jointly with a spouse or partner. Instead we each apply for credit cards so we get double up on the bonuses. Remember that you have to meet minimum spend, so just apply for one person and meet the minimum spend, and then apply for a card in the other person’s name.
Wow, this sounds confusing you say! How do you stay organized? Luckily, there are two very easy apps that we use to keep track of our points, their expiration dates, when it is a good time to open another card and when our annual fees are due. AwardWallet and Travel Freely do all the work for a travel hacker and we just get to enjoy the benefits of our labors. I call them the dynamic duo and recommend you get both of them. It takes very little time to open them and plug in your credit card information and they have literally saved points for me!
The key to really benefiting from travel hacking is to repeat, repeat, repeat for each person. If you really want a lot of points for a lot of free travel, then you want to be applying for a new credit card when you are close to meeting minimum spend on the last card. Between my husband and myself, we have earned 3,000,000 points in the last 3 years. I have spent 1.3 million points for what would have retailed out at $90,000 worth of travel! (Not that I EVER would have paid for that $6000 business class seat!).
It has been a pretty fun few years of travel though! I am completely in love with this hobby and scratch my head all the time that more people don’t do it!
Let’s Plan a Trip With Points
After you have acquired points through travel hacking, it’s time to plan a trip. Some people plan where they want to go and then get the credit cards that will help them get to that destination. I’m more OCD and tend to get all the points I can and be ready to travel anywhere, any time.
Today, we are going to plan a trip to Vietnam. I did this trip last year traveling in business class and stayed for free in hotels. I literally only paid for massages, foods and activities. Let’s see how you can do the same thing.
There are tons of different flights you could take to Hanoi. I am going to pick United as it is a transferable partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards. Since the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card is our favorite pick for a first card, this makes sense. Here’s a sample of what I found on the United site:
Hopefully, you can see that there is availability for roundtrip from San Francisco to Hanoi in economy for 80K and in business class for about 180K (I actually saw tickets on other days for 150K).
Sometimes looking for the best deal for your points takes a little bit of time but we are always willing to help with this too. From this, you can see that if two people signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you could travel for free in economy round trip and have points left over. Taxes and fees would be under $100. If you each also got the Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card then you could both go one way in economy and one way in business with points left over!
So we have you there after two credit card bonuses but what about a hotel stay? What are our options in Hanoi?
There are several hotel branded credit cards with good bonuses. Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, and IHG are all good hotels with a lot of international destinations. Let’s look at a couple choices!
I really like my IHG credit card because the annual fee is low at $89 a night and they give me a free night every time I pay my annual fee. Currently the sign up bonus on this card is 80,000 points after a $2,000 spend in three months. This bonus will get you 3 nights free at the Intercontinental Hotel Hanoi on Westlake. You also get Platinum Status when you get this card and that means you might get a room upgrade (I usually do get one).
You could stay here for three nights with one bonus signup.
Hanoi is a really interesting place but you don’t want to stay there the whole time on your trip. Grab a cheap flight and head to the island of Pho Quoc. You need to visit my favorite hotel in the world – the JW Marriott at Pho Quoc! You will thank me later for your stay at this incredibly gorgeous and creative hotel. There are tons of free activities for you to do there to like kayaking, paddle boarding, bicycle riding, yoga, and flower arranging.
For this stay, we need Marriott points. Currently you can get the Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card with a 75,000 bonus for a minimum spend of $3000 in 3 months. It costs 30,000 points a night to stay here. If you book 4 award nights then you even get the fifth night free! Two people opening this card means a 5 night stay for free with points to spare.
Marriott Bonvoy bonus points can get you free nights here!
My example of a trip to Vietnam using bonus points is just that, an example. I have used points to Hawaii, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Greece, Italy, London, Puerto Rico and more. Sometimes I use points for everything except food and activities. Sometimes I use it just for travel and stay in an AirBnB. One thing for sure is that travel hacking has allowed me to see more of the world, more often, and in a manner I never thought I could.
Three years ago I was a beginner trying to figure out how to travel hack with complicated blogs. We have written a beginning blog to make it easier and I promise, if I can do this, so can you! Bon Voyage!
Jump into the world of travel hacking! Try it out!! I promise you that you will be amazed at the trips and places you can travel to for nearly free!
Pam Iorg and her daughter, Alex Payne, write for the blog Travel Hacking Mom. They have earned millions of points through travel hacking and travel the world on those points. Their mission is to teach beginners how to travel hack in a simple and concise way. You can follow them on their blog or on Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook.