Do you ever wonder what it would be like to take a vacation and not have to worry about paying for airfare or hotels?

Who doesn’t, right?

Welcome to the wonderful world of “travel hacking.”  If you’re new to this concept, stick with me, and I’ll show you how to earn miles and points that can bring the world to your fingertips.

I’d like to start off by saying, I’m fairly new to this “game” as compared to some of the experts out there who have bestowed their wisdom unto me. My world changed in January 2013 when I read my first article on travel hacking.  After that, it was a google storm that rained travel hacking blogs to the point where I was so excited…and, also incredibly overwhelmed.

Fortunately for you, I plan on taking what I have learned to help you forge your way through the weeds of travel hacking. I’ll use my very own experiences for advice and refer you to the awesome bloggers I’ve stumbled upon along the way.  I hope I can help you, because money shouldn’t be the reason you don’t get to see what our world has to offer.

My very first pearl of wisdom is:  Don’t take on too much too fast.

Travel hacking can be incredibly overwhelming and very time consuming. If you didn’t already know, points and miles are collected mostly through credit card reward programs.  Travel hacking includes airlines and hotels, but to keep myself reined in, I’ll start with airlines:

Sign up for ALL (yes, I mean all) of the airline frequent flier programs. 

The main programs being:

  1. Delta
  2. American Airlines
  3. United
  4. Southwest, etcetera.
  5. But don’t stop there!  Don’t forget about Korean Air, KLM, Air France, Turkish Air, Emirates, etc.  Other international airlines are important too, because there are certain tickets that don’t allow you to collect miles on your favorite USA airline, but will allow you to collect points on their partner airlines.  But, if you don’t have a frequent flier number for said airline before you book the flight, you can’t get the points!
  6. Pick an airline alliance to start.  For your first one, pick the closest airport to you and choose the major airline whose hub is located at that particular airport.  (If there is an airline that has a hub at your local airport, you likely have more flight options available).
  7. Wherever you find a US based airline, you’ll find international partners that also fly out of that airport or that have partner combinations (i.e. United/Turkish Air).

I’d suggest you set up a separate email address for your travel hacking so that you’re not overwhelmed with the daily sale emails from every airline.  Make sure to check this email intermittently to see whether there are sales or point discounts going on that you’re interested in.  If you read my previous post on how I got to Europe on $60, you’ll know that I used a redemption discount where rewards were 20% off in the beginning of the year to Europe on United Airlines.  I learned about this redemption code from one of United’s sale emails.

Choose an airlines credit card.  

Pick a rewards credit card that partners with your chosen airline and is running a first time sign up bonus.

As a real life example, I’m going to pick American Airlines.  There are many credit card options available to you for American Airlines rewards, but the option I chose last year was the Citi AA Advantage card.  This card ran a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus if I spent $3,000 on the card in 3 months.

Once you get approved for the credit card, spend the minimum amount to get your mileage bonus.  

Easy, right?

Personally, I have a budget so I know where every dollar I make goes: bills, rent, groceries, gas, entertainment, cable, and cell phones.   Figure out whether your monthly expenses (the ones that you can put on a credit card) will be enough to reach the minimum spend requirement.  Use your new credit card for every purchase you make and then use your cash to pay back the credit card at the end of the billing cycle so that you don’t carry a month balance and incur hefty interest charges.

If your monthly expenses don’t allow you to spend the card’s bonus requirement in the time frame given, here are a few other ideas to meet your minimum spend requirement in time:

  1. Buy gas station gift cards.  You’re always going to need gas, right?
  2. Buy restaurant gift cards (ones you know you will actually use).
  3. Buy store gift cards.  Office supply, grocery and drug stores often offer gift cards to many other retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Lowes, Home Depot, Grocery stores, Pier 1, or Barnes & Noble.
  4. Buy Amazon gift cards.  You can purchase these from almost any retail store that has a gift card rack.  (And, as you probably know, you can purchase just about anything on Amazon.com).
  5. Buy iTunes giftcards.
  6. But Visa/Mastercard/AMEX gift cards.  However, these cards typically come at a cost varying between $3.95 and $6.95, depending on where you get them and the domination of the card. You can purchase these cards to meet your minimum spend requirement and then use them later in your everyday purchases.  Because of the fees associated with them, I’d only recommend this option if you’re cutting it close to the deadline and need to hit your minimum spend.
  7. Engage in manufacture spend.  What’s manufacture spend, you ask?  Well, perhaps what will become the most important travel hacker tool in your arsenal and a skill that could allow you to never pay for a flight or hotel again!  (Stay tuned – my next post in this series will delve into the world of manufacture spending and help you become a travel hacking expert)!

OK – so, I’ve met my minimum spend requirement.  Now what?!

If you meet your spending requirement, you’ve just earned a minimum of 53,000 American Airlines miles (50,000 for the bonus and 1 point for every $1 spent).  (Discliamer – as of right now, this particular Citi Card appears to be offering 30K points after $1,000 spent within 3 months, first year annual fee of $95 waived, plus some travel benefits such as getting your first bag checked for free and 25% off in-flight purchases made on your card).  

Book a flight.  

What does 53,000 miles get you on American Airlines?

To get the most bang for your buck, you want to look for the Mileage SAAver Awards. With that in mind, you can use your miles to travel roundtrip from the US to:

  1. Central America
  2. South America
  3. Europe
  4. Japan/Korea

(You can find the full rewards chart for American Airlines here).

For example, I recently booked one of the SAAver awards to Europe for $62.80 and 20,000 miles. Based on my schedule and destinations, only a one-way ticket worked out with American Airlines, so I booked the return ticket with a United Award for $90.60 and 30,000 miles.  I paid $153.40 for tickets that would have cost me over $1,400!

If you can’t wait until my next post on travel hacking and want to learn more, I would recommend checking out Frequent Miler and Million Mile Secrets.  There are a ton of great travel hacking blogs out there, but these two are my personal favorites.  These sites have credit card analysis pages which can help you choose which credit card is best for you to start with.  They keep their information up to date and provide all this wonderful knowledge to you for free!

A lot of the bloggers recommend that you choose several credit cards and sign up for them all on the same day so that you only have one day of credit pushes on your credit report.  However, having done this 4 times now, I would recommend starting with just one card. Travel hacking is addicting, but if you’re not careful, you could easily go overboard.  Start small.  Dip your toes in and reap your travel hacking rewards.  I have now personally earned over 500,000 miles and points!

I know what you’re thinking… what will opening all these cards do to my credit score?

If you’re worried about your credit score, don’t be.

I’ a banker with a finance background – I’ve personally signed up for over 8 cards in the last year and a half and my score has stayed nearly the same.  The day that you apply for a credit card, your score moves downward a little, but then as your credit availability increases, but your overall credit usage stays low, your credit score goes up!  It’s a tested method.  I swear to you, myself and many other travel hacking peers have paved the way!  (But, keep in mind, if you add $10K in credit from a new card and then keep that card maxed out, you will not be doing your credit score any favors).

I’ll let you get started by signing up for your first rewards credit card before we jump into manufacture spend, which will be covered in the second post in this series.

Enjoy, ask questions and let me know the first credit card you chose!

Related Post: Tips and Tricks for Accumulating Points

Have you tried travel hacking?  What are your best tips?

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This post was written by FWTG Contributor, Crystal Doro.  Crystal is a banker and travel enthusiast based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  She prides herself on using tools in her travel hacking arsenal to plan affordable, memorable jaunts around the globe.  You can read more about Crystal here.