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In February of 2014 I flew from South Florida to Hong Kong on United Airlines (don’t worry, I didn’t get dragged off the flight). That’s a 16 hour, round the world journey that should have cost me $854.20.

But how much money did I pay for it?

$5.60

Here’s the proof.

travel hacking with credit cards for free travel

Here’s another example:

In October of 2015 I went to London to see the Rugby World Cup which coincidentally was on Halloween. London + Rugby World Cup +Halloween = Hotel prices were insanely expensive. I booked two nights at The Radisson Blue, a four star hotel.

How much did it cost me?

$0

Here’s the proof:

free hotels with credit card travel hacking

One more example? Sure.

In June of 2017 I will be flying from Hong Kong to Denver on American Airlines. Another round the planet,16 hour flight.

How much?

$58.16

how to get free travel with credit card travel hacking

I have dozens more of these, but I think you get the gist.

How is it that I am able to travel at such low costs? How am I able to book hotels and airfare for pennies on the dollar? What sort of black-magic-wizadry is this?

Let me introduce you to the world of Travel Hacking.

What is Travel Hacking?

Travel Hacking is an umbrella term that encompasses many things. Traditionally, travel hacking referred to obtaining points and miles through credit card promotions. Now, as the word ‘hack’ has become increasingly trendy, it can refer to any way to cut the cost of travel.

But for the purpose of this article, we are going to keep things classy and talk about travel hacking in it’s most potent form – using credit cards for free points and miles. And in the infinite quest to travel the world for free, nothing can touch travel hacking.

There is a ton of information on the web about travel hacking. Some good, some not so good. I’m here to clarify everything for you.

I want to introduce you to the world of travel hacking, show you how it works, specifically what to do, and at the end, I’ll show you the best part about travel hacking (hint, it’s freaking awesome).

Is Travel Hacking Just for Americans?

Hell no!

But I will be completely honest – Americans have the most opportunities. If you are from the USA, you have, without a doubt, millions of free points and miles at your fingertips. Credit score aside, the offers and promotions available to US citizens are nothing short of enviable.

If you are not a US citizen but are from Canada, the UK, Australia, or Europe you’ll have plenty of opportunities as well (but admittedly, not as many).

But don’t use this as an excuse. While American citizens have the most travel hacking opportunities, there are loads of travel credit cards for citizens of developed nations. Non-Americans might not be able to get 17 travel credit cards, but even ONE single travel credit card could help you save thousands in travel costs.

My Travel Hacking Story

travel hacking and free travel with credit cards

Lots of people think travel hacking with credit cards is reserved for big spenders, business owners, or people with a trust fund.

I’m here to prove that otherwise.

I began my travel-hacking-journey in 2012. I was just a normal dude. I was 23 years old, broke, and had an awful credit score (mid 600’s – more on this later), and had never traveled internationally as an adult.

Having traveled extensively in the States I began to develop an interest in international travel, and with a bit of research, discovered the world of points and miles. It changed my life forever.

Fast forward to now, I have 16 active credit cards, circled the globe more than half-a-dozen times, and redeemed over 600,000 points and miles in the process.

I estimate that travel hacking has saved me in excess of $12,000 on flights and accommodation (and it’s just the beginning!).

How Does Travel Hacking Work?

The center of the travel hacking universe is points and miles. Points and miles = free travel. So how do you get points and miles? With credit cards. There are basically two ways.

Points and Miles for Everyday Spending

The simplest way to earn points and miles is to get a credit card that offers incentives for every day spending. An example would be Citi ThankYou Premiere credit card which offers 3x points for money spent on travel, 2x points on dining, and 1x point on everything else.

how to travel for free with credit card hacking

Look at the 3x category – there are a lot of rewards!

3x points means you’ll get 3 points for every dollar you spend in that category. If you buy a $1,000 flight, you’ll receive 3,000 points. If you spend $5,000 over the year in gas expenses, you’ll receive 15,000 points.

This card also offers 2x points for dining. Picked up the $50 bill for your hot tinder date? 100 points.

This can add up quickly. Let’s look at another example – Chase Freedom.

free travel with credit card hacking

5% cash back on groceries means that you get 5x points for every one dollar you spend. If you spend $300 a month in groceries, you’ve just accumulated an additional 1,500 points for spending money on something you were going to spend money on anyways!

Daily spending is a big part of travel hacking. As long as I have cash to be able to pay off my card, I swipe for everything.

But as great as every day spending is, I’d say it only contributed to 15-20% of the miles I’ve earned. It adds up, but not as much as…

Credit Card Promotions

By far the most efficient way to get a boat ton of points and miles is through credit card promotions.

In a nutshell, banks want you to sign up for their credit cards. They do this by incentivizing you to sign up for their particular cards through varying offers.

These offers and promotions vary. Some credit cards will offer 0% interest for 18 months. Some might offer a low balance transfer fee. Others might offer a discount on your favorite retail provider.

But we aren’t interested in discounts in retail providers, right? We want free travel! Let’s look at a few examples of credit card offers and promotions that can get us free travel.

how to get free travel with credit card hacking

Barclay’s Frontier offers 40,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in 90 days (plus a $69 annual fee which is NOT waived for the first year). Once you hit the minimum spend of $500, you’ll be rewarded with 40,000 miles to Frontier Airlines. I personally used my 40k miles for two round trip tickets in the USA.

Let’s look at another example.

how to be a travel hacker and get free travel

The Chase Sapphire Preferred (also known as my favorite credit card ever). Chase Sapphire offers 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first 90 days (plus the annual fee of $95 IS waived the first year).

I’ve been using my Sapphire points for years, having earned and redeemed hundreds of thousands of points for thousands of dollars in free travel.

There are dozens upon dozens of cards just like these two, and the cool thing is that there is a card for ever budget. From a tight-budget to not-tight-budget, there’s a travel credit card out there for you.

But, Let’s Slow Down for a Minute

Now let’s stop, breathe, and collect ourselves for a quick second.

Yes, the idea of free hotel rooms and international flights probably has you tingling with delight (I know it did for me!). You’re probably envisioning yourself swiping your credit card on everything and swimming in an ocean of free travel.

But as tantalizing as these thoughts are, you need to remember one very, very, VERY important thing.

While credit card promotions can literally be the greatest thing since sliced bread, you have to realize that this game is directly linked to your finances which means you are basically playing with fire.

To Travel Hack properly you need to do two things:

  1. Ensure that travel hacking is in line with your financial goals. Applying for credit cards and traveling the world for pennies on the dollar is great fun, but if you are planning on taking out a mortgage soon, or are paying off student or other credit card debt, you might want to take a pass for now.
  2. Be disciplined and level-up your financial savviness. Credit card debt is no joke, and as well as I’ve done in the game, I’m more than happy to admit it has come with a learning curve.

To do this right you need to avoid the temptation of credit card debt, as the interest accumulated will QUICKLY negate any financial edge you gained within your travels.

Banks are smart. They offer these promotions because they are aware that most people will abuse their credit cards, and pay more in interest than the bank gave away in free travel. I’m not here to be your mom or your financial advisor, but it’s important that you understand this “game”.

Because if you do, the rewards are nothing short of astonishing.

How to Play the Game

travel hacking with credit cards
Travel Hacking through Europe

I’ll show you how travel hacking works by giving you my personal timeline. Here’s the exact blueprint I used, so you can see what worked for me and (more importantly) what didn’t so you can avoid my mistakes.

Since August of 2013, I’ve been to Athens, Bali, Bogota, Budapest, Cambodia, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, The Greek Islands, Hong Kong (where I lived for over a year), Istanbul, London, Manchester, New York City (twice), Paris, Peru, The Philippines, Portugal (for three months), Prague, Rome, Spain (twice), Taipei, Thailand (three times), and Tokyo.

To do this, I’ve found and paid full price for some cheap flights, but mostly, I’ve redeemed over 615,000 miles and points (so far) that have enabled me to travel for pennies on the dollar.

I’ve redeemed over half a million miles and points, currently have another 100,000+ in the bank, and in the future, I’ll be adding tens of thousands more to my arsenal.

But it hasn’t always been this way…

Rewind to January of 2013. I had left the country just once, had a single credit card to my name, a dismal credit score hovering in the mid 600’s, and not the slightest clue what a Travel Hacker was.

July 2012

In the summer of 2012, I became enamored with the idea of traveling the world (hugely in part to Goats on the Road – thanks dudes!). Slowly I began researching, and in my research I was first introduced to the world of travel blogs and travel hacking, which have since changed my life.

February 2013

After a few months of heavy research I was able to clean up my credit score, getting it to the high 600’s. I applied for my first card, still to this day, my favorite card – the Sapphire Preferred. This card got me my first spending bonus, 40,000 points!

I used the Sapphire Preferred for an entire year before applying for another credit card. I made sure I hit my minimum, paid my bills on time, and watched as my credit score slowly, but surely benefited.

That summer, I spent three months WWOOF’ing in South Portugal and traveled a bit through Spain. After Europe, I backpacked through Thailand, Cambodia and Hong Kong for 6 weeks. Although I didn’t redeem any miles at this point, I used my Sapphire Preferred for every purchase I could, obtaining 2x’s points for every travel-related purchase. I waited patiently, and watched my points accumulate.

For You

If you are interested in starting travel hacking my biggest piece of advice is this: start slowly! Although reaping the rewards of cheap travel is incredibly fun, you want to handle your finances with perseverance and discipline.

First things first – if you have a poor credit score, look into improving it. Having a solid credit score will open you up to a world of free travel (amongst countless other life-benefits). You’ll need to learn to crawl before you learn to walk. Pick one credit card and master it.

If you have a decent credit score (700+) and can handle the minimum spend, give the Sapphire Preferred a shot. It’s the best. If you don’t, check out the Nomads Nation Best Travel Credit Cards, where we highlight the best travel cards and the ideal credit scores to apply.

January 2014

After a few months of traveling, and year of responsible spending, I was finally prepared for my first App-o-rama (applying for multiple credit cards on the same day.)

I was approved for Chase United, Barclay US Airways, and Barclay Frontier (but was denied the Chase Ink). After a few months, I spent $1,500 on the cards, and was awarded with 100,000 miles .

  • Travel Hacking Numbers – Two USA round trip flights on Frontier Airlines cost me 20,000 miles and $5.60 each ticket.

For you

Once you have a firm grasp of credit cards, you can start applying for multiple cards on the same day. These are called app-o-ramas. There is an intricate strategy to app-o-ramas, but this is the point when you’ll begin accumulating a ridiculous amount of points and miles.

May 2014

My second app-o-rama was fun, yet a bit more intense. I was approved for Citi American Airlines, US Bank Club Carlson, and the Chase Freedom, but had a hefty $6,000 minimum spend to hit. I was rewarded with 85,000 Club Carlson points, 50,000 AA miles, 20,000 Ultimate Rewards with the Freedom.

Combining the newly acquired Freedom points with my Sapphire points, I had nearly 80,000 miles to transfer to United, where another 30,000 miles were already waiting.

I was getting better at travel hacking and slowly learning the best ways to get more points and miles for free travel.

October 2014

Trying to save money for a big trip, I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with too many minimum spends, so I just applied for the fantastic Barclay’s Arrival Plus World Elite, giving myself 40,000 points to play with.

For you

Go Slow. I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s easy to want to keep applying for new cards, but you need to remember to only do so if you can hit the minimum spends and pay off the cards in full.

January 2014

Yet again, saving for travel, but still wanting to accumulate miles, I took it easy and only applied for one card – Chase British Airways. I received 50,000 miles. The miles were really adding up at this point.

February 2015

2015 was the year of travel for me, as I used a ton of my miles to see the world. In February, I flew to Hong Kong for a week, before spending three incredible weeks in The Philippines.

  • Travel Hacking Numbers: Fort Myers to Hong Kong (40,000 miles and $5.60) and Manila to Fort Myers (40,000 miles and $34.90).
  • I also used my Barclay’s Arrival points to reimburse the flights and some lodging I purchased while in The Philippines, which was a nice $500 back in my pocket.

So basically I got a round trip from Florida to Asia for the cash cost of $40.50. It gets better. Read on.

travel hacking for free travel around the world with credit cards
Travel Hacking through the Philippines got me like…

May 2015

I backpacked Copenhagen -> Greek Islands -> Athens -> Budapest -> Rome -> Barcelona -> Rome (again). I lucked out with a super cheap fare to Bangkok, then started using my miles to save some cash. Feeling particularly adventurous I made a last-minute decision…

  • Travel Hacking Numbers: Using my miles with United Airlines and British Airways I flew Hong Kong to Tokyo to Lima to Bogota to Miami. This ambitious itinerary cost me 67,500 United miles, 20,000 British Airways miles, and $285.05 cash. So, for less than a domestic US round trip flight, I was able to bounce around Asia and South America, and it was nothing short of epic.

For you

In my opinion, the greatest part about miles and points is the freedom it gives you. I never would have been able to afford the last-minute itinerary mentioned above. But I felt like doing something fun and crazy and because of my points and miles, I was able to.

When you start getting points and miles, remember that sometimes it’s fun to save them for a rainy day (or a spontaneous trip to Machu Picchu).

how to get free travel with credit card travel hacking
Impromptu trip to Peru – only possible because of my points and miles

October 2015

I applied and was approved for Citi’s ThankYou Premier, which netted me 50,000 more points.

  • Travel Hacking Numbers: I used 20,000 AA “off-peak” miles and $5.60 cash to fly from Fort Myers into Paris. I then backpacked Paris -> Prague -> Manchester -> Edinburgh, and finally an epic climax in London for the Rugby World Cup Finals.
travel for free with credit card hacking
I flew from USA to Paris for $5.60 and 20,000 AA miles

This monstrous sporting event shot lodging prices through the roof, but I used my Club Carlson points to secure a bedroom for three nights in the contemporary Radisson Blu Grafton in downtown London. There were three of us, and rooms were going for well over $300 a night.

  • Travel Hacking Numbers: I paid 150,000 Club Carlson points, and $0 for three nights in a four star hotel downtown London.

January 2016

I was approved for Amex Premier Rewards (50,000 points) and Chase Southwest (50,000 miles).

April / May 2016

I traveled in between Asia and the USA, visiting Taiwan, Bali, Hong Kong and Turkey.

  • Travel Hacking Numbers: 35,000 American Airlines miles (plus $38.60 cash) to fly Hong Kong back to Florida, 30,000 United Miles (plus $24.60 cash) to fly Florida to Istanbul, and transferred 40,000 Citi Points to Air France (plus $96 cash) to fly Istanbul back to Hong Kong.

All of those flights for less than $170.

how to travel for free with airline miles and credit card hacking
$24 and 30,000 miles to fly from USA to Istanbul
  • Travel Hacking Numbers: Also for a birthday gift, I flew a family member round trip from Florida to St. Louis using my Southwest points, which cost me 27,412 miles and $11.60.
  • Also, I bought a last-minute one way flight for another family member from Chicago to South Florida. It cost me 21,759 miles and $5.60. (Having miles also has another perk – making you a family hero if need be)

Now

I’ve been living in Hong Kong working on projects and not traveling as much, but plan to use a lot more miles over the summer.

  • Travel Hacking Numbers: I have redeemed 35,000 AA miles and $58 to fly Hong Kong to Denver in June.

Thoughts…

As I mentioned, I wanted to highlight my personal story to show you exactly how someone evolves from knowing nothing about travel hacking, to being quite good at it.

If I can do it, anyone can!

My Screw-Ups

One of my biggest issues with credit card travel hacking blogs is that a lot of the articles make the game seem easy, or that the Travel Hacker hasn’t made any errors along the way.

I’m the opposite. I’ve had my fair share of travel hacking regrets, and I want to share them with you so you can be sure to avoid them yourself. When it comes to these cards, there are two things you have to keep an eye out for.

  1. Interest
  2. Annual Fees

I can’t really do much to help you with interest. As I mentioned: unpaid balances lead to high interest charges. It’s as simple as that. Am I guilty of it? Absolutely! But I’m not here to be your financial advisor.

What I can help you with is annual fees, and share what I could’ve done better. Here’s a look at the annual fees I’ve paid over the past years.

  • Four Chase Sapphire fees ($95 a year)
  • Two United ($95),
  • Two Club Carlson ($75),
  • One Frontier ($69),
  • One US Airways (now Barclay’s American Airlines, $89),
  • One Citi American Airlines ($95),
  • One Southwest ($99) and
  • One British Airways ($95)
  • One Amex Premiere Gold ($195)

This leads to a grand total of $1,362 in annual fees over 4+ years.

Now before you have a heart attack, allow me to explain.

Annual fees are a part of the game. Sometimes the credit card will charge you an annual fee the first year, sometimes you won’t be charged a fee until your second year.

But the fees are a small price to pay. The sign-up bonuses range in value from $500 – $1,200. Consider the annual fee (usually less than $100) a one time investment.

Travel Hacking Pro Tip – After you’ve made use of your points, you simply call the number on the back of the card and downgrade to a no-fee version of the same card. This works 90% of the time (but admittedly every now and then it won’t and you’ll either have to pay the fee or more likely, cancel the card). This has no negative impact on your credit score.

As an avid traveler, there are certain cards that I am willing to pay the annual fee for. The Chase Sapphire Preferred $95 a year is a no-brainer. Flying with United as often as I do, I enjoy the perks of the card, and this year I’ll be flying with American Airlines a bit, and also decided to pay the annual fee because of the perks of the card.

But I totally screwed up with a few annual fees – $259 worth!

I screwed up and forgot about the annual fees. This lack of organization cost me an annual fee for Club Carlson ($75), an annual fee for British Airways ($95), and an annual fee for Barclays AA ($89); a grand total of $259.

How to combat this? Organization.

Never again will I pay an annual fee I do not wish to pay for! And never will you. Just follow these two easy steps.

  1. Once you receive your shiny new credit card, call the issuing bank and ask them what date your annual fee will be charged, (whether this year, or the following year).
  2. Find every calendar you have (phone, computer, office) and make a note three to four weeks before the date of the fee. This will ensure you have ample time to pay the fee, or cancel or downgrade the card.

Taxes and Fees

No flight is ever free, including flights redeemed with miles or points. There are fees and taxes you must pay that range from a minimum of $5.60 (the now-standard 9/11 security fee) to a maximum of much more than $5.60.

The cash cost of the flights I’ve redeemed have ranged from $5.60 to $96.

Spending nearly $1,400 in annual fees and an extra $517.90 in flight taxes and fees might seem like a lot, but when you consider the value I’ve received on the other end, it’s totally worth it.

Unfortunately, pinpointing exactly how much money I’ve saved is challenging. But, after looking over my flights and itineraries, I’m comfortable saying I’ve saved $12,000 in travel expenses.

Given the places I’ve been, circling the globe as many times as I have, and evaluating and comparing what similar flights are going for, I’d say it’s a fairly appropriate analysis. Perhaps even a bit conservative.

Impact on My Credit Score (aka the best part)

If you’re still reading this, you might be thinking something along the lines of…

“17 credit cards?!?!? This is irresponsible! His finances must be SCREWED!” 

I’ll admit, this all might sound a bit too good to be true. You’re waiting for the catch. But that’s the beauty of travel hacking – if you do it right, there is no catch.

In the past four years, not only have I traveled the globe, been to nearly 30 countries, and saved thousands of dollars with travel hacking – but my personal finances have greatly benefited.

When I was first introduced to travel hacking in July of 2013, my credit score sucked. It was bad. So I did something about it. I spent the next six months educating myself on personal finances, cleaning up my credit score, and preparing to apply for the cards I wanted.

How to travel for free with credit card hacking
If done right – Travel Hacking will benefit your credit score

And as I Travel Hacked and used credit cards responsibly, my score rose exponentially. I have witnessed my credit score slowly rise from the mid 600’s, to the high 700’s, with its progression steadily continuing north.

Fast forward to April 2017. Check it out.

How to save money for travel by credit card hacking and improve credit
17 credit cards in my name – Excellent credit score (the joys of Travel Hacking!)

I know. It seems to defy logic doesn’t it?

Well, it defies what is commonly perceived as logic, but truth be told… not many people know how credit scores actually work.

The truth is, that if done correctly, travel hacking is one of the best ways to improve your credit score. This is because of something I have personally dubbed as The Circle of Points.

Travel Hacking Improves your Credit Score
The Circle of Points (cue Elton John)

Think about it. You will be applying for heaps of credit cards. If you do it right, pay your bills and keep your debt low – this is the greatest indication of financial responsibility (which then leads to a higher credit score)!

This is how The Circle of Points works. Responsible borrowing is rewarded with higher credit score, which then allows you to get more credit cards, which if you use responsibly, will be rewarded with higher credit score, which then allows you to get more credit cards, which if you use responsibly will be rewarded with a…

You see where I’m going with this?

And then, using those credit cards, you can travel, like me, for pennies on the dollar.

This isn’t a credit score seminar, but I want to have 100% transparency here, and accurately demonstrate how responsible usage will help your score. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you play within the rules, the credit score gods will reward you.

Final Thoughts For You

If this is your first introduction to travel hacking, I know a lot of this can seem overwhelming. So if you’re interested in getting started, I’d recommend looking at your finances and making sure travel hacking is right for your personal financial situation.

If so, start slowly. Apply for one card. Get your bonus, get your free travel, and overall get a feel for the card.

In the infinite quest to travel the world, nothing has benefited me as much as travel hacking. By meticulously laying out my step-by-step approach, I’m hoping that you will see exactly what worked for me, and understand that everything I did is completely accomplishable for you as well.

Travel on Nomads.

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Travel Hacking for Beginners_ A Guide to Saving Thousands on Travel

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Written by

Full time Nomad. Travel Hacker. Noodle addict. Aaron Radcliffe is the founder of Nomads Nation – a travel resource focused on redefining how we travel, and why we travel.

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