Seven Tips for Beginning Travel Hackers

Do you ever wonder how seemingly ordinary people manage to travel so much?  When I started my travel blog I was suddenly surrounded by all of these people taking all of these extraordinary vacations.  I felt as if I had gotten into something way over my head.  Surely this is an elite group of ridiculously rich folks and there is simply no way I’ll be able to keep up!  

Luckily it doesn’t take a lot of time in the travel blog world to realize this isn’t true.  Not all travel bloggers are ridiculously rich or moderately rich or even any kind of rich at all.  Many of the beautiful blogs I read are written by average, every day people.  People who have mastered a not so secret skill.  The art of travel hacking.

Travel hacking is the collecting of bonus points, loyalty points and frequent flier miles in order to travel for free.  Yes- for FREE!  You can learn how to take your everyday spending and turn it into free travel by earning points and miles.  Learning the art of travel hacking does take a bit of time.  Luckily it’s entirely accessible to anyone and everyone who has Internet access.  Plus, it’s tons of fun!

I’m by no means a travel hacking expert yet so I’m going to leave a lot of the details to the real experts, but I have compiled a list of seven tips to help you get started.  Bonus!  I’ll link you to all of my favorite professional travel hackers so keep reading!

1.  Do Your Research

It’s critical to start your travel hacking journey with a lot of research.  And I mean a LOT of research.  At first it can seem simple enough.  Open a few new credit cards, join some rewards programs and voila- free travel.  

While I imagine you could do it this way and end up with some kind of free vacation, the art of travel hacking is truly an art.  It’s not something so complicated that the average person can’t figure it out, but it does require a good deal of research in order to really maximize the benefits of traveling via free points.

The first mistake I made was not doing enough research.  I did a little and thought I had a good handle on things.  But I quickly realized I needed to pump the breaks and spend more time reading and learning from true travel hacking experts.  

I searched out the top travel hacking blogs and read everything they had written.  Everything.  I learned the ins and outs of travel hacking, including all the teeny-tiny details, and this allowed me to fully understand the larger picture.  So before you do anything else, set aside some time to research.

These are my favorite travel hacking sites.  They make the art of travel hacking quite approachable because they have all the information you need in once place.  You just have to take the time to read through it all!  So grab a cup of coffee and enjoy these awesome resources!

The Points Guy

Extra Pack of Peanuts

Million Mile Secrets

2.  Check Your Credit

My husband and I have never been people who check our credit regularly.  We know we have good credit.  We’ve never carried more than two cards each and we’ve always paid them in full each month.  

We’ve never had trouble getting loans, though we try to keep those at a minimum as well and make sure they are all paid on time.  So we’ve always just moseyed along knowing we had pretty good credit.

My husband had one major concern when I approached him with my grand plan of turning our home renovation into a free Hawaiian vacation.

“What will this do to our credit?”

In order to talk him into turning our renovation expenses into plane tickets, I had to convince him that it wouldn’t hurt our credit scores.  Understanding how opening new credit cards affects your credit is critical to becoming a successful travel hacker. This means understanding and monitoring your credit score.

Don’t just check your credit before you jump into the travel hacking game.  Take the time to truly understand how your credit scores is constructed.  There are a lot of myths and misinformation out there when it comes to credit scores.  

Be sure to figure out what it all means so  you can be confident that you are building your credit as you travel hack instead of hurting it.  Then continue to monitor your credit score periodically as you open new cards.

I found is of the most thorough guides to understanding your credit history.  Abroaders also has an excellent guide to understanding your credit score.

3.  Set a Goal

To maximize the benefit out of your travel hacking plan, start with a goal.  Is there a trip you’ve been dreaming of taking but can’t afford to pay for it all in cash?

For us, that dream trip is Hawaii.  I wish with all my heart we could pick one of our international destinations to really get the most out of our home renovation and travel hacking.  Unfortunately my health and our boys’ health limits us to staying within the United States right now.  Luckily Hawaii has always been a dream for all of us.  

I spent a summer semester at the University of Hawaii Manoa and I’ve always wanted to take my husband and our boys back.  Our boys have long been obsessed with volcanoes and desperately want to see one up close.  Being that I’m not keen on the idea of being anywhere near an explosive eruption and would much prefer an effusive eruption, Hawaii is the obvious choice!

So with our destination in mind, I started to outline our dream vacation to Hawaii.  We know that with the time change, we’d like to stay long enough to adjust and really enjoy ourselves.  Plus we want to get our money’s worth out of the flights.  Thus our dream trip to Hawaii is two and a half to three weeks long.  

Before, that always seemed impossible.  Who can afford three weeks in Hawaii?  Travel hackers!  Next we selected which islands we wanted to visit and where on each island we wanted to stay.  I researched hotels and narrowed things down to a few top choices.  Having a detailed plan helped me move to the next step with confidence.

4.  Lay Out a Plan

There are a LOT of credit card choices out there!  You’re not going to want to just start opening new credit cards all willy-nilly.  You’re going to want to start with a plan!  If you have a goal, use that goal to shape your plan.  Which cards will help you reach that goal?  I started by deciding which airline we wanted to fly and which hotels we wanted to stay at. Then I set out a plan for a series of cards that would help us earn the necessary points.

You’ll also want to plan out when to open the cards you want.  It’s not something you want to do all at once.  For one, opening too many cards at once can hurt your credit.  If you haven’t already researched how travel hacking affects your credit please go back to steps one and two!  iIn a nutshell, when you apply for a new card  the company checks your credit and your credit takes a small ding.  

One or two of those dings will not be not a big deal but too many at once will add up.  Also, opening too many cards at once shortens the length of your credit history.  The length of how long you’ve had a card open affects your credit score.  Too many cards that have only been opened for a short period of time will bring your score down. (On the flip side, a handful of cards that have been open for a long period of time will raise it!)  So make sure you spread out the cards you open so that they don’t have a negative effect on your credit.

Another reason for spacing out the cards you open is that in order to earn the sign up bonus (and let’s face it, the sign-up bonuses are why we’re all here!) you have to spend a certain amount of money on that card in a certain amount of time.  Depending on the card, you will be required to spend anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 in the first one to three months.  

If you have a lot of new cards open, it’s going to be hard to meet those quotas and earn your bonus points.  Opening one card at a time allows you to put literally everything you purchase on that card to ensure that you reach the minimum spending limit to nab all those bonus points!

One last tip – take look at your future spending.  If you know you have a large purchase coming up at some point, plan on opening the right card for it.  Some of the cards with bigger sign up bonuses have higher minimum spending limits in order to earn the sign-up bonus points.  

Having to spend $5,000 in the first three months of opening a card may not always be reasonable.  But if you know you have a large purchase coming up, plan to open one of these types of cards just before that purchase.  It will help you meet that spending minimum in time!

5.  Stay Organized

I can’t stress this enough.  If you’re going to become a travel hacker, you’ve got to be able to stay organized.  I’m talking ninja level organization skills! Every credit card has it’s own log in.  On it’s own website.  With it’s own unique password.  

Your payment due dates will be scattered all over the calendar and it’s critical that you pay each bill on time.  You’ll want to find a way to organize all this information right from the get-go, even when you only have one new card.  Don’t think “Ah I’ll remember, it’s just one card!”  WRITE. IT. DOWN!

On top of credit cards, you’ll want to double up your ability to earn points by signing up for customer loyalty programs.  Each of those will also have their own number and password.  You’ll want to sign up for as many of these programs as you can because they are entirely free, but soon you’ll be swarming in numbers and passwords.  If you haven’t kept all of your log in information and numbers organized you’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities to earn points.

There are a number of ways to organize your travel hacking information.  The most basic, and I’m not ashamed to admit is the method I prefer, is to keep a notebook.  I write everything about each credit card and each loyalty program on it’s own page.  At the front, I keep a list of all credit cards and their payment due date.  

I also write my due dates on a white board above my computer so I can’t miss them!  Another option is to keep a Word document or another online record of all of your information.

Or you can go the high-tech route and use apps that help keep track of credit cards and loyalty programs.  There are even apps that can help you decide which card to use for a specific purchase to help you earn the most points possible!  I’m just getting into the travel app game as a back-up plan for my trusty little notebook.  

So far I only use Award Wallet which is simple and easy but does not include a couple of major airlines so that’s a bummer.  I’m exploring a few more, but I’m going to let the app experts speak on this topic.  Here are a couple of great websites that explore options for apps to help you stay organized!

The Balance:  7 Mobile Apps for Managing Credit

Reward Expert: The Best Apps for Tracking Miles and Points

WiseBread: 3 Smartphone Apps that Manage and Maximize your Credit Card Rewards

One last word on organization- you’ll need a place to safely store the “old” new cards you’re done using.  I don’t need to explain why it’s a bad idea to carry all of your credit cards in your wallet everywhere you go.  Keep your top two or three cards with you at all times, but have a safe place to store the rest.  

Once you’ve received the sign up bonus on a card, you’re likely to move on to another card in the near future.  Don’t close the card you are done with as closing too many cards can hurt your credit.  Remember- the length of your credit history is important- so keep those cards open but stop using them and store them in a safe place.  

I got an extra wallet that stays on my desk right next to my trusty notebook.  When we’re done with a card, we tuck it in the wallet.  If we need it again because that specific card makes sense for a purchase, I know exactly where to find it!

6.  Learn to Look for Loopholes

Once you’ve done all your basic research and you’ve gotten started on your travel hacking journey, it’s time to circle back around to the research phase and start looking for loopholes.  When you open a new card, you’ll want to do as much research on that card as possible to ensure you’re not missing any lesser known perks.

For example, we started with a Chase Sapphire Reserve travel card.  The main benefits of this card are outlined quite clearly, but we had the card for three months before I learned that I can earn extra points by shopping through Chase’s online portal.  Extra points?!  For shopping?!  Say what?!  

Chase partners with many online retailers (including most of my favorites!) and if you enter their websites through Chase’s online portal you can earn anywhere from two to five points per dollar you spend instead of just the regular old one point per dollar.

Another loophole we discovered was how to take advantage of the Southwest business card in order to earn the Southwest Companion Pass in record time.  There are lots of tips and tricks out there to help you take advantage of each card and each reward program. So keep up with your research because you don’t want to miss out on any possible way to maximize your points!

7.  Have FUN!

At first glance it can seem like becoming an expert travel hacker is a daunting task, but it’s really not.  Yes, it takes time.  It takes a lot of research.  And it takes ninja level organization skills.  But it’s also a ton of fun!  It’s not like you’re studying for a college chemistry test- you’re planning a FREE VACATION for crying out loud!  

You’re learning how to make free money!  So enjoy the process.  Don’t rush it.  Take your time and learn as much as you can so you can become a confident travel hacker.  Then sit back and enjoy the ride!


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