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What is travel hacking and how do I start?

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In recent years, travel hacking has become increasingly popular due to social media. Instagram influencers showcase their travels to exotic locations achieved through the strategic use of rewards.

The appeal is broad as families can save significantly on the cost of a Disney vacation, and those who aspire for luxury can book first-class tickets at a fraction of the usual cost.

Having been a travel hacker for more than ten years, I can say that it’s a gratifying pursuit that offers a plethora of travel possibilities. By using strategies to get the best deals on flights and hotels, you can save a significant amount on your travel expenses.

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking is a term used to describe the different methods you can use to accumulate points and miles that can be used for travel in the future. The process involves making strategic use of credit card points, miles earned through airline and hotel loyalty programs, and other perks to obtain discounted or even free travel experiences. This can be done without necessarily taking flights or staying in hotels.

How to start travel hacking

If you are excited about the prospect of travel hacking and ready to start, here are some tips to help you begin:

Set a goal

To begin your travel hacking journey, it’s essential to set a specific travel goal. Trying to accumulate points without a clear purpose may end up being a waste of effort. The writer of this message made a similar mistake when they began in 2011, focusing on Delta SkyMiles and American AAdvantage miles for a trip to Europe. Later, they realized that American Airlines had limited routes to Europe and that it would have been more beneficial to accumulate United miles instead.

Before you start earning points, decide on your travel destination in advance. Then, explore the top rewards programs to help you reach your destination. A travel toolkit provides various guides on credit card, airline, and hotel rewards programs to assist you in making the right decision.

Find the right rewards credit card

One way to quickly increase your points balance is by using a rewards credit card. Once you’re approved, you can often earn over 50,000 points by meeting a spending requirement within three months. Besides welcome bonuses, you can also earn more points in specific spending categories and through yearly spending bonuses to maximize your rewards over time.

Consider the ongoing rewards when selecting a travel rewards card. It’s better to opt for credit cards that earn transferable rewards as they are more advantageous for most people.

  • Amex Membership Rewards
  • Citi ThankYou points
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Capital One miles

These currencies provide flexibility because you can transfer them to various airlines or hotel programs on a 1:1 ratio. If your desired travel dates have no award space on one transfer airline, you can transfer the currencies to another airline with award space. This way, you’ll have several options and be safeguarded from possible program devaluations.

Before applying for a credit card, make sure you meet all the qualifications and are aware of any application requirements. Consider the following points:

  • Your credit score. To effectively use travel rewards cards in your travel hacking plan, it’s important to have a good credit score of at least 700. If you are currently working on improving your credit score, it may be best to hold off on applying until you have a higher chance of being approved.
  • The application rules. Credit card approval rules vary from bank to bank. For instance, Chase has a rule known as the “5/24 rule”, which limits welcome bonuses for applicants who have applied for five or more credit cards within the last 24 months. On the other hand, Amex has a “once-per-lifetime restriction,” which means that if you have received a welcome bonus for a particular card, it is unlikely that you will be able to receive the same bonus again. Being aware of the many credit card application rules can increase your chances of being approved for a travel rewards credit card. So, it is important to know them before applying.
  • How much you’ll pay. If you have difficulty paying off your credit card balances each month, then travel hacking with credit cards may not be the best option for you. This is due to the high-interest rates of these credit cards, which can cancel out any rewards you earn. Instead, it would be better to avoid these credit cards and explore other ways of earning points and miles if you are not sure you can pay off your balances.

Use shopping portals

If you want to earn more points and miles, consider using shopping portals. Most loyalty programs offer a shopping portal where you can earn rewards from your preferred airline or card issuer. By shopping through the portal, you can earn at least one extra point per dollar spent in addition to the points earned from your credit card.

To ensure you earn the maximum points possible while shopping online, try using a shopping portal aggregator such as Cashback Monitor. Just enter the merchant’s name and view a list of available shopping portals and their corresponding earning rates.

During the holiday season and before the start of the school year, several shopping websites provide bonuses based on your spending. These bonuses can be quite profitable and assist you in reaching your travel objectives more quickly.

Sign up for dining rewards

Earning extra points through dining reward programs is as easy as shopping portals. By joining one of the seven airlines and three hotel-affiliated dining programs, you can earn up to 8 additional points per dollar spent. Remember to confirm if your preferred airline or hotel program has a dining program.

These programs may provide first-time dining rewards and additional points when you leave reviews or spend a certain amount each year.

You are welcome to participate in all of these programs, but within the same network, you cannot register the same credit card on more than one program simultaneously. However, it should not be difficult, even with only one credit card. You need to register your card initially with your preferred program, obtain the first-dine bonus, then proceed with the other nine programs until you complete them. It is essential to remember to use a credit card that gives bonus points for dining to get the most rewards.

Get creative with earning rewards

It’s worth exploring other possibilities after mastering the habit of maximizing daily purchases. Is it possible to charge other expenses to your credit card while ensuring you can pay off the balance by the end of the month? For example, I persuaded my boss to allow me to use my credit card to pay a supplier’s bill of $35,000. I’ve accrued thousands of points by using Plastiq to pay my rent and mortgage. Additionally, I’ve used retail arbitrage to sell dresses worn by Kate Middleton and meet the spending requirements.

You can discover new ways to boost your points by thinking creatively and exploring unconventional solutions.

What are the best travel hacks?

There are many travel hacks available, but the most effective and coveted ones are kept secret. However, if you’re new to traveling and prefer simple tips, the following hacks are the most beneficial to know:

Card sign-up bonuses

If you want to earn many points quickly, signing up for credit cards with bonuses is the best way to do it. With a strategic approach, you could even use those points to pay for a luxury vacation.

It’s important to know if the issuer has any rules regarding the number of cards you’ve applied for in the past. Additionally, you should be cautious about applying for multiple cards within a short period. This can negatively impact your credit score and make you appear risky to lenders. Also, keep in mind that you may need to spend more to earn bonuses if you have multiple cards.

Double (and triple) dipping

One effective travel hack is to double- or triple-dip. By combining different travel hacking techniques, you can earn a higher number of miles. For instance, if you are currently undergoing a major home renovation and need to make some online purchases, you can earn rewards through your credit card and an online shopping portal at the same time.

If you own an Amex card, consider using Amex Offers to triple your rewards. I’ve used this strategy for big-ticket items such as travel bookings and furniture purchases. So, before making a purchase, explore all the options to earn points and look for chances to combine them.

Mistake fares

Travel hacking involves more than just earning and redeeming points. One of the techniques I enjoy using is taking advantage of mistake fares that airlines occasionally publish. These fares can be significantly lower than the regular prices, such as a $450 round-trip business class ticket to Shanghai or a $120 economy class ticket to Abu Dhabi. Travel hackers have taken advantage of many fantastic mistake fares over the years.

When airlines make pricing mistakes, some travel enthusiasts have been lucky enough to book these fares. However, it’s important to note that you may need to be very flexible with your travel plans and dates to take advantage of these deals. To keep track of them, you can sign up for alerts with Airfarewatchdog and The Flight Deal, which search for deals and share them on their website and social media platforms.

Maximizing award redemptions

If you’re planning to book your dream vacation and have saved enough money for it, make sure to explore three types of award programs: Sweet spots, Off-peak award charts, and award sales. Among these, sweet spots can be more beneficial for saving a considerable amount on award flights.

You can save more points if you take advantage of peak and off-peak pricing offered by airlines and hotels. Simply plan your travel dates flexibly to get the most out of your hard-earned points.

How can I travel for free?

The travel influencers might not mention it, but free travel is an illusion. There will always be charges associated with earning or using points, such as credit card annual fees, taxes on award flights, and resort fees.

You can book amazing travel experiences for less by taking advantage of credit cards, points, and loyalty programs.

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