Travel Hacking 101 – Beginners Guide To Travel More For Less – Starts With A Credit Card
I caught a travel bug after being inspired by a show called Backpackers that aired on OLN here in Canada. It was a show documenting 3 Australian guys adventures as they traveled around Europe.
So I did a little research online during my computer science class in university that January (many years ago). Over the next week or two I read about Eurail, hostels, and cheap flights with Ryanair…I decided I was going to Europe.
Unfortunately I had to wait until May to depart. Fast forward that semester, I was off to Europe to backpack for 3 months.
I visited 14 different countries and had the most memorable adventures a 19-20 year old could ever endure.
The food, the drinks, the culture, the history, the people.
Everyday was a new experience and I learned more about myself, the world and my view on life in that 3-month window than all my previous 20 years of existence.
In the immediate years after my Eurotrip I was able to enjoy some other adventures to different parts of the world.
From multi-week camping trips all over the wilderness of British Columbia to beach getaways at a bohemian surf town in Mexico or an adventurous all-inclusive in the south Caribbean.
But I wasn’t doing it the right way. The optimal way. The smart, savvy and efficient way.
Not the travel hacking 101 way.
I was just searching lightly to compare prices, pulling out the ol’ credit card (with no benefits or rewards) and paying along the way.
“Flew To Ireland For Free On Points” – Why Am I Not Doing That?
A few years ago I overheard one of my coworkers explaining his most recent trip to Ireland and mentioned getting the flight “for free on points”. If this guy was getting free flights on points, why the heck am I not doing that?
Hearing my coworker boasting sent me straight to Google.
Curious and skeptical.
Aha! Dozens of sites with charts, reviews, pros/cons lists and tips on all different tiers of travel rewards credit cards and how to make the most out of them. I had been using a credit card so wrong for so long.
And spent so much money on it with no benefit.
Before I got my first travel rewards card and dipped my toes into travel hacking 101 I did a ton of research, reading and listening. I found out about The Points Guy, Nomadic Matt & Extra Pack Of Peanuts.
Plus some of the great podcasts I mention in Top 75 Podcasts To Help Improve Your Life, Business, Travel & More.
So much knowledge and experience out there on travel hacking.
I used a BMO Air Miles Mastercard to earn round trip airfare for two to Montreal and three nights at a hotel. Then swapped to an MBNA Rewards card (which I didn’t like as much for earning) and eventually paid in full for airfare to Vancouver. Currently, I am using the Scotiabank Gold American Express (more in this card below).
I will try to share the framework, focusing specifically on credit cards, that I’ve learned from others and have worked for me.
As I’ve learned there is much more to travel hacking than just credit cards. We can explore that in future posts, but with travel hacking 101 we will stick to the cards.
Basic Rules To Travel Hacking 101 With Credit Cards
As I mentioned, I was guilty of wearing financial blinders in the past. I carried the worst debt…credit card debt. And it took me a lot of hustle and time to get out of that.
Travel hacking 101 requires credit cards so we need to stick to some basic rules.
Don’t let the chase for rewards work against you or get you into any financial trouble.
- A vow to not carry a balance – the benefits of earning rewards and points is washed away if you’re paying interest on outstanding balances.
- A system to pay off your balances with automation – reminders to pay before due dates, instant payments on due dates, etc. – don’t let human error cost you.
- Have a good credit score, like 700+ – opening new credit cards can drop your credit score a few points, so if you’re planning a major purchase, like a house or car, in the next 2 years it’s best not to open a few new cards beforehand. You want those major purchase lending interest rates as low as possible.
So now we should go check our credit score, well actually an accurate estimate of it, for free at Credit Karma.
Credit Karma will give you insight into your report and score from TransUnion. Including Accounts, Collections, Bank accounts, Public records and Credit inquiries for anytime your credit has been requested.
It’s a great tool to check monthly or every second month to ensure your credit score is remaining where you’d like it. Also for personal security reasons to ensure no claims, pulls against your credit or other oddities are occurring because of potential identity theft.
What Can My Travel Hacking Achieve?
Good question, I was curious about the same thing after I had initially heard my coworker mention his free Ireland flights.
Was it just flights? Can I get all-inclusives? How about just hotels? …anything else?
The answer for most cards is really all of the above.
You accrue your points or bonuses and then have the option to cash them in for whatever your provider might offer.
So the onus is on you to determine what you want, what might be in your future in terms of trips or just tackle it ad-hoc if you’re free spirited when you’re ready to travel.
Do you have a trip in mind that is 6 months away? Or maybe a dream vacation a year from now you want to save for? Or will you play it loose and just be flexible to spring on an amazing deal?
It’s totally up to you.
What are your goals for travel hacking 101?
Find The Right Rewards Card For You
There are dozens of travel rewards cards available.
The general benefits and features you will come across in your research will fall under pretty consistent categories.
- Signup Reward (ex. $100 Amazon gift card)
- Intro Signup Bonus (ex. Spend $3,000 in the first 3 months and get 30,000 bonus points)
- Bonus Spending Categories (ex. Earn 4x rewards on Groceries, Gas & Entertainment purchases)
- Annual Fee Waived (ex. 1st year $99 fee waived)
- Travel Insurance Coverage (ex. Travel emergency medical, rental car collision, etc.)
- VIP/Priority Lounge Access (ex. 2 free passes to VIP Airport Lounges Worldwide and deep discounts on future passes)
- Warranty Extensions (ex. Your new camera has 1 year manufacturer’s warranty, if you bought it with your credit card that warranty is extended to 2 years and covered by the credit card company)
- Other: 24/7 concierge, currency exchange benefits, 1:1 transfers to other r travel point providers (Aeroplan), etc.
Some cards are tied to specific airlines or hotel providers, so if you already have points programs with those airlines or hotels and frequent them often, you can double up by aligning your new travel rewards credit cards in that system.
Others are more broad and can be used through the card suppliers travel platform or partner providers.
Luckily for you and I there are great aggregation services that compile and compare all the different cards. Dissecting the minutia of the different rewards, rates, additional benefits, etc.
I’ve noted sources below for both Americans and Canadians plus included some of the consensus top choices for 2018.
American Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Consensus Top Card: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
- 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in first 3 months ($625 travel value)
- 2x points on travel and dining
- 1x point on all other purchases
- $0 annual fee 1st year ($95 after that)
- 25% more travel value when redeeming through Chase Ultimate Rewards platform
- 1:1 points transfer to their Partner Airlines & Hotels
- Extensive travel insurance & purchase coverage
Best Airline Card: Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard
- 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in first 3 months
- Double AAdvantage miles on eligible American Airlines purchases
- Earn 10% of your redeemed AAdvantage miles back
- $0 annual fee 1st year ($95 after that)
- First checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines flights
- Preferred boarding on American Airlines flights
- Worldwide travel insurance
Best Hotel Card: Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card
- 80,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in first 3 months
- Plus, 7,500 bonus points when you add the first authorized user
- Enjoy 1 Free Night Stay at a Category 1-5 hotel every year
- Earn 5 points per $1 spent at participating Marriott Rewards & SPG hotels
- 2x points on airline tickets purchased directly with airlines, car rental agencies & restaurants
- 1x point on all other purchases
- $85 annual fee
Canadian Travel Rewards Credit Cards
- Rate Hub (Ongoing Updates)
Consensus Top Card: Scotiabank Gold American Express Card
- 25,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in first 3 months ($250 value)
- 4x points at eligible gas stations, grocery stores, on dining and entertainment
- 1x on all other purchases
- $0 annual fee 1st year ($99 after)
- Complimentary Concierge Services 24/7
- Extensive travel insurance & purchase coverage
Best Airline Card: BMO AIR MILES World Elite Mastercard
- 1,000 Air Miles after activating account
- 2,000 Air Miles after spending $3,000 in first 3 months
- Earn 1 reward mile for every $10 in credit card purchases, everywhere you spend*
- 15% Flight Discount on all AIR MILES flights in North America with no blackout periods
- $0 annual fee 1st year ($125 after that)
- Earn 2x miles when you use AIR MILES Mastercard and show your AIR MILES Card
- Exclusive VIP access to airport lounges worldwide (2 annual complimentary passes at $150 value)
- BMO Concierge Service
- Extensive travel insurance & purchase coverage
Best Hotel Card: The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card American Express
- 20,000 bonus points after spending $1,500 in first 3 months ($446 value)
- 2x points for purchases at participating SPG and Marriott Rewards hotels
- 1x points on all other purchases
- $120 annual fee
- Enjoy a Free Weekend Night Award when you reach $40,000 in purchases each year
- Experience Starwood Gold Preferred Guest status when you reach $30,000 in purchases each year.
- Redeem with no blackout dates at over 1,300 hotels in nearly 100 countries.
- Use Starpoints for flights on over 150 airlines with no blackout dates with SPG Flights.
Accumulating Points – The Lifeblood of Travel Hacking 101
Okay, we’ve made our vows to the basic rules.
We’ve done some research and determined what our travel goals are.
And we’ve selected, applied for and received our new travel rewards card.
It’s time to start accumulating points and working towards your travel goals. Remember we don’t want to be like the old me and accumulate credit card debt. That man was a fool and we’re now travel hackers taking advantage of the rewards system to adventure, experience and enjoy whatever that travel goal is.
So we have to stick to rule #1 and live within our means to not get into debt or carry a balance past due dates.
It can be enticing to chase those point totals, seeing them rise every time you log-in…it’s like a game. But this isn’t a game, it’s our finances.
All we’re doing is shifting the way we used to make all our standard, daily purchases to another card.
Reaching The Minimum Spending Requirement For The Bonus Points
Your new travel rewards card will have included an introductory signup bonus if you meet the minimum spend threshold of likely $1,000 – $3,000 in the first 3 months.
You spend $1,000 – $3,000 on the card in that timeframe = you get XX,XXX points as a bonus (plus the points you gained naturally on those purchases).
You need to meet this minimum spend. It’s the 101 of travel hacking 101. These bonus points are the essential step to fast forward your rewards points and you can’t miss out.
Your regular purchases will be great and help you reach your travel hacking goal through a gradual growth. But the signup bonus points are the freebie, the hack of travel hacking. The springboard to making your card work for you.
One word of caution, the signup bonus window generally starts on the day of your application, not the day you receive the card. So your 3 month window might lose a week or two depending when you actually get the card in hand. Make sure you’re aware of that so you don’t fall short of your minimum spend.
Setting Up Automatic/Subscription Services
The easiest administrative task to do to ensure we’re maximizing our new travel hacking 101 rewards card is to update the information on all your automatic payment and subscription services from your old card to your new card.
This is the easiest step to ensure you’re meeting that minimum spend. Basically anything and everything you used to pay for with your old credit card is updated to the new.
- Cell Phone
- Cable & Internet
- Music & Other Digital Services
- Hydro & Utilities
- Auto Insurance
Note: I keep one subscription service paying through my old MasterCard to keep that longstanding account active and in-use. It can be beneficial to your credit score to have a credit account with a lengthy history open.
Other Spending To Meet That Minimum Threshold
Below are a few more travel hacking 101 tips to make sure you’re hitting your minimum spend. Remember, we need to pay off our balance every month so we have to stay within our means.
- Pay for group dinners with your card and have the other dinner attendees give you cash or e-transfer you money (I prefer e-transfer…I am less likely to wastefully spend cash in my account, but that might just be me)
- Buy gift cards for places you frequent for regular purchases (Amazon, PayPal, grocery stores, etc.)
- Note: I get 4x rewards points when I shop at grocery stores so I buy gift cards there for my own usage (Amazon) or as gifts when needed for friends/family/coworkers
- Use your credit card for business expenses if your organization allows it and get reimbursed
- Pay your taxes on your credit card (if you have the cash to pay that off right away)
Remember we AREN’T buying things we don’t need just to chase points. We’re performing travel hacking 101 by staying within our means.
Okay, we’ve got our card, reached our minimum spend and are collecting some solid points towards our travel hacking goal.
Sign Up For Frequent Flyer & Hotel Reward Programs
Another sure-fire tactic of travel hacking 101 is ensuring that you’re also registered with the airlines and hotels that you frequent or will be booking at for your upcoming travel.
If you’re going to cash in your rewards points for a Delta flight, make sure you set-up your SkyMiles account (it’s free).
The same can be said for any flight or hotel provider. Take advantage and accumulate those rewards points along your travel hacking journeys.
If possible try to be a repeat customer of the same airline and hotel. It might not always be feasible based on your dates, locations, prices, etc. But overtime these rewards will add up and be part of your overall travel hacking 101 strategy.
Award Wallet is the best source for all your credit card, hotel rewards and frequent flyer programs.
- Join Awards Wallet For Free
- Register For Your Various Reward Programs (Credit Card, Hotel & Airline)
- Track Your Rewards
- Stay Connected
Award Wallet warns you of any expiring points and ensures you have all your reward programs in one easy to access spot.
Booking Your Travel
Finally! The travel part of travel hacking 101 is on the horizon.
This process is pretty easy to navigate and you will be very satisfied seeing those rewards points coming to fruition. Log into your credit card online and visit the rewards platform. They should have a pretty robust online system or if you prefer the ol’ fashion 1-on-1 support, give them a call.
Check out the ChooseFI Podcast – Travel Rewards, they do a great job explaining how to maximize the booking process.
Full vacation packages, flights, hotels, cars, cruises, and more. You can even just cash in on electronics, gift cards and other products…but I got a travel rewards card for travel. However, it’s all up to you! You earned it.
You had your original travel hacking 101 goal but maybe it’s changed since you originally got your credit card. There might be a can’t beat travel deal to a location that might not have originally been on your radar.
You should also give Google a quick search when you’re ready to book, “Chase Rewards Secret Booking Tips”, “Maximize Your [Name] Rewards Booking”, etc.
There are tips, tricks and resources for every card under the sun and they just might help you get a little extra value out of your rewards.
Churn, Earn & Burn – Travel Hacking 201
If you feel confident in your ability to manage the balance(s) of multiple cards and optimize the points earning process, you can move up from travel hacking 101 to 201.
If you’re able to create a schedule and track your spending to ensure you’re hitting those signup bonuses, you can essentially “churn, burn and earn”.
Get a new card, hit the signup and initial bonuses and then move onto another card (or be using another at the same time).
Those signup bonuses and initial spending rewards are the springboard on our travel rewards cards. The ongoing day-to-day spending will help accrue points but it’s those bulk points that really put us ahead.
You can build a system that lets all facets of your travel goals work together:
- Get your general all around travel rewards card (ex. Chase Sapphire or Scotiabank Gold Amex)
- Next add an airline specific card
- Then round it out with a hotel card
Remember, each credit card application will drop our credit score slightly. In time, if you’re paying balances off in full, your score will likely go above it’s original starting point. Your credit utilization, aka the amount of debt you’re carrying in comparison to all of the credit you have available, will be stronger. You will have much more credit spending at your fingertips, but you won’t be using it or carrying any debt = better credit utilization.
Another thing to note is there will be windows of 18 or 24 months, sometimes even lifetime, when you aren’t eligible for the signup bonus from the same company/provider that you already received one from.
As I start to get more experience travel hacking and optimizing my own system, I will share updates along the way. There are so many great resources and learning opportunities to travel more for less.
What travel rewards card(s) for are you using? Let me know below. Is it working as well as you hoped?
What travel hacking 101 tips or tricks do you take advantage of? Comment below and let’s hear about your adventures or plans for future travels.
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