Trying to Travel Hack

travelI’ve decided to travel hack. So that automatically means I’m an expert, right? Actually, I thought it would be really helpful to chronicle my toe dip into these waters. Because, if you’re not a travel hacker and you’re anything like me, you’re both excited and overwhelmed by the prospect of free travel.

Don’t get me wrong. Seeing the world at little to no cost sounds like a dream. But I currently have a huge aversion to credit card fees, and our teaching schedule forces us to travel during peak times (read: costs more points/miles). This combination left me on the sidelines for quite some time. Now that I’ve scooped up my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, I’m on the sidelines no more!

Dodging the Fee and Interest

Normally, zero-percent interest cards are my jam. I used them to finance all of my grad school to date, our wedding, and our honeymoon. I’m also a big fan of taking serious advantage of store cards. But if I know anything about travel hacking it’s the fact that those types of cards just won’t cut it. So, I signed up for a card with a fee. Sort of. My plan is to cancel the card before the $95 annual fee kicks in. By waiting until the fall to apply for the card, I figure we can use the points to travel in the spring or over the summer. So far, I’m pretty pleased with my plan.

It’s also worth noting that this card comes with a whopper of an interest rate. I don’t care because I’ve never paid interest in my life. Aside from my mortgage. Ermahgerd have I paid the interest in my life. Whenever I feel like I’m cheating the system by travel hacking, I remind myself that the interest rate on this card coupled with the minimum spend means that Chase is soaking people for $1,000 in interest if they don’t pay their bills in full. Then, I feel all sorts of things. And guilty isn’t one of them.

Meeting The Minimum Spend

We have three billing cycles to hit $4,000 in spending. Once I got done breathing into a paper bag over the thought of parting with so many dollars, I realized that this is actually incredibly doable. Especially considering the fact that I had timed this card with our semi-annual car insurance payment and our annual homeowners insurance bill. Yeah. That’s exactly what I did. But it’s nice when things work out.

We cannot currently put our utilities on credit cards, but I immediately switched over our cell phones. I also made sure that it is the first credit card in both our wallets. We’re using it for everything from gas to groceries (happy dance that Aldi now takes credit cards!). We’re about at the halfway point to reach the minimum spend amount, and we’ve put $2959.37 on the card. Our monthly expenses that we could put on a credit card without incurring any additional charges clock in at $960. While this technically means we’ll fall a bit short of the minimum, I also plan on doing a bit of Christmas shopping. The moral of this travel hacking story seems to be that timing is everything.

What I Won’t Do…Yet

As of right now, I’m not willing to pay a fee to grab a whole bunch of airline miles. I know the Southwest card is perennial favorite and the Chase Sapphire Reserve is a new darling among travel hackers. But I really feel like I need to find some measure of success with this round of travel hacking before I enter the big leagues. Major leagues. Professionals or something. Go sports.

If you paid attention in the previous section, you also noticed that I didn’t do any manufactured spending. I know there are people who suggest buying grocery gift cards, Visa Vanilla gift cards, or even money orders to hit minimum spend limits. While I’ll keep that option in my back pocket, I’m not looking to use that strategy for a few reasons. I really, really hate fees. Even if they pay off in the long run. It’s the principle of it, I suppose. And the biggest reason is the two stores that we grocery shop at the most–Aldi and a local ethnic grocer–don’t offer gift cards. Though the idea of scooping up a gas gift card does seem like an easy way to push us over the minimum spend threshold if Christmas shopping doesn’t.

What’s Next

In addition to perhaps braving the uncharted waters of credit card fees, I also actually need to figure out how and when to use these miles. It seems like a no brainer way to do some traveling over spring break. But I’d be lying if I said a small part of me didn’t think this whole thing was too good to be true. I promise to keep you posted when I figure it out. And by figure it out, I mean when Chase sends me a singing telegram announcing the fact that I get my 50,000 miles. That’s how this works, right?

So Tell Me…How have you travel hacked in the past? What are your current plans? Do you have favorite links? Please share!

Trying to Travel Hack

38 thoughts on “Trying to Travel Hack

  1. Right now, I don’t travel hack. I Christmas hack with my Amazon Visa. Someday, though, that might change.

    I think it’s far more useful for those of us who don’t hack to watch your journey into hacking (what’s reasonable/what’s not) than the experts when it comes to the “Do we or don’t we?” question.

  2. I’ve been a modest travel jacket for the last few years but have picked it up a bit the last 12 months or so. It can be daunting hitting the spending limit but I’ve never had a problem. Part of our benefit is that daycare allows us to pay via credit card for no extra fee! This makes it very easy for us to rack up rewards.

  3. Secret Retirees 2018 says:

    I really want to sign up for this card too, but can’t see traveling anywhere abroad in the near future. I’ve also never signed up for a card with a fee. I think it’s against my religion. I’m sure the folks travel hacking with this card are much smarter than I am to pay for the annual fee 10x over, but for now, until I do have plans to travel,I’m still sitting on the sidelines watching all the cool people with the card.

      1. TJ says:

        When are you going to New Mexico? I’m pretty sure the first part of my road trip is going to be 28 days in Albuquerque, but I probably won’t spend every night there at the accomodation as I also want to go further south to White Sands, Truth or Consequences. etc. Major discount for monthly stays on AirBNB. 😀

        1. The plan is to try to loop through part of the Southwest during our spring break. That falls at the end of March this year. So many National Parks, so little time! And I know we have tons of time over the summer, but it is also face-meltingly hot…as we learned when we honeymooned in Arizona in July. Dry heat. Mmmhmm. Sure.

  4. I haven’t done any travel hacking to date, but I did switch my REI card to a Chase card (the non-fee one) to get better cash back rewards. Then while checking out on Amazon one day I signed up for their card for the “free” $70 gift card, and it also has great cash back rewards. I usually use those for Christmas which is a win too.

    Tempted to travel hack when we have more time to devote to it and not just end up with a bunch of cards on a spreadsheet and no plans for them. I’m interested to see how your hacking turns out.

  5. TJ says:

    I don’t really “travel hack”, i just like collecting free money. I usually redeem points for cash when possible for that reason. I do have a collection of airlines miles (because I had already exhausted all the “cash” bonus card options) that I assume I’l use some day, but it seems like every year and a half I am buying something to extent the use of the air miles.

    1. That’s my fear, TJ! That I will get these miles and not actually use them. I am hoping that using spring break as my “deadline” of sorts will keep me more focused. I definitely don’t want to just earn miles for the sake of earning miles.

  6. Yes! We successfully travel hacked for the first time last June. We opened two Chase Sapphire cards (at two different time periods) and ended up with 100,000+ points, which was more than enough to secure 4 free round-trip tickets to Orlando. We didn’t have trouble reaching the spending requirements, but had to really plan ahead, especially since we both opened a card. We put as many of our regular monthly expenses on the card as we could. I am planning to try the Southwest card soon.

  7. I’m a big, conservative travel hacker… one card at a time… no manufactured spending. And I wish I qualified for the chase sapphire reserve (once you try out an airport lounge, you want to go back!) Congrats on dipping your toe in. I think you’ll love it. 🙂

    1. We just booked flights to Vegas for free using the miles that we accumulated from “regular” traveling. It opened my eyes to the possibility! Now, I really want two Southwest cards. But I have to make sure that we can fit in all the travel and not just get hammered with fees.

  8. I’m surprised that more people here haven’t done that much hacking. We haven’t paid for a flight in over 3 years (other than taxes and fees) – although we do pay for the annual fee for my Chase Sapphire and my husbands Chase Ink cards. For that $200/year – we usually get at least 10 flights a year – so we are pretty happy. We also got the Southwest cards that helped us earn a companion pass (we’ve done that twice now). We may cancel those before the fees come due – but they award miles too and we always want to keep Chase happy 🙂 The minimum spend is never an issue with all the apartments we have (and with two kids…). We “hacked” hard for about 2 years and now just “maintain” with Chase and Southwest. We have over 500,00 banked with American too – waiting for a trip to Europe.

    1. Wow, Vicki! I’m not sure we’ll ever get at that level. But I think a free flight somewhere (or a hotel) for spring break might be the perfect way to see if this is for us!

  9. We haven’t done any travel hacking yet (although we can fly standby for free on military flight, which we did a TON…when we only had 1 and 2 kids. Haven’t braved it yet with all 5!) We save up all our points and cash them out for Christmas. We usually end up with $500-$800 which covers about 100% of our gifts.

    1. That’s an awesome way to use your points/cash back! I’ll do that with some of my cash back, especially if it costs me $45 in rewards for a $50 Amazon gift card! But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that our Discover cash back is currently earmarked for our hotel in Vegas 😉

  10. I’ll be the first one to admit that I am not savvy when it comes to travel hacks. I was planning to take off time over Christmas and really study up on the subject because it seems like there are a ton of ways to really let travel credit cards work for me. Thanks for inspiring me to buckle down and figure this thing out.

    1. I can’t wait to see what you come up with! I’m so excited to almost have one under my belt. But until I’m actually on the flight or in the hotel for free, I don’t know that I’ll consider it a true success. We’ll see!

  11. I actually have a very similar post in the works about the Southwest cards! Let me know if you change your mind about them and I’ll send you the links and the scoop. It’s an even sweeter deal with the almost-free companion pass.

    1. I definitely think that is the next step for us. But I just don’t know that we actually fly enough any given year for the companion pass to matter?! Look forward to the post.

  12. Jan says:

    I guess we could be considered travel hackers. My husband and I are always comparing rewards and fees and changing up cards. We have never carried a balance and put everything on out card even most of our utilities. We do however pay the fee on some cards as some the rewards cover the fee in free flight rewards alone when done well. Because of this life style we began over 10 years ago we have successfully “purchased” these free flights (paying only taxes):

    1. Business class to europe for free (the two of us)
    2. New Zealand business class for free (the two of us)
    3. Florida for free – twice (four of us)
    4. England for free (four of us)
    5. and next year we are all travelling to New Zealand again but not business class.

    Good luck! It’s definitely worth it. 🙂

    1. Wow! I would love, love, love to be able to travel hack to Europe one day. Or anywhere outside of North America. But I think I’m going to start small and try to hit some national parks in the southwest this spring!

  13. Our travel hacking this year has probably saved us about $5k. Our next trip is four free nights in a family suite at Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. Fairmont offered two free nights at any Fairmont hotel worldwide for signing up for their cards. My wife and I each snagged one and minimum spend later, we combined the nights back to back and got a free upgrade into the bargain. Heading up there between Xmas and New Year.

    We are then going to Jackson Hole in February for a week long family ski vacation on four free flights with United. Thanks to mainly work travel air miles but also topped off with some credit card miles.

    Unfortunately we could not get the Reserve card due to the 5/24 rule. But plenty others we are eyeing up with all the competition for customers…

    We put the vast majority of our expenses on cards and sometimes pay estimated tax payments with a card – There is a small fee but it can be very lucrative to build miles quickly. Like you we NEVER carry a balance and pay every card off monthly.

    Don’t want to get into the manufactured spend games with gift cards etc. Not our cup of tea.

    1. Quebec City! Jackson Hole! That’s such a terrific itinerary. It sounds like you’ve definitely figured out how to work this to your advantage. Kudos!

  14. Hell ya for travel hacking! We did the Chase Sapphire Preferred card to get points for free flights, and now we just got the Chase Sapphire Reserve card to the points we’ll need for the hotels, parking, and spending cash. Pretty much the whole vacation will be free!

    1. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t getting more than a little excited. We have less than $1000 to spend, and we’ve already earned 6,600 points/miles before the 50,000 bonus. Or maybe I’m just really excited about maybe getting away for spring break this year!

  15. Greetings fellow travel hackers! Three years ago I started building my hotel points and airline miles. Now that we’ve FIRE’d, we plan on using our cache of 3 million total MURP$. (Miles, Ultimate Rewards-type points, hotel Points, $ =cash back) At this point, we’ve opened and closed countless cards.

    I guess I’m a travel hacking whore because I enjoy manufactured spending. I once had a $10k spend that I completed in 12 days thanks to gift cards. I had the bill paid by day 15 thanks to the wonders of bill pay. So, in 15 days I earned 110,000 miles with American!

    Going forward I plan on travel hacking my way around the globe. Most of my travel hacking knowledge came from: Travel Miles 101…check it out.


  16. I travel hack and my recommendation is that when you redeem your points for flights, add in free one ways. Every airline has different rules but some allow you to add in a stopover and not complete the final leg for up to 365 days. I booked Denver (where I lived at the time) to Frankfurt, back to Denver 10 days later, then wait for 3 weeks, then Denver to the east coast during Christmas. That last leg was not part of my original vacation but was instead my flights home to see family during the holidays. If I had paid cash for the Christmas flights it would have been a fortune. Just a tip so you can get more out of your points! Welcome to the travel hacking game it’s addicting.

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