Travel Hacking 101: How to Travel for Cheap (or Free!)

by Sasha Savinov

If you’re wondering how to get free flight tickets, read on for a little crash course we like to call Travel Hacking 101. We’ve been travel hacking for years now and have scored tons of free flights (and even a free iPhone!) in the process. We’ll show you some of the best travel hacking credit cards and help you get started.

But first, let us answer an important question…

What is Travel Hacking?

Travel hacking is a way to earn free flights, hotel stays, and more. The best way to become a travel hacker is by signing up for airline and hotel credit cards. Before we go on, it’s important to state this loud and clear:

DO NOT SIGN UP FOR A CREDIT CARD IF YOU CAN’T PAY IT OFF IN FULL!

Travel hacking credit cards are great if you can pay them off, but they’re terrible if you can’t. Getting points and even free flights is not worth it if you end up paying a ton in interest and/or late fees.

We only recommend you continue with this Travel Hacking 101 post if you can responsibly use credit cards. For the record, we have never missed a payment or paid interest fees, and we don’t want you to, either!

We should also add that this is a perfectly legal and normal practice.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get back to the exciting stuff, like how to get a free flight or hotel stay.

Basically, travel hacking is a system where you apply for credit cards to take advantage of generous sign-up bonuses. Banks want you to get their credit cards, so they partner with airlines and hotels to offer rewards programs.

How Travel Hacking Works

Generally speaking, this is how it works – you sign up for a credit card and you have to spend X amount of dollars in a certain amount of time. Most travel hacking credit cards give you three months to do this. Once you’ve crossed that threshold, you’ll be rewarded handsomely with thousands of points.

With those points, you can book flights or hotel stays. Voila – that’s Travel Hacking 101 at its simplest!

But wait – there’s more!

Most travel hacking credit cards come with lots of other perks. For airlines, this usually means free checked bags, priority boarding, and discounts on in-flight food & beverages. Some of the better cards even come with passes for airport lounges.

Hello, free Bloody Marys!

relaxing travel lounge thanks to travel hacking 101

Relaxing in the lounge beats crowded gates any day!

Hotel cards may reward you with early check-in or upgraded rooms. Just another perk of travel hacking!

If you’re wondering why banks would just give away tons of points like that, there are a few reasons. Many people don’t pay their bills off in full, thus incurring interest charges. Once again, don’t do this!

In addition, a vast majority of these travel hacking credit cards have an annual fee. This typically ranges from somewhere around $70 up to $500 for some of the super fancy cards. It’s not like the banks aren’t getting anything out of the deal. That being said, these fees are usually waived in the first year of your card membership.

The thing with sign-up bonuses is that you can only earn them once for most cards. That’s why we do a thing called churning where we get a different card every year or so.

Once we’ve gotten a sign-up bonus, we typically cancel that card before the annual fee comes due. That is of course unless it’s worth it to keep the card.

One of our top travel hacking 101 tips is to find a travel card that’s worth hanging onto. For us, that’s the Chase Sapphire. We’ll have more on that in a bit, so hang tight.

playa del carmen beach travel hacking 101

Vacation is better when you fly for free!

Travel Hacking 101: How to Get Free Flights

Our Travel Hacking 101 post is focused on how to get free flights, as that’s our top priority when travel hacking. We much prefer Airbnb to hotels these days, since we travel as digital nomads.

We like having our own kitchen and living space, so we don’t currently have any travel hacking credit cards for hotels. We’ll still list some of the most popular ones for you later in the post, though, because we’re awesome like that.

So you want to find out how to get free flight tickets?

Well, first of all, think about which airline is the best for you. This depends on your home airport and the places you want to travel to.

I’m from Detroit, which is a pretty big hub for all the major US airlines, but especially so for Delta. If I were still living in Motown, a Delta credit card would be a great choice.

As a matter of fact, the first time I dabbled in travel hacking was with a Delta American Express card. After earning the sign-up bonus, I was able to score a free non-stop flight from Beijing to Detroit when we were teaching English in China. It saved me a ton of money and got me home for Christmas.

For the past few years, we’ve been using Puerto Vallarta as our home base for half of the year. That’s why we’ve been loving the Southwest Rapid Rewards card, as we can get to and from Puerto Vallarta with them.

Puerto Vallarta drone

Flying for free in and out of PV is awesome.

Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll want to check the current promotions for airline credit cards. Sometimes they offer bigger than normal sign-up bonuses, so you definitely want to take advantage of those whenever possible.

You will need to spend a certain amount of money in a set period of time, but you don’t want to be frivolous. Only sign up for travel hacking credit cards if you can meet the minimum spend with necessary purchases and pay them off in full.

For example, I needed a new computer last year and also wanted a new drone. I made sure to sign up for new cards before making those purchases, and also made sure I had saved enough money to cover them.

After a trip to the Apple store and an online DJI order, I found myself with 150,000 Southwest points plus the companion pass, meaning Rachel flies for basically free (just taxes and fees) for the entire year. Now that’s a Travel Hacking 101 success story!

credit cards travel hacking 101

Travel Hacking 101!

The Best Travel Hacking Credit Cards

We have lots of experience with points hacking, as we’ve been doing this for several years now. In that time, we’ve cycled through plenty of travel hacking credit cards. Here are our top choices based on our experience:

Chase Sapphire Preferred

In our humble opinion, this is hands down the best card for travel hacking. It’s so good that we’ve kept it for several years and happily pay the annual fee, which is $95.

At the moment, they are running their best offer ever. You can earn 100,000 points by spending $4,000 in the first three months. That’s worth an astounding $1,250 towards travel!

A few years ago, we both signed up for this card when we headed to South America for a big trip. We both earned the sign-up bonus, which I believe was 50,000 points at the time.

My points got us round-trip flights from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands and then one-way tickets from Lima to New Orleans. Rachel’s points helped us fill in the gaps with other flights around the continent. Between the two of us, we probably scored $2,000 worth of free flights!

travel hacking 101 to galapagos islands beach

Still can’t believe we went here!

Just by using the card regularly, we book at least one free flight a year. That’s because you get 2 points per $1 spent on both dining and travel, two things we spend quite a bit on.

We redeem our points for travel most of the time, and Chase has their own system that’s very easy to use. You end up getting the most bang for your buck by using points for airline tickets. That’s our best advice for how to get free flight tickets without pigeon-holing yourself to one airline.

They also run promotions from time to time with other merchants. Last year points were worth 25% more with Apple. Since travel was on hold, I cashed in my stash of points for a brand new iPhone SE 2nd generation. Travel Hacking 101 FTW!

Just to reiterate, this is the best offer Chase has ever had. We highly recommend you start your travel hacking journey with this card. It’s the only card we’ve kept for several years and is by far our top choice.

Get 100,000 Chase Points!

Southwest Rapid Rewards

We’ve used just about all of the airline credit cards for points hacking over the years, and Southwest is far and away our favorite. They’re just the best airline in the US if you ask us, as they always offer two free checked bags and always have excellent deals.

They have several different options when it comes to their credit cards, so here’s a quick rundown, starting with their personal cards:

  • Plus: $69 annual fee, 3,000 anniversary points, 3% foreign transaction fee
  • Premier: $99 annual fee, 6,000 anniversary points, no foreign transaction fee
  • Priority: $149 annual fee, 7,500 anniversary points, no foreign transaction fee, $75 travel credit, 4 upgraded bookings

We started out with the Plus card, but recently upgraded to the Priority. It’s a no-brainer, really – the $75 travel credit basically covers the difference in cost. You also get 4,500 more anniversary points and the upgraded bookings. Plus, there’s no foreign transaction fee.

At the moment, you can earn 65,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months with any of these cards. We recently booked several one-way domestic flights in the US for between 5-10,000 points each, so that 65,000 will go a long way.

Get 65,000 Southwest Points!

If you’re like us and you have a business, it’s definitely worth looking into the options for their biz cards. There are two to choose from:

  • Premier: $99 annual fee, 6,000 anniversary points, no foreign transaction fees
  • Performance: $199 annual fee, 9,000 anniversary points, no foreign transaction fees, four upgraded boardings and more

For their Premier card, you can earn 65,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months. If you go with the Performance card, you can net a whopping 80,000 if you spend $5,000.

You’ll also get 3 points per $1 for Southwest purchases and can get a credit to use towards TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry. That’s a great perk for anyone who often travels internationally, as we do.

We use the Premier card for our business and are just fine with that. Using both a personal and a business card from Southwest is our top tip for Travel Hacking 101 if you can. I got both cards last year and earned the companion pass as a result.

When you get the Southwest companion pass, you can choose a companion who flies with you for basically nothing. On domestic flights, I pay $5.60 to add Rachel to my itinerary.

You get the companion pass for the remainder of the year that you earned it in plus the entire next year. Even though we stayed put in PV for eight months, we’re still going to rack up about 15 free flights with it.

I used points for my flights and added Rachel for pennies on the dollar. We’re saving at least $2,500 this year as a result. We’re going to hit a ton of shows on Phish tour 2021 as a result and get Rachel to #100!

Phish MGM Grand

We’ll be back in Vegas for Phish this Halloween.

Chase Ink Business

For business owners out there, we also highly recommend adding the Chase Ink card to your arsenal. We picked it up last year so we could have a cash-back business card with no annual fee.

There are two standard options for an Ink Biz account, both of which come at no cost. The only difference is the cashback – one has unlimited 1.5% cashback while the other offers 5% on select categories (office supply stores, internet/cable/phone). We went with the former as we don’t have internet or phone accounts for our business.

Both cards currently offer a $750 cashback bonus after spending $7,500 in the first three months. We’re pretty happy with our Chase Ink Business Unlimited card so far and plan to hang onto it.

Get $750 Cash Back!

Note: We are current cardholders of all of these Chase cards and will receive a points bonus if you sign up through our link. You still get the same promotion as you would otherwise and are really helping us out if you apply with our links. We do not have affiliate links for any of the other cards listed in this post.

American Airlines Advantage

If you fly with American Airlines often, it’s definitely worth it to pick up one of their cards. We grabbed their CitiBusiness Platinum Select card a few years ago and have held onto it mainly because they fly into Tri-Cities, the small regional airport nearest Rachel’s hometown.

The annual fee for that card is $99, but it’s waived in the first year. Their current promo is 65,000 points for spending $4,000 in the first four months.

We got their sign-up bonus two years ago and only just finished using the miles we got as a result. We’ve mostly used them to get between Johnson City and Detroit/Chicago and also got our flights from Denver back to Puerto Vallarta.

travel hacking 101 johnson city, tennessee

To Johnson City, Tennessee (for Free!)

If you’re just looking for a personal card, you can earn 50,000 points after spending just $2,500 in three months. The fine print is the same as the business card and both give you free checked bags on domestic flights for up to four companions.

With checked bags costing $30 per person these days, you’ll get your money’s worth in the 2nd year just by taking two one-way flights.

For travel hacking beginners and those not planning on making any big purchases in the next few months, their MileUp Mastercard is a solid choice. You’ll get 10,000 points and a $50 statement credit after spending just $500 in three months.

On the flip side, those with a bit more cash to burn can check out their Executive World Elite Mastercard. The annual fee is a bit steep at $450, but it gets you an Admiral Club membership in the process. That gives you access to over 50 airport lounges around the world, which is an awesome perk of Travel Hacking 101.

To explore all the various AA options, just click here.

United Explorer

We don’t fly United much these days, but we’ve had great experiences with points hacking with their cards. A few years ago, we both picked up their Explorer card before our epic South America trip.

A quick search of flights will show you that it is quite expensive to jet-set around the continent. Since you can redeem United points for any airline in the Star Alliance network, we managed to save a boatload of money.

We used my points to book flights from Medellin to Quito and then Guayaquil to Lima. A few months later, we used Rachel’s to get us from Santiago up to Brazil for Carnaval and then back from Iguazu Falls. There’s no way we could have pulled that trip off if we had bought those tickets ourselves.

Bom Carnaval!

Their current promotion is 60,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first three months. If you spend $6,000 in six months, you’ll get an additional 10,000 points.

The annual fee is waived the first year and goes up to $95 for year two. You also get free checked bags for you and a companion as well as two United Club passes to use per year. Those really came in handy for us on a couple of long trips. Layovers ain’t so bad with free champagne! Travel Hacking 101 wins again.

As with all the other major airlines, United has several options for both personal and business credit cards. Just click here to learn more.

Delta SkyMiles

As I mentioned earlier, we had some success with travel hacking with Delta a few years ago. It was actually our first experience, and to be honest it wasn’t the best one. I had a very difficult time cashing in my points to get that flight from Beijing to Detroit and they were not exactly pleasant to deal with.

A few months later, Rachel also signed up for their card and spent enough to earn the sign-up bonus. They denied it to her because she had apparently applied for one of their cards many years earlier, although she never got it or used it.

They offered her the sign-up bonus when she applied for the card and then denied it to her after she spent thousands of dollars on their card. Based on this terrible experience, we do not personally recommend using a Delta credit card and we avoid flying with them.

That being said, we realize they are a major airline and are still the best option for many people, especially for those in Atlanta, Detroit, or other hub cities. They do have several options for travel hacking credit cards. Just click here to explore them all.

Other Airlines

Just about every single airline has some sort of rewards credit card. This includes budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier. We had the Spirit credit card for a year, just because the bonus was a $200 credit on a flight and they were our best bet to get home from Phish Halloween one year.

It was great saving $200 on a flight, but that card was a waste of time. The sign-up bonus wasn’t enough to get even a one-way domestic flight, and you still have to pay for bags on this no-frills airline.

We would advise sticking to the major airlines or just using a general travel card like the aforementioned Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Travel Hacking got us to this floating hostel in Colombia.

Best Travel Hacking Credit Cards for Hotels

As I mentioned earlier, we don’t stay in hotels very often. We usually opt for an Airbnb so we can more comfortably work online. Once in a while, we’ll stay in hostels as we enjoy the social atmosphere of them.

We realize that most people quite enjoy staying in hotels and thus wanted to share some of the best travel hacking credit cards for hotels:

  • Hilton Honors
  • World of Hyatt
  • IHG Rewards
  • Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
  • Hotels.com Rewards Visa

Since it’s not really in our wheelhouse, we recommend reading up on the best hotel cards in this post from the Points Guy.

Final Thoughts on Travel Hacking

Well there you have it, folks – you’ve made it through our Travel Hacking 101 post! I hope you’ve learned something and are ready to start flying for free. Here are just a few final thoughts on travel hacking…

If you’re just starting out, we highly recommend going with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. We’ve had it for almost 5 years now and they have never offered a sign-up bonus this huge before.

Don’t go racking up a massive charge on a new travel hacking credit card at first unless it’s necessary. You can use the card for everyday purchases throughout the three months and can earn the sign-up bonus that way.

See if you can transfer any automated payments to your new card while you’re working towards a sign-up bonus. And just be sure to keep track of the account from the day it opens to make sure you don’t miss the cutoff.

Some people apply for multiple credit cards at once and spend a ton of money in a few months to get a ton of points. We can’t really employ that strategy, so we tend to get one new card each year.

You also have to be mindful of rules, such as the 5/24 rule with Chase. They will not approve you for a card if you’ve opened five or more accounts in the last 24 months with any issuer.

After you’ve earned the Chase Sapphire Preferred bonus, you’ll have $1,250 worth of points to use towards travel.

How awesome is that?! Go ahead and book a dream trip somewhere like Thailand and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Where will your travel hacking journey take you?

Next, we’d recommend picking one of the major airline cards that work best for you. We are partial to Southwest but it all depends on your location and where you want to travel to.

If you have a business and can meet the minimum spend amounts on both a personal and a business Southwest card, you may be able to earn their companion pass. It’s like the golden ticket of traveling and is such a great thing to have.

Whatever card(s) you get, make sure you sign up for every frequent flyer and loyalty program you can. Then use Award Wallet to keep track of all your points so you don’t let any of them expire.

Also, make sure you take note of when your account will renew. Many cards waive the annual fee for the first year, so you’ll want to know when the due date is coming up to decide if you want to keep it or not. Many times we’ve called to cancel a card and have been offered to keep it for free or half the advertised rate, so that’s worth a try.

If you have any questions about travel hacking and how to get free flights, just leave a comment or send us a message. We want to help you travel the world and pay less for it!

Thanks for reading, and happy travels!

 

 

What’s your dream travel destination? Let us know in the comments, then start travel hacking to get you there!


 

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