By Brian Robson
“Travel hacking” is when you work within the rules of airlines, hotels, and travel credit cards to earn rewards such as points and miles to put toward free travel. Despite its name, travel hacking is simple (and legal), and lots of people do it every day to save money and see the world. If you have ever wanted to take the family on a trip and just couldn’t afford the airfare, learning to travel hack can solve your dilemma.
Meet the experts
We reached out to the following travel rewards experts for their advice on choosing a travel card, maximizing rewards, and making the most of points or miles at redemption. Here’s what they told us.
Tip #1 – Take advantage of more than just free travel.
You might not know this, but travel credit cards are good for more than just earning points. Some of these cards grant you and your family access to additional perks. Ariana from TopCashback explains:
Airline miles or hotel loyalty points may seem like the only rewards, but think again! In addition to miles, some reward programs (such as American Express) give you access to airport lounges, restaurant and hotel concierges and deals on rental cars.”
Rewards programs may also offer opportunities for earning extra points with participating car rental services, hotels, and airlines. All the more reason to make sure you read up on everything your card has to offer.
Tip #2 – Choose cards with miles bonus incentives and flexible redemption.
Travel hacking is all about finding ways to earn miles and points faster while working within the existing rules. Cat Holladay from The Compass is Calling explains how some cards make that even easier:
“The key is to sign up for the cards with the most miles’ bonus incentive AND the most flexible usage. Several cards out there give 50-60,000 ‘miles’ after spending $3-4,000 in the first 3 months. 60,000 miles is the equivalent of 2 domestic tickets on many airlines, almost two international tickets on Singapore Airlines, and one international ticket on most carriers.”
Choosing a travel credit card with flexible redemption means more options when it’s time to redeem your hard-earned miles. Some top travel cards offer 1:1 rewards transfer to airline and hotel loyalty programs or discounts on travel booked through the card’s rewards program, and more. Others allow you to redeem miles for a travel statement credit, which means you can reimburse yourself for eligible travel purchases, no matter where you book. And, as Cat points out, many of them offer generous mile bonuses for spending a couple thousand dollars within the first few months.
Tip #3 – Maximize rewards on everyday purchases.
What kind of purchases do you make in your everyday life? Do you find yourself eating out more often than not? Are you brand loyal? It is wise to sign up for a credit card with a rewards program that aligns with those everyday spending habits.
“By signing up for a new credit card with a hefty welcome bonus and just doing your normal, everyday spending, you can accrue points or miles towards free flights (plus taxes or fees, generally low) or hotel rooms,” explains David Slotnick of The City Miler.
One of the best things about a credit card that rewards your everyday spending habits is that you don’t have to change anything. You don’t need to adjust how much you’re willing to pay for something just to hit a particular threshold, and you’ll earn your way toward a free trip in no time.
Tip #4 – Don’t opt for cash back.
Some cards let you cash in your points for a pre-paid gift card. While that might seem like a perk, it’s a colossal waste of points and miles. With most travel cards, you’ll get the best points redemption value for, you guessed it, travel. (Some travel credit cards even give you a nice redemption bonus if you book through their cardmember portal!)
“It’s tempting to exchange your points for cash back – you see the dollar amount beckoning to you on your screen, just one click away,” says Kaja Olcott of RewardExpert. “However, people need to know that it’s not necessarily the best value available to them. In fact, redeeming for air travel typically offers the most lucrative return.”
Tip #5 – Study loyalty program terms for extra points.
Travel isn’t the only category where loyalty programs exist to help you earn and spend points. In fact, quite a few travel credit cards on the market feature loyalty programs in other categories for dining, car rentals and more. Studying and understanding the terms of these programs is a great way to maximize your point accrual, according to Torsten Jacobi of Mighty Travels:
“Loyalty programs often offer bonus miles or points just for signing up to them for free. If you shop online, you can use various portals like MileagePlus Shopping and AAdvantage eShopping to earn as you spend and some loyalty programs also have dining programs so you can earn as you eat. You can earn with your car rentals, your mobile phone provider, when you buy an Internet service, order flowers and sometimes even when you buy or sell a property!”
Another way to earn extra points is with loyalty programs that let you “level up” in terms of spending and earning points. “Just for signing up you get 3 American Airlines points for every dollar you spend at participating restaurants,” explains Sean Ogle from Location Rebel. “Once you hit 12 transactions in a year, you get bumped up 5 points per $1 spent. So to give you an example, if you go out to a dinner and spend $100, you’ll get 500 Aadvantage points just for being part of the program. If you register one of your rewards credit cards, then you’ll also get points from them.”
Tip #6 – Consider a card with an annual fee.
No one likes to pay annual fees on their travel credit cards. However, in some cases, the annual fee is worth it, as Matthew Kepnes of Nomadic Matt points out:
“For those who travel a lot and fly a lot, I think it is worth it to get a card with a fee. Fee-based cards tend to give you a better rewards scheme, where you can accumulate points faster, get better access to services and special offers, and get better travel protection. With these cards, I have saved more money on travel than I have spent on fees.”
The cost of the annual fee can pay for itself several times over. This is especially true with cards that come with a generous sign-up bonus. For instance, if you opt for a card that nets you 60,000 points just for signing up, the cash back on those points could pay for the card for several years. It’s also worth noting that some of these cards offer to waive the annual fee for your first year.
Tip #7 – Be flexible.
Generally, flexibility is a good thing to have when life throws little curve balls at you. This is especially true for booking travel and redeeming hotel rewards. Some rewards programs help you save money or earn extra points if you are flexible about your departure date and are willing to shift things around. You might even be eligible for more rewards if you downgrade your hotel accommodations.
“Flexibility is key when trying to maximize airline and hotel rewards. Sometimes the award space will appear just days before your trip. If your travel dates aren’t flexible, book a backup itinerary and change it as better options become available.” – Scott Mackenzie, Travel Codex
It’s often important to opt for travel credit cards that have flexible spending and redemption bonuses. The same is true for how flexible you are in redeeming those points.
Tip #8 – Transfer points to partner programs.
Sometimes it pays to transfer your points to a partner program. Take it from the Financial Panther himself, Kevin. He explains:
“[Some card issuers have] a bunch of travel partners of which you can transfer your points over and get tremendous deals. For example, I have a friend this year, who is flying to Hawaii round trip from Minneapolis for 25,000 points! He did this by transferring his points to Korean air partner, who partners with Delta, and they have a deal where you can fly anywhere in the US roundtrip for 25k points.”
Some top travel credit cards feature 1:1 points transfer to several airline and hotel loyalty programs. That means you won’t lose any points if you decide to do like Kevin’s friend and transfer those points for a better deal.
These are just a few expert travel hacking tips you can use to earn free travel while making the most of your points. So don’t let the rising cost of travel stop you or your family from seeing the world. Take some tips from our panel of travel experts, and start making the system work for you