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Travel hacking 101: A beginner’s guide to travel hacking like a pro

Travel hacking is all about optimizing your frequent flyer miles or points, in exchange for high discounts on travel. Your best hacks are to leverage credit card welcome bonuses and to note any generous routing deals on award flights.

When I started travel hacking 11 years ago, it was an obscure “hobby” that few had heard about and most dismissed as a scam. Nowadays, seemingly everyone is doing it to some degree. Whether getting in on the latest credit card promotion or snagging a first-class seat for the price of coach, travel hacking has become more popular than ever.

It’s the easiest way to save on travel and improve your experience. Utilizing travel hacking methods, you can fast-track your way to top-tier elite status and earn frequent flyer miles without ever stepping on a plane.

There is endless information about maximizing every dollar (and mile) spent. But if you’re new to this “game” and just want a simple explanation of how it works, you’ve come to the right place.

Here is everything you need to know about getting started with travel hacking.

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking involves earning frequent flyer miles or points through non-traditional methods and redeeming them for nearly-free travel.

The most common travel hacks include leveraging credit card welcome bonuses for premium cabin flights and taking advantage of sweet spots and generous routing rules to get the best deal on award flights.

How much are points and miles worth?

Points are worth 1-2 cents each, depending on the loyalty program and how you use them. You’ll generally get the highest value by redeeming points for premium cabin flights and luxury hotel stays. Some programs impose a fixed value on points, depending on the fare cost. For example, Southwest Rapid Rewards points are worth 1.3 cents towards Wanna Get Away fares.

The same goes for transferrable rewards. Most of them are worth at least one cent each towards direct travel bookings. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards® are worth 1.25 cents each towards direct travel bookings for Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card cardholders and 1.5 cents for those with a Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

The difference between points, miles, and rewards

Points, miles, and rewards are different types of loyalty currencies. There are exceptions, but airlines usually issue miles, while points come from hotel loyalty programs or bank rewards.

A good travel hacking strategy involves having a mix of all three currencies.

Transferable rewards

Thanks to their flexibility, transferable bank rewards are the gold standard of loyalty currency. You can transfer them to airline miles or hotel points, usually at a 1:1 ratio or better.

Examples of transferrable rewards include Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One Venture Rewards miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards®, and Citi ThankYou® points.

Airline miles

You might be wondering if it’s worth earning airline miles when you can just transfer your bank rewards points instead.

Well, you should earn airline miles from a co-branded airline credit card for several reasons. For starters, you can supplement welcome bonuses from airline cards with a bonus from a transferrable rewards card to reach your travel goals faster.

In addition, some airlines incentivize you to earn miles (through a co-branded credit card or otherwise). For example, American Airlines counts all co-branded credit card spending towards elite status. Meanwhile, Southwest Rapid Rewards issues the Companion Pass after you earn 125,000 points in a calendar year (which increases to 135,000 next year). Earning airline miles can pay off.

Hotel points

Hotel points can go a long way in reducing out-of-pocket travel expenses. You can earn hotel points from co-branded hotel credit cards, by shopping online, and even by participating in surveys. Hotel credit cards offer generous welcome bonuses, with perks like elite status and annual free nights.

Examples of hotel points you should consider earning include World of Hyatt, Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors, and IHG One Rewards.

How to start travel hacking

Travel hacking is fun and rewarding but can also be a lot of work. There is a wealth of information about ways to earn and burn points for maximum value. But if you’re just learning and want to know the basics, here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started.

Step 1: Set a goal

Before you embark on your travel hacking journey, you’ll want to set a goal. Are you hoping to redeem miles for international travel? Or perhaps you’re saving up for a family trip to Disneyland. Regardless of your goals, it’s important to identify them early on to determine which credit cards and loyalty programs will help you get there.

Step 2: Choose your rewards program(s)

Once you’ve determined your travel goals, it’s time to pick your loyalty programs. Start with your home airport; if you live in an airline hub city, that airline can be a good starting point. There’s no sense in earning Southwest points if you live in Alaska. You might be better off with the Alaska Mileage Plan program since the airline serves the region and offers domestic and international partners. You’ll have more opportunities to redeem miles, and if you fly the airline often enough, you’ll even earn elite status.

When choosing a loyalty program, keep partner airlines in mind. For example, if you’re saving up for a Hawaiian vacation and want to fly United, you should consider collecting Turkish Miles&Smiles instead. Turkish Airlines is a Star Alliance member, like United, and offers domestic United flights for just 15,000 miles round-trip in economy. Exploring partner programs can help you save on award travel, stretching your miles further.

Choosing a hotel loyalty program might be easier. Think about which hotels you like when traveling and which elite benefits you care about. Most hotel loyalty programs let you earn top-tier status from credit cards alone, so think about which programs offer the best perks and properties in the destinations you like to travel to.

Here’s a look at every major hotel program’s global footprint to help you choose:

While it’s good to identify at least one airline and hotel program, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Try to collect at least one transferable rewards currency, so you’re not limited to only a few programs.

Transferrable rewards can also protect you against program devaluations — if one airline or hotel increases its redemption requirements, you can transfer your points to another.

Here are some of the most popular transferrable rewards programs:

  • American Express Membership Rewards®
  • Bilt Rewards
  • Capital One Miles
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Citi ThankYou® Rewards

Step 3: Choose a credit card

Once you’ve identified the loyalty program you want to earn points with (and incorporated at least one transferrable currency), it’s time to find a credit card.

When choosing a credit card, you should consider the following features:

Welcome bonus

A high welcome bonus will help you achieve your travel goals much faster. Some credit card bonuses are high enough to cover a round-trip international business class ticket. You’ll incur a 2-5 point credit score hit from every inquiry, so make it count. You should aim for a welcome bonus of at least 50,000 points, and plenty of cards meet that criteria.

Credit card application rules

Remember that some banks have strict application rules when applying for credit cards. For example, American Express limits welcome bonuses to one per lifetime. Meanwhile, Chase’s infamous 5/24 rule prevents you from being approved for a new card if you’ve had five or more in the last 24 months.

Be sure to familiarize yourself with these rules before applying for a card to avoid unnecessary rejection.

Travel perks

Many travel rewards cards come with valuable perks like elite status, airport lounge access, airline fee credits, and annual free nights. Think about which of these perks you’re likely to maximize every year. Doing so can help you choose the best credit card and figure out if the card is worth renewing every year.

Annual fees

Travel hacking can get expensive if you’re not careful about annual fees. Rewards credit card annual fees range from $89-$695. It’s easy to get tempted by a high welcome bonus, but annual fees can dent your travel budget if you’re not careful.

Before settling on a credit card, explore the lower or no-annual-fee version to see if it’s a better fit.

For example, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card may seem appealing with its welcome bonus, but you’ll pay a lower annual fee with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.

Step 4: Other ways to earn points

Credit card welcome bonuses are the fastest way to earn points, but they’re not the only way. You can earn points from shopping portals, dining rewards programs, completing surveys, and more.

Shopping portals:

Dining rewards programs:

Airline companion passes

Airline companion passes are one of the best travel hacking tools to stretch your points further. Some passes are issued annually as a credit card benefit, while others have to be earned. In most cases, you can save 50% or more on airfare with a companion pass.

Here’s a look at companion passes you should consider adding to your travel hacking arsenal:

Alaska Airlines Famous Companion Fare

The Alaska Airlines Famous Companion Fare is a great travel hacking tool for west coast flyers. The pass is issued as part of the welcome bonus on the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card and reissued annually. Considering the Alaska card has a reasonable annual fee, this is a terrific benefit.

Simply book a companion on the same flight and pay just $99 (plus taxes and fees).

American AAdvantage

You can get an American Airlines Companion Certificate from one of four co-branded credit cards. The spending requirement ranges from $20,000 to $30,000 per year. Once you’ve secured the certificate, you can use it to cover a companion’s airfare for just $99 plus taxes and fees.

  • Barclays Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard: Spend $20,000 in a year
  • AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard: Spend $20,000 in a year
  • AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard: Spend $30,000 in a year
  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard®: Spend $30,000 in a year

The American Airlines Companion Certificate is only valid on round-trip economy class tickets within the contiguous U.S. For Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Island residents, the pass is good for round-trip flights originating in those destinations.

British Airways Travel Together Ticket

The British Airways Travel Together Ticket is issued to British Airways Visa Signature® cardholders who spend $30,000 in a calendar year. This perk can take the sting out of high fuel surcharges imposed on British Airways award tickets transiting through London.

The Travel Together Ticket is valid in all cabins, including first class and international fares.

Delta Companion Passes

Delta has two companion passes: one is valid on economy class tickets only, while the one issued through the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Card can be applied to first-class travel. You’ll pay just $80 for your companion’s ticket, which is a bargain — especially when using it for first-class flights.

Note that the Delta companion tickets are not valid on award flights or basic economy tickets.

Here’s a list of cards you can earn the companion pass with:

  • Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card

Iberia airfare discount

Iberia offers a $1,000 airfare discount on two tickets booked on the same flight. You can earn it by spending $30,000 on the Iberia Visa Signature® Card per calendar year. It’s valid in all cabins, providing ultimate flexibility.

Southwest Companion Pass

The Southwest Companion Pass is one of the most popular travel hacking tools out there. You can get one after completing 100 segments or earning 125,000 Southwest points in a calendar year, though the requirement is increased to 135,000 points in 2023. However, points earned from the Southwest credit card welcome bonuses count towards the pass.

It only takes one business or one personal card welcome bonus to earn the Southwest Companion Pass:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $1,000 within the first three months of account opening
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card: Earn 50,000 points after spending $1,000 within the first three months of account opening
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card: Earn 50,000 points after spending $1,000 within the first three months of account opening
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card: Earn 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 within the first three months of account opening

Redeeming points

You’ve accrued thousands of points and are ready to start booking your dream vacation. Now what? Redeeming points isn’t exactly easy, and that’s by design. Loyalty programs count on members not doing their due diligence to get as much out of their points and miles as possible.

While booking the first award that pops up in the search result is easy, that’s not the best way to stretch your points. Here are a few concepts you should familiarize yourself with to get the most out of your points:

Stopovers and open jaws

While a simple round-trip flight is great, you can stretch your points further by incorporating stopovers and open jaws into your flights.

A stopover is when you visit an additional destination on your way to your final destination or home. Several airline loyalty programs allow you to add a free stopover to award flights:

Open jaws are another great way to add a destination to your itinerary. An open jaw is when you return from a different destination than you flew into.

One example of an open-jaw ticket is if you fly from New York to London and then return home from Paris. Many people book this route with Avios because British Airways imposes hefty fuel surcharges on flights departing from London. Savvy travelers will take a train to Paris and fly back from Charles de Gaulle to save money.

But booking an open-jaw doesn’t have to be about saving money. It’s a great way to see multiple destinations on the same trip, especially in Europe, where connecting flights are relatively cheap. Here’s a list of loyalty programs that allow open jaws on round-trip award tickets:

Fourth and fifth night free

Some hotel programs offer free nights when you redeem points for consecutive nights at one property. These deals can help you save as much as 25% on an award stay. The most generous is IHG One, which offers a fourth night free to IHG Rewards Traveler, IHG Rewards Premier, and IHG Rewards Premier Business card members. Meanwhile, Marriott members and Hilton elites get the fifth night free on award stays.

These discounted award rates can help you save thousands of points and book extra free nights at no cost. Factor this into your award-booking strategy, and you’ll stretch your points further.

Take advantage of sweet spots

Sweet spots are awards that are significantly discounted compared to other loyalty programs. Both hotels and airlines have sweet spot awards that can help up your travel hacking game.

For example, Turkish Airlines offers round-trip economy class tickets between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii for just 15,000 miles. That’s what some loyalty programs charge for a one-way ticket, making this an excellent sweet spot award.

Summary

Travel hacking is all about finding ways to stretch your points further. You can do this with tactics like searching for generous credit card welcome bonuses, booking flights with stopovers and open jaws, taking advantage of hotel programs that offer free nights, and looking for airline sweet spots.

With a little bit of effort, you can travel hack your way to (nearly) free travel.

Happy travels!

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