Successful travel hacking requires two things: responsible credit habits and maximizing the benefits of travel credit cards. Master both and you'll unlock all those trips you’ve been dreaming about.

While it’s important to meet your savings goals and make a plan for paying off your student loans, it’s just as important to treat yourself for all the hard work you put in day in and day out.

And if one of your long-term goals is to travel more, there’s no better time to do so than when you’re young. Except there’s just one thing: travel is a big-ticket item that may not fit into your small-balance budget.

Enter travel hacking, aka maximizing the benefits of travel credit cards to score discounted flights and hotel stays. It can feel intimidating to get into the “travel hacking” game, but we’re here to explain how it’s done.

For the absolute beginner to travel hacking, here are five steps to lay the framework.

Step 1: Use Your Credit Card Responsibly

The foundation of travel hacking boils down to responsibly using your credit card. That means paying off your entire bill before the end of your statement period. If you find yourself missing payments and accruing late fees and interest charges, it’s essential to change up your credit habits before you move on from this first step.

A gif of RuPaul saying, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Source: Giphy.com

Unfortunately, travel credit cards are pretty unforgiving and come with high APRs — so you really don’t want to miss any payments. Not to mention, the value of any points or miles that you earn from a travel credit card will essentially be negated by charges that you rack up from the credit card company.

Finally, you’ll need to have a good to excellent credit score to qualify for a travel credit card, so getting your credit in shape is the most critical step to delve into the world of travel hacking. For those without any credit cards in their wallet, apply for one of our best beginner credit cards and practice using a credit card responsibly for at least one year.

The first step may seem like the biggest barrier to entry, but slow and steady wins the race. Once you feel confident that you can manage multiple credit cards, the next few steps will feel like a breeze.

Read more: Helpful Tips for Maintaining a Good Credit Score

Step 2: Outline Your Dream Trip

Here comes the fun part: thinking about your first trip using credit card rewards!

A gif of a Millennial man dressed in shorts, climbing down from a private plane and lowering his sunglasses.

Source: Giphy.com

You’ll want to plan for the long-term — at least 6 to 12 months out. Who do you want to go with? Where do you want to go? For how long? Write down the rough details of your trip so that you can stay focused and work towards accomplishing these goals. This will also help inform which travel credit cards to apply for in step three.

For example, my friend wanted to treat her mom to a week-long trip to Spain, complete with business class seats. By applying and spending on the right travel credit card, she made this trip happen with points just eight months later.

Step 3: Apply for a Travel Credit Card

There are so many travel credit cards on the market, and you may feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of options available. It’s important to know that the best travel credit cards are ones that aren’t tied to any airline or hotel loyalty program.

Rather, you’ll want to apply for a credit card that’s issued by a bank. Our personal favorites include:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • American Express Membership Rewards®.
  • Citi ThankYou® Rewards.

Trust us — you can’t go wrong with the four cards we’ve listed below. No matter which one you end up with, you’ll want to spend on the card for 6 to 12 months and earn the sign-up bonus. Then watch the points fly in.

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

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In A Nutshell

The Chase Freedom Unlimited® opens up with a terrific intro offer; earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) – worth up to $300 cash back! Tack on a 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers (standard 18.74% – 27.49% Variable APR) add to that a strong everyday rewards program and it’s a terrific option for anyone looking to save a ton of money on everyday purchases.

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Credit Score Requirements: Credit Score requirements are based on Money Under 30’s own research of approval rates; meeting the minimum score will give you the best chance to be approved for the credit card of your choice. If you don’t know your credit score, use our free credit score estimator tool to get a better idea of which cards you’ll qualify for. *Money Under 30 uses a FICO 8 score, which is one of many different types of credit scores. *A creditor may use a different score when deciding whether to approve you for credit.
Poor 500-599
Fair 600-699
Good 700-749
Excellent 750-850

What We Like:

  • Intro Offer: Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 in the first year) – worth up to $300 cash back!

  • Unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

  • 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months; then a variable APR of 18.74% – 27.49%.

  • Intro Offer: Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!
  • Enjoy 6.5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, our premier rewards program that lets you redeem rewards for cash back, travel, gift cards and more; 4.5% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and 3% on all other purchases (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year).
  • After your first year or $20,000 spent, enjoy 5% cash back on Chase travel purchased through Ultimate Rewards®, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.
  • No minimum to redeem for cash back. You can choose to receive a statement credit or direct deposit into most U.S. checking and savings accounts. Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open!
  • Enjoy 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 18.74% - 27.49%.
  • No annual fee – You won’t have to pay an annual fee for all the great features that come with your Freedom Unlimited® card
  • Keep tabs on your credit health, Chase Credit Journey helps you monitor your credit with free access to your latest score, real-time alerts, and more.
Annual Fee
$0
Regular APR
18.74% - 27.49% Variable
Intro APR
Intro APR Purchases 0% Intro APR on Purchases for 15 months , 15 months
Intro APR Balance Transfers 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers for 15 months , 15 months

Apply Now >>

The Chase Freedom Unlimited® is a popular cash back card, but it still earns points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program. You can use these points toward travel and there’s no annual fee, making it a great option for those on a more limited budget.

Cardholders earn 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3% back on dining and drugstore purchases, and 1.5% back on all other eligible purchases.

That may not seem like much, but these bonus points add up quickly over time. When it comes time to use up your points, you can redeem for flights, hotels, rental cars, and more for 1 cent each through the Ultimate Rewards® portal.

Tip: Earning 1.5% cash back is interchangeable with earning 1.5x points on all purchases. This can help ease the confusion when calculating your bonus rewards. For example:

  • A $500 flight purchased through Chase (5% back) will get you 2,500 Ultimate Rewards® points.
  • A $100 restaurant purchase (3% back) will get you 300 Ultimate Rewards® points.
  • A $50 Amazon purchase (1.5% back) gets you 75 Ultimate Rewards® points.

Pros

  • No annual fee.
  • Earn at least 1.5% cash back on all purchases.
  • Introductory 0% APR period for 15 months.

Cons

  • Charges a 3% foreign transaction fee, so avoid using when traveling abroad.
  • Points are only worth 1 cent each toward travel.

Apply now or read our full Chase Freedom Unlimited® Review.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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In A Nutshell

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card sets the standard for travel rewards by offering an excellent 5x points on travel purchases through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x points on dining and 2x points on all other travel purchases. And points are worth 25% more when you redeem travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® – That means the killer 60,000 point sign-up bonus is worth $750 towards travel.

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Credit Score Requirements: Credit Score requirements are based on Money Under 30’s own research of approval rates; meeting the minimum score will give you the best chance to be approved for the credit card of your choice. If you don’t know your credit score, use our free credit score estimator tool to get a better idea of which cards you’ll qualify for. *Money Under 30 uses a FICO 8 score, which is one of many different types of credit scores. *A creditor may use a different score when deciding whether to approve you for credit.
Poor 500-599
Fair 600-699
Good 700-749
Excellent 750-850

What We Like:

  • A monster of an up-front bonus; 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months.

  • 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3X points on dining, 2X points on all other travel purchases, plus more.

  • Points are worth 25% more when you redeem travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
  • Get complimentary access to DashPass which unlocks $0 delivery fees and lower service fees for a minimum of one year when you activate by December 31, 2024.
Annual Fee
$95
Regular APR
19.74% - 26.74% Variable
Intro APR
Intro APR Purchases N/A , 0 months
Intro APR Balance Transfers N/A , 0 months

Apply Now >>

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is one of the most beloved travel cards on the market. There’s a $95 annual fee, but you’ll quickly realize that it’s worth the price tag given how many travel benefits come with the card.

Similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited® mentioned above, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® earns rewards through the Ultimate Rewards® program. However, your points are more valuable and are worth at least 1.25 cents each.

For travel bookings made through the Ultimate Rewards® portal, your points are worth 25% more (1.25 cents each), stretching the value of your rewards even further.

However, the real “secret” to the card is that cardholders have access to Chase’s 15+ airline and hotel transfer partners. This is where travel hacking 101 kicks in: you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards® points at a 1:1 ratio to popular loyalty programs like World of Hyatt, Southwest Rapid Rewards®, and United MileagePlus.

Research the sweet spots of the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program, and you can score lie-flat business class seats to Europe for just 34,000 points, all-inclusive Hyatt resort stays for just 12,000 points per night, and more. This is where you can find 2 cents of value per point — or potentially even greater — by maximizing your rewards.

Read more: How Travel Hackers Use Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Tip: Travel hackers love to use a two-card strategy and carry both the Chase Freedom Unlimited® and the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. Pay for travel (up to 5x points) and dining purchases (3x points) with the Chase Sapphire Preferred®, and pay for all other life expenses (1.5x points) with the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. Then, combine your points together to accumulate a mountain of Chase Ultimate Rewards® points!

Pros

  • Transfer your Chase points to 15+ airline and hotel loyalty programs.
  • Annual $50 hotel statement credit for reservations booked through the Ultimate Rewards® portal.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Trip cancellation and interruption insurance, baggage delay insurance, primary rental car insurance, and more.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee.
  • No introductory APR period.

Apply now or read our full Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Review.

Citi Premier® Card

Apply Now On the Citi Secure Website

In A Nutshell

The Citi Premier® Card kicks off with a limited-time 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Point intro offer after spending $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.  The everyday rewards program offers 3 points per dollar spent in a variety of categories and has no foreign transaction fees.

Read review
Credit Score Requirements: Credit Score requirements are based on Money Under 30’s own research of approval rates; meeting the minimum score will give you the best chance to be approved for the credit card of your choice. If you don’t know your credit score, use our free credit score estimator tool to get a better idea of which cards you’ll qualify for. *Money Under 30 uses a FICO 8 score, which is one of many different types of credit scores. *A creditor may use a different score when deciding whether to approve you for credit.
Poor 500-599
Fair 600-699
Good 700-749
Excellent 750-850

What We Like:

  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.  These points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards at thankyou.com

  • Three points per dollar spent at Gas Stations, Supermarkets, Restaurants, Hotels and on Air Travel

  • No foreign transaction fees

  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases
Annual Fee
$95
Regular APR
19.74% - 27.74% (Variable)
Intro APR
Intro APR Purchases N/A , 0 months
Intro APR Balance Transfers N/A , 0 months

Apply Now >>

The Citi Premier® Card earns travel rewards points through the Citi ThankYou® program, and at a favorable 3x point earning rate on a diverse number of bonus categories. Plus, the Citi Premier® comes with a limited-time increased offer for new applicants, at 80,000 bonus points after $4,000 in spend in the first three months of account opening.

You’ll want to save up your points to transfer them to Citi’s 15+ airline and hotel partners, including Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Avianca LifeMiles, Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles, and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.

For example, you can score a 7,500 one-way flight to Hawaii with Turkish miles or a one-way business class flight to Europe for 50,000 Virgin Atlantic miles.

Tip: Most of Citi’s transfer partners are international airlines, but don’t fret. Leveraging these airline loyalty programs is actually the best way to score immense value from your credit card rewards.

Pros

  • Elevated welcome offer of 80,000 bonus points.
  • Strong rewards rate on everyday purchases and travel.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Points transfer to Citi’s 15+ airline and hotel transfer partners.
  • Annual $100 hotel statement credit for bookings of $500 or more through thankyou.com.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee.
  • Lacks travel insurance benefits that come with competing rewards cards.

Apply now or read our full Citi Premier® Card Review.

American Express® Gold Card

  • Credit score required: Good to Excellent
  • Annual fee: $250
  • Interest rate: 17.49-24.49 % variable APR
  • Welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 or more in the first three months of account opening.
  • What we like:
    • Up to $120 in annual Uber Cash credits.
    • Up to $120 in annual dining credits for participating restaurants.
    • Earn 4x points on U.S. supermarkets (up to the first $25,000 spent annually, then 1x), 4x points on restaurants worldwide, 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through Amex Travel, and 1x point on all other eligible purchases.

Last but not least, the Amex Gold Card is a terrific card that’s rewarding for both travel and everyday purchases. It earns a whopping 4x points on restaurants worldwide and U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 spent annually), making the Amex Gold an ideal card for foodies.

The card also participates in the American Express Membership Rewards® program, where you can transfer your points to the issuer’s airline and hotel transfer partners like Air Canada Aeroplan, Delta SkyMiles, Marriott Bonvoy, and more. Travel hackers love the Amex Gold since the points add up so quickly and transfer to a myriad of useful partners to squeeze 2 cents (or more) of value per Membership Rewards® point.

Tip: American Express offers countless ways to redeem your points on its portal, such as gift cards, Amazon purchases, and more. However, resist the urge to spend your points for anything other than transferring to travel partners — this is the only redemption opportunity to score an expensive business class flight for a fraction of the cost in points.

Pros

  • Access to Amex’s 20+ airline and hotel transfer partners.
  • Excellent rewards rate for foodies.
  • No foreign transaction fees.

Cons

  • Steep annual fee.
  • High purchase APR.

Read more: Amex Gold vs. Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Best Travel Hacking Credit Cards: Overview

 Annual feeInterest rateWelcome bonusPoints value
Chase Freedom Unlimited®$018.74% - 27.49% Variable
Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 in the first year) – worth up to $300 cash back1 cent each
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card$9519.74% - 26.74% Variable
Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 or more in the first three months of account opening1.25 cents to 2 cents each
Citi Premier® Card$9519.74% - 27.74% (Variable)
Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 or more in the first three months of account openingAround 2 cents each
American Express® Gold Card$25017.49 - 24.49% variableEarn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 or more in the first three months of account openingAround 2 cents each

Step 4: Redeem Your Rewards

After 6 to 12 months of card spend, you will have accrued thousands of points in your account. Now, it’s time to redeem your rewards and make that trip happen!

It would take too long to list out the sweet spots of every credit card transfer program, but fortunately there are tons of resources online to help you score your dream flight or hotel stay. Below, we’ve listed some of the best transfer partners from the three programs we discussed (Chase Ultimate Rewards®, Citi ThankYou® Points, and American Express Membership Rewards®).

Chase Ultimate Rewards®:

  • Air Canada Aeroplan.
  • British Airways Executive Club.
  • Iberia Plus.
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer.
  • United MileagePlus.
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.
  • World of Hyatt.

Citi ThankYou® Rewards:

  • Avianca LifeMiles.
  • Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles.
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer.
  • Wyndham Rewards.
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.

American Express Membership Rewards®:

  • Air Canada Aeroplan.
  • ANA Mileage Club.
  • British Airways Executive Club.
  • Iberia Plus.
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer.
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer.
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.

Step 5: Think About Your Next Move

Making your first points redemption is a huge deal, and you’ll quickly realize it’s not so difficult after all. Not to mention, it’s incredibly satisfying to know that you paid for an entire flight or hotel stay using points and miles.

Travel hacking is an ongoing hobby, and you’ll want to think about your next move. Do you want to keep putting your everyday spend on one (or two) cards? Do you want to add new cards to your wallet to earn a big welcome bonus or other unique travel benefits?

Read more: How Many Credit Cards Should You Carry?

But if you’ve reached this final step, congratulations! You’ve mastered travel hacking 101 and can unlock a world of travel possibilities.

Summary

A question I’m often asked is, “How do you travel so often?” The photos of lie-flat seats with champagne in the sky and oceanfront resorts only tell a fraction of the story. Travel hacking has enabled these aspirational trips to places far and wide — and you can do the same, too.

Featured image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

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