Travel Hacking 101: How to be Frugal without Sacrificing Travel

travel hacking 101

After quitting my job last year, I went from having money and no time to time and no money. Yet I flew to London, Iceland, Montana and Florida. I booked 4-star hotels in London, Paris, Gatlinburg and Orlando.

Had I paid all for all of that travel out of pocket I’d have spent thousands of dollars. The one way flight from Iceland to Cincinnati cost $1300 alone!

But I didn’t spend a dime.

How did I manage a year of epic travel without breaking the bank?

Travel hacking.

sunrise in big sky, montana
Sunrise in Big Sky, Montana

What the heck is travel hacking?

Travel hacking is the accumulation of credit card points for spending activity. Accumulate enough points and you can book flights, hotels, car rentals and more for free. The best part is that it’s extremely easy to do basic travel hacking that yields immediate results.

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

I don’t blame you for being apprehensive. When I first began reading about travel hacking, I was certain there must be a gotcha buried beneath the surface. Eventually I worked up the nerve to open my first travel rewards credit card. I chose the Chase Sapphire Preferred for a few reasons. First, it had a sign up bonus of 60,000 points if I spent $3000 in the first 3 months. I knew I could reach the minimum spend because I track all of my expenses monthly.

Chase claimed those 60,000 points were worth $750. Sure they are, I thought. I wonder how many hoops I have to jump through to try to use them. The phrase “blackout dates” from Capital One commercials rang through my mind. I was skeptical.

Campervanning Iceland

The second reason I chose the Chase Sapphire Preferred is because it is routinely rated the best all-around travel card out there. It isn’t tied to a specific airline or hotel group, so the points were flexible to use. I didn’t know what I would spend my points on yet, so flexibility was important to me.

Lastly, the annual fee was an affordable $95, waived for the first year. This gave me enough time to try out this whole crazy scheme before I had to pay any fees. If it did actually work, a roundtrip flight typically costs more than $95, so the bang was worth the buck.

I decided to dive in and try it out. 

To my surprise, it all worked exactly as described. After I reached the minimum spend, the points were deposited in my Chase Rewards account. I conducted a few searches within their travel portal and found no redemption exceptions.

My First Travel Rewards Trip

The first time I spent my points I spent them like the amateur that I was. I booked a roundtrip flight to Hawaii for my sister through Chase’s travel portal using all 67,000 points I had accumulated up to that point. This covered the entire cost of the flight, which was roughly $800 if paying without points. I had just scored a free roundtrip flight to Hawaii!

My first travel hacking trip to Hawaii

In hindsight, that initial use of my precious points is cringeworthy. A couple years later I learned how to maximize my points and spent only 25,000 points on another roundtrip flight to Hawaii. This time I ended up having to pay the taxes on the transaction. A whopping $11.

For the last 5+ years, I’ve been accumulating points and stretching them into some epic vacations. In addition to Hawaii, I’ve booked several other domestic roundtrip flights for free. I’ve spent 20+ nights in hotels around the world without spending a dime. Travel hacking is my jam.

Want to know what travel rewards credit cards are in my wallet?

Regardless of how bad I optimized my points from my first flight to Hawaii to my last, redeeming points for dollars I already spend is a pretty good deal. You don’t have to become an expert in travel hacking to get free travel. Traveling for less is good math any way you slice it.

Travel Hacking Caveats

Now that I’ve made travel hacking sound glorious and easy, there are a few caveats to consider before trying it out.

  1. Never carry a balance on your credit card. If you already violate this rule, do not even consider travel hacking. The cost of carrying a balance far outweighs any gains. I don’t talk about APR rates of cards for this reason. If I don’t carry a balance, the APR is 0%.
  2. Almost all cards with travel benefits have annual fees. Sometimes these annual fees are waived for the first year, other times not. There are two things I consider before opening a card with an annual fee:
    • Is the fee waived the first year? If so, proceed. If not, decide whether the points are worth more than the sign-up fee. This can be done by simply searching their reward portal to understand the value of their points (screenshot below). For example, search a hotel stay by selecting “use points”. The results will be provided in point value instead of dollar value so that you know how many nights you can get for your points.
    • When and how do I plan to use the points? I generally make sure I spend all of my points before incurring the annual fee. After spending my points, I close the card. If I get lazy and keep a card for a few years, I negated the bonus and essentially paid for my travel through annual fees. Hint: this is what credit card companies are counting on. Don’t be lazy.
marriott bonvoy portal screenshot
Select “use points” to understand how many nights you can get for your points

The point is, whether you want to travel like a nomad or just want to go on vacation this year, travel hacking can get you there. How far you take it is up to you. Happy travels!

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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Ryan

    Thanks for this.Fellow Cincinnatian as well! I just got the Sapphire Preferred and should be hitting the spending limit this week.

    1. Erin

      Thanks, Ryan! Always good to have a fellow Cincinnatian aboard! Congrats on reaching the spending limit. Happy travels 🙂

  2. Robyn

    I’ve dabbled in travel hacking but I have to work harder at optimizing my points! Its hard for me to reach the spend so I have to be careful of which credit cards I sign up for.

    1. Erin

      Any use of travel points is good use, but you can stretch them really far with some concerted effort. You got this 🙂

  3. wajeeha

    I LOVE this article, its so useful!

    1. Erin


  4. Adriane

    Thank you so much for this!

    1. Erin

      You’re welcome!

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