For years now I’ve been using credit cards for pretty much every single one of my expenses. I have some simple rules that I follow to make sure I never run a balance or have to pay any interest, but I love how easy credits are to use, how easy it is to track my spending, how many built-in perks there are (like rental car insurance), and of course I love the rewards.
A few years ago I found a credit card from Fidelity that would give me 2% cash back on all of my purchases, and man was that sweet! It was like finding a 2% sale every single time I went shopping or paid a bill! I used it for years and loved it.
But recently I’ve been hearing more and more people talk about something called “travel hacking” and it’s blown my little 2% cash back scheme out of the water. To put it very simply, travel hacking is the process of taking advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses to score cheap, or even free, travel.
I’ll admit, I was pretty skeptical when I first heard about it. You have to continually open new credit cards, meet minimum spend requirements, keep track of rewards and stay on top of new offers. When I first heard about it, it honestly sounded like an easy way to get yourself into credit card debt or ruin your credit score in a search for cheaper plane tickets. So I stayed away.
But we do a decent amount of traveling. We live in Florida near my wife’s family and my family is in Boston. We like to get up there at least twice per year and that can get expensive, especially now that our oldest son is 2 and needs his own seat.
So I decided to give the whole travel hacking thing another look, and I can definitely see why people rave about it.
Today I am in Boston with my parents and brothers, ready to celebrate Christmas. I flew here with my wife and both of my boys, and the four of us paid absolutely nothing for our tickets. (We did have to pay $33.60 in taxes. I guess there are still some things you can’t use rewards for.)
Here’s how we did it.
First, a word of warning
The quickest way to free travel is by taking advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses. The way it usually works is you sign up for a credit card, spend a certain amount of money on it within a certain period of time (e.g. $3,000 within 3 months of opening), and then receive a big bonus in the form of points, miles, or something else.
This can work really well under the following conditions:
- You already use credit cards for most of your purchases,
- You would be spending the required amount anyways (no need for extra purchases),
- You have good credit, and
- You always pay your credit card balance in full at the end each month.
If any of those things aren’t true for you, then trying to take advantage of these rewards will probably end up hurting more than helping. The last thing you want to do is find yourself in credit card debt, which would far outweigh any of the benefits.
How I got my free flights
Okay, with that warning out of the way, here’s how I got my free flights.
First, I signed myself up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. At the time, that card offered a 50,000 point bonus if you spent $3,000 within the first three months of opening the card. Since we would be spending that amount of money anyway, it was an easy bonus to get.
At the same time, I signed my business up for the Chase Ink Plus business credit card, which offered another 50,000 point bonus after spending $5,000 within 3 months. Now, I don’t normally spend that much for my business, but at the time I had a few big expenses coming up that would allow me to hit that bonus (website design, Florida business registration).
A few months later, we signed my wife up for the same Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card that I had used above. That gave us another 50,000 points after spending the required $3,000.
Between the three sign-up bonuses and the points earned for our regular spending, we ended up with about 170,000 in Chase points that we could use in a number of ways, from statement credits (free money!) to travel. Even if we had only used the two personal cards, we would have had over 100,000 points.
We decided to use those points for travel, since that was the best way to get the most value out of them. We transferred 80,000 of those points to my Southwest Rapid Rewards account (their frequent flyer program) and used the points to pay for our trip to Boston instead of using cash. What would have been about $1,200 in plane tickets cost us absolutely nothing (other than that pesky $33.60 in taxes).
So that’s how we flew to Boston for free! And we still have about 90,000 points left over, which means we can probably get at least one more free trip out of them. Pretty cool!
Is this right for you?
If you’re like us and already use credit cards for most of your spending, this can be a really easy way to get some free money. Even if you don’t want to use it for travel, you can use the points for statement credits or even to shop with directly.
And honestly, the whole process was incredibly easy. Since we already use credit cards for pretty much all of our spending, and since we already pay our balances in full at the end of each month, none of this required any change in our daily behavior. The only extra effort was looking up which credit cards would offer us the best sign-up bonus.
There are people who are way better at this than I am. People like my friends Matt, Jacob and Holly know a lot more about how to find the best deals and how to get the most out of your points. There are even huge online forums dedicated to this exact subject. People get pretty intense with this stuff, and I’m nowhere near that level of expertise.
But it was certainly nice to fly back to Boston for free, and I will definitely be on the lookout for similar deals going forward.
Do you take advantage of credit card rewards? How do you feel about the idea of “travel hacking”?