How I Flew My Family Home for Christmas for Free

How I Flew My Family Home for Christmas for Free

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:

  1. You already use credit cards for most of your purchases,
  2. You would be spending the required amount anyways (no need for extra purchases),
  3. You have good credit, and
  4. 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”?

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11 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Patrick December 23, 2014

    Didn’t Chase have a $90 (or so) annual fee on this card? I know I tried to travel hack this one and ended up throwing in the towel because of the annual fee. Definitely up for giving it another go after seeing your post!

    • Andrew@LivingRichCheaply December 23, 2014

      The annual fee is waived the first year.

    • Matt Becker December 23, 2014

      Yep, what Andrew said. In some cases the annual fee is worth it for the bonus too. I actually just signed up for a card that will get me 50,000 more Southwest points and it came with a $99 annual fee, but I’m okay paying $99 to get essentially $750 worth of tickets.

  • Pauline December 23, 2014

    “Flew home”… interesting choice of words! I hope Florida does feel like home. Wishing you and your family a happy merry Christmas!

    • Matt Becker December 23, 2014

      Haha, yeah, you’re right. To be honest, Boston still feels like home to me.

      Hope you’re having a happy holiday as well!

  • Done by Forty December 26, 2014

    Hooray for travel hacking. I also came to the conclusion a couple years back that getting that 1 or 2% cash back had opportunity costs. No bueno.

    • Matt Becker December 28, 2014

      Yeah. I loved it just because it was so simple but there’s too much opportunity for these bonuses not to take advantage. It doesn’t even have to be all that complicated, though some people get WAY more advanced with it than what I’m doing here.

  • Mrs. Frugalwoods December 28, 2014

    Nicely done! We’ve been using credit card points for free hotel stays (through Starwood Preferred Guest) and free purchases on Amazon (with their cash back card), but we haven’t waded into free flights yet. Sounds like you got a great deal!

    • Matt Becker December 29, 2014

      Free hotel stays are pretty sweet too! I think it’s a good idea to wade in slowly and get comfortable with the concept before getting in too deep. I was definitely slow to move myself, and I’m still taking a relatively cautious approach. I would rather miss out on an opportunity than make a mistake that cost me.

  • Elisabeth January 6, 2015

    I’m starting to feel like I’m at a point of enough discipline with my credit card usage that I could try travel hacking, but the credit score thing is what is holding me back. Do you have a sense of how much it will affect the score? Do you plan to keep your cards open or close them?

    • Matt Becker January 7, 2015

      I haven’t been doing it long enough personally to tell you how it’s affected my credit score. But I’ve done a LOT of reading on the subject, and from everything I can see your credit score won’t be affected much either way as long as you do it responsibly. It may even go up. But I also think that’s dependent on you starting with a good credit score. I’m not sure how well any of this would work if you don’t already have a good credit history.

      As for cancelling, here’s a post I found explaining how to approach that: I actually just the other day called up one of my credit card companies and got them to change one of my cards to a different version without the annual fee. That lets me keep the credit history without paying the annual fee.

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