An Introduction to Travel Hacking

| February 21, 2018
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Somewhere around early 2016, my wife and I got the itch to go to Hawaii. I had never been there before, and she hadn’t been there as an adult. We both enjoy Scuba diving, and Hawaii has some of the best dives sites in the world. Plus, we hadn’t been on a relaxing beach vacation for over two years (woe are we). Hawaii is notorious for being expensive, and we wanted to go for about a week since it takes so long to get there from Nebraska. In fact, research suggests that it takes about eight days before being able to fully relax on vacation. However, we simply couldn’t afford a week-long trip to Hawaii…or so we thought.

When talking with one of my wife’s uncles who frequently visits Hawaii with his wife, he introduced us to the idea of travel hacking. Put simply, travel hacking is a way to travel for little cost by using airline and hotel miles and points, which are primarily earned through credit cards. Before I go on, it’s important for you to understand that using credit cards – particularly multiple credit cards - is not for everyone. When done incorrectly, or without a high level of organization, discipline, and self-control, credit cards can lead to major trouble with debt, interest, fees, and ability to obtain credit in the future. You must take this warning seriously. If you’re still interested, read on!

For years prior to that conversation with my wife’s uncle, I used a cash-back credit card with no annual fee for nearly all of my purchases. I had the mindset that cash-back cards were a flexible way to earn and spend rewards, when compared to cards that awarded miles or points. I thought that travel rewards were too restrictive – they had to be used on certain airlines or hotels, which may or may not have the lowest cost (or best value) flights or hotel rooms available. I could always use my cash for the most valuable flight or hotel room…or on a suit sale, or a Black Friday TV sale for that matter. I racked up hundreds of dollars of cash back each year, paid off my card each month to avoid interest, never paid a cent in annual card fees, and it actually was a pretty good deal.

What I didn’t realize is how much I was leaving on the table by requiring ultimate flexibility with my credit card rewards. Yes, I was earning hundreds of dollars of cash back each year. However, I could be earning THOUSANDS of dollars of rewards. Yes, thousands. Suddenly, that Hawaii trip didn’t sound so cost-prohibitive.

To make a long story short, that Hawaii trip was just the beginning of my wife and my journey into the world of travel hacking, and there isn’t a ton of useful information to share about how we used travel hacking on that trip. Fast forward about three years, and we’ve travel hacked our way to numerous trips, including a three-week trip to Europe. During our European trip, we used points to pay for our flights and almost all of our lodging, adding up to more than $9,000 of free travel (more on that trip in a future blog post). Earlier this month, we used points for free round-trip airfare to Orlando, and for two free nights at a Hyatt Place when we attended my grandmother’s memorial service. We also enjoyed The Club at MCO lounge at the Orlando airport, which was a very relaxing way to pass the time during our two-hour flight delay (see pictures).

Travel hacking comes with a ton of fringe benefits. We now visit premium airport lounges with free food and drinks when we need to pass the time, and we spend less time in security because we were able to get free Global Entry and TSA Pre-check. However, the most important benefit, by far, is that we actually get to travel to places we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to travel. It’s easy to blow travel budgets. It’s just as easy to write off certain vacations because you think you can’t afford them. Sometimes, that’s true. Other times, travel hacking can help you achieve your travel goals without blowing your travel budget.

It would be cruel to tell you all about the benefits of travel hacking without giving you some advice or resources of how to do it. I started my journey with advice from family, but one of the most helpful online resources I found was the Million Mile Secrets blog. Most travel blogs take commissions if you use their links to sign up for different products, so user beware. That said, there is a wealth (pun intended) of helpful information on many blogs out there, even if they do take commissions. Also, don’t forget that most of these strategies can make a big impact to your credit score (for the better, if you do it right), so check out Doctor of Credit for how to manage the effects to your credit.

I’ll post more about travel hacking in future blog posts, but for now, I just want you to know that there is a way to manage your travel goals with limited resources. In addition to travel goals such as leisurely vacations, there are unexpected travel expenses, like my trip to Florida after my grandmother passed away. Points and miles can help pay for those types of travel as well.

At first, travel hacking takes a lot of patience, research, and time. No matter how long you’ve been doing it, it will still require a lot of organization. It can also be frustrating when you find out you did something wrong and underutilized your rewards, paid an annual fee that you were trying to avoid, or maybe didn’t read the fine print and ended up wasting your points completely (guilty!). As you learn, though, it becomes easier, requires less time, and you can focus on enjoying your vacation without the huge bill. Still think that Hawaii vacation isn’t in the budget? Or how about that dream trip to Europe? Do some research, and you may be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.

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