Don’t know how people are traveling the world for free? Read this.

hooha

hooha

This post is for anyone who arrives at this site expecting a traditional travel blog and has no idea what to make of any of the posts here.

So let’s get to it.  What is all this talk of credit cards and frequent flyer programs and all this “travel hacker” stuff?

What is “travel hacking”?

Travel hacking is a strategy for travel that includes (among other things) signing up for credit cards just for their bonus of miles (frequent flyer miles) or points (could be anything…hotel points, airline points, travel reimbursement points, etc.)

Now, of course we wouldn’t be “travel hackers” if we didn’t have a few tricks up our sleeves.  The basic idea is that we try to be as informed as possible about the travel rewards cards that exist.  We like to know what we’re earning and what those miles or points can be used for, whether or not there’s an annual fee, what the other perks of the cards are, etc etc.  And we like to make sure that we’re winning, not the credit card company.  Credit card companies do these things because they want to win long-term users who will spend with them forever and ever.

But you don’t have to.

The credit card bonus…

Let’s say a credit card gives you a bonus of 50,000 points.  Well, with nearly all of these cards, there’s a catch.  You won’t usually receive that bonus right away.  In fact, most times you won’t receive it at all if you don’t meet the stipulations for that bonus.  What are the stipulations?  Usually it’s this: Spend X amount of money in X amount of days or months.

The reason the credit cards set up this stipulation is pretty obvious.  They want you to get used to using their card.  If you’re choosing that card for the first three months you have it so that you can reach that spend requirement, they believe you’ll likely use it the next months too, either out of habit or because you’re noticing the other miles or points you’re earning for your spending.

Earning as you spend…

You see, the bonus isn’t the only thing you earn.  You earn a certain amount of points per dollar spent too.  Generally this is 1 point or mile per dollar spent for general spends, and then perhaps more for special categories.  Like 2 points per dollar when spending with our airline or our hotel or something like that.  Or even 5 points per dollar spent at an office store or something.

So back to our scenario.  Let’s say you’ve diligently been using your travel rewards card for all your spending and you’ve earned the bonus.  Keep using that card to keep earning?  You can if you want to but you don’t have to.  Especially if there’s another great card out there for you to get…

 

 

Isn’t that bad for your credit score?

One of the first questions we get when people find out we get so many credit cards is “isn’t that bad for your credit score?

I talk about this more in my having a good credit score post, but I’ll go over some basics here.

Let’s set the first myth straight. This myth about “too many credit cards” being a bad thing.

It is not bad for your credit score to have lots of credit cards.  In fact, (and here’s the most important part,) if you are responsible with them all, it is better for your credit score to have lots of open lines of credit (lots of credit cards or multiple types of credit).  We’ve seen this proven time and time again that a person’s credit score will go up as they start to get more credit cards.

 

I can’t stress it enough though, a good credit score depends on being responsible with credit.  

 

What does “being responsible” mean specifically? 

Being responsible with your credit means ALWAYS making on-time payments and not carrying high balances on your card.  If your credit card has 80% of it’s credit limit in use…well..then maybe you SHOULDN’T be getting lots of credit cards because the goal is to have little to no balance on your cards.

You can have lots of cards, but you still have to be smart…

So we’ve already said that having lots of credit cards can be a great thing for your credit score.  Another thing that’s good for your credit score, however, is having old lines of credit (credit cards.)  It’s like being a long-term customer.  If you have a no-annual-fee card that you’ve had since college but never use any more, don’t cancel it just because there are other cards you’re now interested in getting.  Keep it.  It may be your most important card even if you never use it again because it’s the card that will increase your average length of history.

For more information about that, read my post on no annual fee cards and why they matter.

 

What’s the difference between miles and points?

Back to travel rewards cards.

Travel rewards cards do not all earn the same thing.  I talk more about this in my post about “what are these cards earning us anyway?” so try to read that if you are confused, but we’ll talk about it here too.

I like to think of travel rewards currencies in three categories:

1.) Frequent Flier Miles

Cards created by an airline (in cooperation with a bank of course) are going to earn miles or points for that airline’s program.  To make things a bit more confusing, airlines call their points different things.  Many of them use the word “miles” but there are other terms.  British Airways uses “Avios”.  Delta has “SkyMiles” etc etc.

These miles are not literal miles.  In other words, earning 10,000 miles does not mean you can now get a free flight to someplace 10,000 literal miles away.  Each airline has it’s own award chart that will tell you how they price various tickets.

Generally, an airline’s mileage program will be priced either by zone or by distance (again though, not a literal 1 mile in currency= 1 mile in flight kind of thing).  Also, I won’t go into it here, but most of these airlines are part of alliances and will let you use their miles for partner flights.

2.) Hotel Points

Hotels have jumped on the loyalty program band-wagon and have their own “frequent traveler” programs too.  They too partner with banks to create credit cards that earn towards their loyalty programs.  These are almost always called “points.”

Many hotel cards will offer “free night certificiates” instead of point bonuses, but you will find lots of point bonuses too.

3.) Bank Points

As boring as they sound, bank points are very important to us travel rewards enthusiasts.  Basically banks too have created a rewards system that earns points for their own little rewards, but many of them have partnered with airlines AND hotels so that their members have an ability to transfer the bank points to a different program.  So, you can earn bank points and as you make travel plans, you can trade your bank points for “Soandso” miles or “soandso” hotel points, based on that bank’s transfer partner list.

These transfer partners differ from bank to bank.  For instance you could transfer American Express Membership Rewards to British Airways and Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United miles.

An extra note about Chase…

It’s important to understand that this is an actual transfer, sort of like exchanging money.  Chase offers a service in which it will let you book travel with your points from their website.  This is not the same as transferring however, and is not a good value for you!  Instead, you must actually transfer the points to the program of your choice first, and then after they show up in your other account, book your travel via that airline or hotel program.  Read more about the intricacies of Chase’s points here.

Reimbursing bank points…

Some bank points have a different approach to travel rewards.  Instead of allowing you to transfer, they simply tell you that they will reimburse your travel.  Barclay Arrival Plus is one such card.  You earn their points as you spend on their card.  Then, if you have a travel expense at some point, you can use your points to reimburse that travel at a 1:1 ratio.

 

How do you spend these miles and points?

When you visit an airline’s website or a hotel’s website, most often you will simply navigate to the same booking area you would use for any other reservation.  Somewhere on this online reservation/search form, there should be an option to select “awards” or “rewards”.

 

That’s where I come in with my blog posts.  The simple act of booking your award travel has its own nuances.  For instance, finding availability, booking with partners, etc etc.  Using miles well is something Drew and I post about alot.

So for now, i’ll leave you to digest this chunk of info.  Hopefully you and the hipster kitten above can feel a bit less confused now.  If not, go to the right hand side of this site and sign up for our newsletter, after which point you’ll receive our Complete Guide to Miles Earning with Credit Cards.

Peace,

Carrie

 

13 Comments on “Don’t know how people are traveling the world for free? Read this.

  1. You guys are amazing. I recently discovered your blog and travel hacking in general. I commented on Drew’s post the other day about Irony. I’ve been a domestic traveler for years, but want to go internationally using these hacking skills. I just hope I can get my credit score good enough to qualify. You should do a post (If you haven’t already) on what it takes to get certain cards or improving credit. Thanks for a great blog!

    • Glad you found your way to the blog Danny! That is an interesting post idea. I may have to toss that idea over to Drew though, as I don’t feel knowledgable myself.

  2. hi. fun Blog here. I love that you had a name for me… Travel Hacker! Ive been doing this for years my biggest spends have been taking my family of four to disney two times for 14 & 10 days free airfare, Free rental car and free hotel. But I am definitely amateur and a bit leery of of it all. So yes my husband and i have the excellent credit score after 100+ credit cards thru the past 15 years… but Im always confused about when to close them. Here and there about 2 a year Ill close something and haven’t looked to see if it directly affected me. So when and how often do you close cards? I feel secretly embarrassed living in a small town knowing people are are probably having access to my credit record from time to time. hmmmm

    • We actually try to downgrade any card that can be downgraded into a no-annual fee card, instead of canceling. This is possible for more cards than you’d think, but yes often times if we don’t feel the annual fee is worth it, we cancel before the annual fee kicks in for the next year. As long as we make sure to keep any of the cards that have no annual fees, our average length of history stays good enough for our score to have little to no effect from cancellations.

  3. Hiya! I’m new here. I stumbled across your husband’s site on an internet search for god knows what and became so intrigued that I’ve been pouring through both of your blog posts for days now. One thing I am having trouble understanding is, after you use up all the sign-on bonus points, how do you keep traveling for free? Do you need to repeat the same MS processes that got you the signup bonus (but for less rewards the next time around) or is it better to just get new cards? Also, if you cancel a card can you get it (and the bonus) again? If so, how long would you need to wait before you were eligible again?

    • Thanks for the questions!! And glad you found the site!

      Year after year, the main strategy is through credit card sign up bonuses, though every year the cards with the best bonuses may change. One year it’s one card, another year it’s another, so we get lots and lots of cards. But there is a strategy for it. Optimal amounts of time to wait between applications for instance (generally around 90 days), or which cards to keep and which ones not to. And different cards have different policies for whether you can get them again, or rather how long until you can get them again after canceling. That is different for each card. But like I said, if you have just canceled a card, no worries, there will be a different card that may be worth it to you depending on the bonus.

      And yes, meeting the spend requirements almost always requires some sort of MS. This is important because you do not want to start this hobby thinking you’re getting the good end of the deal and then say “Hey, I might as well buy this stuff because I need to meet my spend requirement anyway!” It should never cause you to buy more, just maybe strategize how or when you buy.

    • I am sure that it’s possible, but the only way I know that is because of a blog called “Head for Points“. Check it out! Hope it helps you out!

  4. Thanks Carrie 🙂 I love America and would like to visit more, so maybe I will pick up lots of tips thanks again

  5. This is an awesome blog guys. Very original and straight to the point. Without all the BS from the other travel blogs. My mind is about to explode with all this information. I notice you guys don’t have a contact tab, or i can’t find it. Do you guys have an email where i can send a private message? thanks

    • Thanks so much for the compliments! We don’t have an email posted online, but I’ll email you right now. We love chatting with readers, but having our email posted online meant that we got too many emails to keep up with. Look for my email shortly.

  6. Great blog + 411! Thank you!! I am a long time nomad and blogger but never quite so clever with the figures… at least not enough to earn junk. so my one question is this: You say: “What are the stipulations? Usually it’s this: Spend X amount of money in X amount of days or months.” AND: “Being responsible with your credit means ALWAYS making on-time payments and not carrying high balances on your card.” So it’s not really traveling for free is it? because all that stuff charged to credit cards has to be paid back(duh)– and right away to boot, in order to maintain the good credit flux…right? so how much liquid cash do you need … esp. to START out? How much do those “50,000 mile/point” bonuses usually *cost* in cold hard pay-back-time cash?? Seriously want to know. Need to budget correctly… so I can go on traveling “freely” forevaaaaahh!!! Thanxoxo

    • Great questions!
      So the usual strategy for meeting this spend requirement involves spending money on something that is itself money. Gift cards for example that can be used to pay off the very expense used to purchase them. Frequent Miler describes that process excellently here: http://frequentmiler.boardingarea.com/2016/01/07/manufacturing-spend-in-2016-and-beyond/.
      Unfortunately, those strategies are getting “closed down” so to speak, though there are still ways to do this.

      Still, as you say, it’s easier to do this when a person has some cushion for keeping money tied up through these strategies.

      To give you a bit of an idea- many 50,000 point bonuses require spending (or “manufactured spending, as the system above is nicknamed) somewhere around $3,000-$5,000 within 3 months. More likely around the $3,000 end.

      For most of us, it doesn’t mean actually spending $3,000-$5,000, but means finding a way to rack up that amount of expense on the methods described above.

      Some people aren’t comfortable with that. So for people who don’t want to “manufacture spend”, they may have to be more strategic about timing their credit card applications with other natural expenses. And in that case, it would generally mean spending ~$3,000.

      Hope that answers your question! And again, I definitely recommend the Frequent Miler post linked in this comment.

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