Thursday, January 28, 2016

HOW TO TRAVEL HACK + AN INTRODUCTION

I like to travel. And I travel a lot. I've been on nine separate trips in the past six months. At this point, I could pretty much do the whole TSA thing backwards with my eyes closed. I get a lot of questions as to how I'm able to travel so frequently — on my own dime. Enter: travel hacking.

Travel hacking: the art of collecting frequent flier miles and points in exchange for free flights

There are dozens of articles online about travel hacking. I stumbled upon the topic one day while researching and comparing the perks of airline credit cards. My two favorite authorities on the matter are Nomadic Matt and The Points Guy. Both websites are great resources for those interested in digging deeper into the art of travel hacking. Below I'll touch on some of the broad aspects of travel hacking.

Note: I use "miles" and "points" interchangeably below — really, they're the same thing.


LOYALTY PROGRAMS
All major airlines have loyalty programs. These are the programs that offer you elite status — the status that gives you priority boarding, concierge services, free checked bags and inexpensive or free seat upgrades. Unless you fly frequently, it might be difficult to accumulate enough points in a year to earn elite status. However, it's worth signing up for these reward programs.

For example, I fly Southwest Airlines a lot. I'm probably never going to accumulate enough points in a year to earn Southwest's A-List status. But as a loyalty program member, I receive special member-only emails and access to special airfare deals. Domestically, I usually fly for $200 or under roundtrip — that's a fantastic deal.

CREDIT CARDS
Before we get into this, it's important to note that travel hacking via credit card will only work for individuals with responsible spending habits. It's paramount that you pay off the card in full every month. If you don't, it'll cost you money, rather than make you free money.

Big credit card bonuses are really the key to travel hacking. But, choosing the travel credit card that's right for you can be difficult. In short, choosing a card that offers less than 50,000 sign-up points or miles probably isn't worth it — otherwise, it'll take too long to accumulate miles. Nomadic Matt has a wonderful, fabulous ebook that I couldn't recommend enough and would advise anyone to purchase that has additional questions about travel hacking via credit cards. And no, he isn't sponsoring this post — I just genuinely think his book is that great.

Aside from sign-up miles, you earn miles on a credit card based on how much money you spend with the card. That's why I put all of my expenses every month on a credit card. I look at it this way: I was going to spend the money on XYZ anyways, whether it came directly out of my bank account or I put it on a credit card. I might as well put it on a credit card in order to accumulate reward bonuses, and then I'll pay off the card at the end of the month. This simple choice rewards me with free money at the end of each month.


MAXIMIZING POINTS
Often, credit cards have "bonus" categories in which you can earn up to 5x the points you normally would. Categories might include groceries, gas stations, department stores, office supply stores, etc. Make sure to maximize your bonus category spending.

But, what am I supposed to do when my monthly bonus category is for gas stations? I don't even have a car in D.C. ... So, I know I need to add more money to my Starbucks card this month. Instead of adding money to it directly through the Starbucks app or paying for my drink via credit card in-store, I'll buy a Starbucks gift card from a gas station. This way, I'll earn the extra bonus points on my Starbucks purchase rather than the regular 1 point per dollar spent.

It's worth noting that some credit cards exclude gift cards from bonus category spending, so it's important to read the fine print or calling your card issuer if you're unsure.

Airline + credit card shopping portals are also a great way to maximize points. I do most of my shopping online anyways, so this is something I really take advantage of. Shopping portals are when airlines and credit card issuers partner with retailers to create their own special shopping portal to benefit themselves (as profit-seeking companies), but also to benefit the consumer by rewarding them for shopping through their partnership.By shopping through your credit card's (or airline's) portal, you can easily rack up bonus points, miles or cash back. You get the same product at no extra cost and it essentially allows you to stack rewards.

For example, I'll shop at Nordstrom or J.Crew online via my credit card's shopping portal. One time, my card was offering 5x the points at Nordstrom and 10% cash back on J.Crew purchases. When you have access to rewards like this, it's just silly not to take advantage of them.


AIRFARE DEALS
I've gotten good at recognizing a good deal on airfare. And the key is to jump on a good deal when you see it, rather than waiting and hoping the deal will get even better. Sorry to tell you, but chances are, it won't. I check my preferred airlines websites and routes weekly. For example, I know that a $200 round-trip weekend ticket from Washington, D.C. (DCA) to Milwaukee (MKE) is a good deal. And the likelihood of that price going down is very slim. I know that it's possible to find a $100 one-way ticket from D.C. to Los Angeles if you know where to look.

It's important to underscore how important it is to be subscribed to your preferred airline's email updates. Yeah, they can be annoying. But well worth the money saved when you can score a good deal. Many specials in the airline business are only sent via newsletter, so it's really worth your while to sign up.

Also, know your major airport hubs. Flying from hub to hub is a lot cheaper than flying to non-hubs. If possible, fly to a nearby hub airport rather than your preferred airport and take alternate transportation to your destination if possible. Obviously, this method will not work in all situations, but it's a good idea to have in the back of your mind.

There you have it, folks!

Travel hacking is a deeply technical technique and I only went over the broad strokes — I'd recommend doing some independent research if you're looking for a more comprehensive picture or are interested in trying it out yourself. Good luck!

19 comments :

  1. I have the Chase Sapphire card and I love it! We earn so many points, and I think we might be able to pay for flights to Boston to go apartment hunting! I should look at shopping through their portal, I bet I could save a lot !
    Awesome tips!
    xoxo

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    1. The Chase Sapphire + Chase Sapphire Preferred are two of my top recommendations for travel cards! But yes, definitely utilize the shopping portal!

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  2. Love this! My dad flies for free pretty much any time he flies and it's so nice, because I know that then he can spend more on what he does when he gets to his destination. Now that I'm 20, I want to start really racking up my own points so I can get some free flights :)

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    1. It's never too early to get into the travel hacking game — I wish I would've started sooner!

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  3. Wonderful tips! I especially love that you caution your readers against not paying off credit card debt in full each month. I think that's where a lot of new credit card users mess up, I know I did with my first credit card. xx Merisa | Monogrammed Magnolias

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    1. It's so easy to get overwhelmed with your first credit card — but travel hacking is all about earning free "money" (i.e. miles or points), not paying credit card balance fees. Sometimes it's really not easy choosing between paying the bill and a new pair of boots, haha!

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  4. These are fantastic tips! I fly often but haven't really researched many travel hacks, I know I need to learn more and maximize the benefits!

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    1. If you fly often, it's definitely worth your while to look into accumulating miles or points. I'm glad you found some of the tips useful!

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  5. You have such good tips here! I have to admit, I'm lost when it comes to this so it's so helpful to learn how to save on travel.

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    1. Thank you, I'm glad you found the tips helpful!

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  6. I really want to take advantage of this post. I want to travel a lot this year and this all seems so beneficial!
    xo
    Lauren

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    1. It definitely is — I love traveling, too. And while it costs money to travel, I don't think money should be a barrier. That's where travel hacking comes in!

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  7. Southwest miles is the greatest thing thats ever happened to me! Love this!
    www.kayleighskloset.com

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  8. I definitely need to get better at this. I'm a member of a few different frequent flier programs and I don't think I utilize them quite enough.

    All the Best,
    Allison | www.LiveLifeWellBlog.com

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  9. This is such great insight into travel hacking. I have heard about how feasible and rewarding it is, but this definitely puts it into perspective and makes it seem more doable. Thank you for sharing this!

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  10. Great tips! I also think there's an app that notifies you when a flight price drops!

    HashtagFabLife

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  11. I am so thankful that frequent flier miles are a thing! My dad travels SO much for work, and he's nice enough to share his miles with me when I want to travel!

    XO, SS || Seersucker Sass

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  12. This post is genius! I fly soooooo often, but I never use my FF number! It's so stupid not too! UGH!

    Nicole // Chronicling Home

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  13. I would love love LOVE to master the art of travel hacking! I definitely need to make use of these tips! I love to travel so much!

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