Yes, FREE PLANE TICKETS! Okay, $5.60. Or $11.20. But when compared to the hundreds of dollars flights normally cost… FREE.
If you’re American, you stand to benefit from a ridiculously competitive travel credit card industry. If you’re Australian or Kiwi, check out this site. UK Citizens can read up here. Canadians, try here or here. Or just google “travel hacking” + your country!
All you have to do is jump through a few hoops. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) accumulate any debt to make this happen.
It doesn’t matter if you’re dreaming about two weeks in Italy or already have your bag packed for a round-the-world adventure. If you don’t have a credit card earning you miles, get one today. Please, please do not make my mistake of putting this off for years. Don’t let fear of the unknown or your own ignorance stand in your way. It take 20 minutes to get this organized!
Welcome to “travel hacking.” You want to get free airline tickets? Start by getting the best travel credit card for you. Just one. Easy.
Update March 2017: I still recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred. aIn the past 18 months I’ve done a United Mileage Plus Explorer, a Barclays Arrival Plus, a Delta Sky Miles, then Chase Sapphire Preferred and finally a Chase Sapphire Reserve – which is the top card if you travel regularly and will take advantage of the benefits.. Here’s why it’s my number one recommendation:
- a fantastic bonus (50,000 miles)
- double points in lots of categories
- HUGE FLEXIBILITY in point use. Critically – you can transfer the points to any frequent flyer program on a 1:1 basis.
- more things I’ll explain down below.
(If you’re chomping at the bit to get started, just go get the Chase Sapphire. Otherwise, read on!)
Initial Spending Bonuses –
The spending you do within the first three months of opening your best travel credit card is your biggest and fastest free flights opportunity. Be sure to pick a card with an initial spending bonus requirement you can meet, but think outside the box on this one.
The biggest bonuses are attached to higher spending requirements. The low end is $1,000 in 90 days, and the high end is $3,000 – $7,500 – also in 90 days. If your life is not in the high dollar category, get creative! How?
When I got my first card, two good friends let me charge their car repairs. I picked up the tab as often as possible when out with people, later using the pile of group cash to pay the credit card bill. I kept my ears peeled for friends making high dollar purchases: people traveling, paying for school, etc. If you’re a charmer, you could even pull a Winona Ryder Reality Bites move. bShe hung out at a gas station asking people paying cash to let her charge their purchase to her card.
If you have money in savings for a trip (or anything else), go ahead and purchase items you’ll eventually buy anyway. Trip gear is a no brainer; check out this list for items you could buy now. If you’ve been saving for a home improvement project, can you buy some of the supplies? Can you buy gift certificates to places you’ll eventually spend money anyway?
If you’re willing to jump through a few more hoops, you can use Plastiq to pay your mortgage, etc. The Travel Sisters explain here. Basics: Plastiq charges a 2.5% fee unless you get involved in their referral scheme (<-which I would recommend!) Otherwise, you’re paying $25 for every $1,000 required to meet the spending bonus. If the money juggling game doesn’t fire you up, spending the unnecessary money isn’t the worst thing when you consider the points lead to free flights.
This is the piece that often scares people away from getting their first travel credit card. They hear about someone who juggled ten wallets full of travel cards to go around the world eighty times for free, ducking out of annual fees at the last minute. Doing so required a gargantuan excel spreadsheet, so the Average Joe thinks, “This free-flight credit card stuff is too hard for me.”
No way, Joe! You’re just getting one card. You can handle that.
If you will use up the flights (plural!) within 364 days, you can get away without even paying an annual fee. Cancel the card before your “anniversary.”
If you won’t get through all those free flights, it’s not terrible to pay the fee. Think of it as a plane ticket to anywhere for $95.
Let me tell you what would be terrible: you waiting until “later” to pick and open the best travel credit card for you. Don’t miss out on all the points you could collect in the interim. If you really can’t stomach an annual fee, fly your friend/sibling/parent/kid to see you or just give someone a super cool gift!
NO DEBT! – Travel HACKING
I am absolutely not recommending that you start charging your life to a travel credit card to get free plane tickets.
They call it travel hacking because you get the benefits without becoming a pawn of the system. The maze of rules will ensnare you and cause you to be the one funding all those free plane tickets if you actually try to use your credit card for credit. I learned a hard lesson on that front.
If you can’t handle keeping your hands off the cash you’re supposed to use to pay off your travel credit card each month, two options:
→ Option A: Learn to change your financial behavior. People swear by this book. If your lack of money skill is going to keep you from getting free plane tickets, it’s time to get off the sidelines. Go buy the book and make time to read the first fifty pages this weekend.
→ Option B: Compare your travel credit card balance and bank balance every day- like checking your email. You can probably even get balance alerts. Make sure your checking account has enough to cover the travel card balance. Keeping an eye on how much you have left to spend will keep you from going over. It will also help you spend less overall, just like tracking what you eat leads to eating less.
In addition to the golden benefit of getting free flights, the competitive travel credit card industry has dreamed up myriad other perks as well:
→ No international fees: If you have big travel plans, be sure to get a travel card that will keep you from having to pay an additional 3% fee on every German train ticket, Thailand SCUBA lesson, and New Zealand Skydive you buy.
→ Insurance: If you’ve read Travel Insurance 101: Do You Need It?, you know about the wide range of bad things that can happen on a trip. Many travel credit cards have built-in insurance that could save you hundreds by replacing the travel insurance policy you’d otherwise buy. Read the fine print and talk to a representative to be sure you’re covered.
→ Free checked bags: If the best travel credit card for you is airline specific, you’ll be able to avoid baggage fees. For a RTW trip, your bag should be small enough to carry on. But I can see extenuating circumstances (big dude, big clothes) that might warrant checkable luggage.
→ Ridiculous buyer protection: One travel credit card I got reimburses me up to $1,000 a year if I buy something, don’t want it, and the store won’t take it back. And if I buy something and later find it advertised cheaper elsewhere? They credit the difference up to $2,500 a year. If something I buy gets stolen or damaged within the first six months, they’ll cover up to $10,000 an item and $50,000 a year. Insane. Clearly these companies are making mad scrilla off of people who are lured in by the benefits, but don’t know how to manage their money.
Read more here about benefits.
If you dream of being a “traveled-to-nine-countries-for-nine-dollars” travel hacker, get started! I used to think I had to research all the options, plan out which travel credit cards I was going to get, develop a huge strategy, and track tons of dates for fees and bonuses.
All you have to do is pick a travel credit card that fits your situation and apply. That’s it. Just understand one travel card. Meet the minimum spend and get your bonus. Then you can think about taking on the next best travel credit card for you.
Which Card Do I Get?
Ignorance on this front kept me from taking action for years. Don’t be me!
I recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred right now (Mar 2017). Why? If you can meet the minimum spend (4k in 3 months), it gives you the most point-use flexibility. You can redeem points for travel spending on the card, but you can also transfer the points and use them in a frequent flyer or hotel program. cYou can find out which program requires the fewest points for your destination and transfer only the points you’ll use. Here are some great examples. (But mindbending for newbies. Skip the link for now if you’re new. Just get the card and don’t worry about the best way to spend the points until you actually have them).
If you know you’ll use the points to travel between small (read: more expen$ive) airports, being able to use your points in a frequent flyer program (which Chase allows, but most travel credit cards don’t) gets you way more bang for your buck. Here’s why:
- My two frequent flyer programs dDelta and United use 12,500 miles for a one way flight. (Update: Delta now only uses 7,000!)
My two generic travel credit cards eBarclays and Chase use 10,000 miles/points for every $100 I spend on travel.
- Most my travel is to obscure places fI’m not a city girl, and cash flights to those locations are usually $350-$700. gI’ve never bought those flights. I use Skyscanner to find way better deals.
For our purposes here, $373 is the cash cost to my next destination.
- I can get there using 12,500 United or 7,000 Delta points.
If I use my generic credit card “miles”, it will cost 37,300 points.
Takeaway: unless the initial bonus is really amazing (+60,000 points), start your travel hacking by earning points that can be spent in frequent flyer programs – any of the Chase products, or any airline branded card.
If you can meet the minimum spend, Chase Sapphire Preferred has a huge bonus (50,000 was the biggest bonus I got in my first four cards) and allows you to have your cake and eat it, too.
If you can’t find a way to spend $4k in months, pick a different travel credit card and apply! How to choose? If you want free flights between hubs, just pick the best lower-minimum-spend card for you. If you want free flights between more obscure places, pick the best airline-specific travel credit card for you. Check out One Mile At a Time’s great advice for those getting started.
How Do I Go Points Crazy?
Earned your bonus? On a free-flights high? Want to keep racking up points?
I just started following The Travel Sisters who turned me on to ways to earn tons of miles without spending a dime.
Airlines’ frequent flyer programs have lists of other ways to earn points, e.g. these United opportunities. You can also sign up for Opinon Miles Club and get “miles for your thoughts.” Even just signing up and filling out the first survey gets you 300 miles. hAlthough, use your “spammy” email address or create a new account for this purpose, because they will email you EVERY DAY, and every survey you take will get that email onto yet another marketing list.
If your miles connect to United or American Airlines, you can earn extra miles by booking your hotels through Agoda.com. Agoda is especially amazing for Asia: often has hotels I don’t find on any other platform. For budget options, you get a couple hundred miles. For swank places you get thousands – worth 10-20% of your next free flight!
There are a million options, but don’t worry about that yet. Start with the big stuff, the good stuff, the low-hanging fruit – initial spending bonuses – and go from there!
Do it now! The tropics are calling you!
Travel Credit Card on its way? Now on to other trip planning stuff like:
- 5 Minimalist Travel Necessities
- 24 Jobs To Do While Traveling the World
- How to Get a Free Backstage Cultural Pass
Happy Travelling! ♣
References [ + ]
|a.||↑||In the past 18 months I’ve done a United Mileage Plus Explorer, a Barclays Arrival Plus, a Delta Sky Miles, then Chase Sapphire Preferred and finally a Chase Sapphire Reserve – which is the top card if you travel regularly and will take advantage of the benefits.|
|b.||↑||She hung out at a gas station asking people paying cash to let her charge their purchase to her card.|
|c.||↑||You can find out which program requires the fewest points for your destination and transfer only the points you’ll use. Here are some great examples. (But mindbending for newbies. Skip the link for now if you’re new. Just get the card and don’t worry about the best way to spend the points until you actually have them).|
|d.||↑||Delta and United|
|e.||↑||Barclays and Chase|
|f.||↑||I’m not a city girl|
|g.||↑||I’ve never bought those flights. I use Skyscanner to find way better deals.|
|h.||↑||Although, use your “spammy” email address or create a new account for this purpose, because they will email you EVERY DAY, and every survey you take will get that email onto yet another marketing list.|