Update 9/2021: Holy Smokes. Just saw the biggest bonus ever offered! 100,000 points via Chase Sapphire preferred. (jump to details)
Yes, FREE PLANE TICKETS! Okay, $5.60. Or $11.20. But when compared to the hundreds of dollars flights normally cost… FREE.
I’ve been flying for free for six years now (as of 2021). If you’re American, you stand to benefit from a ridiculously competitive travel credit card industry.
What About COVID?
I’m always building points, even in a pandemic. As the cost-benefit calculations of existing in a coronavirus world continue to shift, I’m happy to have a fat stack of points on hand for when it makes sense or becomes necessary to use them.
Also, airlines and credit card companies are reacting to the changes in the economy with some of the best deals I’ve ever seen for becoming a program participant.
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 September 2021: I’m back to recommending the Chase Sapphire Preferred. aIn the past 5 years I’ve done a United Mileage Plus Explorer, a Barclays Arrival Plus, a Delta Sky Miles, then Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Chase Sapphire Reserve – which is the top card if you travel regularly and will take advantage of the benefits – and the Chase Ink Business Preferred, and now an Amtrak Rewards Mastercard. I cancelled all but the latter and Chase Sapphire Preferred. I converted my Chase Sapphire Reserve to a Chase Freedom Unlimited to earn the maximum points in my daily spending.
Here’s why it’s my number one recommendation:
- a fantastic bonus (100,000 miles right now! – 50K more than normal! More than they’ve ever offered!)
- double points in lots of categories
- HUGE FLEXIBILITY in point use. Critically – you can transfer the points to frequent flyer programs.
- more things I’ll explain down below!
Free Flights Video
If you don’t love reading, here’s a video of one of my favorite creators (and former podcast co-host!) with her version of the free flights lesson:
Travel Hacking 101
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 takes 20 minutes to get this organized!
Guide to Travel Hacking:
- Initial Spending Bonuses
- Annual Fees
- No DEBT!
- Which Card Do I Get?
- Why I Start With Chase
- How Do I Go Points Crazy?
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 lowest I’ve seen 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 quick videos are more your speed, check out Felicia’s Wallet. 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. Go watch that 5 min video right now!
→ 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!
For most people, I recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred right now (Sept 2021). Why? The bonus is
30,000 50,000(!) points higher than usual at the moment. If you can meet the minimum spend ($4,000 in 3 months), it gives you the most point-use flexibility. You can redeem your 100,000 points for travel spending on the card, but you can also transfer the points and use them in a frequent flyer or hotel program.
The way I think of the annual fee is basically paying $95 for two round-trip flights. cDepends on how you use the points, but I usually transfer them to United and use them on flights that are 12,500 points each way.
If $4k minimum spend is a NOPE for you, the Chase Freedom Unlimited only requires $500 in 3 months, has no annual fee, and just got some insane improvements. In September 2021, not only do you earn 20,000 bonus points (i.e. $200 cash back) after the minimum spend, but also:
- 1.5 points per dollar (one of the best offers available, translates to 1.5% cash back)
- 5% cash back on groceries, 3% on drugstores, dining and delivery
- a bunch of goodies with Lyft and Doordash
If Alaska Airlines’ routes are right for you, Alaska is offering 40,000 points for $2,000-in-3-months spend (65,000 for $8,000-in-6-months). I just got the card (Sept 2021) and will update my experience with the company next year.
If you tend or are forced by geography to mostly use one airline, check out whatever promotion they have going on for signing up with their card. Historically, I’ve seen bonuses skyrocket in the summer and during peak travel seasons. If your airline of choice isn’t offering at least the 100,000 points, start with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, and keep an eye on your preferred airline for a deal. Nothing sucks more than signing up for the regular bonus only to see it doubled when you’re no longer eligible. (Happened to me with Delta!)
Do what I wish I’d done years ago – just get in the game, today. Then worry about learning every single nook and cranny of the travel hacking industry. If you wait until you know everything, you’ll either never start or you’ll miss out on years of free flights. Don’t be me!
Why I (Usually) Start With Chase
If you know you’ll want to travel between small, expensive 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 main frequent flyer programs dDelta and United use between 7,000 and 12,500 miles minimum for a one way flight.
- My three generic travel credit cards eBarclays and Chase x2 use 10,000 miles/points for every $100 I spend on travel fUpdate: Chase now allows you to redeem at 1.25 value, so 10,000 miles would be worth $125 in travel..
- Most my travel is to obscure places, and cash flights to those locations are usually $350-$700. gI never buy 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 (+100,000 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. For most, Chase Sapphire Preferred is going to be the place to start.
How Do I Go Points Crazy?
Earned your bonus? On a free-flights high? Want to keep racking up points?
Many of the ways you keep points from expiring (do not get seduced into using them on “free” magazines!) are also just great ways to earn more points/miles.
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 Opinion 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! ♣
|↑a||In the past 5 years I’ve done a United Mileage Plus Explorer, a Barclays Arrival Plus, a Delta Sky Miles, then Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Chase Sapphire Reserve – which is the top card if you travel regularly and will take advantage of the benefits – and the Chase Ink Business Preferred, and now an Amtrak Rewards Mastercard. I cancelled all but the latter and Chase Sapphire Preferred. I converted my Chase Sapphire Reserve to a Chase Freedom Unlimited to earn the maximum points in my daily spending|
|↑b||She hung out at a gas station asking people paying cash to let her charge their purchase to her card.|
|↑c||Depends on how you use the points, but I usually transfer them to United and use them on flights that are 12,500 points each way.|
|↑d||Delta and United|
|↑e||Barclays and Chase x2|
|↑f||Update: Chase now allows you to redeem at 1.25 value, so 10,000 miles would be worth $125 in travel.|
|↑g||I never buy 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.|