In this article I will talk about travel hacking. A few months ago Travis and I decided it was time for another trip, and this time we wanted to do something bigger and better than our normal 2-3 week trip.
We decided to plan a few months (still unsure how long we’ll be gone) in SE Asia.
This is a pretty big deal for us because 1) We LOVE DIY projects that often require us to stay local and oversee/work on houses 2) We’re very “American” – we’re pretty much a meat-and-potatoes family, we only speak English (though I do know a few key phrases in Spanish like “cerveza” and “hola”) and orange chicken is about the most Asian food we’ve had 3) We self-manage our rentals (will get to how we plan to self manage from Asia in another post) and I have a business to run.
Our reasons for picking SE Asia of all places to spend a few months are:
1) We’re getting more comfortable at getting outside of our comfort zone. Going to a place where we can’t read or speak the language, have never had the food, and bringing a toddler is pretty uncomfortable for us, at least as compared to going to Italy where we can somewhat read & speak the language, and where pretty much any food will be amazing.
2) We’ve literally worked non-stop for the last 10+ years and while we take a few vacations each year we’ve never gone for this long and have never been to SE Asia
3) It is a very affordable place to spend a few months
4) The winters in Seattle are terrible. Dark, gloomy, rain for weeks…
As soon as we made this decision I went into planning mode, and in part of that planning mode I decided to give travel hacking a shot.
What is travel hacking?
Travel hacking is when you earn cheap or even free flights and hotels using various “hacks.”
The travel hacking method I started with was using credit card sign up bonuses to earn enough points to cover our flights, and I even set a goal to earn enough points for business class tickets (my husband is 6′ 4″ so he is pretty excited about my new hobby).
While we’ve benefited from using credit card rewards for years, I always went for cards that offered cash back or points that would be redeemed for “erasing purchases.” While this is better than nothing, I learned through my research that the points can be worth more when used to book airline tickets as opposed to using them as credits.
I don’t really call myself frugal, but there are definitely some things I’m willing to pay more for than others.
Ex: I’ll spend extra to park at the airport because waiting outside in the cold for a shuttle bus crammed with other travels at the end of a long flight is not worth saving a few dollars a day for.
Ex: On the flip side, I would never spend thousands more for business class seats just to get more legroom, wet towels, and some higher quality snacks.
Now, if we’re talking about getting free business class tickets, that’s a different story and that’s really why I invested my time into figuring this out.
For the three of us to get from Seattle to Bangkok, three economy tickets are selling for $1,288. Business-class tickets are as low as $6,621, but that option has two stops so I’d probably pass, which would mean business class would be $8251 total.
Instead of paying for tickets, I found options with Singapore Air for business class tickets at 88,000 miles each, which is just under the amount of miles I earned during my 45 days of travel hacking.
Here’s the lowdown on how I earned enough miles to get us 3 business class tickets worth $8,251+.
The cards & the bonuses we earned since travel hacking in the last 45 days
Note: The card links below are referral links if you decide you want to start travel hacking, as always no additional cost to you
Card #1: Chase Sapphire Preferred for me
Bonus (as of July 2021): 100,000 ultimate reward points + 5000 when you add an authorized user (added our 3-year-old) when you spend $4000 in 3 months.
Annual fee: $95 but waived for the first year
We used this card to fund the remodel on our main bath and master bedroom since we were doing that anyway. I also used this for all of our regular spending (groceries, gas, health insurance, utility bills) and the timing was perfect (looking on the bright side) that my husband hit some road debris while driving my car, which required us to purchase 4 new tires (downside to AWD) but our insurance reimbursed us for $1000 of it so that really helped with the minimum spend.
I’ll probably either downgrade this card to a no annual fee card, or cancel it before I have to pay the annual fee (which is waived the first year).
Card #2: Chase Sapphire Reserve for my husband
Bonus: 50,000 ultimate reward points when you spend $4000 in the first 3 months.
Annual fee: $450 + $75 for each authorized user
This card has the same bonus award as the CSP above, but has a hefty annual fee. The reason the fee is so high is because it has some different perks, which are:
3x points on dining and travel worldwide
$300 annual travel credit
Lounge Access via Priority Pass (so excited to use this one)
$100 Global Entry Fee Credit (perfect since our Global Entry cards are up for renewal)
Since we will definitely use the $300 annual travel credit, and the $100 global entry fee credit that really brings the annual fee down to $50. The rest of the bonuses are added bonuses!
We used this card to pay for the new carpet in our house ($3200) plus more of the remodel expenses and we hit the minimum spend on this one within the first two weeks.
Card #3: American Express Platinum for my husband
Bonus: 60,000 American Express points for spending $5000 in 3 months
Annual fee: $550
Here’s where I got a little ahead of myself. I was focusing on cards based on Travel Blog reviews and on reward bonuses, but I really should have not gotten this card for my husband since the CSR above has similar perks, to give you an idea of all of the perks they are:
- 5x points on flights
- $200 airline credit
- Priority Pass Lounge Access + Amex’s Centurion Lounge Access
- $200 in annual credits with Uber (also works with Uber Eats)
- $100 credit on Global Entry (we used for our daughter)
- Boingo Wifi Preferred Plan
- Starwood & Hilton Gold Status
Our actual annual fee will be brought down to $50 when you factor in the bonuses (I’m not assigning a value to priority pass, the Wifi, Gold Status or the 5x points).
Card #4: American Express Platinum for me
Bonus: 100,000 American Express points for spending $5000 in 3 months
Annual fee: $550
Even though I made a bit of a mistake in getting this card for Travis, I saw an offer for 100,000 bonus points and I jumped on it for myself. My reasoning behind this was 1) that’s a pretty darn good bonus 2) I thought it would be a good idea to get myself either this card or the CSR due to me making several business trips each year where I travel alone, so I knew I could use the benefits
Overview of these 4 cards:
Points earned: 283,000 (170,000 Amex + 113,000 Ultimate Rewards)
Annual Fees: $150 (We’ll downgrade my CSP, cancel Travis’s Amex and use all other rewards)
Total minimum spend to earn points: $18,000
If you’re interested in doing something similar, here’s what I’ve learned so far about travel hacking:
Focus on earning points with the airline you’ll use most frequently
About halfway into my travel hacking journey, I discovered awardhacker.com. Before I knew about Award Hacker I was focused only on earning points with the cards that offered the highest reward bonuses, but I should have first done some research on which airline had the lowest award travel rates.
Using awardhacker.com I found out that Alaska Airlines has the lowest amount of miles needed for any airline, and it has great partner airlines.
Since the bonuses I earned did not transfer to Alaska Airlines, we have to use more points for our flights to Thailand.
Had I been focused on earning SPG points & Alaska, we could have saved a ton of miles because Alaska has business class flights for 65,000 miles each, yet we’re having to spend 88,000 points with Singapore Airlines.
Be careful not to over shop just to hit your minimum spend required to get the reward
The timeline to hit your minimum spend to get the points bonus starts upon approval, and sometimes it takes a few days for the card to get in the mail so there is a deadline that you’ll want to pay attention to.
You really want to be careful that you’re not over spending or buying more than you normally would just to earn those bonuses, and you have to be careful and pace yourself between cards.
We spent $18,000 in 45 days because we were doing a remodel anyway, and I ended up paying some monthly bills in full such as insurance premiums but I paid all of the card balances in full right away.
Before you get started you should list out all of your normal household bills and see if there are any that you can make extra payments on, or pay in full.
Check out cardmatch.com for higher bonus offers
When I signed up Travis for the American Express Platinum card the offer was for 60,000 Amex points. However, I noticed a comment in the Travel Miles 101 FB group about a website called cardmatch.com where the Amex Platinum Card bonus was being offered at 100,000 Amex points.
I tried it out and it worked!
I’ve researched this further and it seems that cardmatch.com is really only good for the Amex Platinum bonus and doesn’t seem to have a higher bonus offering for other cards.
Each card issuer has their own rules for approvals
The one rule that I kept hearing about was Chase’s 5/24 rule – which means that if you have 5 new bank cards (not limited to Chase) within the last 24 months you will automatically be denied for a new Chase card.
So, you’re better off starting with Chase cards and then moving on to others, if maximizing sign up bonus miles is what you’re after.
Be sure to use the Refer a Friend Option when both you and your spouse are getting cards
Right now I’m trying to earn more Alaska Airlines miles, and since I’ve had the Alaska Airlines signature card for years I used the refer a friend feature to refer my husband for an extra 5,000 bonus miles upon approval.
I wish I had done this with Chase because their bonus for referring a friend is 20,000 ultimate reward points. We could have signed up for one, and then invited the other for those extra points.
You really only need one premium card per person
I made a rookie mistake of getting my husband the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Amex Platinum card.
These premium cards come with a lot of perks, and a hefty annual fee. Since the perks are similar there’s no need to have two.
I do see the value in my husband having the Chase Sapphire Reserve and in keeping the American Express Platinum card for myself. If we’re traveling together we can get into the Centurion Lounge with my card, and earn more points in booking flights through Amex.
The CSP has higher points on dining and different airline partnerships to use.
Start travel hacking as early as possible before a big trip
Sometimes it can take a few months for the bonus points to show up, and award tickets book up fast.
Some airlines set aside a limited number of award seats and the options might be limited by the time you are ready with your points.
Use Shopping Portals
My mind was blown when I realized how many more points you can earn by using shopping portals.
For example, I’ve had the Alaska Airlines card for years, and once I learned about shopping portals I spent some time looking into Alaska’s. I realized that all this time I had been missing out on an offer to receive 100 miles per day for parking at the airport, which I do 90% of the time.
There was also bonus miles earned through rental car companies, using Groupon and a shopping button extension for Chrome that notifies you if a website you’re on is a partner and that you can earn points for shopping with.
The Chase shopping portal is very similar. They list out all of the stores that earn you bonus points and by using their link and the associated card you’ll get those points added.
Amex is a little different because you have to add specific offers to your card before you shop.
Their offers also have expiration dates, so you have to pay attention to those.
Their bonuses are more on the discount side than earning extra points too.
Join email lists and Facebook Groups to keep learning
I’ve found several websites and Facebook Groups extremely helpful. There’s a lot to learn when it comes to travel hacking, and it seems like every time I find a new website or group I learn more.
Here are a few of my favorite websites & Facebook Groups that I’m enjoying:
- Million mile secrets: Great for card reviews & they have several excellent guides
- The Points Guy: One of my all-time favorites! They do a great job at explaining the values of the points and how each program differs
- Doctor of Credit: In addition to info about travel hacking, they share a lot of discounted deals and cashback offers
- Award Travel 101: This is my favorite Facebook Group for travel hacking.
- Travel Miles 101: This is the FB group for the free Travel Miles 101 course
So there you have it, my new travel hacking hobby! Any tips you would add? Comment below!