Travel hacking is all the rage. You can travel to countries around the world for next to nothing. There are a lot of people writing about the best hacks for travel, but few are doing it at scale. Here is my travel hacking 101 guide to help you get started.
There are a lot of different definitions out there of what travel hacking truly means. In this guide, I’ll show you everything you need to know about travel hacking and how to get started.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to over 20+ countries in the last two years through travel hacking. I’m not done yet. There is so much left to explore in the world. We only get so many trips around the sun. We have to make the most of it.
Travel hacking has unlocked new adventures and provided me with new perspectives on life. To accumulate rewards points, you either have to make it happen on your own or actually earn rewards points from paying cash for your stays, flights, meals, etc.
Paying money to generate travel rewards? That doesn’t sound fun. What sounds fun is generating travel rewards for the little out-of-pocket cost to you…
I’ll show you exactly how. You can use our free travel hacking spreadsheet to monitor your credit card points and credit inquiries.
It’s completely free to use and takes 5 seconds to download.
What is travel hacking?
Travel hacking is the concept of traveling for the most value for the least amount of out-of-pocket expenses. With travel hacking, you simply want to maximize where and what you do during your travel experiences.
In an ideal world, you’d spend $0 in extra money to take the trip of a lifetime. There are a number of different components that make up how to travel hack. I’ll break them all down here (in order of priority and straightforwardness):
- Credit card churning
- Booking award travel
- Geographic-specific travel hacks (the actual execution while you’re there)
- Manufactured spending
Travel hacking is a marathon. Some of the above travel hacking tips can be done in a sprint (like manufactured spending). However, most of it is primarily driven through strategy and planning.
See Related: Free Printable Travel Planner
Components Included in Travel Hacking
Let’s get into what makes up travel hacking. A number of people think that travel hacking just means that you open some new credit cards and build an awards points balance. Then, you book a trip!
No. It’s much more complex than that. Actually, after getting a new credit card and reaping the benefits of the upfront bonus, your work has just begun.
Think of the lifecycle for travel hacking in the following manner:
- Pre-build up and harvesting of travel rewards
- Deploying the rewards points in the most efficient manner
- Travel hacking without a credit card during your trip
- Post-trip rewards point allocation and planning
I’ve prioritized the details of each component of travel hacking by the amount of time it takes and the reward it generates. The first is pretty obvious.
Credit card churning. You can generate significant travel rewards using this method…
Credit card churning
Credit card churning is the act of repeatedly opening credit cards to simply earn the sign-up rewards bonus.
For example, you can earn 80,000 bonus points if you open a Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card after you hit the minimum spending requirement. With credit card churning, you will simply open this credit card and hit the minimum spending requirement to earn the bonus.
Once that is done. You will move on to the next credit card bonus offer. Rinse and repeat.
There are definitely some rules that you will need to follow in order to have long-term success. Building a rewards points balance is one of the most straightforward money-saving tips for travelers.
Check out these top credit cards for churning.
See Related: Best Websites for Cheap Flights and Hotels
Booking award travel
I’d consider this to be one of the most hidden gems of travel hacking. If you are travel hacking expert, you likely have a significant rewards balance from your credit cards.
I’m sorry but if you think travel hacking means just building a credit card portfolio.
Then, your points are simply not going to last.
You are not going to last with travel the world for no cost. To conduct real travel hacking, you need to learn how to properly spend those airline miles and travel rewards.
The good news is there are a handful of tools that will help you find ways to book award travel in the most optimized manner.
For example, I was able to travel to Japan for a 55,000 Delta Miles round trip. The cash value for that flight was around $2,200. That is a redemption value of ~4 cents per point.
Not the best deal in the world, but not too shabby either. It’s all about finding cheap flights or redemptions for the right value.
I’ve used Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) to find great flight deals directly to my inbox.
Another example was staying at the five-star Hotel Pulitzer in Amsterdam during Prinsengrachtconcert.
This was an amazing experience and worth a read in my Hotel Pulitzer review.
It’s finding deals like these that have allowed me to see countries that I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d ever be able to see.
See Related: Affordable Overwater Bungalows
Execution of travel hacks (unrelated to credit cards)
I like to call this the ‘blocking and tackling’ of travel hacking. There are so many ways to hack travel beyond just credit cards. You can do a lot of things that are specific to a particular city or country that will save you big money.
Examples of travel hacking without credit cards include:
- Become a travel writer to make money off your travel experiences
- Take landscape photography or video of your travel experiences to sell as content
- Understand if using a CityPass or GetYourGuide is a cost-effective option to see multiple landmarks
- Taking public transportation or getting unlimited ride passes for public transportation
- Ensure you know all the ins and outs of your passport and visa requirements
- Finding top health insurance as a visitor to the US (as health care is not cheap there in case something happens)
A trip to the Amalfi Coast will be a lot different than a trip to Paris in terms of travel hacking without using credit cards.
See Related: Proven Ways to Save Money for Travel
Manufactured spending gets a bit of a black-eye impression simply by what you are doing. With manufactured spending, you have one goal…
You are simply trying to generate reward points by spending money artificially. There are several ways to do this and you can do it at some scale actually. There are two reasons why people want to do manufactured spending:
- Accelerate the rate at which you hit the minimum spending requirement
- To accumulate more rewards points with your existing credit card portfolio
However, it is very time-consuming and is a piece of travel hacking that has the most risk. You are likely running around to different stores, staying up to date with the latest manufactured spending methods, and trying to find new ways to spend artificially.
Examples of manufactured spending include:
- Buying virtual gift cards to convert them into cash.
- Purchasing high-demand products like electronics at stores where you bonus cash back opportunities with the goal of reselling those products for the same (or higher) price.
- Purchase event tickets at scale to resell them for the same (or higher) price.
- Consider finding ways to purchase bulk airline tickets or create a “small” travel agency business to earn points and get flights for cheap.
Manufactured spending is a bit of a strategy that you need to be knowledgeable about before proceeding. Read more in our overview of manufactured spending.
See Related: What is a Hacker Fare?
How to Start Travel Hacking
The good part about travel hacking is that nearly anyone can get involved and get started. Start by doing credit card research to find a card that suits your priorities, but has a maximum rewards balance.
1. Find A Credit Card
Find a credit card that will start your travel hacking journey. I suggest checking out Chase or American Express as they have the most flexible reward points programs.
You can use their portals to book award travel and/or transfer to airline partners. These credit cards will give you the best bang for your buck:
- Chase Ink Business Preferred: They will offer you 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first three months. That is worth $1,000 of travel, think of all the free flights you can book with that.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: The Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card will provide you with 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. You may need a decent credit score to be approved for this travel credit card. Check your credit score for free by using CreditKarma.
The second consideration in finding the best credit card for travel hacking is not all cards fit everyone. The above cards have the best flexibility and upfront bonuses.
However, are you a constant work globetrotter? The above-mentioned Chase cards will not provide you with the essential travel benefits and perks like lounge access, upgrades, Gold Status at Hilton/Marriot, etc.
Make a list of prioritization of what is important to you. To me, the highest priorities are flexibility with the usage of points and getting a large upfront bonus.
Consider these top travel credit cards to get started with your travel hacking journey. Check out our other travel credit card guides here:
- Best Credit Cards for Travel Perks
- Best Travel Credit Cards for International Travel
- Best Travel Credit Card Deals
See Related: 35 Hilarious Travel Memes
2. Use Tools to Make Your Life Easier
There’s been a bunch of newly created tools to help people book award travel more efficiently. Before you book, align all your credit card rewards balances to see the bigger picture of where you stand in your credit card and rewards assets.
Think of your airline miles and travel rewards like your net worth. They are true assets that have a redeemable cash value. With travel, these reward points are worth more than cash. That’s why we do it.
One of the best ways to track your frequent flyer miles and rewards programs is by using Award Wallet. It’s a completely free tool that will track all your rewards programs, including the points balances and all those pesky rewards numbers you need.
There are several other booking apps, programs, and rewards tracking that you can use to keep everything in order:
- Award Hacker
- Award Mapper
- Kayak Hacker Fares
- Reddit Award Travel Subreddit
These tools can all provide a benefit to you and your travel hacking goals. You should always get the most optimal use of your points and these resources will help you do so.
Know your market before you travel as well. Each country (and even a city) has a different approach to lodging. For example, an inn in Japan is a lot different than an inn in Alabama.
These are the general distinct differences between lodging. I can’t believe how many people have simply wasted points by blindly booking trips.
Want to find the best tools to use to find great flights, hotel deals, and earn miles? My personal must-have is Going (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), where I get mistake fares and cheap flights directly to my email inbox.
I pay for the premium membership since it allows me to find insanely cheap flights. The cost of $99 per year is nothing when I save hundreds and thousands of dollars on flights each year. Going offers a free trial if you want to try it out for free or you can sign up for a premium membership for a 20% discount by using our code VIA20 at checkout.
These are a few reviews of my favorite services.
- Award Wallet Review
- Dollar Flight Club Review
- Going (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) Review
- Thrifty Travel Premium Review
- Miles App Review
- SeatGuru Review
See Related: Cheap Places to Travel
3. Always Maximize Your Points Earnings
You should always ensure that you are getting the most possible points when making purchases. Keep an eye out for what bonus point earnings your card offers.
Need to make a routine purchase that you know you have to make? Make sure you use the best travel rewards credit cards for each type of spending.
Use a 5x earnings card to book travel rather than your Delta “SkyPesos” credit card. Stay up to date with mini bonuses for earning. These include the following:
- Earn Delta Airlines SkyMiles points for riding with Lyft
- Answer questions for Marriott on Twitter to earn Marriott Bonvoy bonus points
- Monitor your Chase Ultimate Rewards bonus offers and shop through the Ultimate Rewards portal to earn bonus points
- Opt-in for bonus points on your work travel for skipping housekeeping service
- Book your Airbnb through DeltaAirbnb.com to earn SkyMiles for staying at an Airbnb
- Use the Miles App to earn points for ground transportation
These are just a few examples. These may seem like small peanuts compared to the bigger picture, but they add up over time. It’s these small wins that can take your balances to the next level. Here are other ways to earn airline miles without a credit card.
People have become obsessed with travel. Rightfully so. We have it pretty good to travel around the world. Hundreds of years ago people were never able to get across the world.
Now we can do it with the click of a button. So, take advantage of it while the times are good. Go out and explore the world.
What is travel hacking?
Travel Hacking is a set of travel and credit card strategies that individuals can use to travel around the world for nearly free. These strategies involve travel hacking with miles and points, which many airlines hand out as promotional items or bonuses – whereas others offer these options for money. By taking advantage of credit cards that accumulate points, rewards, and frequent flyer miles with purchases, people can travel internationally for little expense.
Travel hackers cash in the frequent flyer miles they’ve accrued by using them to book award flights or transfers. As an alternative option, some individuals may donate their extra wealth of donated credits instead – which still gets them something back from what they had originally spent their money on (it’s not like they’re losing anything).
Is travel hacking illegal?
Travel hacking is not illegal. Travel hacking is legal as long as all points are legitimately earned, used, or transferred through travel provided by credit card companies.
Is travel hacking real?
Absolutely. Travel hacking is alive and well, growing exponentially year after year among travel enthusiasts who are eager to stretch their travel dollars further than at any other time in history.
How do I learn to hack travel?
You can learn to travel hack by reading up on the latest guides to maximizing your travel rewards credit cards, transferring points, and the latest sign-up bonuses from the ViaTravelers email course.
- Priority Pass Review
- Chicago CityPASS Review
- Denver CityPASS Review
- GetYourGuide vs Viator
- Delta Airlines Review
- 9 Best TSA Approved Travel Locks
- Free Travel Magazines to Generate Vacation Ideas
- 7 Best Travel Backpacks for Minimalists
- 23 Best Travel Gift Ideas
- Top Sites for Booking Tours
- Best Vacations for Groups
Lock In Your Travel Now
Find Cheap Flights
Use Skyscanner to find flight deals. As my personal favorite flight search engine, Skyscanner scours websites and airlines across the globe, leaving no stone unturned to help you find the best deal possible. And if you really want to take your savings to new heights, pair Skyscanner with Going (Formerly Scott's Cheap Flights). With access to exclusive mistake fares delivered straight to your inbox, you'll be packing your bags and jetting off on your next adventure before you know it.
Travel insurance is a low cost way to ensure your travel plans go smooth no matter what's thrown at it. Cover yourself against illness, injury and theft, and protect the arrangements you've made with our flexible travel cancellation insurance. My favorite options for travel insurance are:
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