For the last few months, I’ve been jotting down what I learned in 3 years of travel hacking with credit cards and compiled the top travel hacking tips below. I definitely made mistakes along the way, so I hope this will help others avoid the same snafus.
Note: All the information below is only relevant in the USA and I will only recommend cards that I’ve personally used.
Between my husband and I we have 25+ active credit cards yet we continue to open between 4-6 new cards each year. Meanwhile, we maintain credit scores over 800 and earn at least one free trip for our family of four each year through the travel hacking tips I’ve shared below. We keep our score healthy by treating our credit cards more like debit cards – never spending more than we can pay off that month.
You can earn some serious credit card points just by achieving a minimum spend in the first 3 months on each card you open. I’m talking enough for 2-4 free hotel nights or two free round trip domestic flights without spending much differently than you are now.
What is point hacking / travel hacking? The meat and potatoes of travel hacking is using credit card sign up incentives to quickly earn free travel. There’s more opportunity to earn points beyond that early spending, but it happens much more slowly.
The word hacking makes travel hacking sound sneaky, or even illegal, but maximizing your travel points by choosing and swiping the RIGHT cards can be a totally legit financial strategy if budget travel is important to you!
The links to credit card details are referral links. If you apply using one of my links, I may get bonus points on my credit card as well with no impact to you. Thank you in advance for helping my family travel farther and create more content!
Getting Started – 5 Things To Do Before Opening Cards to Earn Travel Points
Before opening a credit card, we recommend you make sure you meet these criteria to decide whether travel hacking via credit card points is right for you.
Are you ready to travel hack?
- Credit score is greater than 720
- No outstanding credit card debt
- You know your typical monthly spend and that you can meet the spending reward with normal everyday purchases
- You’ve already met the welcome bonus of the last credit card
- You’ve opened less than 5 cards in the last 24 months
Setting Yourself Up for Success
⚠️This is crucial. The #1 rule of travel hacking with credit cards is to pay off your ENTIRE credit card balance on time each month. Don’t spend any money you don’t have. If you do not use credit cards in a financially responsible way, you can do serious damage to your financial health and credit score.
Do not overspend just to rack up points/miles. When you’re perusing welcome bonus offers, make sure you don’t signup for a minimum spend that far exceeds your usual spending in the given time period. Achieve welcome bonuses through everyday spending like gas and groceries. If you are nearing the deadline for spend to achieve the new card bonus, consider purchasing a gift card for a gas station or prepay your utilities.
What is the Best Credit Card to Start Travel Hacking?
The best credit card for point hacking depends on your travel goals and your typical monthly spend. Determine your travel goal, certain cards are ideal for various types of point and miles redemptions.
Whether your goal is to cover hotel expenses on a road trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s or get the family a free flight to Hawaii, a particular card may get you there faster.
- If you do a lot of road trips so free hotel stays appeal to you, check out our recommended hotel cards.
- If you want free airfare and free checked bags, check out our recommended airline cards.
- If you want a mix and some extra travel perks on top of the points, check out our favorite all-around cards.
Does all this seem intimidating? I get it. I had to test the waters myself before I jumped in the deep end. Take a look at our “No Brainer Reward Opportunities.”
No Brainer Reward Opportunities
Chase Freedom Card
If you just want to dip your toes into credit card rewards, try a no fee card. My favorite Cash Back card is the Chase Freedom card. They have quarterly rotating spending categories on which you get 5% cash back, everything from groceries, to gas stations, to department stores. You have to activate the 5% quarterly by clicking a button on the reminder email. This card has no fee, so this is a no brainer and I’d recommend it to anyone as an ideal starter card. Plus, right now there is a $200 cash back bonus if you spend $500 in the first 3 months.
You can take the rewards back in cash as a statement credit, or redeem them for travel via the Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal. In the future, if you choose to open more of the premium (paid) credit cards, this card pairs wonderfully with Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, and the Chase Business Ink cards.
Target Red Card
Earn 5% cash back on every purchase using your Target Debit (or Credit) Red Card. This doesn’t directly relate to saving money on travel, but can indirectly help your travel budget.
For example, you can buy Disney gift cards at target and get a 5% discount at checkout.
Amazon Prime Visa Card
Earn 5% cash back on every purchase with the Amazon Prime Visa Card.
Travel savings: Buy travel gear on Amazon for 5% cash back! There’s no annual fee on this card and you get a $100 credit for signing up.
Always sign up for loyalty programs for airlines and hotels. They add up over time and are easily combined with points earned via credit cards. In addition, in the future you’ll want these available for point transfers from other accounts.
Many hotels also offer small perks even for the bottom tier of their loyalty program like high speed internet or welcome snacks.
American Express Hilton Honors
The American Express Hilton Honors card has no fee and and you’ll earn 100,000 bonus points after spending just $2,000 in the first 6 months. That’s enough for 2-3 nights at Hilton properties. This card does not charge foreign transaction fees.
Have a small business?
Find an incredible business card point offer in our full post on Starter Cards.
Applying for a New Credit Card
Before I reveal all my favorite cards, here are a few things you should know going into the application process.
When You Apply
Do not add your partner as authorized user when prompted, instead have them wait until you’ve earned the sign up bonus and then have them apply for their own card.
You’ll want them to be your Travel Hacking “Player 2” and some cards might deem them ineligible for the bonus if they’d previously been an Authorized User.
I’d love for you to use one of the referral links within this post if you find a card that meets your goals! It would make my day to see the extra points hit my account.
One Day After You Apply
Do you have a partner or close family member you trust to spend money on your card?
Call Customer Service to request that your card is expedited. This is a little known tip to get two copies of the SAME card with the same card number. This has made a huge difference for my husband and I to each have the card in our wallet chipping away at the early spending minimum to achieve the bonus.
When you call Customer Service, explain that you have a trip coming up and you want to bring the card or you have a large purchase to make. They will typically overnight it. This has worked 3/3 times for us on the cards shown in this picture.
Our Recommended Starter Cards
In addition to the no-brainer opportunities above, there are 9 credit cards with excellent early spend incentives that will help you achieve free travel much more quickly than the no fee cards above.
Check out our full guide on the best starter cards for travel hacking to read all the details about our favorite hotel, airline, and all around credit cards.
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard (American Airlines)
- Capital One Venture
Squeezing the Most Value Out of Points
The key to spending your points wisely is to treat each point like actual cash. Know the value per point for a specific brand and make sure the points you are paying for a certain flight or hotel night is worth the point redemption.
For example, 80,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points can be cashed out for $800 so I’d never want to redeem the points on something worth less than $800.
When booking with miles on an airline’s website, browse the Award Calendar to find out the dates that cost the least points to fly. A huge perk of booking flights with airline miles is that there is typically a full refund if you have to cancel. (Review terms and conditions as if you book a basic ticket this may not be the case.)
Hotels on the outskirts of a city will typically be less points to book than central locations. If you have easy transportation options, this is a great way to stretch the points farther.
Common Mistakes in Travel Hacking
I’ll wrap up my travel hacking tips with things to avoid. These are common mistakes that I and others have committed.
1. Canceling a No-Fee Credit Card
A common mistake when it comes to credit cards is to shut down old credit card accounts when you open a new one. If it is a NO FEE card, you’re better off just chopping it up to avoid accidental use and leaving the account open.
Here’s why: Two of the factors that contribute to increasing your credit card are:
- Length of credit history. It is especially important to keep your longest standing credit card open! If you are brand new to credit cards, make sure your very first card is a no fee card so you aren’t tempted to cancel it. Again, my favorite no fee credit card is my Chase Freedom Card. I’ve had it open for 15 years.
Your average “life” of all credit cards factors into your credit score, so leave all the free cards open to drive up your average.
- Your debt to credit ratio. Say you have two cards, each with a $5k credit limit and you have an outstanding balance of $1k. You’re only consuming 10% of your approved credit. If you cancel a card you’re suddenly using 20%!
So let those cards with no annual fee collect some dust.
2. Forgetting what cards have certain perks.
There were so many times I swiped a card with 1% cash back on grocery or gas instead of my 5% cash back. Major buzz kill. Now, I have stickers on my cards telling me which card to use where. They were just $3 from Etsy and I highly recommend them.
3. Waiting too long between cards, after meeting early spend bonus on a previous card.
Once I started tracking my cards and bonus achievements on Travel Freely, this became much easier to stay on top of. Here’s a peek into Travel Freely.
4. Missing the welcome bonus altogether!
Keep track of your spending and don’t let time get away from you. If you realize the deadline is approaching and you have a big sum to spend yet, don’t be frivolous. Instead, consider these spending options: Pre-pay Utilities or buy a gift card for your usual grocery store or gas station. This gift card must be purchased at a physical store and not online.
5. Forgetting to setup autopay.
It’s easy to let that first bill slip your mind especially if you signed up for paperless billing. Schedule auto pay as soon as you setup your login.
Want to know more?
Follow me on Instagram where I share short term bonus promotions, intermediate travel hacking tips like capitalizing on Player 2, using point transfers, and announcing brand partner perks.
Travel hacking can pay off quickly! Not to mention several cards have additional perks like free bags, airport lounge access, car rental insurance, and more! I’ll warn you, it’s addicting and highly rewarding. Let me know your favorite travel hacking story or favorite card in the comments below.
Did you enjoy these travel hacking tips? Comment below with your questions or travel hacking success stories!
Pin for Later!
Wow, we travel a lot, but not with so many cards. You’ve got it down to a science.
Thankful for apps like Travel Freely to keep me organized!
I always love reading posts about different travel tips & hacks. This was especially interesting with the cards! Thanks of sharing these hacks 🙂
Hope you find something you can apply towards your travels!
Wow! I would never think to get so many cards but if there is no fee, then no risk to your credit score if you pay off each month. I really learned a lot! I do have the Amazon card to get my 5% back on purchases.
Nice! That 5% is automatically considered a travel fund, right? 🙂 Glad you found some new info here!