Travel Hacking 101: Beginner’s Guide to Free Flights & Hotels

Travel Hacking 101 Guide
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Travel hacking has saved me tens of thousands of dollars. Just as important, it’s given my family incredible travel experiences that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford.

With this guide, you’ll have all the knowledge and tools you need to start travel hacking like a pro and create unforgettable travel memories yourself. 

Here’s what we’ll cover:

And lastly, we’ll answer some of the most common questions asked by new travel hackers.

What Is Travel Hacking?

Travel hacking is the art and science of unlocking free or significantly discounted travel experiences by strategically earning and redeeming reward points and airline miles. 

This concept encompasses various techniques, including leveraging credit card rewards, airline loyalty programs and hotel rewards to make your travel dreams a reality.

Since some credit cards offer as much as 2% cash-back, you might wonder whether it makes sense to just use those rewards for travel. The real benefit of using points and miles comes from point redemption values that can often reach 3 cents per point or more, and sometimes even go up to 10 cents per point.

Credit cards that offer generous welcome bonuses and reward points for everyday spending are the foundation of travel hacking. By using credit cards strategically, you can accumulate valuable points that can be redeemed for flights, accommodations and other travel-related expenses.

It’s not uncommon for a single credit card signup bonus to cover the cost of an international flight, making this a game-changer for many travelers.

In addition, you can also earn points or perks by taking advantage of airline loyalty programs or hotel rewards programs. By staying loyal to a specific airline or hotel brand, you can earn rewards points or perks such as free upgrades, lounge access and more. 

In essence, travel hacking is about understanding the ins and outs of the rewards ecosystem and using that knowledge to make the most of every travel opportunity. 

How Travel Hacking Impacts Your Credit and Finances

If you’re considering travel hacking, it’s crucial to understand how it can impact your credit score and overall financial health.

Your credit score is a three-digit number that indicates your creditworthiness and helps lenders evaluate your risk as a borrower. 

Several factors determine your credit score, including:

  • Payment history (35%)
  • Credit utilization (30%)
  • Length of credit history (15%)
  • New credit (10%)
  • Types of credit in use (10%)

Signing up for credit cards is closely tied to many factors that carry the most weight in your credit score. Therefore, it’s not whether travel hacking will affect your credit score but how it will affect it.

To ensure a boost to your credit score while enjoying travel rewards, remember to:

  • Choose credit cards you plan to keep long-term.
  • Aim to hit the minimum spend requirement without overspending.
  • Keep your credit utilization less than 30%.
  • Space out new credit card applications.
  • Pay your balance in full using auto-pay to avoid missing payments.

Much of this is familiar to anyone who has managed their credit responsibly. But if you’re new to managing your credit, check out our article titled “How Travel Hacking Impacts Your Credit and Finances” for a more in-depth guide. 

How to Earn Points and Miles

Points and miles are the currencies of the travel hacking world. When you know how to earn them efficiently, you’ll be well on your way to ticking off dream destinations from your travel bucket list.

Fortunately, with the right travel hacking strategies, you can earn points and miles toward your dream vacation without spending a fortune. 

The top strategies for earning points include:

  1. Credit card sign-up bonuses. By strategically choosing a card with a great bonus, you could find yourself enjoying a premium flight experience or a free hotel stay.
  2. Optimizing your spending through bonus categories. Many credit cards offer bonus rewards for specific purchases, such as travel or dining. Using the right card for each purchase can help you accumulate points faster.
  3. Shopping portals. You can earn rewards at popular online stores. Many credit card issuers, airlines and hotels have their own shopping portals.
  4. Maximize points earned while booking travel. Frequent travelers can optimize their rewards by taking advantage of loyalty programs offered by airlines and hotels.
  5. Refer friends and family to credit cards. Referring friends and family, including a spouse, to credit cards can be a rewarding way to earn additional points or miles.
  6. Open a business credit card. Business credit cards often have some of the most lucrative signup bonuses, making them an essential part of beginner travel hacking.
  7. Earning points with bonus transfers. Bonus transfers can be a powerful tool for quickly reaching your rewards goals. Many credit card issuers and loyalty programs offer periodic promotions, where you can transfer your points or miles to partner programs with a bonus.
  8. Promotions and offers. Promotions and offers can encompass both limited-time and ongoing incentives, which involve activities such as adding authorized users, making purchases at specific merchants, linking your loyalty accounts with certain merchants, or completing one-time tasks, such as meeting a spending threshold within a specified timeframe. These offers vary by credit card issuer and card type.

By implementing these strategies, you’ll effectively accumulate rewards and transform them into unforgettable travel experiences. 

To learn more about these strategies, read our detailed guide on earning travel rewards: Earning Points & Miles: The Best Ways to Earn Travel Rewards.

The Best First Credit Cards for Travel Hackers

As a beginner, choosing a card that offers long-term benefits, has a quality signup bonus, and has reasonable minimum spending requirements is essential.

Our top choices for first-time travel hackers include the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, among other outstanding credit card offers we’ve curated for your convenience.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers a reasonable annual fee of $95, making it a great value. It also provides a consistently great signup bonus worth hundreds of dollars in travel rewards. 

With this card, you can redeem your points at a rate of 1.25 within the Chase travel portal, or transfer your points to various airline and hotel partners (including popular brands such as United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Hyatt Hotels).

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is another excellent option for beginners. 

With this card, you can earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar spent on every purchase, making it easy to accumulate rewards quickly. It also offers a consistently high signup bonus, which can be worth hundreds of dollars in travel credits. 

One unique feature of the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is that it allows you to use points to erase purchases categorized as travel on your credit card without using a travel portal.

You can then benefit from a larger sign-up bonus and other travel perks the card offers, like lounge access, TSA credits and the option to transfer points to travel partners for potentially higher value. This combination of features makes the Venture card more appealing for travel enthusiasts compared to a 2% cash-back card.

Overall, both cards offer flexibility in using your rewards, making them worthwhile even if you don’t have a specific travel destination in mind.

We’ve partnered with CardRatings to give our readers access to top credit card products. By collaborating with CardRatings, we ensure all data is accurate regarding the credit card products available, as it changes frequently. To discover these and other top travel card offers, see their “Best Travel Cards” page.

Airline Miles for Beginners

If you’ve never done it, booking flights with points can feel intimidating. With so many airline programs and transfer partners, knowing where to start and how to get the most value for your points can be challenging.

So let’s start with the basics. There are two main ways to use your points to book flights:

  1. Through an airline’s mileage program. Using an airline’s mileage program means you redeem points or miles earned through that airline’s loyalty program. Each airline has its own award chart and pricing, which determines how many miles you need to save for a free flight based on the destination and class of service. 
  2. Using fixed-value points. These points hold a set value, typically measured in cents per point. You can use these points to book flights or other travel expenses at a fixed redemption rate. For example, if you have 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can use them to book a flight at a rate of 1.5 cents per point, which would be worth $750 towards the cost of the flight. 

When trying to maximize the value of your travel rewards, booking flights with miles can offer outsized rewards compared to fixed-value points. However, there are certain situations where fixed-value rewards can come in handy.

At the same time, booking flights with reward points is more challenging than booking flights with fixed-value rewards, as award space availability can be limited. 

When you’re ready to book your flight, check out our step-by-step guide to redeeming points for airfare. Plus, see our rankings of the best free tools for award flight searches, which include popular tools like PointsYeah and Roame.Travel which can save you hours finding award avaialbity.

Exploring Your Accommodation Options: Hotels, Vacation Rentals and More

Booking accommodations like hotels, vacation rentals, and other types of lodging with reward points can be a great way to save money or even splurge on a luxurious stay. 

Similar to flying, when it comes to redeeming points for lodging, there are two primary methods: 

  1. Hotel loyalty programs.
  2. Fixed-value rewards.

Earning points by transferring them from credit card companies is one of the fastest ways for you to book hotel stays. For example, you can earn a signup bonus with a credit card issuer like Chase, then transfer the points to a hotel loyalty program like Hyatt. 

This allows you to earn points fast and potentially stay at a higher-end property than you would be able to afford if paying with cash. 

Additionally, some hotels offer co-branded credit cards that allow you to earn points directly with the hotel, and often offer free nights or room upgrades.

Using fixed-value rewards to book hotels offers flexibility to those who prefer to avoid committing to a specific hotel chain. The Chase travel portal, for example, allows you to book hotels at a rate of 1.25 cents per point with a Chase Sapphire Preferred card or 1.5 cents per point with the Chase Sapphire Reserve

Capital One offers many redemption options, including booking hotels through deal sites like Priceline or vacation rental sites like Airbnb. 

After making bookings, which can be done outside of Capital One’s travel portal, you can use your points to effectively “erase” those purchases from your account statement. The key is that they must be categorized as travel.

Remember that leveraging the power of points and rewards to create meaningful travel experiences is the core idea of travel hacking. Whether you’re looking to save money or splurge on a luxurious stay, booking accommodations with points is an excellent way. 

Check out our Booking Hotels with Points Made Easy guide for more tips, and read our PointsYeah review—a free tool that lets you search for hotels accepting award points in a specific area.

Discover My Favorite Reward Redemptions

Curious about the real-world potential of travel hacking? Don’t miss my article on my favorite reward redemptions

This piece dives deep into some of the most incredible travel experiences I’ve had, all thanks to strategically using points and miles. From first-class flights to five-star resorts and unforgettable family vacations, these examples will give you a glimpse of what’s achievable. 

Let this article inspire you, whether you’re just starting out or looking to take your travel hacking to the next level.

Traveling Hacking FAQ

Is travel hacking legal?

Yes, travel hacking is legal. It involves strategically using credit card rewards, airline loyalty programs, and hotel rewards to get the most value for your points and miles. However, it’s essential to follow the terms and conditions of each rewards program and credit card issuer to avoid potential issues; while violating these rules is not illegal, it could get you kicked out of the program and may result in the forfeiture of any accumulated points or progress.

Will travel hacking ruin your credit?

When done responsibly, travel hacking should not ruin your credit. In fact, it can even improve your credit score. Ensure you pay your credit card balance in full every month, keep your credit utilization low, and avoid applying for too many cards in a short period.

How long does it take to earn enough points for a free flight or hotel stay?

The time it takes to earn enough points for a free flight or hotel stay depends on various factors, such as your spending habits, the credit card you choose, and most importantly, how you plan to use the rewards. With the right strategy and card, you could potentially earn enough points for a free flight or hotel stay within a few months. 

What is the best credit card for travel hacking beginners?

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is most often recommended for beginners. The card offers flexible rewards, reasonable annual fees and a valuable signup bonus. But make sure to check out the best current offers for other cards that might match your travel goals, in addition to making sure you’re a good fit to hit the minimum spend and having a good enough credit score. 

Unlock Your Next Adventure

Travel hacking is all about leveraging the power of points and rewards to save money and create meaningful travel experiences.

To dive deeper into specific topics, be sure to check out our related posts:

With these resources, you’ll have everything you need to take your travel hacking to the next level. 

Happy travels!

Travel More, Spend Less

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R.J. Weiss
R.J. Weiss, founder of The Ways To Wealth, has been a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ since 2010. Holding a B.A. in finance and having completed the CFP® certification curriculum at The American College, R.J. combines formal education with a deep commitment to providing unbiased financial insights. Recognized as a trusted authority in the financial realm, his expertise is highlighted in major publications like Business Insider, New York Times, and Forbes.

    1 Comment

    1. That’s a great post!

      Well, I stumbled upon this well-detailed blog and now after going through it I have a better understanding of travel hacking. Thanks to the author for researching and curating a well-written top-notch piece of information.

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