What’s in YOUR Wallet? (or, An Introduction to Travel Hacking…)

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Just a few of the amazing trips we took (for free!) in 2015

So I talk on this blog (and my other writing project, The Points Guy) about travel hacking – the art of maximizing the benefits available through hotel loyalty programs and co-branded credit card offers in order to travel for free.

We’ve been travel hacking for about four years now, and I estimate we’ve saved somewhere in the neighborhood of about 25k on vacations so far. We wouldn’t be able to travel nearly as much if I wasn’t into this hobby.

I get asked, probably at least once a month, how to get started in this game, and as several of the cards I own and recommend are offering referral bonuses at the moment, I thought I’d share a few of my current favorites credit-card wise.

But first, the big caveat: if you don’t regularly pay off your entire credit card bill every month, travel hacking is not for you. (Or, at least not the credit card churning elements.)  It won’t save you money in the end if you’re trying to pay down debt at the high interest rates that travel credit cards charge.  And if past debt means your credit card rating isn’t so good, it might take you a while to build up your score enough to run with the big boys in this sport.  Bottom line though, never take on credit card debt you can’t immediately pay off.

Now, that being said, on to the good stuff:

  • The Chase Sapphire Visa – This is my go-to card, because you earn Ultimate Reward points, which can be transferred to the most travel partners, and it comes with other perks that are useful, like no foreign transaction fees and a chip. Chase just upped the sign-up bonus for this card to 50,000 points, making it a very good time to go for it.
  • The Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa – This card comes in two forms, the Preferred and the Plus, and either can earn you 50,000 points. In fact, it’s best to get both. Those 100k bonus points get you 90% of the way (96% when you factor in the minimum spending) to the Southwest Companion Pass, one of the most valuable deals in the game.  With the Companion Pass, every time the main traveler books a flight (either paid or on miles) they can get a free companion flight for whoever they may like to travel with them. This is the right time to go out for this card, then plan to complete your spending in early January (not before!!) so that you can maximize your time with the pass.
  • The Starwood American Express – We have this card, and up until about a month ago, I highly recommended it, as Starwood has the best hotel redemption rate of any hotel chain in the game.  However, with the ink still drying on Marriott’s deal to acquire Starwood, it’s unclear what the future is for this program.  So I would only recommend this if you plan on doing a lot of hotel travel in the next 3-4 months.
  • The Citi Thank You Premier/The Citi Thank You Prestige – I’ve written about this 1-2 punch of cards earlier, and the bonuses are still available. With the recently announced American devaluation, they’re a less valuable options that some of the others above, but still good all around travel cards.  I like the extra perks with the Prestige card and I like that I get 2x points on gas stations with the Premier.
  • The Chase Freedom – With rotating seasonal bonuses, this is a good supplement card.  Right now, for example, we get 10x points on anything we buy at Amazon.  You get this card for the earning potential, not the bonus.
  • The Hyatt Visa – This card gives you 2 free nights at any property, making it incredibly valuable if you’re headed to an expensive locale. But beyond that, I think it’s better to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards (which can transfer 1:1 to Hyatt) as they’re more versatile.
  • The United MileagePlus Visa – We really only keep this card because it’s our oldest open credit card, which helps our credit score.  I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you’re a frequent United traveler, in which case it will save you the baggage fees.

Now, onto the most commonly asked questions.

Won’t having all those credit cards open hurt your credit? No. Kind of the opposite, actually, because I have a long credit history and favorable credit availability ratio. Read more about it here.

How do you meet the minimum spending requirements? We put almost all our expenses on a credit card, and only open 1 new card at a time. We also monitor our monthly spending so that we know how much we’re able to incur without changing our normal habits and don’t go for cards with higher spend requirements unless we have a special purchase coming up, like when we re-did the siding on our house.

Can I get two of the same kind of credit card? Generally, no, but you can sometimes get a card, cancel it, and then re-apply for the card and re-earn the bonus.  Not all cards will let you, and there’s usually a 1-year minimum wait between re-opening.  Check it out on FlyerTalk first if you’re hoping to do it.

But what about the annual fees?! This is the whiny question. If you evaluate the benefits of most of the cards, the perks are far more valuable than the fees.  Sometimes you gotta spend money to make money. Of course, that means you have to be willing and able to make time for travel to take advantage of the fees.  Sometimes I see people get travel credit cards that maybe take only one 3 or 4-day vacation a year, somewhere within driving distance of their house.  If that’s you, you’re probably better with a no-fee cash back card. Travel perks are only worth something if you’ll use them.

What other questions do you have?  Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!

 

Whitney