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Over the last several months, since discovering FI, I’ve been on a passion search. As you may have already heard, it’s as important to know what you are retiring to as what you are retiring from. It was something I hadn’t thought about for a long time, and therefore, I was having a hard time unearthing my passions.

One piece of advice I got was to look back on my childhood and remember what I loved to do. This could send me in the right direction of my passion as an adult. When I did this, I remembered that as a child, I would read the encyclopedia to learn about all of the different countries of the world, and I had a portfolio of hand-drawn maps traced from the pages. Yes, I was a nerd, and I do indeed love to travel the world.

Travel is one of my true passions in life. I come alive when I travel. I love the adventure of being in a new place, often speaking a different language, and finding my way through it all.

Corey and I love to travel together. It’s a tradition for us to take a trip every year for our anniversary. Throughout our lives so far, we have visited countries on 4 continents and lived in various Central and South American countries through study abroad and volunteer programs. I have a goal of traveling to 100 countries in my lifetime.

Travel can be quite expensive, but it doesn’t need to be.

Over the last few years, we’ve been introduced to “travel hacking,” which has dramatically increased our ability to travel the world, because we can travel for free or nearly free.

This year Corey and I will be celebrating our 10th anniversary! To celebrate, we’ll be headed to Panama for 8 days. At the end of the post, we’ll show you how we will take this trip for nearly free.

Travel hacking has had a tremendous impact on our FI journey. Every year we spend a few hours researching, opening the best cards for the trip, and determining the best times to go on the trip.

Depending on where we want to go, each year we save anywhere from $2,000-4,000 on travel, which allows us to increase our savings rate. This savings reduces the amount that we have to save to reach financial independence by $50,000 – $114,000, or cuts out about 5-11 months from our already aggressive FI timeline of 9-10 years. These strategies will also enable us to travel the world long after we reach FI.  

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking is when you use credit card rewards, often the very lucrative sign-up bonuses, to travel for free or nearly free. You may be familiar with airline miles already, but travel hacking is not limited to getting free flights. It also focuses on free lodging, other transportation, and activities.

Here’s the basic premise of travel hacking: You sign up for a new credit card, use that card for all of your daily expenses to spend the amount necessary to receive the sign-up bonus (usually within the first 3 months). After you meet the minimum spending requirement, you move on to the next card. By targeting specific cards with rewards that line up with future travel, you can significantly reduce or subsidize your future travel costs.

Note: You should only pursue travel hacking if you are extremely responsible with credit cards and pay them off in full every month.

How do credit card bonuses work?

There are three types of travel rewards credit cards – Co-branded Airline or Hotel, Fixed Value, and Transferable Points. Credit card companies often provide lucrative sign-up bonuses to incentivize you to open their credit card, in the hopes that you’ll either keep the card open long term, pay an annual fee, or go into credit card debt and need to pay them back with interest.  

If you pay off your card on time, travel hacking through credit card rewards shouldn’t be an issue for you. Sometimes, the fee is waived for the first year. Even when it isn’t, there are times when the benefits you receive from the card warrant paying an annual fee.  

Co-Branded Airline or Hotel Credit cards

These credit cards are co-branded with an Airline or a hotel chain. These cards often have sign-up bonuses of 50,000 to 75,000 points and sometimes higher or lower.

Examples of these cards include:

  • United MileagePlus Explorer Card
  • AAdvantage Platinum Select Card
  • Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Card

The great thing about these cards is that these points go directly into your frequent flyer or other loyalty rewards accounts, which means you can cancel the card without losing the points.

Another great thing is that almost every airline and hotel chain has a rewards program and a credit card.

These points can be incredibly valuable. For example, 60,000 airline points, which is often the sign-up bonus for airline cards, can get you 2 round-trip tickets to Central America, 2 round-trip tickets to many places in the united states (with some left over), or 2 one-way tickets to Europe in many programs.  

75,000 Marriott points can get you 10 nights at a category 1 hotel (which will cost 7,500 points, or in 2019, if you are off-peak, category 1 will cost you only 5,000), 4 nights in a category 3 hotel (which cost 17,500 points), or fewer nights at a more luxurious hotel.

If you are going to open one of these credit cards, know that these have the least flexibility. A few, such a Marriott, allow you to transfer points to airlines, but most of them you can only use them for the specific airline or hotel chain associated with the card. This will likely be fine if you plan and are flexible around your travel dates.

Fixed Value

Fixed value credit cards are the easiest the use. With these cards, 1 point is merely worth 1 cent, so when 50,000 points are offered that equals $500. These cards are so easy to use because all you need to do is pay for your travel expenses using your credit card and then use your points to cover the charges that you made.

Examples of these cards include:

  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard
  • Capital One Venture Card

These cards advertise 50,000 to 60,000 “miles” sign-up bonuses, but these aren’t actually miles. You can’t transfer them to any airlines. After paying for your travel expenses with this credit card, you can apply the points to your credit card as a statement credit to cover travel-related charges. Therefore, if you bought 2 round-trip flights for $700 using one of these credit cards, 60,000 points would count for $600, and it would be applied to your credit card as a statement credit.

Since you are often able to use a co-branded credit card to get the airline miles you need for free flights, I don’t recommend using these cards for flights unless the dollar value is lower than the point value, which can happen but is rare.

These points are most lucrative when you use them for charges that cannot be covered by other rewards points, such as hotels that can’t be booked with points, other transportation besides flights, or activities like the entrance to museums, a snorkeling trip, a zip line canopy tour, etc.

Transferable Points

These points are the most valuable and the most flexible. Some credit cards have both their own travel portals and also allow you to transfer points to various rewards programs.

Examples of these cards include:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve
  • Citi ThankYou Premier Card
  • Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card or Platinum Card

Each of these programs has their own rewards points – Citi ThankYou Points, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or Amex Membership Rewards. With these points, you can use these like fixed value cards where you can book directly through their travel portals at a 1.25-1.5x rate for the use of points.

I recommend the Chase Ultimate Rewards Card. This card offers you 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. 50,000 points are the equivalent of $625 if you book through the travel portal and potentially much higher if you transfer points to Chase’s airline or hotel partners. You also get 1 point for every dollar you spend on the card and double points for travel and dining. I’ve had this card for over a year now and find it to be a tremendous value. If you are interested in signing up for this card, please click on the card below or the link above.*

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Or you can choose to transfer them to one of many rewards partners, which could be more lucrative. If you plan to transfer points, it’s important to know the transfer partners of each program, and each program has a different list of transfer partners. Citi’s list of transfer partners is the weakest, so you may end up using the points through their travel portal.

Always, before you transfer any points, check the cash value. For example, if we were traveling to Paris from Boston, we could use United points to book 30,000 for a one-way flight. However, through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, we could get flights on TAP Portugal for about 22,000 points each. Sometimes, the cash value makes it worth booking through the portal directly, especially when you get 1.25-1.5 cents per point.

What travel expenses can a travel hacking strategy cover?

Airfare

You will typically get the best value on airfare by using a co-branded credit card or transferring points from a credit card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred. However, sometimes the cash value of the flight makes it worth booking directly through a credit card’s travel portal. Most flights only have a certain number of award seats, so you will want to book the trip as far out as possible, up to 11 months out. To get the most value from your points, look for saver award economy seats and look to see if there are off-peak times if you are flexible with your dates.

Lodging

You can book lodging in many ways:

  • Through using co-branded hotel cards like Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, etc., you can book hotels through their portals where available.
  • You can transfer points from a transferable card to a hotel chain.
  • You can book directly through a transferable point portal, which is sometimes cheaper.
  • You can book using a fixed value card and apply the points to the purchase.

Sometimes you can also save money by using Airbnb. While Airbnb does not have a rewards program, there might be occasions where it could make sense to convert points into Airbnb gift cards (or target gift cards to buy Airbnb gift cards).

Most people say that this is a lousy redemption because you are only getting a 1:1 ratio. However, if your priority is to travel for free, there are cases where this might make sense.

For example, there are some places in Europe where you can’t find a hotel for less than 20,000 points per night through either a credit card travel portal or a hotel chain, or if you can, it’s in a location that’s not central. However, you could book an Airbnb for $100 per night that’s right in the city center.

It often has a kitchen so you can prepare your own food for breakfast and lunch to save even more money. In a case like this, it might make sense to transfer something like Citi ThankYou points or Chase Ultimate Rewards points into gifts cards that can be used for Airbnb, because $100 per night would only be 10,000 points converted into a gift card.

Only you can decide if this strategy is right for you depending on your priorities. Our current priority is free travel, not saving the points for later since we are only taking one large trip per year. You may want to travel more and therefore may want to save the points for a more lucrative redemption.

Activities

You can book some tours and activities through your flexible rewards portal. However, the list of activities is often limited, and it may be more expensive than paying for it directly. This is where fixed value credit cards are most valuable. They can pay for things like trains, ferries, bike tours and rentals, snorkeling, entrance to museums and other attractions, etc.

Case Study: Our Trip to Panama in 2019

Corey and I will be headed to Panama in 2019 and will be able to cover almost the entire cost of our trip through credit card rewards.

Here is an overview of our 8-9 day itinerary

  • Fly from Boston To Panama City and pick up a rental car
  • 2 nights in El Valle de Anton (a village inside of a dormant volcano), where we plan to hike and do a zip line canopy tour
  • 2 nights in Panama City, where we will drop off the rental car. We plan to do a bike tour or rental and visit the Panama Canal.
  • 3 nights on Contadora Island, which is a 90-minute ferry ride from Panama City. We plan to snorkel and spend time at the beach.
  • 1 night in Panama City before flying back to Boston.

How will we cover the costs?

Airfare:

We got the AAdvantage Premier Credit card with a 60,000 point sign-up bonus, which has gotten us two round-trip tickets from Boston to Panama City. Our only costs for airfare was the $40 fuel surcharge and customs fee per ticket.

Lodging:

I had gotten the Chase Sapphire Preferred card earlier this year, which had a 50,000 points sign-up bonus. From the sign-up bonus, using the card, and getting a referral bonus, I had a total of 70,000 Chase points.

In El Valle de Anton, we booked a hotel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. It is a suite room with a king bed and cost us about 20,000 points for two nights and includes free breakfast.

In Panama City, we will be staying at a Category 1 SPG/Marriott hotel, which looks extremely nice. Therefore, for 3 total nights, we will use 22,500 points. Luckily, we already had about 17,000 Marriott points, so we only needed to transfer 6,000 points from the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to Marriott to be able to book 3 nights.

For Contadora Island, we decided to redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points for Airbnb gift cards. On this island, there aren’t any chain hotels. A few weeks ago, it looked like there was availability for me to book a room in a bed and breakfast through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, and the cheapest hotel would have been 11,200 points per night (33,600 points total). I found the same bed and breakfast on Airbnb, and it only cost $318 to book through Airbnb. Therefore, I redeemed 30,000 from my Chase Sapphire Card for a $300 Airbnb gift card, and 2,500 Chase Freedom points for a $25 Airbnb gift card to cover the full cost. I was surprised to find that I could book the same room using Airbnb gift cards for about 1,000 points less than booking through the Chase portal.

Pro-tip: You may want to check prices on various sites because sometimes prices in the travel portal are inflated.

Other Travel:

Rental Car: We have enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points left over to book the rental car for the two days that we are headed into the mountains.

We also plan to get a Barclay Arrival Plus card, which has a 60,000 point sign-up bonus. This is a fixed value card, so this is worth $600 in a travel credit.  Therefore, we will be able to use this card to book the ferry tickets to Contadora Island.

If we use Uber to get around, we will be able to use the Barclay points for this also. One way you can get around the $100 minimum charge that Barclay allows for point coverage is to buy a $100 Uber gift card, load it into the app, and then spend down the balance.

Activities:

We have a lot of exciting activities planned, such as either a bike tour or bike rentals in multiple locations, exploring the Panama Canal, a zip line canopy tour, snorkeling, etc.). We should be able to cover the costs of many of these things through the Barclaycard.

Our out-of-pocket costs for this trip:

  • $40 in fees per plane ticket ($160 total)
  • $95 fee for the Barclaycard (which isn’t waived for the first year)
  • Any activities that aren’t covered by the Barclaycard (we are guessing $150-300)
  • Food costs (we’re pretty frugal people and don’t plan to go to any Michelin Star restaurants. However, we will be eating out most of the time, and therefore, estimate $500-800 for this, though it will likely be lower. How much can beans and rice cost?)

10 Essential Tips to Inform Your Travel Hacking Strategy:

1 – Pay off your credit cards in full every month

Getting a credit card sign-up bonus worth $650 is not worth it if you are going into credit card debt to get a free flight. This strategy is only for people who are incredibly responsible with their credit cards, have no consumer debt, and pay their credit cards off in full every month.

2 – Use your credit cards to cover your ordinary, everyday expenses

Don’t allow yourself to increase your expenses because you need to meet the minimum spend requirement. If for some reason, you are going to have a hard time meeting the minimum, consider buying a gift card for something you know you will need, like groceries. If you are just starting, you usually wouldn’t need to manufacture spending (i.e. finding ways to buy goods with your credit card and get the money back in cash).

3 – Assess the cash value of the sign-up bonus to ensure it’s worth it.

A good value for a sign-up bonus is $500-600 or more. For example, 50,000 Chase points are worth $625 in travel through their portal or much more if you transfer the points to travel partners.  The 60,000 AAdvantage points were valued at $840.

I also looked up the same flights to Panama that we booked. If we bought them today, they would cost $1,218.82. We did pay $160 in fees on top of the 60,000 points. The AA credit card bonus, therefore, saved us over $1,000. This is an incredible value. If a card is only offering 40,000 points, you may want to wait to get the card until the sign-up bonus is higher.  

4 – Plan your trip far in advance, and then plan your strategy

When we were planning our Panama trip, I decided the places where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do before determining the cards we would want to open to cover the costs.

Start with the cards you need to book your airfare, since those need to be booked as far in advance as possible. Once you’ve done that, focus on your hotel and activities strategy. We’re looking to spend two weeks in Italy in 2020, and we are already planning our credit card opening strategy.

5 – Look at Off-Peak Dates

Some airlines and hotel chains have off-peak dates.  If you look at the dates and realize that you are flexible enough to travel a bit earlier or later, it could be possible to save 2,500-10,000+ points per ticket. The downside may be that off-peak dates have worse weather. The upside might be that there are fewer tourists and shorter lines.  

6 – Do your research

Learn more about the ins and outs of travel hacking. I took this free course from Travel Miles 101, which I’d recommend. Some of the information is outdated, so you’ll want to verify some of the specifics, but it gives a very helpful overview.

Before I took the course, I erroneously thought that I could use American Airlines miles to get to Europe on a British Airways (an AA partner), only to find out that they had outrageous fuel surcharges, upwards of $200 per ticket. Before deciding to go to Panama, we thought we would go to Brussels and Amsterdam on British Airways (the only flight with less than 2+ stops from Amsterdam to Boston).

Since we already had the American Airlines credit card when we found this out, we realized that we didn’t have enough time to get the cards needed to make this trip happen in 2019. It’s always important to be flexible.

7 – Understand Chase’s 5/24 rule

If you have opened up more than 5 credit cards in the past 24 months, Chase will not approve you. If you plan to open up more than 5 cards in two years, you may want to consider starting with the Chase cards and moving to Amex and Citi cards later.

Corey and I can stay under the 5/24 rule because there’s two of us, so it’s actually 10/24. Also, since we don’t pursue manufactured spend and only put our everyday expenses on the cards that we’d have anyways, it usually takes us 2-3 months to reach the minimum to receive the sign-up bonuses anyways.

8 – Ignore Authorized User Bonuses

Some cards will try to incentivize you to add an authorized user with a carrot of 5,000-10,000 additional points. If you are pursuing a travel hacking strategy, I would not recommend this. If you are added as an authorized user to a credit card, that is counted in Chase’s 5/24 calculation, and this means you have fewer cards you can open and still be eligible for Chase cards.

9 – Avoid (most) annual fees

Many cards will waive the annual fee for the first year. For these cards, we have a spreadsheet where we track when we track our sign-up date and the date by which we should cancel to not be required to pay the annual fee. However, you should calculate the cost of the benefits for yourself; sometimes an annual fee is worth it for the benefit that the card provides.

10 – Keep Track of your points in one place

I use AwardWallet to track the loyalty programs. While many of the major airlines (United, Delta, Southwest, etc.), do not allow you to track your points in AwardWallet. I still think it’s worth it. Over the last month, it sent me a bunch of reminders that my Marriott points were going to expire in a few weeks, so I was able to transfer them to Corey’s account so that I didn’t lose them.

Have you successfully used credit card sign-up bonuses to travel anywhere exciting?

Do you have feedback for us on how we could improve our travel hacking strategy?

*Note: We are not currently an affiliate for any Chase credit cards. Because we like this card so much, we wanted to give you the opportunity to sign-up as well. We have shared our referral link from opening this credit card ourselves. If you sign-up using this link, we will receive a referral bonus of a certain number of Chase Ultimate Rewards points into the account.

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