Travel hacking has always been a fun hobby. It’s like a puzzle. I love to plan a trip and then figure out how I can get as much of it as possible for free! (I know I’m a little weird…)
In 2019, we took a trip to Panama, and we covered the costs of our airfare, lodging, rental car, ferry tickets, and even some activities using credit card rewards. We ended up spending over a week in Panama and only spent money on food and the activities that we had to pay cash.
Not only did I love the trip, but I also loved the puzzle.
In March of 2020, we had planned to take a trip to Jamaica. We used points to book our flights and 5 nights at an all-inclusive resort. The only things we would need to pay for were ground transportation to the hotel and any food or activities we chose to do outside of the resort.
Too bad, we had to cancel the trip because of COVID. We got the points back, and I’m sure we’ll eventually take the trip. But, who knows when?
We’ve been fairly cautious in the age of COVID to travel. Even though we are vaccinated, we don’t want to risk getting COVID or passing it on to someone who is more vulnerable. Knowing that we want to limit our international travel for some time actually contributed to us deciding to buy our campervan.
With all of the uncertainty, our previous travel hacking strategy no longer works. We can’t plan the trip and then solve the puzzle of how to fund it.
Because we know the power of credit card rewards (when you use them responsibly), we knew we wanted to figure out a new strategy for the COVID age.
We won’t be taking a lot of trips over the next few years where we could use travel rewards. But, we will be spending a lot of money. Not only will we be doing our normal spending, but we’ll also be completing our campervan purchase and paying for the conversion.
We want to get a better return (than the typical 1-2%) on that spending, but that means we need a new travel hacking strategy.
Instead of focusing on funding a particular trip, we’re now focusing on two things:
- Building up rewards points that are flexible or can be used on non-travel specific things
- Banking points for award programs we know we’ll eventually use (and that don’t expire)
Before we get into the specifics, let me give you a short overview of travel hacking.
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. This is not limited to free flights using airline miles. You can also get free lodging, other transportation, and activities for free using travel rewards.
Typically, a good travel rewards credit card will provide a sign-up bonus of 50,000-100,000 points in exchange for spending a certain amount of money (usually $3,000-$4,000) in the first few months. Since points are usually valued at 1-2 cents per point, this means that you are getting a $500+ value for spending $3,000.
Since we use credit cards responsibly, this is a no-brainer for us!
Here’s what we do.
- We sign up for a credit card.
- We use that card to cover our daily expenses and make sure we spend the necessary amount within the required timeframe to receive the sign-up bonus.
- After meeting the minimum spending requirements, we move on to the next card (or back to one of our everyday use credit cards).
It is important to note that we are not super serious travel hackers. We don’t each open 4 (or more new cards each year). Over the last 3-4 years, we’ve collectively opened about 3 new credit cards between the two of us each year. Surprisingly, this strategy has covered the vast majority of our travel costs over the last few years.
Before the anniversary of each card, we review the benefits to see if we feel like it’s worth keeping open. We have to remember to do this, and we usually do. Some have benefits that make the annual fee worth it. Most don’t. If it isn’t worth it, we close the card, so that we don’t incur the annual fee for year 2.
Because we already have good credit, we’ve found this strategy to have no impact on our credit score. If you are in the process of building your credit, you will want to do additional research because this strategy may not work for you.
In this post, I’m only giving you a quick overview. Head over to this comprehensive post I wrote on travel hacking for more information.
Types of Travel Rewards Credit Cards
There are two main types of travel rewards credit cards:
- Co-branded Airline or Hotel Credit Cards
- Transferable Points/Fixed Value Credit Cards
Co-Branded Airline or Hotel Credit Cards
This type of credit card is co-branded with an airline or hotel chain. These cards often have sign-up bonuses of 50,000-75,000 points (and sometimes higher).
The downside is that they can typically only be used for that particular airline or hotel chain. Sometimes, you can transfer the points to airline partners, but the exchange for this is typically suboptimal.
Here are ways that we’ve used this type of credit card:
- When we went to Panama in 2019, we booked two round trip tickets using the 60,000 points that we received from our AAdvantage Premier Credit Card sign-up bonus. Our only out-of-pocket costs for airfare were fuel surcharges and customs fees. These came out to be ~$40/ticket.
- For our planned trip to Jamaica in 2020, we each opened a World of Hyatt Credit Card and received 50,000 points. In addition to the 100,000 points we received from the bonus, we also received some points from the spending. We also transferred some points from our Chase Ultimate Rewards Account. This allowed us to pool up 125,000 points. This allowed us to book 5 nights at an all-inclusive resort (which at the time was a $700/night value) for free. I’m excited to someday take this trip.
- In 2016, we took a trip to Hawaii with one of Corey’s brothers and his family. Because we had each gotten a United Credit Card in 2015, we were able to cover the full cost of the airplane tickets with United Miles.
- Since Boston is a hub for JetBlue airlines, we’ve each gotten a JetBlue credit card once or twice. This means that we can do almost all of our domestic travel for free (as long as it’s to somewhere JetBlue flies). In fact, we’re going to a wedding in Napa in November. We got our round-trip flights for free using JetBlue points.
The points from these credit cards automatically go into your airline or hotel rewards account. This means that you don’t need to keep the credit card open until you use the points. We typically close these cards before the annual fee for year two unless they have benefits that outweigh the costs.
COVID has made this type of credit card seem a lot less valuable to us, as they are so much less flexible. In the past, it made a lot of sense to plan the trip and then figure out what airline and hotel chain we’d be using. Then, we’d get those credit cards.
Because we don’t know what trips we’ll be taking in the future, and we aren’t planning to do significant air travel, we are deprioritizing this type of card except in these cases:
- Co-branded cards for airlines that we know we’ll use in the future (because we can use that airline to visit family).
- We’d consider doing a co-branded card for Delta since our home city, Boston, is a hub for them. We can be fairly certain we’d eventually use the points.
- Before opening any card (if we don’t have a plan of when we’ll use the points), we’ll ensure that the points don’t expire. In many rewards programs, points expire after a certain amount of time if you don’t use them.
Transferable Points/Fixed Value Credit Cards
Transferable Points/Fixed Value Cards are a lot more flexible, especially when you don’t know when or where you’ll be traveling.
These credit cards allow you to redeem points in a few different ways:
- All allow you to transfer points to their travel partners (typically airlines or hotels). Here are links to learn more about the transfer partners for Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Capital One Venture.
- Some companies (Chase and Citi) have a travel portal that allows you to book travel directly through their site at a 1.25-1.5 cents per point rate, depending on the card.
- Capital One allows you to “erase” travel charges using your points at a 1 cent/point ratio.
- All companies allow you to turn your points into cashback. Chase and Citi do this at a rate of 1 cent per point. Capital One does this at .5 cents per point.
Here are ways we’ve used this type of card before COVID:
- When we went to Europe in 2017, we booked our flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal. It was significantly cheaper to buy flights at a 1.25 cents/point ratio on TAP Air Portugal than the transfer the points and purchase it through United.
- When we went to Panama in 2019, we booked some hotels and our rental car through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Portal. We booked ferry tickets using our Capital One Venture Card.
Here are ways we’ve used this type of card in the COVID Age:
- In the summer of 2020, our COVID-safe vacation was to rent a cabin in Maine. The one rewards credit card that could help us cover the cost was the Capital One Venture Card. I opened this card in January of 2020, originally thinking that it could help us with incidental costs on our Jamaica trip. Luckily, we were able to use it to cover a portion of our cabin rental.
- In 2020 and 2021, Corey opened both a Chase Sapphire Preferred and a Citi ThankYou Premier Card. Since we weren’t planning to travel anytime soon, we decided to redeem the points for cash at a 1 cent/point ratio. While many travel hackers would tell us this is a terrible redemption, we weren’t planning to travel at any point soon. It made sense for us. Each card had a 60,000 point sign-up bonus, so that put $1,200 back into our pockets.
- We’ll be heading to Napa in November for a wedding. Luckily, I had some Chase Ultimate Rewards Points in my account, so I was able to book a rental car for 8 days at a 1.25 cents/point rate.
With the uncertainly of travel because of COVID, these cards have become a lot more valuable. They provide flexibility in the ways that you can use them (including getting cashback if you aren’t planning to travel). Even though there are fewer of this type of card, we’ve been prioritizing these during COVID.
What’s In Our Wallets? Which Travel Rewards Credit Cards Do We Have?
You are probably wondering what travel rewards credit cards are currently in our wallets. What cards are we currently working on? What cards have we felt like it was worth paying the annual fee and kept them open?
Here’s the inside scoop!
Note: I’m specifically writing about the travel rewards cards we currently have. We have a few other cashback cards that we’ve had for a very long time that we aren’t including here, such as Chase Freedom, the Costco Visa Card, etc.
And, we’ll only provide you with links to the cards we’d truly recommend.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Corey and I currently both have this credit card. Note: We each have our own rather than having an authorized user. This allowed us both to get the sign-up bonus.
I’ve had mine for over 3 years and Corey opened his last year. We will likely end up closing one of them over the next year.
The main reason I’ve kept this card open for so long is:
- The cashback rate is quite good on this card (3x points for dining out, streaming services, and online grocery shopping, 2x on travel, and 1x on everything else). Plus, they give you a 10% bonus each year.
- I like being able to book travel through the Chase portal at a 1.25 cents/point return.
- Chase has a great refer-a-friend program! When you have one friend sign-up for the card, you currently get 20,000 points. That’s $200 cashback or $250 in travel credit (using the Chase portal). My dad signed up for the card last year, and I got 20,000 points! That more than covered the annual fee!
When I’m not trying to meet the minimum spend on another credit card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of my everyday cards.
The sign-up bonus for a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is at an all-time high! You’ll get 100,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. This means you’ll get $1,250 toward travel or $1,000 in cash back. That’s over a 25% return on your spending!
Note: We are not an affiliate for Chase! We simply love this credit card. If you want to sign-up for this card (and want to support The Fioneers because you like what we’re doing), you can sign-up using our refer-a-friend link! This means we’ll get a few points toward future travel or cashback! To be clear, we’re definitely NOT getting rich on this since you are limited to 5 friend referrals each year! 🙂
Capital One Venture
Corey and I both have a Capital One Venture Credit Card. I opened my Card 2 years ago. Corey just received an offer in the mail last week from Capital One and decided to open one as well.
Here are the reasons I kept this card past the annual fee:
- We earn 2x miles on every purchase. While the Chase Sapphire Preferred card provides us with 2-3x in certain categories, this card provides 2x on everything.
- These points are extremely flexible to use. You can apply them to erase any travel-related charge! This includes travel costs that aren’t typically covered by any other rewards, such as cabin rentals, Airbnbs, train tickets, taxis, rideshares, and more.
- They offer a fee credit toward Global Entry or TSA Precheck. I didn’t do that within my first year because of COVID. I plan to take care of this soon, in case we decide to cancel my card and keep Corey’s open.
I would say that this is the second most valuable credit card in my wallet! Depending on what I’m buying, this one is also an everyday card.
If you are planning to do travel that you can’t cover with other types of rewards, I’d definitely recommend this card! If you want the card (and would like to support us in a tiny way), you can use our refer-a-friend link! Same as Chase, we are limited to 5 referrals each year!
Citi ThankYou Premier
Corey opened this card in early 2021. It has an awesome sign-up bonus right now of 80,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months. Since he already had the Chase Sapphire Card and had previously closed a Capital One Card, this was the only flexible point card available to him at that point. Luckily, it had a welcome offer that provided us with a hefty amount of cashback.
To be honest, we probably won’t keep this card open past the first year. While it has 3x cash back on travel, gas stations, supermarkets, and restaurants, the rest of the categories return 1x. They have fewer transfer partners, and there’s little reason for us to keep open both the Chase Sapphire and the Citi ThankYou Premier.
If you already have the Chase Sapphire Preferred and want a new flexible card, this is definitely one to check out though!
JetBlue Plus Card
Corey has had this credit card for about 4 years now.
It has an annual fee of $99, but we’ve decided that keeping this card open is worth it. JetBlue is the airline we fly most often. The card provides us with free checked bags and 5,000 bonus miles each year, so that’s been worth it.
I’ve opened (and then closed before the annual fee) this card twice in the last 4 years which allowed me to get the sign-up bonus twice!
World of Hyatt Credit Card
We’ve both had this credit card for two years now. We originally got the card to cover the all-inclusive resort for the trip we were planning to take to Jamaica in early 2020. It’s pretty amazing that taking a 5-night trip to an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica would only require us to open two new credit cards.
We will eventually make the trip.
We’ve kept the cards open despite the annual fees because the card offers an annual free night award on each anniversary. This means we can take a quick getaway up to Portland, ME this fall and stay for two nights at a Hyatt for free (or really the cost of the annual fees)!
We may eventually close one of these cards if we find the free-night certificates not to be as valuable as we thought.
Alaska Airlines Credit Card
We knew that we’d be doing quite a bit of spending on our van over the next several months, so I recently decided to open an Alaska Airlines Credit Card.
To be honest, this card doesn’t have the best rewards. It provides 40,000 points after spending $2,000 in 3 months. It then provides an additional 25,000 points after spending $6,000 more within a 6 months time frame. Overall, it will provide me with 65,000 points when I spend $8,000 in 6 months.
So, if it wasn’t a great value, why did I get the card?
Corey’s family lives near Portland, OR, and Alaska Airlines is one of the only airlines that offer year-round, direct flights from Boston to Portland. Alaska Airlines points never expire, so we know we will eventually use them all.
I don’t necessarily recommend this card unless you know you’ll use the points. It’s also very likely that I’ll close this card before I need to pay an annual fee for year 2.
5 Tips to Make the Most of Travel Rewards Credit Cards In the COVID Age
As shared above, I have a much more comprehensive resource about travel hacking elsewhere on the site. So, I’ll keep it simple here. Regarding the first two tips, I make sure to talk about these every time I talk about credit cards. The last three are specific to COVID.
1. Pay Off Your Credit Cards in Full Every Month
Free flights or accommodation are not worth it if you need to go into debt to get them. Using a travel hacking strategy is specifically for people who are already responsible with their credit cards, have minimal consumer debt (or have a clear debt payoff plan), and pay off their credit cards in full every month.
2. Use Your Credit Cards to Cover Your Ordinary, Everyday Expenses
This is really important! If you are the kind of person who will spend a lot more money on a credit card than with cash, this strategy may not be for you. We do our best to stick to paying for only our everyday expenses with credit cards.
There have been a few occasions in which we had a hard time meeting the minimum spend during the timeframe. When this happens, we buy gift cards for things we know we will eventually need, like the grocery store or Costco, etc.
3. Focus on Transferable Points/Fixed Value Cards First
Here’s where we get into the COVID-specific guidance.
If you don’t feel confident making travel plans, choose credit cards that are the most flexible. If you end up not traveling, you can convert the points to cashback (Chase and Citi). With Capital One, cashback is not optimal. However, they provide a lot of flexibility to “erase” travel-related charges. Lastly, you can transfer the points to a travel partner you know you’ll use in the future (just make sure those points won’t expire before you use them).
4. Make a List of Places You Travel Frequently
Without having a particular trip in mind (i.e. puzzle to solve), we decided to think about covering the travel expenses that we do more regularly. For example, to visit Corey’s family, we typically would fly to Portland. Alaska Airlines is one of the only airlines with year-round, non-stop flights from Boston to Portland. Now, we know our flights to Portland will be covered for years!
5. Figure Out What Airlines Your Local Airport is a Hub for
If your local airport is a hub for any particular airline, you can be reasonably sure you’ll eventually use the points. You’ll just want to make sure they won’t expire before you use them.
Boston is a hub for JetBlue and Delta. We already have JetBlue credit cards and have banked a lot of miles with them. We don’t currently have (and have never had) Delta Airlines credits cards. Since the points never expire, we will likely consider this for our next card.
How are you adapting your Travel Rewards Strategy in the COVID age?