Traveling With Points, Miles, and Super Cheap Fares: Welcome to "Travel Hacking"
If I had to name my favorite thing to do, it would be traveling. Unfortunately, it's not exactly the cheapest hobby. To make it possible to travel more, I’ve spent the past year or so diving into the points and miles game. For those of you who don't know, that basically means figuring out the nitty gritty of how various rewards and loyalty programs work, and then maximizing frequent flier miles and loyalty points to get free or cheap travel. It’s part of what people call “travel hacking,” which, I should note, doesn’t involve any computer hacking — rather, it's about finding loopholes, taking advantage of cheap fares, and other tricks to travel for less than full price.
Even if you don’t travel very often, there are plenty of ways to get involved with the game (although frequent flying definitely helps). Besides regular travel, the most effective and popular way to rack up the miles is by strategically leveraging credit card spending rewards and signup bonuses. A ton of information about this is floating around online on blogs and message boards. The most well-known is probably The Points Guy — chances are pretty good that you've seen him advertise on your Facebook feed.
The credit card element of the points & miles game isn't for everyone, and needs strict personal finance practices to avoid hurting your credit score or spending more money than you should. If you're the kind of person who knows which of your credit cards has the lowest APR because you plan to carry a balance, this is probably not for you.
A lot has been written about how we millennials are totally repelled by credit cards, although as Chase recently found out, that can be overcome with the right incentives. The reason boils down to my generation being highly skeptical of banks and scared of the specter of debt. I think a lack of financial understanding plays a part here; most people don't seem to realize that it's possible to have credit cards, collect rewards, and not be in debt. You just don't buy more than your budget allows. Treat the cards just like cash or debit cards in terms of spending. If you pay off your balance each month (or more often), you won't be charged interest, and you won't accrue debt. You'll also see your credit history and score continue to grow. On the other hand, carrying a balance and accruing interest cancels out the value of any rewards you might earn.
Over the past 18 months or so, I've opened a few new cards (nothing crazy, like this guy). I've also taken advantage of other opportunities to earn points, like shopping through online portals or signing up for dining rewards programs, as well as choosing flights and hotels based on my future travel goals and which rewards programs would be most useful — the important caveat is that I only do this if my preferred flight or hotel has a competitive rate. The method of travel "hacking" I practice involves maximizing points on the things you'd do anyway, and in almost every case, price would be my top factor when choosing how to fly or where to stay.
I also use different cards depending on what I'm paying for, and I pay each account off on time, or even early. Just by doing those things, I've been able to accrue a nice balance of points without spending money that I hadn't been planning on spending otherwise. Unlike some people much more into the game than I am, I don't do any manufactured spending, or anything that risks violating the banks' Terms and Conditions.
Getting the points is only the first part of the game; the second part is spending them.
To get the most value out of your time and miles, you need to figure out a handful of things: where you want to go, how to get there, and which way is cheapest with the miles you have. For instance, my first major redemption was this summer when I went to Europe with my fiancée Reni. This wasn’t a free trip, but I used my stock of Delta SkyMiles to book my half of our round-trip flight between New York City and Edinburgh, leaving me with enough money in my travel budget to comfortably afford the rest of the trip — including a few splurges.
While there were a few ways to get to Edinburgh using the points and miles I had, I knew that some of them (like my Starwood Preferred Guest points or our Chase Ultimate Rewards points) were earmarked for future travel plans. Some of the options meant flying through London which would have raised the taxes I’d pay on the award ticket, and some of them cost more points, or required flying on a British carrier which would have added more fees. Although Delta prices their award flights dynamically, rather than off a fixed award chart, I knew from data points around the web that their lowest rates between the east coast and the U.K. went for 60,000 miles round-trip. I just kept checking back on Delta’s website until that price popped up on the days we wanted to travel. We also used a handful of Hilton HHonors points for a hotel night.
Since then, I’ve planned and made a few more redemptions, taking advantage of opportunities to go premium. I’m flying to London this winter in American Airlines’ business class (and taking a cheap economy Norwegian Air flight back), and Reni and I recently booked the first leg of our honeymoon in Japan, on Korean Air first class using Chase UR points. I’ve also learned more about the tricks to searching for flight deals or cheap fares, meaning I can afford to pay cash more often, even collecting miles — admittedly, a small amount — on those flights
The game is fun, though a bit tricky to get started. I’m always happy to help friends or anyone else get involved, or lend advice on a particular redemption or earning plan. Feel free to reach out!