If you’ve ever though “Gosh I really wish we could go to ______…but it’s just not in the budget”…then this post is for you 🙂 We like to say we have champagne family travel dreams, on a beer budget. Thankfully travel hacking has helped stretch our dollars a bit further and close that gap between dreaming and GOING. Read on below about how you can start earning free or nearly free travel, so you can make family adventures happen that you thought were totally out of reach.
Leveraging credit card rewards has gotten us:
- Fully covered tickets to Italy for our family of 4
- A kid-free weekend away in Napa
- A weekend glamping in Texas Hill Country
- Just booked! Spring break in Cabo (flights and hotel!) for $115
…and honestly SO much more! (and if you want to level up your travel hacking even FURTHER see our other trick here!)
What in the world is travel hacking?
Simply put, travel hacking is using credit card miles and points to get free (or nearly free) travel! We honestly didn’t start really intentionally leveraging credit card points and rewards until a few years ago. When we first got married over a decade ago, we used our debit card for everything (so much free money left on the table…insert crying face emojis here). Then about 5 years in, we discovered the beauty of using a credit card for all your normal purchases to earn reward points.
Now 11 years laters, we are fully reaping the benefits of travel rewards and leveraging our credit cards to their full capacity for OUR benefit. We wanted to travel with our two young girls, but transparently had little to no disposable income. One ticket to Europe on its own was pricey, but FOUR tickets to Europe was out f the question. So with a little bit of creativity and work, we’ve been able to travel on some EPIC family adventures. (Our month in Italy at the top of that list!)
Travel hacking isn’t for everyone…and that’s ok! BUT it can be an amazing tool to help maximize your budget and make your family travel dreams a reality. Even if you get just one travel reward credit card, it will make that bucket list trip that much more attainable.
…But is it sketchy??
Honestly, I hate the term “hacking” because it implies something illegal or sketchy. Thankfully, travel hacking is the farthest thing from that!
Anyone who knows me, knows I am an avid rule follower. That is why I love this tactic for leveraging free travel! It completely abides by the already determined rules set up and simply maximizes it.
I like to think about it more as a shortcut, or expert recommendation…like a “mom hack”. As long as you are earning and redeeming your points legally, travel hacking isn’t sketchy at all. I know it takes a bit of a mindset shift from the “avoid credit cards” at all costs message we grew up with, BUT this can be an incredible way to drastically reduce your expenses when it comes to your next family adventure.
What about my credit score?
I would say this is people’s number one concern with entertaining this strategy for earning free travel. However, if done responsibility leveraging credit cards, paying off your balance in full every month, and earning crazy discounted trips will most likely only increase your credit score.
Credit scores are determined by a vast number of things, but the main factor is debt to income ratio. So having lots of available credit (many open cards) and very little debt (paying off your card in full each month), can do wonders for your credit. Since starting travel hacking, our score has only gone up! Most serious travel hackers have scores of 800+ and above.
So no need to fear…IF done responsibility. That’s why I definitely recommend having some help and recommendations as you begin to navigate the world of travel rewards.
Is there a downside to travel hacking?
If you and open and close a ton of cards at once, yes your credit score will take a dive. If you open credit cards and don’t pay off your balance in full each month, yes your score will take a dive. I would say the only “downside” to travel hacking is if opening a new credit card makes you spend beyond your means, there can be serious consequences. If you make purchases you don’t have the money for…well then travel hacking just honestly probably isn’t for you at this time!
So you just keep opening new cards indefinitely?
This was personally my number one question as we jumped into the travel hacking world. Soooo you just continue to open a handful of cards each year? Won’t that get to be too much eventually?!?
Although, you can absolutely still earn rewards on continuing use of your credit card, the welcome bonuses are where you really reap the benefits. (i.e. “Spend x amount in the first 3 months and get 60,000 bonus points)
So some of the serious travel hackers I follow yes open a handful of cards every single year (and still have credit scores of 800+ mind you). However, you can totally keep it simpler and not get SUPER deep into reward travel. Right now we think through the breaks and trips we have during the year and try to leverage opening new cards to help offset costs on those specific vacations only.
Long story short, it isn’t the number of cards you have open, it is if you are using the cards you do have responsibly. Are you paying off your balances in full each month? Are you allowing at least 90 days in between each new application? For example, Chase has the 5/24 rule, which says you can’t open more than 5 cards in a 24month period.
You can absolutely close cards if needed (I like this article on travel hacking responsibly from MoneyGeek). I would just always try to avoid closing your longest standing cards. Just like a good wine, credit bureaus like a good “aged” credit.
How to Travel Hack – Getting Started!
Alright now that you know some of the basics (and we hopefully put some of your concerns at bay), you’re ready to get started in the world of travel rewards! Here are a few steps as you get started so you don’t feel in over your head.
1. Start slow and with a goal in mind
*goes and opens 5 credit cards to earn free travel*…nope, nope, don’t go do that my friend!
Take it slow, start with one card or one trip you have in mind you’d really love to do with your family but maybe don’t quite have the funds for. There is going to be a learning curve and you’re not going to earn a million points in one day. Take it slow…choose one card to start, see if travel hacking is for you, and go from there!
2. Pick the right card and apply!
There are a hundred and one travel credit cards out there, but hands down the one recommended over and over for travel rewards (from us and travel hacking experts alike) is the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
If you are looking at more domestic travel, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Card is our favorite entry card – and if you can earn that Companion Pass, that is GOLD. These two cards are what allowed us to book our spring break trip to Cabo (flights and hotel for $115!!).
Overall though, when looking at which card to open you want to look at a few key factors:
- A strong welcome offer – Remember this is where the bulk of your points are coming from. (40k-75k is average…sometimes 100k depending on the time of year)
- A realistic minimum spend – Spending $15,000 in the first 4 months is STOUT. Choose a card with a initial minimum spend that is in line with your normal monthly expenses
- Low annual fee – Some of the more intense luxury cards have fees upwards of $695 a year (whoa!)
- Ongoing Perks – 3x points on dining, 5x points on travel? TSA Pre-Check? Airport Lounge access? There are SO many perks that come along with cards
3. What about the minimum spend?
“Spend x amount in the first 3 months, and get 60,000 bonus points.” That minimum spend can be intimidating if you think about some massive purchase you need to make. BUT all you need to do is take your normal every day spending and put it on this new card.
For example on the Chase Sapphire Reserve I mentioned above, you need to spend $4000 in the first 3 months. That’s just over $1,300/month…between groceries, dining out, utility bills, insurance, all the extras of life- that is totally doable!
Again, the key here is not spending a dime more you normally would. Nor, putting more on the credit card than you can pay off in full…then it’s not actually FREE money is it?! Simply transfer your normal monthly spending to this new card- and BOOM you just earned yourself some free or greatly discounted travel!
*We also like applying for a new card when we know we have a big purchase coming up. That makes meeting that minimum spend and maximizing those welcome bonuses easy peezy lemon squeezy.
4. What about the annual fee?
Many cards have no annual fee or as low as $89 a year. And most times the perks of the card MORE than make up for the annual cost. For example, on the Chase Sapphire Reserve you get the 60,000 welcome bonus points (worth $750 in the Chase Travel Portal!), a $50 annual hotel credit, a free DoorDash subscription, 10% annual anniversary points, travel insurance, 5x points on travel through Ultimate Rewards, and 3x points on dining!
If you see that you really are not using the benefits of the card and that annual fee is not worth it you can do one of three things:
- Call the credit card company to ask what their current “retention offers” are. (i.e. awarding you bonus points to stay or offering to waive the annual fee)
- Call the credit card company and ask to downgrade to a free version of the same card
- Cancel the card
5. Pay off your card at the end of each month
I’ve said it over and over in this post, but it can’t be emphasized enough! With travel hacking, if you’re not paying off your cards in full each month…those travel rewards aren’t *actually* free money.
6. Earn rewards and redeem for FREE travel! Repeat!
Alright! You’ve signed up for your first travel rewards card, you’ve met the minimum spend, you earned that sweet, sweet welcome bonus. NOW is the fun part- redeeming your rewards!
If you have a Chase card, we highly recommend booking your travel through their Ultimate Rewards Portal. Your points are worth25% more to be exact! So that 60,000 welcome offer is now $750. That combined with using cheap flight hacking tools could get you 4 domestic flights or maybe even 2 international tickets abroad! Refer your husband for the same card, and now you’ve got an additional referral 15,000 points and he’s got his 60,000. Combine them all, and BAM your family is set for an epic adventure…and that’s just from ONE card! You will probably have to pay for the taxes and fees on the booking, but that is usually very minimal.
If not using a Chase card, we like cards that have transfer capability (most of the large ones do). Your points go SO much further when you can transfer them to the credit card’s transfer partners (i.e. airlines, hotels groups). For example, we were just looking at tickets to the Azores that were showing as upwards of $900RT in GoogleFlights, but 50k points round trip on United’s Award Flight Booking portal. (holy savings I KNOW!) This is the way to really maximize your benefits and make those far fetched family travel dreams a reality!
One of the best parts of travel hacking is that you can do it at your pace. If you want to be aggressive and apply for a few cards a year, the world is your oyster. If you want to start with earning just one trip for your family that is totally doable too! But travel hacking is hands down the best way to maximize the spending you are already doing and not leave (free!) money on the table. Pick the right card, earn that welcome bonus, and repeat! It is truly amazing where those points can take you!
SO we hope this super packed, fully comprehensive beginner’s guide to travel hacking was helpful! It’s not for everyone…but it has afforded us some family trips we never thought possible! And THAT is the greatest gift of all 🙂 Happy adventuring all!