what is travel hacking?
Travel hacking is, in essence, traveling for free or extremely cheap using miles and points. It can be bare-bones trips, getting from Point A to Point B on a dime, or it can be riding in style and living it up at a ridiculously low payout. Once you've played around a bit and are comfortable, you can adapt different strategies to fit your own goals and lifestyle.
There's many different methods and strategies for earning points, but the majority of points earning is through “credit card churning.” Credit card churning basically means opening credit cards that have a minimum-spend bonus, meeting that minimum spend, closing the credit card, waiting a few months, and doing it all over again. You know those guys in the airport that stand by their kiosk shouting at you to sign up for their credit card so you can get a free flight? The ones that everyone ignores? Imagine walking through a terminal and signing up for 5-10 of them on the way to catch your next flight. That's sort of the idea, but in a much easier and more effective way.
Doesn't this hurt your credit score? That's always the first question we get asked when we explain how we earn the majority of our points and miles. And the answer's always a resounding "No." Not only does it not hurt your score, but if you pay off your balances every month on time (which, to be very clear, you shouldn't even think about getting into travel hacking if you can't!), your credit score will often improve. This is the case because the shortened length of credit history and hard inquiries to open new cards are only small dings, and the credit available to you going up as well as your credit utilization ratio going down have much more impact on your score.
Doesn't this take a lot of time? It's a hobby, that's for sure. But a pretty lucrative and rewarding one. At first, it may take you a little bit of time to figure out what system works for you (a simple spreadsheet and calendar reminders to pay and/or close cards work wonders), but once you've got the hang of it, it could just take a few minutes of your time each month to maintain.
How do I sign up?
If you're interested in giving travel hacking a try, there's lots of great resources (scroll down), but our all-time favorite resource is Chris Guillebeau's Upgrade Unlocked Guide. His site in general is a great place to learn more about travel hacking - start here with his Beginner's Guide post.
what do we have banked?
We've been earning and burning points and miles for over 5 years. Once we decided to take this trip, we culled back our travel, only taking domestic trips, and started saving as many points and miles as possible. Here's where we stood with points* before we started booking anything for this trip:
Flex programs allow you to earn points that can be redeemed in various ways - to book travel through their portal, to get reimbursed for travel booked with their credit card, or for cash back, gift cards, etc.
Chase Ultimate Rewards (probably the most valuable of all points) - 505,000
Citi Thank You Points - 112,600
Amex Membership Rewards - 293,000
Merrill+ Points - 50,000
Barclay - 95,000
The points programs we all know and love, the ones most people participate in at least a little bit.
Alaska Airlines - 170,000 miles
American Airlines - 503,000
British Airways - 105,000 miles
Delta - 53,000 miles
Southwest - 15,000 (severely depleted after excessive use for domestic travel with the Southwest Companion Pass)
United - 122,000
Hotel points aren't always as lucrative, but are certainly not to be passed up and will provide us with a few weeks of free stays at a more luxury level than most other places we'll be sleeping.
Club Carlson - 95,000
Hilton - 200,000
IHG - 220,000 + 2 annual free night certificates
Marriott (or SPG at 1/3 total) - 378,000
How are we using these points? Great question, and one that we're contemplating too! We could use our 500,000 Ultimate Rewards points for 2+ weeks in a luxury overwater bungalow in Bora Bora, but we could also use them for almost 100 nights in a Hyatt Category 1 hotel (an unlikely option as we can't guarantee we'd find those properties in the places we're going). We'll certainly find a solution somewhere in the middle. Or skewing more towards Bora Bora maybe... The harder considerations are more along the lines of alliance strategies. Does it make more sense to use American Airlines points on Asian partners, South American partners, or save them entirely for transoceanic flights?
*Points and miles are not free. No matter what, there's a time investment. Aside from that, there's often a monetary investment. There are plenty of credit cards with which you can get into the game that have no annual fee, but if you want a bit more of a return, you might start looking at some annual fee cards, which often have very lucrative signup bonus offers that make the annual fee well worth it. Here's a rough roundup of the annual fees we incurred to get some of those points and miles: Chase Business Ink Cash - $59 annual fee, Citi Prestige - $450 annual fee (but more than reimbursed with $500 in airline credit for the first year in addition to the signup bonus points), Amex Business Platinum - $450 (again, made up for with $400 in airline travel fees reimbursed in the first year in addition to the signup bonus points), 2 IHG cards - $49 annual fee on each card (which nets us 2 free nights at any category IHG property every year).