How to “Get Started” with Travel Hacking

Please refer to my previous post here for an overview about points and miles: An Introduction to Points and Miles

I’ve been getting the same question lately, “How do I get started in the points and miles game and travel for free?” Well, first of all, nothing is ever free. You have to figure out how to meet minimum spend, you’re going to have to pay taxes and fees on most reward bookings, and of course you will spend money at your destination! However, this post will be for those who are intrigued, understand the game, but don’t really know where to start when it comes to travel hacking. Before even asking “what credit card should I apply for?” You need to ask yourself a few questions first:

  1. Where do I want to travel? Do you want to see all of the US or do you want to venture off to Europe?
  2. How do I want to travel? Would you rather spend all your miles on a few incredible experiences like Singapore Suites, Etihad Apartments, or Lufthansa First Class? Or would you rather stretch your miles, fly in economy, and be able to go to MORE places?
  3. How dedicated am I to traveling? This hobby can be a full-time gig. Whether it’s finding out creative ways to meet your minimum spend or researching award charts, it will take a lot of time invested.
  4. How is my credit? Am I financially responsible? Finally, the last two but most important questions. If your credit score is sub-700, apply for a card like the Chase Freedom to build your credit up to around 720-750, then you can start applying for the big boys like the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Once you get your cards, make sure a) don’t go to crazy and apply for 10 cards and b) make sure you keep track of all your cards and make your payments on time.

Next, let’s introduce you to some valuable resources.

  • I always use Frequent Miler’s list for the best credit card offers available. What I LOVE about this list is that it tells you whether the current bonus is good or not. For example, you’ll see a sign-up bonus for the American Express Delta card and it could be for 30,000 miles. You’ll think to yourself…”Wow that’s a pretty solid offer. I can get a free domestic roundtrip with that.” But NO!! If you look on his website, it will tell you that there have been offers for 50,000 or 60,000 miles. So don’t bother with that card and look to apply for something else. This list also has links to these offers, which makes it a lot easier to find the application with said offer!
  • Flyertalk is essential for anyone who takes miles and points seriously. Originally built, I assume, as a platform for frequent flyers to talk to each other about actually flying and earning miles. Well, it has evolved and you can find a lot of information on these forums about whichever points or miles program you decide to partake in.
  • Lastly, blogs can provide a wealth of information. I don’t necessarily endorse a single one, as they all have their strengths and weaknesses. But Lucky’s One Mile at a Time blog, Brian Kelly’s TPG blog, Darius’s Million Mile Secrets blog, and the Frequent Miler blog are blogs that I follow closely. These blogs also have their own “how to get started posts” which I will list below just in case you find mine dull and uninformative:

Great! Now let’s dive into the fun stuff: the credit cards! To me, there are four tiers of credit cards.

  1. The first tier consist of cards that have no annual fee but lack sign-up bonuses and don’t earn you any points. This could be your standard Bank of America Platinum card which was my first credit card that I used to build my credit.
  2. The second tier is a no annual fee card that earns points/miles, and comes with a sign-up bonus. This could be the American Express Hilton card which can occasionally come with a sign-up bonus of over 70,000 Hilton points or the Chase Freedom which comes with a sign-up bonus of 15,000 Chase UR points for no annual fee.
  3. The third tier consists of credit cards with annual fees of $50-$200 that can earn points, come with a sign up bonus, and also has some benefits attached to that card. I think of the major hotel and airline credit cards here. The Citi Aadvantage Platinum card has a $95 annual fee but currently has an offer of 60,000 bonus miles, earns 1 mile for every $ spent, and allows you to check 1 bag for free on domestic flights. The Chase Marriott card is also huge right now as it has an $85 annual fee but has an offer of 80,000 Marriott points, earns points according to spending categories, and grants you Marriott Silver status. But probably the most renowned third tier card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. This card is not associated with one hotel or one airline, but instead partners with several airlines (including Southwest) and hotels (including Hyatt) which allows you to transfer points to those programs. For a $95 annual fee, you can get a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Chase points, have primary car rental insurance if you pay for your rental with this card, and you can combine your Chase points with a no-fee Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited which lets you really accumulate those Chase points! I should note that for many cards in this tier, the annual fee is waived for the first year.
  4. Finally, you have the fourth tier. These cards are fun :). The big three are the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Citi Prestige, and the American Express Platinum card. There are some other cards such as the US Bank Altitude and the Ritz Carlton card that are trying to enter this market, but for the most part those big three are what people try to get. The annual fees hover around $450 per year, but come with benefits such as airline lounge access, HUGE sign-up bonuses, and other interesting benefits: Citi Prestige allows you have the 4th night free on any hotel booking if you book through their concierge, the American Express Platinum allows you access to their AMAZING Centurion lounges, and the Chase Sapphire Reserve gives you $300 travel credit each year!

I’m not going to list every single card and their benefits here. You have to go out there and figure out what works for you. Research what you need in a card (like to travel with checked baggage? Like lounge access? etc.). I am now going to move on to bank restrictions which limit the amount of credit cards you can apply for in a certain amount of time.

  1. Chase has the infamous 5/24 rule. That means that you cannot open more than 5 cards with ANY ISSUER in the past 24 months.
  2. American Express has a once-in-a-lifetime rule where you can only earn a credit card bonus once! So if you think you can get the AMEX SPG bonus twice, then think again! Therefore, when applying for any Amex card, make sure that you get the BEST BONUS offer.
  3. I actually don’t really know the rules for other banks but just try not to apply for too many cards at one time…

So you’ve read all my stuff above and you’ve read all the stuff that other bloggers have said. Now for what I would do if I were you:

  • If you’re interested in traveling in the US or going to Caribbean, then I recommend BOTH Chase Southwest Personal cards! YES BOTH CARDS. They have a $99 annual fee Premier card and a $69 annual fee Plus card. If you get both of them and ARE ABLE to hit the minimum spend on both cards ($2000 on each card in the first 3 months) then you can get a whopping 120,000 Southwest points. Just for reference, I’m looking at a booking for Dallas to Cancun in August and you can possibly get a roundtrip flight for less than 18,000 points depending on when you want to travel. Wait, there’s more! You will have qualified for the coveted Southwest Companion Pass! Southwest requires you to accumulate 110,000 Southwest points in a calendar year to get this benefit which allows you to bring one other person with you for FREE for the rest of this calendar year and the next year as well!! So that 120,000 Southwest points that you earned from meeting your credit card spending is basically 240,000 points. You can do a lot of flying with that… Just make sure you check out Southwest’s route map to see if they have the destinations you’re interested in and make sure you are not in violation of the 5/24 rule as mentioned above.
  • If you’re not really sure WHAT you’re interested in, then go for what I call the Chase combo. The no-annual fee Chase Freedom will give you a sign-up bonus of 15,000 Chase points after spending $500 in the first 3 months and the ability to earn 5x points on rotating categories each quarter. The no-annual fee Chase Freedom Unlimited will give you another 15,000 point sign-up bonus after spending $500 in 3 months and the ability to earn 1.5x points on every purchase. Lastly, either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Chase Sapphire Reserve (I don’t recommend getting both) will give you 50,000 Chase points after spending $4,000 in 3 months. This is a 3-card combo but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend applying for all three at one time. In the end, you would net 80,000 Chase points after spending $5,000. What you get with this combo is FLEXIBILITY. You can transfer these points to United and get a round-trip flight to Europe. You can transfer them to Southwest and get a bunch of Southwest flights (these won’t count for Companion Pass). You can transfer them to Hyatt which has amazing hotels and low costs for point redemptions. Lastly, you can use them for $0.0125 per point for airfare. Since you’ll have 80k points, that will give you $1000 to spend on airfare using the Chase Travel Portal. Before redeeming your points though, make sure to study Chase’s point system. For example, I would NEVER transfer their points to IHG which has a pretty poor points structure relative to Hyatt.
  • Lastly, if you fly out of a hub then I would apply for their credit card. For example, Dallas is an American Airlines hub and has tons of AA flights flying out of there all the time. This could lead to wider award availability when the time comes to redeem. Houston (IAH), on the other hand, is a United hub and also has many other Star Alliance airlines flying out of it (United, EVA, Lufthansa, etc.) The Citi AA card is currently offering a 60,000 mile bonus, the Chase United card is offering a 50,000 mile bonus, and the Amex Delta is offering a 60,000 mile bonus. All require annual fees (but are waived for the first year I believe) and are pretty good offers!

With either of the methods above, you will soon be pretty points rich and will have at least enough points for a vacation almost anywhere in the world. Also, remember that if you own your own business, then you can apply for the business versions of these credit cards as well which will give you the opportunity to earn another sign-up bonus. In addition, most business credit cards will not count towards Chase’s 5/24 rule! I’ll end this post with a ranking of common programs below:

Ranking Flexible Rewards Programs:

  1. Chase Ultimate Rewards points
  2. Starwood Preferred Guest points (a hotel points program that can be used for airline miles as well)
  3. Citi/American Express Points

Ranking Hotel Loyalty Programs:

  1. Hyatt
  2. Starwood Preferred Guest
  3. Marriott
  4. IHG/Hilton

Ranking Airline Frequent Flyer Programs:

  1. Southwest
  2. United
  3. American Airlines
  4. Delta

** With Frequent Flyer programs, remember you can book flights with their Partner airlines to increase the flexibility of your points. For example, you can use AA miles to book Cathay Pacific Airline tickets to Asia**

I hope I was able to help out a little bit. As always, don’t just rely on one source. After reading this, read as much information as you can before applying for credit cards! This information is accurate at the time I wrote it, and I cannot take responsibility for any decisions you make regarding credit cards, travel hacking, your finances, or really any other decision you make in life. It’s your life and your responsibility, I simply wish to TRY to inform. If you have any more questions, feel free to hit me up and thanks for reading!

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