Travel Hacking 101: How to Earn Free Flights and Free Hotel Stays

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*This is a guest post from Matt Kepnes, the popular blogger and fellow traveler behind NomadicMatt.com

I love budget travel. Finding deals, saving money, and heading out into the world with just a backpack is an amazing feeling. And with the advent of the sharing economy, budget airlines, and detailed travel blogs to help you plan better, travel has never been more accessible or affordable.

But that doesn’t mean travel is always affordable.

Plane tickets still cost hundreds of dollars (if not more). Hostel stays add up. Insurance, gear, and getting from city to city can eat into even the most frugal of budgets.

Fortunately, there’s a way to cut costs drastically — without sacrificing comfort and without spending any extra money either. 

It’s called travel hacking.

Travel hacking is the art of collecting points and miles that you can redeem for free flights and free hotel stays (as well as many other perks). Best of all? You can do it with no additional spending!

I’ve been travel hacking for years. It’s what has allowed me to travel on a budget for so long. I’ve enjoyed countless free flights, free upgrades, and hotel stays because of it — and all with just my regular spending. As long as you can pay off your monthly credit card bill, you can start earning free travel today.

To help you save money and travel the world for free, here’s everything you need to know to start traveling hacking:

 

1. Figure out your travel goals

Before you start comparing credit card deals and researching airline transfer partners, you need to figure out what your priorities are.

Are you looking for a free flight, or do you want to prioritize free hotel stays?

Do you fly the same airline regularly? Certain airlines have their own credit cards (as well as specific transfer partners), so knowing what airline you will fly can help you optimize your point earnings.

Are you aiming for upgrades to business class or first class, or do you just want a free economy flight?

Are you saving up for a trip to a specific destination?

There’s no single perfect card, so start by writing down your travel goals in order to align them with the credit card that will serve you best. Each card has different transfer partners and different perks, so knowing your goals will help you find the one that has the best rewards for you and your goals.

 

2. Look for cards with a huge welcome bonus

The best travel credit cards offer a large welcome bonus designed to entice you to sign up. These offers are usually tens of thousands of points, which roughly translate to a free flight right off the bat.

However, to earn the welcome offer, you need to meet a minimum spending requirement. These vary from card to card but are usually around $4,000 within the first three months,

If your regular spending (gas, groceries, eating out, miscellaneous expenses, etc.) cover that, then you’re on your way to free travel. 

But what if you don’t usually spend that much? 

If you don’t think you will meet the requirements for the minimum spend, ask friends and family if they have any large purchases coming up. That way, you can pay for them on your new card and they can pay you back. (This can be done on an ongoing basis, not just to get your welcome bonus.)

When comparing welcome bonuses, look for cards offering 50,000 points or more. Here are some resources to help you get started:

If you’re not from the US, this may be more difficult. However, there are still lots of cards and resources out there for you. Here are travel hacking resources for non-Americans:

Once you’ve reviewed your options, apply for the best card that suits your needs and spending habits.

 

3. Optimize your spending to earn more points

Now that you’ve got your first travel card, it’s time to maximize the rewards you can earn. 

First, get into the habit of putting all your expenses on your new travel card. Buying dinner? Use your travel card. Getting gas or groceries? Use your travel card. Need a pack of gum? Put it on your credit card. No expense is too big or too small; put it all on the card because you need every single point you can get! 

If you have more than one travel credit card, make sure you understand which card is best for each purchase. Most cards offer extra points for specific spending categories (travel, restaurants, groceries, etc.). To ensure you earn the most points, always use the right card for the right spending category.

Moreover, you can also use airline shopping portals to boost your rewards. Most hotels, airlines, and travel brands have preferred merchants. These companies — ranging from clothing companies to office supply businesses to sporting goods stores — partner with these portals to boost sales. 

By ordering through these online shopping portals, you can often earn double or triple what you would earn by visiting the store in person or using the merchant’s regular shopping website. 

For example, say you need supplies from Home Depot. Going into the nearest Home Depot store will earn you one point per dollar spent on your travel card. However, by using sites like Cash Back Monitor or Evreward to find deals, you might discover that by purchasing online through an airline shopping portal, you will earn three points per dollar spent. So, if you spend $100, that’s 300 points instead of 100. Not bad!

To find the best deals, simply visit Evreward or Cash Back Monitor, type in the product you want, and you’ll see a list of bonuses the various point programs are offering at that moment, so can you know which portals to purchase from.

So, with a little planning and organization, you can easily level up your travel hacking and get yourself much closer to earning that free flight.

To start out, I would focus on the following (and in this order): 

1. Maximizing category bonuses 

2. Using shopping portals 

3. Using dining portals 

4. Asking friends and family to put purchases on your card 

While there are more advanced tactics you can employ to boost your earnings (called “manufactured spending”), I would stick to these basics for now. They will be more than enough to get you a free flight!

 

Travel hacking Matt first class

 

4. Ready to travel? Consolidate your points first

If you have points and miles spread out over multiple accounts, remember to consolidate them into one program before you book your trip. 

How?

Most travel credit cards have multiple partners you can transfer your points to. This allows you to consolidate your points for maximum rewards. 

For example, if you’re looking to book a Star Alliance flight (let’s say Lufthansa) and you have Chase points as well as American Express points, you can transfer both of those to Air Canada or Singapore Airlines (both of which are part of Star Alliance) and then use their loyalty program to book the Lufthansa flight you want. (Chase doesn’t transfer directly to Lufthansa.)

It’s for this reason that it’s important to outline a goal in the beginning of this process. That way, you can avoid spreading your rewards too thin over too many cards. By focusing your rewards on cards that have viable transfer partners, you can earn rewards faster and easier.

 

5. Enjoy the perks of travel hacking

In addition to free flights and hotel stays, the best travel credit cards offer all kinds of other perks: lounge access, priority boarding, discounts on car rentals or rideshares, free baggage checks, free upgrades, free DoorDash deliveries, no foreign transaction fees, free supplemental travel insurance — the list goes on.

Before you hit the road, make sure you understand the perks your card offers. Remember, travel hacking isn’t just about saving money and earning free travel; it’s about improving your entire travel experience!

 

A Note on Credit Scores

Travel hacking will not hurt your credit score as long as you continue to pay off your monthly balance. By doing so, you avoid super high interest rates while enjoying all the perks your card has to offer.

Credit cards are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. They are only bad if you spend more money than you have. That’s not what travel hacking is about. I have over 25 credit cards, and I’ve never had a problem getting a new card or any other type of loan — because I never spend more than I earn.

To maintain a good credit score, here are a few things to consider (besides paying off the balance in full each month):

  • Don’t apply for a lot of cards at once. To avoid being declined, limit yourself to three cards at a time.
  • After getting a new card (or cards), wait a few months before applying for more. Applying for new credit cards causes a temporary drop in your credit score. However, after 2–3 months, your score goes right back up.
  • Don’t apply for a lot of credit cards less than six months of applying for a mortgage, refinancing your home, or taking out a personal loan, as that will negatively affect your credit score.
  • Don’t cancel no-fee cards! Since the length of your credit history is a factor, if a card doesn’t have a yearly fee, just leave it open as an “anchor” for your credit score.
  • If you are going to cancel a card because of an annual fee, try to get the card moved to a no-fee version instead of canceling. Many credit card companies do this, which protects your credit score from the effects of a cancelation.

To help you decide what card is best for you based on your credit score, use this chart as a guide: 

Credit card guide

***

While cheap travel is great, free travel is even better. Don’t leave money on the table and miss out on amazing perks and discounts. By leveraging the benefits of best travel credit cards, you can open the door to all kinds of adventures and opportunities — all without any extra spending.

Don’t leave your travel dreams on the backburner. Start travel hacking today and make those travel dreams an affordable reality!

Matt Kepnes runs the award-winning travel site nomadicmatt.com, which helps people travel the world on a budget. He’s the author of the NYT best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day and the travel memoir Ten Years a Nomad. His writings and advice have been featured on CNN and the BBC and in the New York Times, The Guardian, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, Time, and countless other publications. You can follow him on Instagram at @nomadicmatt. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Austin, Texas.

 


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