Travel Hacking Basics

I spoke with a friend recently who wanted to get into travel hacking. Since I travel quite a bit for my job, I thought I’d jot down a few notes about the topic. Some might say it’s an obscure, bizarre game that people play (I wouldn’t disagree), but I’ve found it to be a fun challenge with some excellent rewards – you get to travel to cool places!

Most of my experience is with products from United, Southwest, Marriott, and Chase so I’ll be focusing on those companies, but the industry does similar things across the board.

The Foundation

You’re going to obtain most of your points and miles from credit card offers and from the regular, daily use of the card. I put most every one of my purchases on my credit card just to get the extra points. If you have trouble with credit card debt, please do not attempt this.

Many cards offer large bonuses just for spending a certain amount in the first few months after you’re approved. I started with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card which came with a 50,000 mile bonus. If you book a “Saver” travel award on United (usually only available several months in advance), you can get a round-trip ticket to most European destinations for 60,000 miles (plus taxes and fees, which are always extra). The card carries a $95 annual fee, so right off the bat you’ve saved hundreds of dollars on a flight to Europe! See? That wasn’t so hard.

With many cards, the annual fee is waived for the first year. When I decided that the Chase Sapphire Preferred card was a better fit for me, I called Chase to cancel the United card. Since I had the United card for just over a year, they refunded the $95 I had been charged for the coming year. Bottom line: I got 50,000 miles + the miles earned from my spending for no fee at all!

Many travel hackers like to “churn” credit cards – meaning they’ll spend the minimum amount to obtain the bonus points or miles, cancel the card, and move on to the next offer. I’m happy with the Sapphire card, but we’ll see if a better offer comes along. My personal preference is to earn airline miles since there’s a good chance, on personal trips, that I’ll be staying with friends or family and won’t need a hotel room.

Make the most of your miles: Use “Saver Awards” and book early

To get the most out of your miles or points, book early. As I mentioned above, you can take a round-trip flight to Europe for 60,000 miles if you book early enough. I recently booked a domestic round-trip on Southwest for under 14,000 points, but of course I had to do it a few months in advance. The same applies with hotel rooms.

Keep an eye out for new offers

Marriott does a quarterly promotion where they offer bonus points for staying a certain number of nights in that quarter. I subscribe to all the United and Marriott rewards program emails – yes, it’s a lot of junk mail, but it helps you monitor all the new program offerings such as mileage bonuses for dining at certain restaurants.

Marriott and United have just launched a program in which members with a certain level of status automatically receive status with the other partner. Other airlines and hotel chains do similar deals, so I keep an eye on sites like to get the latest news.

One recent offer gave points on Southwest and United for buying Marriott gift cards. It’s a no-brainer if you don’t mind carrying several hundred dollars worth of gift cards on your credit card for the month. I purchase the cards for myself, use them to pay for reimbursable work travel, and take the bonus points. The gift cards don’t expire, so you can always use them in the future.

Airline routing can be your friend

I recently booked a trip to South America that cost about 55,000 miles in business class. That sounds like a great deal for a round-trip ticket in business, but I was also able to tack on some extra travel. This is because the airlines sometimes allow extra hops in your itinerary as a part of the routing rules. During the trip, I was able to build in 3 extra segments of travel within South America.

Devaluation of points is a concern

As of now, it’s still worth it to me to play the game. However, travel companies tend to devalue their rewards and reduce the program benefits over time. For example, Marriott recently upped the hotel “category” rating for most of their properties. While the rewards program stayed the same, it now requires more points to book a hotel room that was previously part of a lesser category.

All in all, travel hacking takes a little maintenance and monitoring to pull off, but it’s worth it when you earn the freedom to travel!