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Travel Hacking Basics: How to Travel for Free Using Miles and Points

A few years ago I discovered travel hacking and it changed the way I travel.  I used to fly in economy class and stay at budget hotels or hostels, but now I frequently travel in first or business class and stay at nice hotels for almost free.

I am able to travel for free by earning and using miles and points. I don’t earn my miles the traditional way (from travel), instead I use a variety of “travel hacking” methods to earn miles and points in other ways.

A big part of earning miles and points is credit cards, but there are also other easy ways to earn miles and points that you can use for free travel.  Some people are not comfortable signing up for a lot of credit cards, so I am dividing this post into two (2) parts: travel hacking without credit cards and travel hacking with credit cards.  Please note, I live in the United States which has the best opportunities for travel hacking so some of these opportunities might not be available to those of you that live in other countries.

Travel Hacking Without Credit Cards

There are several ways to earn miles and points without traveling or applying for credit cards:

1) Online Shopping.  

There are many ways to earn miles and points other than flying, but the easiest way is online shopping. Most people shop online anyway, so this is a good way to earn miles for purchases you would have made anyway.  Most airlines and some hotel chains have online shopping portals. Instead of going directly to the website you want to shop at, you can go to the online shopping portal and then from there find the merchant you wish to shop at.  These shopping portals will give you extra miles or points for going through them before clicking to the store website. Going through an online shopping portal first only adds one extra step and an extra minute to your online shopping time but can earn tons of miles depending on how much you spend. For more information on earning points with online shopping and a list of some mileage portals see How to Earn Miles By Online Shopping.

2) Join Dining Rewards Programs.

Many frequent flyer and hotel programs offer dining programs which earn you miles or points when dining at participating restaurants.  All you have to do is register and link your credit card to a dining rewards program and you will automatically earn extra miles or points every time you dine at a participating restaurant.  These miles are in addition to any miles, points or cash back earned for using your credit card.  The dining networks usually offer a sign up bonus for signing up and completing a number of dines.

3) Online Surveys.  

You can sign up to various online survey sites that earn you miles and/or points just for taking surveys or answering some simple questions.  My favorite website for earning free miles is e-Miles. With e-Miles you can earn miles just by viewing ads or short videos and answering 3 super short questions. You won’t earn a large number of miles, but you only need a couple of minutes of your time.

I have also used E-Rewards in the past to earn miles by taking surveys. E-rewards sends you surveys to your e-mail inbox and you can choose which to take.  Some of the e-rewards surveys can be long (as much as 30-45 minutes), so this is best for those have have more free time.  You need to be invited to earn e-rewards but you can find sign up links on websites of participating airlines.

4) Other Travel Partners

You can earn miles and points for many different things, including signing up for cable, making donations, etc.  To see all the ways there are to earn free miles see the earn miles sections of the airline websites.  For example, here are the many ways to earn miles with United and American Airlines.

Travel Hacking With Credit Cards

To earn thousands of miles most travel hackers apply for multiple credit cards. Here is a guide to how to travel hack with credit cards:

1) Sign Up for New Credit Cards to Earn High Sign Up Bonus

Credit card sign up bonuses is the fastest way to earn a large number of miles. Most of my miles are earned by signing up for credit cards that earn miles or points which give a high sign up bonus. A lot of these credit cards have an annual fee but the fee is usually waived the first year.  I sign up for about 10 new cards a year, but you can start small and only sign up for 1 or 2 cards.  Many people think that applying for a lot of credit cards will ruin your credit score, but that is not usually the case. Here is a link for more information about how your credit score is determined.

2) Cancel the Cards Before Second Year Or Get Retention Bonus to Avoid Paying Annual Fee

I usually cancel most credit cards before I have to pay a fee for the second year.  However, sometimes the annual fee is worth paying because it is worth more than the benefits of the card. (For example, the Chase IHG card has an annual fee of $49 but it gives a free night at any IHG hotel in the world even if the room would cost hundreds of dollars.)

If you want to keep your card, you might also be able to avoid paying the annual fee by calling the credit card company and asking for a retention offer. (Some credit card companies might offer you extra points or a statement credit in the amount of the annual fee as an incentive to keep the card open.)

Another reason to cancel your credit cards is to reapply for the same card.  Some but not all banks allow you to earn the sign up bonus again on the same card after a certain amount of time has passed.

3) Take Advantage of Category Bonuses

One way to earn more miles using your credit cards is to advantage of category bonuses.  Some credit cards give extra bonus points for certain categories, such as dining, travel, internet, cell phone, grocery stores, gas, drugstores etc.  To make sure I earn the highest number of points, I have multiple credit cards and make sure I use the card that earns extra points when making a purchase.

4) Manufactured Spending and Other Advanced Methods.  

There are also more advanced ways to earn miles by travel hacking such as “manufactured spending” which is basically creating fake spending.  These methods are more risky and keep changing so this is for more advanced travel hackers only. While not the cheapest method, one easy way to meet your spending requirements or manufacture spending from home is to use Plastiq.

My Favorite Credit Card for Beginners to Travel Hacking

I have about a dozen open credit cards, but if I had to pick the best credit card for beginners it would be the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.  The Chase Sapphire Preferred card earns 2x points on travel and dining and earns Chase Ultimate Rewards which transfer to various hotel and airline program such as United, Southwest, Hyatt, Marriott and more.  The sign up bonus is usually 45,000 (40,000 bonus+5,000 for adding an authorized user) but has been increased to 55,000 (50,000 sign up bonus+5,000 for adding an authorized user).  In order to earn the sign up bonus, you need to spend 4,000 in the first 3 months.  There is a $95 annual fee but it is waived the first year so you can always cancel the card before the fee is charged if you do not think it is worth the annual fee.  Here is the link to sign up (please note if you apply and are approved using this link, I will earn 10,000 bonus points).

Some Tips to Get you Started With Travel Hacking

Have a goal.  Know where you want to go and when to choose which programs to earn miles and points with and which credit cards to apply for. The best card for you depends on your goals, where you live and which airlines are more convenient.

You usually need to have a high credit score to qualify for most mileage earning credit cards.

Do not apply for mileage earning credit cards if you are unable to pay off your credit card bills every month.  These cards usually have a high interest rate.  If you need to maintain a balance, there are other credit cards offering low interest rates.

Do not apply for a lot of credit cards if you are planning on taking out a big loan or a mortgage in the next 1-2 years. Even if you have a high credit score, banks will look at new lines of credit when deciding whether to give you a mortgage.

I don’t recommend purchasing a book to learn about travel hacking when there is so much free information online. Some good points/miles blogs for beginners include millionmilesecrets.com,  boardingarea.com and thepointsguy.com.
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Travel Hacking Basics: How to Travel for Free

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savvyglobetrotter

6 Comments

    • Yes Redbird was great while it lasted! I am using Serve for MS for now (although not sure for how long since Amex keeps shutting people down).

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