I love to travel.
And when I say love, I mean I truly love it.
It’s great to get away. I love relaxing on beaches. Being pampered at a nice hotel brings about a special joy. Most importantly, though, these excursions give me a reason to get up from behind my computer screen and see the real world.
But I don’t just love travel for the superficial reasons. What I really love is leaving the U.S.A. and experiencing other cultures. I’ve learned so much from random encounters with bartenders, waitresses, cab and Uber drivers, or the person standing next to me in line. I didn’t appreciate how varied and different the human experience was until I started traveling the world. We interpret things very differently based on our lived experiences and it’s impossible to truly appreciate this without traveling.
To me, traveling the world is a right. You should do anything and everything you can to explore the world!
That said, right above my love of travel is my love of not spending money.
I remember coming back from a trip to South Korea and Japan. We had an amazing time! We went to bath houses, had amazing sushi, toured Tokyo and went drinking until 5 am in Seoul. I had gotten a deal on the flight and picked out good, but affordable, hotels. We were heading back to California and I decided to run the numbers for the trip in my head.
Me: Hey (tapping my wife’s shoulder)
Wife: What’s up? The flight attendant stopping by?
Me: No, just have a question for you.
Me: How much do you think this trip cost us?
Wife: *pauses to think* I don’t know … like $12,000?
Me: If we spent that much, I would ask them to drop us off now and we’ll swim.
Wife: Well how much was it?
Me: Too much! We might have to start driving across the border next time we want to leave the country.
She managed to calm me down from my loud frugality rant, especially by reminding me that I’m the bougie one. Yet, I vowed there and then, with Kimchi still on my breath, to find a way to travel more and pay less.
I had planned this trip with care. This was our first trip to Asia together. We managed to backpack through Europe for three weeks on $3,000 each, so of course a trip to Asia couldn’t be much worse. I thought I had found ways to have an amazing trip at poor grad student rates … I was wrong, hitting $5k per person for half the time and countries.
So, after landing relaxed and refreshed, I started looking into ways to save on travel. A little bit of searching and I stumbled across “travel hacking”. It goes by many names, but it’s about maximizing travel rewards and deals to fly for free.
Kind of like couponing … except for first class tickets and a lot less work.
Since then, I’ve flown to Brazil, Taiwan, Bali, Thailand, France and Turkey all for free(ish).
Now, I’m going to go over a very basic and very easy strategy to start flying for free. A beginner’s crash course, if you will.
Just follow these four steps and you can be flying internationally for free in less than two months.
1) Pick a place and airline
2) Sign up for the credit card with the best bonus
3) Spend and get the bonus
4) Maximize points & fly for free
If you want an in-depth guide to starting, I recommend Million Mile Secrets. I’ve been following their advice for years. I like their site because they feel honest, knowledgeable, and have great advice.
Pre-Requisite: Have Good Credit!
The easiest and best way to fly for free is through travel credit cards. This means you will need to sign up and be approved for these cards and that requires good credit.
You should aim for a score above 650. We’ll revisit fixing your credit in the future, but here are some quick resources if you have some work to do, check out these quick tips and a more extensive list here. Just come back when you get your credit right, we’ll be here (or in London, Paris, Beijing … you get the point.)
1) Pick a place and/or airline
*Pay special attention if you fly for work.*
Focus is the first step.
Starting out, you want to be focused in your efforts. Aimlessly getting points will not work. So, you will need to choose one airline or credit card reward system.
A common mistake many people make is just flying on any airline or signing up for any card. Then, when vacation time comes around, they find out there aren’t any good flights or that they would need 50% fewer points had they picked another airline.
When I started, I picked United Airlines. My criteria for choosing them was simple:
- SFO is a major United hub (I live in nearby Oakland), meaning a lot of flight options
- United is a Chase partner with 1:1 miles transfer (you’ll see why this is important)
- Good rates to Europe
- Star Alliance has a lot of partner airlines
For you, think of an airline you like to fly, one that has a lot of flights from your hometown and flies internationally. Generally, stick with one of the big American airlines and find the best one for you. Avoid domestic only airlines with no major partners, like Southwest or Jetblue, unless your goal is U.S. travel. These airlines cannot get you to Germany or Brazil.
It helps if you have a continent or country in mind, and look up flights from your town to that city. Are there a few flights a day heading there? Can you get there with one or two reasonable connections? This can help you narrow down the right airline for you.
You are looking for an airline with a lot of flights out of a nearby major airport. You don’t want to go through the work and find out in six months there is only one flight a week to Brazil and it’s always booked.
2) Sign up for the credit card with the best bonus
YOU MUST PAY OFF THE BALANCE EVERY MONTH!!!
None of this works if you carry a balance monthly, paying interest. This system does not work and you will spend more in interest than you get back in rewards.
I REPEAT. YOU MUST PAY OFF THE BALANCE EVERY MONTH!
Now that you have a target in mind, let’s work through the mechanics.
Let me quickly explain credit card bonuses and travel rewards.
Most credit card companies really really really want you to sign up. They are excited to get you to extend more credit, spend more money, and pay them interest for things you didn’t really need in the first place (gotta love America).
In order to entice you, they will give you tens of thousands of airline miles for signing up for their credit cards and meeting a spending requirement up front. You’ll see offers like “Get 50,000 United Miles for spending $3,000 in three months on this United credit card.”
Armed with your airline preferences, go and find a good offer. They change every month and sometimes offer extra miles temporarily for no apparent reason. I recommend Million Mile Secrets & The Points Guy’s lists for the latest deals. You want a lot of miles and a spending challenge you can meet.
A quick look today shows me:
- 50,000 United Miles with the United MileagePlus Explorer after $3k spend in 3 months ($95 annual fee)
- 50,000 American Miles with Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite after $5k spend in 3 months ($450 annual fee)
- 30,000 Delta Miles with Gold Delta Skymiles by AMEX after $1k spend in 3 months ($95 annual fee waived the first year)
Alaska Airlines, Korean Air, British Airways, Delta … they always have some type of offer.
If you can’t choose and want flexibility, there is one card I personally started with, still hold, and highly recommend.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is an all around good travel card to have. Chase transfers miles to a bunch of partners and you can buy any ticket through their portal directly. These transfers give you the lower rates airlines offer without locking you into just one. You earn two miles per dollar spent on food & travel and the card is metal. Who doesn’t want a metal card? Check out the full review.
Note the cost of the card. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is $95 a year, with others getting up to $450. Some will waive the fee the first year. It’s worth noting the cost of each card.
Before you say “I refuse to pay an annual fee”, let me tell you that I was there myself at first. Why pay for something you can get for free? The truth is you pay for quality. Paid cards have bigger bonuses, give more points and allow the points to be done for more. I have yet to meet a card that doesn’t offer a bonus worth more than the annual cost yet. Do the math if you aren’t convinced.
As an example, the Chase Sapphire Reserved (reserved, not preferred) costs $450 a year. But, they offer $300 of travel credit every year. They also will pay the $100 fee for Global Entry. Add in the bonus and 3x points, and you make back the $450 each year.
Now that you have picked the perfect card, apply online and you should be approved instantly. If not, call them and ask them to reconsider. They will 90% of the time.
3) Spend and get the bonus
You have a target and a date. Take it serious.
***Same Ol’ Important Note***
Take this serious! YOU MUST PAY OFF THE BALANCE EVERY MONTH!
Now … back to the steps.
Your countdown timer starts when you get approved. Aim to be two weeks ahead of schedule. I’ve had to strongly scold friends for forgetting this and missing out on the huge bonus you get for signing up and losing the chance to fly for free.
It may be easy for you to spend the amount in the time needed. It may not. Here are some tips for hitting the spend requirement.
- Pay loans with credit cards
- Some loans allow this with little or no fee. I paid student loans for years with credit cards to get bonus miles.
- Pay your rent or mortgage with a credit card
- Companies like RadPad will let you pay your rent or mortgage for 2.99%. For hitting a one-time signup bonus ($50,000 Chase points is worth $625), it can be worth it.
- Buy gift cards
- Buy stuff on Amazon? Why not buy $1,000 in gift cards now if you know you will spend it. You can hit your spending requirement now, and actually buy stuff later.
- Buy regular stuff
- If you know you will spend $3k on regular sh*t, just do that. Don’t go treat yourself to $3,000 in Gucci to get a $1,500 plane ticket though. Remember, you have to pay the balance off.
You’ll usually get your bonus points the month after you complete the spending challenge.
4) Maximize points and fly for free
You did it!
Now you have a couple of stacks (thousands for the slang challenged) in airline miles. Time to spend the points and fly for free.
If your points are tied to a specific airline, then go to their site and search for award travel. Look for super saver or discount rates, which can be 50% cheaper than regular rates.
If you have Chase or Citi rewards points, you have options. The best option (almost always) is to transfer to a 1:1 transfer partner airline and book through the airline. They offer the cheapest flights.
Failing that, book travel through a credit card travel portal. Chase, for example, offers an extra 20% to 30% in value when booking travel through their portal and using points. Worse than a transfer, but no blackout dates and more airline options.
Either way you go, take off knowing you are flying for free. Look over to the chump next to you paying money to fly to Dubai … Sucker.
This is the first in many posts on travel rewards, so expect more to come. Have a tip I missed? Have something you want us to cover later? Leave us a comment or let us know what you thought!
Damien is a Personal Finance Nerd and former Facebook Product Manager who started Wealth Noir to help others find wealth. He actively invests in stocks, robo advisors, and cryptocurrency … but loves real estate investing. He holds an MBA from MIT and a Comp Sci & Econ degrees from Unv. of MD. He’s a proud dad, which is his biggest accomplishment.