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Travel Hacking Success!

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travel hacking successI must admit, I wasn’t always a big fan of travel hacking. I’m not very good at it because there is too much overhead. Life is already busy enough without having to track all these credit card sign-up bonuses. Oh, let’s back up a bit for those of you who don’t know about travel hacking.

Basically, travel hacking is using credit card rewards to pay for flights and/or hotel rooms. Travel hackers accumulate points through applying for credit cards with great sign-up bonuses and using them. I never liked travel hacking because I don’t like signing up for new credit cards and it’s hard for me to keep track of them all. Besides, we built our wealth through living modestly and investing as much as we can. Travel hacking means spending money to get rewards. It doesn’t quite agree with our core principles. That’s not the only reason why I didn’t like travel hacking either.

Why I didn’t like travel hacking

Here are a few more reasons why I didn’t like fooling around with new credit cards.

  1. It could lead to overspending. Most sign-up bonuses work like this. You need to spend $3,000 to $5,000 in the first 3 months to receive the reward bonus. Normally, we charge less than $1,000 per month on our credit cards so we’d have to stretch to meet the minimum amount. It goes against our frugal way to spend more than normal. This is probably my biggest stumbling block.
  2. I’d need to track my spending progress on each credit card. That’s just more work for me. I’m already busy and I don’t want to maintain another spreadsheet.
  3. To maximize travel hacking, RB40 needs to sign up for her own deals. She hates applying for anything so I don’t even want to broach the subject with her. She is very protective of her credit score.
  4. It could impact your credit score if you’re not careful. A large number of credit inquiries in a short period can lower your credit score temporarily. Every time you sign up for a new card, they will make a credit inquiry. This is a minor deal for me because my credit score is good.
  5. There are annual fees on these credit cards. If you’re like me and hate annual fees, then you’d need to close these accounts after one year. This could hurt your credit score because your credit limit will decrease. The way around this is to tell the company to transfer the credit limit to a different card with no annual fee.

These are just some of the reasons why I wasn’t a big fan of travel hacking. Also, I just haven’t had much success prior to 2017. We couldn’t accumulate enough points to pay to travel internationally. Those flights cost a ton of points.

Overcoming my hesitation

However, I kept reading about successful travel hacking stories and I want to give it a chance. I overcame my hesitation and signed up for a few cards in 2016 and was able to hack my way in to a few trips. It worked very well for the most part and now, I’m less hesitant to sign up for more credit cards. Let’s go through the reasons above and see what changed.

  1. Overspending was the biggest problem I faced. It’s not easy to spend $5,000 in 3 months when you’re frugal. I overcame this by timing the sign up with lumpy expenses. In 2016, I signed up for a new credit card and charged our trip to Thailand and San Diego. This got me most of the way to $5,000 and regular expenses took care of the rest. I believe you can buy gift cards and store cards to help overcome the limit too. That’s called manufactured spending. I haven’t done it yet.
  2. Tracking the spending progress wasn’t that difficult because I signed up for one new credit card at a time. Since I only had to keep track of just one deal at a time, I didn’t need to maintain a spreadsheet. I just called the credit card company and checked once in a while to see if I met the minimum.
  3. I convinced RB40 to sign up for one card last year. This gave us 4 free nights total at the luxurious Hyatt Ziva in Cancun. The prize was worth it this time. I think she can handle one new credit card per year.
  4. Signing up for new credit cards can lower your credit score by a few points, but it will bounce back. We don’t plan to buy a new car or house anytime soon so I don’t really care about the temporary fluctuation in the credit score. Besides, having more credit can also improve your score because it will lower your utilization ratio. That’s the ratio of credit card debt/credit limit. If your credit limit increases and debt stays the same, then it will help your credit score.
  5. I track our credit card spending in my monthly cash flow reports. When I see an annual fee, I’d call and cancel the card. The credit card company will refund the annual fee and close the account if you do it within 30 days. I also ask them to transfer the credit over to a free card so my credit utilization ratio stays the same.

With these simple strategies, I overcame my hesitation and got a few nice rewards this year.

Gung ho

Travel hacking worked out very well for us in 2017 and I’m all gung ho for it now. It saved us thousands of dollars and enabled us try a fantastic resort. Check out our wins this year.

Travel Hacking Success

Southern California trip – Mrs. RB40 paid for her flight and got a $99 companion fare for Junior. I used my Alaska Airlines points for my ticket.

Waikiki, HI – I used my reward points to pay for my and RB40Jr’s tickets. Mrs. RB40’s employer paid for her flight and hotel because this was a business trip for her.

Cancun – I used my reward points to pay for 3 tickets. We also got 4 nights free at a very nice resort.

Mrs. RB40’s upcoming Southern California trip – She used her Alaska Airlines points to pay for this upcoming flight. The boys are staying home this time.

It’s pretty amazing to see how much we benefited this year. $5,680 is a significant amount. It took us a couple years to get here, though. We have been accumulating all these reward points for a while.

Annual fees

We did pay some annual fees on these cards.

  • Alaska Airlines: $100 annual fee. We are keeping this card because we use the companion fare every year.
  • Mystery card: $450 annual fee. Surprisingly, I got $600 travel credit back so they actually paid us $150 to try this card. It worked out really well, but I canceled this card after the first year. The signup bonus was 100,000 points after spending $5,000 in 3 months. It was an extraordinary deal and I’m glad I got in on it.
  • Hyatt card: $100 annual fee x2. I just canceled my card and Mrs. RB40 should cancel her soon.

All in all, we paid just $150 in annual fees. That’s a darn good trade, right?

Travel hacking continues

Unfortunately, the signup bonuses we received are no longer available. However, there are still some attractive deals out there. Many cards still offer 50,000+ points for their signup bonuses. I’ll have to take a short break, though. There has been too much activity recently and I probably need to lay low for a few months. Next year, I’ll sign up for a couple of cards and start accumulating reward points again. I still dislike signing up for a new card, but the rewards are too good to pass up.

To see the most current signup bonuses, check my credit cards page.

What about you? Do you travel hack? If so, how did you do this year?

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{ 69 comments… add one }
  • Mr. Tako December 7, 2017, 12:44 am

    I was just like you Joe – hesitant. But this year I had the spare time to start travel hacking. So far it’s worked out alright — We were able to trim a pretty large amount from month-long Japan trip.

    We’ve got another trip happening in the spring too that’s 50% paid for by travel hacking.

    So, we’re starting to come around to the idea — shifting our costs onto the credit cards to meet the rewards requirements.

    With a FIRED family of four, every penny counts when traveling.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:07 am

      Travel hacking can payoff big. We just need to be organized and stay on top of it. I’ll wait until we have a big expense before I sign up for a new card. Great job with travel hacking this year.

  • Michael @ Financially Alert December 7, 2017, 1:09 am

    Joe, I love travel hacking… free money is always a good thing. 🙂

    This past year, I received enough free points to cover our trip to Kauai (flights and hotel), plus a couple other trip supplements.

    However, I do need to shift these cards pretty soon to an alternative card that doesn’t have the hefty $450 fee.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:11 am

      That’s great! I’d love to visit Kauai again someday. Yeah, you need to cancel that card. It worked out really well for us because we got $600 travel credit back. The 2nd annual fee would cost too much, though.

      • Ryan December 8, 2017, 8:27 pm

        I guess it would depend on how certain you are of traveling on an annual basis. If you definitely are traveling, then the fee annually is just $150. Of course counting the second credit against the initial annual fee does make the second one a lot more imposing.:-)

  • GYM December 7, 2017, 1:20 am

    I love travel hacking! Our 2 flights to Hawaii were only $150 (taxes). Canada doesn’t have as good bonuses though. I also dislike paying for credit card fees. I set a reminder on my iPhone to call and cancel.

    Getting almost $6000 in value for a few hundred dollars is amazing!!

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:13 am

      Good idea to set a reminder. I need to do that next time.

  • David @iretiredyoung December 7, 2017, 1:53 am

    I’ve always stayed away from this, but looking at the money you saved it seems crazy not to give it a go. The credit card companies have no trouble taking something from the consumer, so it feels fair to get our own back once in a while.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:14 am

      Right. I’m sure they make plenty of money from the high interest. You should keep an eye out for a really good deal. 50,000 bonus points is pretty good. If you see 80,000 points or more, you should go for it. Try it out. Free travel is even better than regular traveling. 🙂

  • Accidental Fire December 7, 2017, 2:17 am

    Count me In as another person who has delayed this because I don’t want to put up with the hassle. But the more stories I see from folks who are benefiting I’m getting close to doing it.

    Congrats on your success!

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:16 am

      Thanks! It’s pretty good if you can control your spending and are organized enough to meet the bonus threshold. If you’re too busy with life, then maybe put it until you’re less busy.

  • Chris Urbaniak @ deliberatechange.ca December 7, 2017, 3:04 am

    Congrats, Joe, on overcoming your trust concerns re travel hacking!

    Here in Canada, there have been multiple issues in recent years with the two “big players” (Air Miles and Aeroplan) implementing artificial deadlines, devaluing points, and offering different rewards to different collectors. My family decided long ago to stick with our simple and effective cash back card and groceries rewards card, both of which have had decent track records for us for many years.

    However, given your success, we might just have to give travel hacking a try, too!

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:17 am

      I think some airlines here also have deadlines and they keep raising the trade in value. That’s why we should use those points ASAP. It sounds like travel hacking is not as lucrative in Canada. Good luck!

  • Caroline December 7, 2017, 3:39 am

    I tried travel hacking back in August and signed up for two credit cards with great deals, which is not that often in Canada, but got busy with life and forgot I had to spend a certain amount of money on one to get the $300 credit. I lost it! I agree with your comment about being time consuming. It may be something I will have to look into once I am semi-retired.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:18 am

      Sorry to hear that. The same thing happened to me about 4 years ago. We just didn’t spend enough to meet the threshold. Now, I just wait until we have a big expense coming up before I sign up for a new card. Having more time to organize helps a lot too.

  • [email protected] December 7, 2017, 3:49 am

    Way to go Joe! Seems like you are winning this game.

    I always used credit cards to get rewards. Until this year, I avoided travel hacking because I was too conservative to pay the annual fees. This year I gave it a shot and am happy so far. I just booked a trip for 2018 that would have never happened without the rewards.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:19 am

      Great! Where are you going in 2018? It seems like the best bang for the buck is central/south America. Maybe Europe is pretty good too. Asia flights cost a ton of points.

  • Ms. Money Supply December 7, 2017, 4:35 am

    I’ve been hesitant to try travel hacking for the same reasons you mentioned – in particular the overspending. I almost never charge $5,000 over 3 months, so it’s something I’d really have to plan ahead for. It sounds like it more than pays off, though, in terms of what you save, so maybe I just need to wait for the right opportunity.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:21 am

      Right. Normally, we’d never meet that threshold so we’ll have to be strategic about it. We have to fix our HVAC next year so I’ll probably sign up for a new card then. I’m still not comfortable with manufactured spending.

  • Ms. Frugal Asian Finance December 7, 2017, 4:47 am

    Wow congrats on the successful travel hacking. I have thought about giving it a try, but that thought alone stresses me out.

    Mr. FAF isn’t so interested in travel hacking, so I would be the only one keeping track of our credit card spending.

    I actually applied for a bunch of retail store credit cards and ended up closing them when I was in college and grad school @[email protected]

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:22 am

      Yeah, if you’re not comfortable with it then skip it. You’re already busy enough.

  • retirengineering December 7, 2017, 4:56 am

    Mystery Card = Chase Sapphire Reserve

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:23 am

      You got it! 🙂 The bank does not want us to mention them for some reason. I guess only major affiliate can work with them directly. By major, I mean 60+ conversion per month. That’s pretty much impossible for us.

      • Ryan December 8, 2017, 8:35 pm

        Really? Did they actually send you a notice? That is odd they wouldn’t want free advertising. And if you are doing a factual report…can they really have a say. Like news companies don’t have to get permission to mention names right? The whole NFL and Superb Owl controversy is odd. I guess since the blog is a money making enterprise?

        • retirebyforty December 10, 2017, 9:04 pm

          It is just a rule for affiliates. They only work with big sites because they can’t monitor every little sites. Smaller sites work through a network. They want more control about what affiliates write about the company. I think..

  • Ms99to1percent December 7, 2017, 4:59 am

    Wow, that’s big savings you got right there.

    Hope to succeed in convincing Mr99to1percent that travel hacking is worth the risk and hassle.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:23 am

      Good luck! It is a hassle.

  • FullTimeFinance December 7, 2017, 5:06 am

    I have a similar strategy to your own. One card at a time. I don’t focus as much on point maximization as purchasing what I wanted otherwise both for points usage and expenditure. Ultimately it is what you make of it. It can be like another job or in my case like spending an extra five minutes a month.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:24 am

      You’re right. Some people keep a spreadsheet to track their 15+ cards. That’s a lot of work, but it can pay off really well. I’m more comfortable with slow travel hacking. 🙂

  • Helen @ Retire Early Helen December 7, 2017, 5:31 am

    That’s great, as it saved you quite a lot of money. Yeah, it is a lot of work to get those points, and keep track of the cards. I’m trying to go simple ways, and avoid any hassle if I could. Now I know what travel hacking is about. Great info.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:25 am

      I like the simple way too. I already have more things than I can handle. We are still looking for a new tenant…

  • Mr Crazy Kicks December 7, 2017, 6:06 am

    I’ve found travel hacking to be a lot more lucrative than expected. This year alone we hacked around $10k in free travel.

    This was an extremely lucrative year, but I’m already planning out more free flights for 2018. I just signed up for the aviator card for 60k AA miles, and a Jet Blue card for another 60k miles yesterday.

    Congrats on your successful foray into travel hacking. Those were some awesome trips!

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:26 am

      Wow, you’re doing it right! You don’t spend a lot of money. How do you meet the spending threshold? I’ll IM you later.
      Thanks for those tips. I’ll check them out. Jet Blue sounds okay.

  • Scott December 7, 2017, 6:42 am

    Does the total $5,680 include your annual fees of ~$750?

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:26 am

      It’s actually $150 because we got $600 back in travel credit. Actually, not too bad.

  • Richard Nielsen December 7, 2017, 6:49 am

    You’re exactly like me man, with one exception, I’m still too afraid to do it. I hate to have to call to cancel a CC and this also hurts your score.
    I signed up for Bofa Travel rewards and I’m concentrating all my expenses on that so and getting 1.75 points per dollar. For me that’s good enough for now

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:28 am

      You just need to make sure to transfer your credit limit to a free card. That should keep your credit utilization ratio the same. I didn’t know about this until this year. Now, I’m not worried about my credit score. Just need to remember to do that when I cancel a card. Which could be problematic as I get older and more forgetful…

  • Steve @ familyonfire.org December 7, 2017, 6:57 am

    Like you i’ve Always been wary of this, but maybe it’s time to give it a try. I still have a ton of air miles from when I used to travel for business but haven’t used them as most of our travel has moved to low cost airlines like Southwest and Spirit.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:28 am

      You should use those miles!

  • Tom @ Dividends Diversify December 7, 2017, 6:59 am

    Joe, I’m with your original feelings of “too much overhead”. Maybe it’s because my wife and I do not travel that much. We are “stick in the muds” to a fault. A walk around the block is a big deal for me. I’m impressed with folks like you that maximize all this stuff and travel on the cheap. Mrs. DD and I want to travel more in the future so maybe that will spur me on. Like you, our likes and dislikes change over time as our priorities change. Tom

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:29 am

      If you don’t travel that much, then travel hacking isn’t for you. 🙂 It’s too much work if you’re not going to take advantage of the benefits.

  • Adam December 7, 2017, 7:04 am

    I wish I’d jumped on that mystery card a year ago when 100k was on the table. We opened a new Barclaycard World Elite instead. The redemption is incredibly straightforward, but the bonuses and accruals only amount to about $1k the first year and half that each following year for our usage. Maybe when I’m no longer working full-time, and we’re traveling more, I’ll be better able to manage the hassle of more intricate, potentially higher-reward programs.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:30 am

      That mystery card was a bit scary at first because the annual fee looks so high. The travel credit brought down the annual fee a lot, though. And the calendar year overlap means I got $600 back. That was awesome. Good luck! More time definitely would help.

  • desidividend December 7, 2017, 7:32 am

    I did travel hacking few years ago,
    i made out good like 1 bussiness class trip to india,2 tickets to europe,2 tickets to hawaii
    21 days of hotel stays in europe.
    5 days in Carribean resort.
    still miles left.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:31 am

      Wow, those are nice rewards. Are you still doing it?

  • Nick December 7, 2017, 7:49 am

    So stoked you jumped into travel hacking!

    For the financially conscious, signing up for a lot of credit cards can seem counterintuitive.

    Sounds like you’re doing it the right way.

    My wife and I flew to Cancun for our honeymoon in first class all through travel hacking.

    As a recommendation, the Chase cards are great for travel hacking. Their points transfer into a lot of different airline and hotel programs.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 8:32 am

      Wow, first class. Nice. We flew economy, but stayed at a really nice resort for 4 days. It was great.
      Chase is great, but they won’t let me sign up for anymore card at this time. Maybe in 6 months… 🙂

  • Jim @ Route To Retire December 7, 2017, 8:56 am

    Nice job on the success story, Joe!

    I’m new to this too, but I plan to learn more about this as well over the next few months. I would imagine our trips back and forth to Panama will likely be a little more frequent over the next few years. The cost of those flights makes this well worth the small price of keeping track of everything for me.

    — Jim

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 10:07 am

      Panama is perfect. Central America is one of the cheaper region for reward points. I think you’ll do very well with it. Good luck!

  • Lily @ The Frugal Gene December 7, 2017, 10:02 am

    We do a low down version of it. If we had more time to travel then we would definitely devote more time to finding righteous promos and jump through the hoops. I think it’s absolutely worth it if you do due diligence and mind the fees. Some fees aren’t bad, like your cards, we have the Alaska card as well.

    • retirebyforty December 7, 2017, 10:08 am

      The Alaska card is pretty good. If you use the companion fare every year, it already paid for the annual fee. Someday you’ll get to travel more. 🙂 It’d be tough with an Airbnb, though. Maybe you can get someone to run it for you for a few days.

  • zaf December 7, 2017, 10:29 am

    I have only taken advantage of the bonuses initially, then cancelled (if there’s an annual fee) or destroyed these kinds of credit cards. It’s best to diversify your points portfolio, for example, have some Marriott and Hilton points or miles on >1 airline, so these assets are no over-exposed to risk (mergers, changes in program terms, etc.).

  • Jason December 7, 2017, 10:49 am

    This might have been mentioned in the comments but did you try the Chase gauntlet that Choose FI put out. https://www.choosefi.com/all-articles/travel-rewards/

    • retirebyforty December 8, 2017, 7:09 am

      I did that slowly over time, but I hit the 5/24 rule now. Mrs. RB40 can probably go through this. Thanks for the link.

  • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life December 7, 2017, 11:10 am

    Welcome to the club! 🙂 Your travel hacking has paid off in a huge way!

    We built up 300,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points in this year’s hacking and promotions which is the biggest haul I’ve ever managed. We’ve also added a couple of free flights’ worth of miles, so we can either take 5 really cheap domestic flights at $75 each, or we can pile them all together for business class international flights. TBD!

    • retirebyforty December 8, 2017, 7:10 am

      Oh wow, that’s a ton of points. I think we had about 150,000 points and spent most of it this year.
      Great job.

  • Financial Panther December 7, 2017, 12:40 pm

    I was also hesitant to start travel hacking, but finally dove into at the beginning of the year when I had some wedding expenses to pay for. Now I’m hooked! Yes, it takes a little bit of work, but it’s a great way to make the stuff you’re already paying for be a little bit cheaper just because of the sign-up bonuses you earn. You’re basically optimizing your spend when you do this. I’m hooked now – opened up 7 cards this year, although I might tone it down next year.

    • retirebyforty December 8, 2017, 7:11 am

      I’m hooked too, but I have to take a break for a while. Wow, 7 cards. That’s a lot. Chase isn’t going to let you get anymore cards. 🙂

      • Financial Panther December 9, 2017, 4:35 pm

        I’m actually still at 4/24 technically! Opened up 4 personal cards this year and 3 business cards. Business cards don’t count towards 5/24, which is a sneaky way to get some extra points.

        • retirebyforty December 10, 2017, 9:05 pm

          I didn’t know business cards don’t count towards 5/24. I will check it out. Thanks!

  • savvy December 7, 2017, 1:16 pm

    I’ve been doing light hacking for a few years. However, now I’m getting to the point where I’m running out of cards I can get (due to 5/24 rule, etc.) and it’s hard to meet the higher minimum spends. I don’t manufacture spend but would consider paying my taxes via CC (for a 1.87% fee) if I see a huge sign-on bonus out there.

    • retirebyforty December 8, 2017, 7:12 am

      I’m at the same point. I think I’ll just have to slow down for 6 months to a year. Mrs. RB40 can probably apply for a couple more cards. We’ll have to keep a lookout for those great bonuses.

  • Kris December 7, 2017, 4:11 pm

    We haven’t traveled much lately but when we have the urge to go back and travel, I will definitely look into travel hacking. It looks like that you can save a lot because of the points you collect from your credit cards. It’s a matter of transferring points and signing up for CCs to build up those points.

  • [email protected] December 8, 2017, 8:43 am

    I like travel hacking but I’m not that extreme. One tough thing I’ve found with flights is that there are restrictions and you have to be flexible. Also, a few times when I’ve tried to redeem award points for free flights, I’m forced to take flights with layovers (and these are short flights). With young kids, I prefer a direct flight…plus it can be such a waste of time on such a short flight. I’ve mainly redeemed points for hotel stays.

    • retirebyforty December 8, 2017, 8:47 am

      We used extra points to avoid layovers and have been largely successful. That’s a huge deal when traveling with a little kid.

  • Wonkme Toneght December 8, 2017, 3:42 pm

    Joe,

    Do you know if I can use credit cards to buy Bitcoin?

    I can accumulate travel points and make money at the same time….

    • retirebyforty December 10, 2017, 9:00 pm

      I have no idea how to buy Bitcoin. Sorry!

  • Ryan December 8, 2017, 8:22 pm

    Isn’t the annual fee for the Alaska and Hyatt cards $75? I am a little surprised you decided not to keep the Hyatt since they give you a free night annually on each for category 1-4 hotels, and for Asia at least, they have a good selection of 1-4 hotels to stay in for free. Also did you end up spending all of your bonus on the premium card? If you outright cancelled the card (versus downgrading to a no-AF member of the portfolio) you could lose all your points. And I would be interested to hear about your experience in booking with points to get that trip to Thailand if you are up for it.

    • retirebyforty December 10, 2017, 9:02 pm

      I’ll have to double check. I thought they were $100 each.
      We didn’t use the points to book the trip to Thailand last year. We paid for it with the Chase card and that helped us meet the minimum.
      Hopefully, we can book the flight with points next time. It seems very expensive to book with reward points.

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