Travel Hacking: Introduction To Free Travel Using Points + Miles

The long awaited post on how I travel hack to score incredible hotels and flights around the world for free/nearly free, is here!

I just want to preface this by saying, there are a lot of ways to travel hack. I will only be covering what I do and know very well that works for me.

You should always do research and make sure that what you are doing to reach your travel goals, works for you. And I will go more in depth about this later. 

Second note, this will only apply to citizens of the USA. Each country may or may not have their own rules on cards. I am not fluent in those outside of the USA. 

So what is “travel Hacking? In simplest terms, the art of using credit card points and airline miles to get free/nearly free travel. 

If you have seen any of my videos about some of the incredible trips I have done on points and miles, this is where I am going to talk in depth about it. 

In 2023, I secured $52,514 in FREE luxury travel simply by using airline miles and credit card points. That is an insane amount of money that got me into some bucket list flights and destinations!

So, let’s get started. 

Travel Hacking: Introduction

This feels like such a huge market of people are doing it, but maybe that is because I spend so much time online and see others. Whenever I talk to people or spend time on Facebook, no one seems to know what this is. 

I am not going to gatekeep anything here – I think everyone should be able to win from these scenarios. After all, these are simply perks from airlines and credit card companies for using their services. 

Allow me to share with you how I make my spending and loyalty work for me to convert into free travel, to some of the most magnificent places that felt out of reach most of my life. 

When you see people online talking about points/miles trips and you know they aren’t rich – THIS is how they are achieving these travel goals. 

You do NOT have to be rich to benefit from travel hacking. 

Travel hacking with airline miles for flights

For me, my easiest way to gain airline miles is by staying loyal to one airline and their partner airlines.

What I mean by that is, every single flight I take is with American Airlines or their partner airlines (ex: Air Tahiti Nui, British Airways, Qatar, etc). 

You don’t have to be loyal to American Airlines if it doesn’t make sense for you. For me, where I live and where I travel frequently, it just made sense. Most of the major airlines in the USA have a program for those who want to earn status and be a frequent flier with them. 

Other popular airlines: Delta, JetBlue, United, etc. 

Here is how I earn my airline miles:

Flying – each flight nets me miles that I can convert to future flights. This is the easiest way for me to earn miles without a credit card dedicated to earning miles (we will talk about this under credit cards). 

Having status – the higher your status (which I get from being loyal) the higher my bonus of miles on each flight. Earning more miles per flight isn’t the only perk of having status (I will talk about this below). 

Booking business/first class flights – whether I fly American Airlines or one of their partner airlines, I earn miles. But you can earn far more miles when you fly at higher categories. 

Example: I earned 93,214 miles on a roundtrip business class flight from Washington DC to Tahiti last summer. That is enough miles to fly several roundtrip economy flights in the USA or one way (plus plenty of leftover miles)  to say Maldives, Barcelona, London, etc in Business class lie flat seats. 

Other ways to earn miles with American Airlines:

Credit Card sign up bonuses: At any given time, American Airlines usually has a credit card sign up bonus with 50K miles just for signing up! Sometimes I see them for 75K miles. What is nice about this offer is there is no minimum spend to earn – just purchase a pack of gum and the miles are yours. On every flight, they pass these offers around. 

If you have a spouse, both of you can sign up for the card and earn miles each!

Points per spend on card: if you have an American Airlines co-branded credit card, you can earn miles on everyday spending. Which means, you don’t have to always be traveling to earn miles. I, personally, do not use this card for my everyday spend, but I will talk about my preferred cards below. 

This is a great way to earn miles though, and American Airlines is not the only airline that offers this type of card to earn miles. 

AA shopping and dining portal: if you link a card to their shopping and dining portal, you can earn miles on your purchases. 

Purchasing hotels, car rentals, cruises, or vacation packages through American Airlines: I don’t use this service, but this is a great way to earn miles. I prefer my credit card that is not AA branded for these types of purchase (will share below). 

It is free to sign up for AAdvantage, which is where your miles will be under this number assigned to you and also this is how you earn status. 

Why is airline status important?

Airline status can be extremely beneficial, especially if you travel frequently. 

For me, I have one of the highest level branded status’ with American Airlines and it has been this way for years. Here is what I get:

  • Free checked luggage 
  • Boarding group 1
  • Upgrades to business class on American flights from economy AND if I have someone else on my reservation, they mirror my status and upgrade with me. This is of course, based on availability. 
    • I get upgraded on almost all my domestic flights and some of my Caribbean flights. 
  • I get perks at each stage of the program each year, and the higher ups net me the best options. I prefer to select the “systemwide upgrades.” I use these on American marked flights and can be used for up to three legs of the flight. This would be an upgrade from economy to business. Great for longer haul flights say to Australia!

What are some of my best redemptions with American Airline miles?

The last few years my best redemptions have been roundtrip tickets to the Maldives on Qatar in the Qsuites (multiple times), business class flights to London and Barcelona roundtrip on British Airways and American Airlines. These are typically 70K miles one way. 

The Qsuites on Qatar Airways at time of purchase, were over $24K for the two tickets I got with miles. I believe I paid about $220 out of pocket! Not a bad redemption at all. 

How I use my American Airlines miles

Now that I have miles, here is how I use them. 

There is a site called “seats.aero” and you can use this to search award availability by date and continent. This is how I can easily find business class seats, which is what I almost always use my miles for. 

Keeping a pretty flexible travel itinerary, allows me to find those redemptions, and from time to time they release last minute stuff where seats are not full. 

Personally, I book all my flights in the American Airlines portal with miles. There are so many ways to do this, but this is how I do it. 

I login to my account, look for one way tickets and select “use miles” to find flights. If you don’t see anything for your date, open the calendar on the right and have it sort  by the cabin category you want and it will show dates of availability. 

How to decide which airline loyalty program is right for you

This could have many answers, depending on where you live and where you travel the most. 

Using myself as the example:

I live in Washington, D.C. and have access to tons of AA flights at DCA, my home airport and Qatar and British Airways at IAD. 

I travel mostly to the Caribbean, South Pacific, within the USA, Maldives, Seychelles, Middle Eastern Countries, and occasionally Europe and Hawaii. 

Selecting American Airlines made sense for me because they have the most flights out of my home airport, DCA, to nearly every destination I visit, sometimes with one connection.

In addition, a lot of the international travel I do is easy out of my other airport IAD on American’s partner airlines. 

You really need to think about what airlines you have access to at your home airport and where you travel the most. In some occasions, some people don’t focus on airline loyalty and just rack up points on credit cards and book what’s available with those points. 

No matter what you decide, I recommend having a plan. Earning miles with no plan, doesn’t make a lot of sense. The airline loyalty you join may not even service an area that you want to go. 

Make sure to do a ton of research so that you know you are getting what you want and need and even though the loyalty programs are free to sign up, it is best not to split your time between them. You can accumulate status and miles faster with loyalty to one network. 

Travel hacking with credit card points for flights and hotels

If you are using a debit card, a card with no perks or something other than a card that is netting you the absolute best travel rewards, get rid of it. There are a lot of cards that on the surface seem like good cards, but maybe they aren’t. 

If your goal is not to earn points for travel, then by all means, keep the cards you have. 

First thing to note – never go into debt to “earn” free travel. You are paying for it if you are paying interest. You need to be able to pay off your card(s) every single month and keep a good credit score. 

A large part of travel hacking is using the right credit card(s) to get you those free flights or hotels. 

My personal ride or die credit card is the Chase Sapphire Reserve. I have been using this card since it launched in August of 2016 and it has been rated the best or one of the best, since. 

Just because this is my favorite card, doesn’t mean it will be yours. This is where you need to do research and find out what card fits your specific needs.

This card has allowed me to take free trips to the Maldives and stay at the Ritz Carlton, Le Bora Bora Resort, Four Seasons Maui. Four Seasons Boston, Edition London, and so on. 

When I first got this card, there was a 100K sign up bonus and I used all those points in December 2016 to book flights and hotels for a month in Asia. I went to Bali, Singapore and Sri Lanka!

Here is why I LOVE this card as my primary (and I have many credit cards):

Pros:

  1. $300 annual travel credit 
  2. Access to priority pass lounges around the world
  3. 10 X points on hotel and car bookings with the card in the Chase portal 
  4. 5 X points on flight purchases in the Chase portal 
  5. 3 X points on travel bookings and dining on other websites 
  6. Built in travel insurance 
  7. Credit for Global entry 
  8. No foreign transaction fees 
  9. 1:1 point transfers to partner programs (like Marriott)
  10. ..and tons of other benefits!
  11. They often have a sign-up bonus of 60-100K with a minimum spend the first three months
  12. They give 10,000 points as a referral up to five times a year- refer a friend, relative, spouse, etc with your code, get the free points. 

Cons:

  1. $550 annual fee, $75 fee for each authorized user 
  2. Lounge access has gotten limited within the USA

While you can see the pros far outweigh the cons, I will say, the annual travel credit of $300 that hits in January for me, offsets the cost of the annual fee of $550 because I know I am booking travel every year and that $300 hits your account almost immediately when a travel purchase is made. 

I kind of look at that fee as $250 annually. 

Also, when I first got this card in August of 2016, the $300 annual travel credit was available immediately. It hit again in January! Unless things have changed,  you should get it twice within the first year depending on when you sign up.  

Who is this card good for?

In my honest opinion, this card is NOT for everyone. After having used it for almost eight years and watching my travel and financial status change over the years, I can see now that this is a great card for big spenders and those who travel a lot. 

I don’t want to trick you into a card that may not meet your needs. I cannot stress enough, to make sure and do plenty of research on the card(s) you want to have. 

If you can maximize your rewards by booking travel within the Chase portal, you will be able to rack up points at a very quick pace. This is part of my strategy. 

As an example of a purchase I made in the Chase portal this year and the points that got me:

  • I  booked a hotel through the portal that cost $11,365.45 and I made 103,618 points for that purchase. I don’t think you get points any taxes or fees attached to those bookings which is why it isn’t an exact 10 X points received. 
    • These points ended up being 145,065 because I transferred them to Marriott when they had their 40% transfer bonus (explained below)

I always double check and make sure that hotel isn’t selling substantially cheaper elsewhere. I think my cutoff is about $50, depending on how expensive the hotel is. Reason being, if I book the hotel on another site, I will only get 3 X points and lose the other 7 X points. 

In my case, I am only booking luxury hotels and resorts, so the price tag is going to be higher. If you are more of a budget or mid level traveler, you won’t see the points rack up quite as fast and that $50 difference could be the deciding factor in where you book.

If you find this is more your style, I would find a card that has a less hefty annual fee attached to it unless you travel enough that it makes sense for you. 

Maximizing rewards on the Chase Sapphire Reserve

This is the part that matters most! This is the how to getting the free travel and the best ways to do it. 

I explained above how to get the best use out of the card with spending, but now that you have done the spending and have the points, what is next?

Currently, Chase has 14 transfer partners within the Chase portal that you can move your points 1:1, which is a fantastic benefit. One thing I would highly recommend NOT doing is using your points for gift cards within the portal or booking travel with points in the portal, unless that is the only option.

I have booked hotels in the portal and it was not the best use of the points. One time I booked the Four Seasons Maui and it was about 300K points for a three night stay. However, I didn’t have to spend the thousands of dollars and Four Seasons doesn’t have a rewards program. So, at the time, that made sense for me.  

So what I mean is, transferring these points to their partners can make them more valuable. 

For example, I know that each year, once or twice, Marriott offers a 40-50% transfer bonus (whatever they’re offering at the time). This is what I save my points for!! I love the Marriott portfolio.

When this time comes, I move my Chase points to Marriott, and get that huge transfer bonus. Then, as an added perk, Marriott gives you a free night if you book four nights with points, giving you a five night stay!!

Thinking back to January 2023, I had transferred Chase points to Marriott when they had offered a 50% redemption prior and decided I wanted to stay at The Ritz-Carlton Maldives. 

I accumulated the points by:

  • Booking my travel in the Chase portal at 5-10 X points given 
  • Put most of my purchases on this card 
  • Had a couple sign up bonuses 
  • And utilized that 50% transfer bonus, which I believe netted me 150K points

You may be wondering why I didn’t just use the Chase portal and use my points there, and there is a good reason: the redemption was awful! With the points I had, I could get one and a half nights at The Ritz-Carlton Maldives. This is why the transferring of points makes sense!

Moving them to my Marriott points I was able to get five nights – that’s a huge difference! My stay at this resort was five nights, I would have never gone for one and a half nights. LOL

This of course is just one way to use the points on the card. Right now, IHG is offering an 80% transfer bonus!! 

I haven’t moved points to any other partners because I know exactly what I am going to do with my points each year and it is almost always bucket list Marriott properties or splurging on Four Seasons’ properties. 

Note: if you are moving points to a transfer partner, you need to already be part of their rewards program, which is free. For example, you can sign up to Marriott’s reward program and they ive you a number for your account. When I move points, I put in my Marriott number. 

If you have a Chase Card, their portal is extremely easy to use and navigate. You could figure it out in under 20 minutes. 

The other card I use and why:

I got the American Express Platinum when they had a 100,000 sign up bonus! I don’t use this card for much and the annual fee is $695, BUT all the perks of the card I use over the course of the year, which is a far greater value than the annual fee, so I kept the card!

Perks of the American Express Platinum that I use (I don’t recommend this as an everyday card, just as a supplement for its benefits)

  • Centurion Lounges – I love these lounges in the USA, some of the best, actually! 
  • $200 hotel credit 
  • $200 airline fee credit 
  • $200 Uber credit 
  • $240 digital entertainment credit – good for streaming services!
  • $100 Saks credit 
  • $189 CLEAR+ credit 
  • Global dining access – if you call in, they can often get you into very hard restaurants to get seats at! 

As you can see, I am getting more benefits from the card than I am paying for the annual fee. Most importantly, the access to Centurion Lounges!!

Other ways to earn points quickly

One part of strategy for people who get big into travel hacking is getting multiple cards. 

You HAVE to have a plan though. A lot of these cards offer amazing sign up bonuses, but they have a minimum spend on them within the first three months, typically. Some are six months, but I don’t see that often. 

If you want to maximize these sign up bonuses, make sure you are in an area of your life where you can meet the minimum spend requirements to get those points. I would not recommend spending just to get points, have a plan in place. 

Having a significant other that can tag team the points building is also beneficial!

For example: say Chase Sapphire Reserve had a 100K sign up bonus and one of you gets the card, meets the spending and then gets the points. You can then give your significant other your referral code to sign up and you will get the 10,000 points for their sign up and they can earn 100K after getting the card and reaching their minimum spend. 

I see videos from time to time on Instagram and Tiktok of regular couples earning a million+ points/miles EACH in a calendar year. A couple months ago I had seen a woman who earned a million and a half for the year and is a budget traveler. 

Those points will go SO FAR!! 

My current points and miles strategy

I don’t like to change things that work, so I have every intention of staying loyal to American Airlines (and their partner airlines) this year, keeping my Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum. 

I am currently in the phase of adding new points to my pile by adding new cards to my wallet. 

Recently, I signed up for an American Airlines card that has a 100K sign up bonus. This is a Citi card and will NOT become anything more than getting those sign up points.  This card does have a high annual fee and I don’t want to keep it. 

I will have to pay that annual fee the first year, so, I will keep it and then cancel it. You may be asking yourself how paying the annual fee works out for the points?

In my example above under airlines miles, I earned 93,214 miles on a roundtrip business class flight from Washington DC to Tahiti. This ticket cost me about $8200. You can see how paying the annual fee of $595 for that first year would be highly beneficial for the miles! 

Those 100,000 miles easily convert to multiple round trip economy flights in the USA or 60-70K points one way in lie flat business class seats to say Maldives, London, etc. 

These flights would be extremely expensive! The Maldives flights on Qatar cost thousands! So, it works itself out.

After I meet the minimum spend on that card to get the miles, I will capitalize on another card to get points or miles. 

For referral bonuses, I will continue to give my code out to those want it. You can only get five referrals per year with Chase Sapphire Reserve. But, easy 50K points I did not have otherwise.

Conclusion:

You will need to do some work on your own to find what cards/airlines/systems work for you and your goals. 

It took me a little while to get the hang of how I maximize my own points and miles, and it has been incredible seeing all the amazing bucket list destinations I have experienced and incredible business and first class flights. 

I do think that travel hacking can be a game changer, if you are willing to learn about it. 

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