I’ve always been interested in learning about and teaching budget travel techniques because I understand that flying around the world is cost-prohibitive for most people. I just did a quick search on flight prices: a round trip ticket from Los Angeles to Paris is about $2,000. A weekend flight from Philadelphia to Las Vegas is currently $250. Not bad, but we can do better.
Enter: travel hacking.
What is Travel Hacking?
Travel hacking is the art and science of getting free or deeply discounted flights. One of the best ways to do this is through credit card rewards programs. Because frequent flyer miles and points are the lifeblood of travel hacking, being able to earn and redeem miles is essential. Every major airline offers a credit card that usually comes with a few perks. Some offer bonus miles for new members, free checked bags, priority boarding, etc.
Using credit card sign-up bonuses and loyalty programs can help you significantly reduce your travel costs. While you might to pay some small fees when you redeem your points, your rewards will greatly outweigh any fees you may incur.
Before you get scared away, let me reassure you that this is completely legal. It’s not a scam, and although “hacking” makes people think otherwise, it’s completely legitimate. Businesses found out long ago that loyalty programs lead to big profits. Credit card companies won’t have any issue partnering with airlines and offering juicy rewards to get you to sign up for their juicy high-interest credit cards. There’s no need to sugarcoat things: credit card companies are hoping to turn you into an interest-paying profit center.
The best way to get started with travel hacking is through the huge sign-up bonuses that some credit cards offer. Several credit cards offer bonuses after you meet a certain requirement, usually a single purchase or a minimum spending threshold within a certain time frame. Don’t ever sign up for a credit card unless you’re being rewarded for it.
As an example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card has one of the best sign-up bonuses on the market today. You can earn 50,000 bonus points once you spend $4,000 in purchases in the first three months from your account opening. This amount of points equals over $550 in travel.
A lot of people are scared to death of credit cards for all the wrong reasons. “Won’t that hurt your credit?” “Credit cards are evil!” “I won’t ever get a credit card – they’re a form of witchcraft that forces people to spend more money!” or whatever people are saying these days. The truth is that travel credit cards do come with higher interest rates and penalties, but the cards themselves are neither inherently good nor bad. They are only evil if you spend more money than you have, so if you are a responsible adult, you should have no problem. Besides, credit cards have unparalleled fraud protection, consumer protection and perks that debit cards and cash just can’t match.
“Doesn’t it hurt your credit?”
Every time you apply for more credit, your credit score should drop in the short-term. Don’t fret! Your credit score is largely determined by your payment history and credit utilization ratio. As long as you’re making your payments on time and not using more than 20-30% of your available credit limit, your credit score should improve over time.
Note: Please don’t miss a payment. A single late payment (yes, just one!) can shave 100 points from your credit score.
People worry that applying for a new credit card will hurt their credit, and this fear isn’t completely unfounded, but it’s a small worry. 15% of your credit score is based on the length of your credit history. The longer your credit cards are open, the higher your score will become. When you open a new card, it brings down your average, but don’t worry. Another 10% of your credit score is based on new credit, meaning every time you apply for a new card, there is a “hard pull” on your credit. If you have too many of these hard pulls, your score will get dinged.
Travel hacking should actually improve your credit score because you should be lowering your credit utilization ratio. Suppose you currently have $2,000 of available credit, and you’ve used $1,000. Your credit utilization ratio is 50%. If you open a credit card and get a credit limit of $2,000, you will have taken your ratio from 50% to 25%.
One of the arguments I’ve heard against travel hacking are the annual fees that come with the credit cards. Most annual fees are between $50 and $100 per year. Fee-based cards tend to have better incentives, more rewards, and exclusive access to special services and offers. In my experience, if you travel often, you will save money than what you spend on fees.
However, if you really can’t stand a credit card’s annual fee, just ask the company to waive it. Most fee-based cards waive the first year’s fee anyway. After that, you can either cancel the card (which I don’t recommend) or move to a no-fee card (which I do recommend). You can call the credit card and ask them about cancelling the card or moving to one with no fee. When you tell them that the annual fee is too high, there’s a good chance they will waive the fee for another year.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards card, one of my favorites, didn’t waive their $99 annual fee for me, but it wasn’t a big deal. I got 50,000 bonus points from meeting their spending requirement, meaning I “purchased” a round-trip flight in the continental United States for $99 and still had points left over. Not bad!
The Reconsideration Line
The best travel hackers are able to go through several credit cards, keep track of their spending/timeframes, and rack up massive amounts of points. However, when you apply for multiple credit cards, chances are you will get declined or get an automatic “pending” message from one of them. When you get stuck in the “pending” limbo, reconsideration lines are your best friend.
When a credit card company’s computer algorithm can’t spit out a simple yes or no, a live human being (a credit analyst) will go over the application. If you call the reconsideration line, you’ll find that it is also staffed with live human beings, who can patiently and friendly review your application with you. They can let you know why it was flagged for review, and explain any issues. While they can’t always get you on the fast-track to acceptance, they can give you specific reasons why you might be declined, helping you in the future. Remember, credit card companies want you to get approved, so call and plead your case. It’s your best chance to humanize, rationalize, and justify your credit application.
Here are some credit card reconsideration line phone numbers:
American Express: 877-399-3083
Bank of America: 866-458-8805
Barclay’s Credit Card: 888-232-0780
Capital One: 800-625-7866
I personally have used the reconsideration line with great success. I applied for a business credit card and got an automatic “pending”. I immediately called the credit card company, spoke with a live human being and got my credit card approved immediately.
The reconsideration line is a powerful tool, so here are a few tips to use it wisely:
Be nice! Have you ever been asked for money? What if, after you initially refused, the person asking started yelling at you? Would that make you want to lend the money? Yelling at the phone rep during the reconsideration call will get you absolutely nowhere.
Be prepared. Before you call, you should have a copy of your credit report and know your credit score. You should also know about all the credit cards you currently have open. You should also be prepared to emphasize the reason(s) why you want a new credit card. Some reasons include:
- I want a card with no annual fee.
- I want a card with no foreign exchange fees.
- I moved and Airline X doesn’t fly to my new city.
- I’ve heard great things about this card from family/friends and want to start a relationship.
- I’m enticed by the rewards program and want to take advantage.
- This card has great reviews online and I want to experience it for myself.
Leverage your existing relationship, if you have one. Remember how credit card companies want to make money? Well, they’re more likely to approve your application on the reconsideration call if the rep knows you are a loyal and profitable customer. If you have another card with the same company, speak up! Be sure to mention it if you’ve never missed a payment or been late.
One of the best reconsideration lines I’ve ever heard is to lead the call by letting the phone rep know that you’re happy with your existing relationship and that you want to know if you can get approved for a new card by reducing the high amount of credit on your existing credit cards. You want to frame your denial in a positive light, letting him/her know that you were denied because you reached the credit limit the company will assign you, not because of any late payments or credit mismanagement.
Once you use your card to get the sign-up bonus, you can continue to earn points by using your card. If you want to get extra savvy, you can have different credit cards for different purposes – one for groceries (I get 6% back on mine), one for miles, one for hotel rewards, and one for gas stations. This way you’re always getting the maximum amount of cash back on your purchases.
One of my favorite ways to earn points quickly is by using the shopping portal through your credit card’s website. It’s one of the fastest ways to rack up the points because all you have to do is click a link and start shopping. Make sure you only spend money you were going to spend anyway. There’s no point in spending extra money to get something that is only worth 1-10 cents on the dollar.
These shopping portals are so valuable because they typically offer three, four, or even five times the points you’d get from a regular purchase. To find them, just log on to your credit card account. Then, look for the portal – somewhere on the page, you should see a link directing you to a place where you can earn extra rewards for shopping online. Once you click, a cookie is stored on your computer, allowing you to automatically receive bonus rewards upon checkout. If you can’t find it, just Google “YOUR CREDIT CARD COMPANY + shopping portal”.
Be sure to sign up for airline newsletters, which feature mileage deals and other promotions that can accelerate your point balance.
Keep your favorite airline as a favorite or bookmark in your browser, and make it a habit to check for flights regularly. If you have a particular destination in mind and aren’t picky about the time or date, you might be able to score an amazing deal. Here’s what I mean: I just searched for a flight from Philadelphia to Las Vegas, and most of the return flights are around $300-600. Yet, there’s one flight that’s just $94. Man, I love “Wanna Get Away”.
Tips for Getting Cheap Flights
$94 is a lot cheaper than $607 or even $325, but this doesn’t always happen. However, there are a few ways you can make sure you’re getting the best deal on your next flight.
Buy early. In the travel game, booking late will cost you. Airline ticket prices tend to increase in the last two weeks before flying, so try to plan ahead. The more in advance you can start shopping for tickets, the better off you will be.
Be flexible. Like the example I gave above, being flexible is a virtue when you travel. Not many people want to take graveyard shift flights, so these are usually much cheaper. I also like to scan entire months for the cheapest flight. I don’t like rules of thumb like “always travel on a Tuesday” – I want to see the numbers! Also, try out different airports near you. Even though both might be going to the same place at the same time, one might be cheaper than the other.
Mix and match. Sometimes you can save additional money by mixing and matching. You can book one airline for outbound and a different one for your return flight. You can also check prices at different airports, since it might make sense to fly to one airport and depart from another.
Once you book your flight, don’t stop looking for deals! I know that sounds weird, but there’s a method to my madness. If fares go down after you’ve purchased your ticket, ask your airline for a refund. Refund policies vary from airline to airline, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Most airlines don’t publicize the fact that they will give you the difference anyway. They want your money!