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If you’re anything like me, one minute you’re typing up that report and the next thing you know you’re staring out the window imagining paddleboarding with sea lions off the Canadian coast or enjoying tapas at an outdoor cafe in Barcelona.

For most of us, making those daydreams come true takes a lot of work. You have to make a plan, figure out what the trip will cost, and then save up enough money to make it happen, all while crossing your fingers your safari money doesn’t end up as “fixing the broken car” money instead.

And then there are those travel hackers – the ones who manage to visit 10 countries every year and post about how awesome and easy it is to pay for first-class flights and 5-star hotels using credit card rewards. 

It’s true – you can use credit cards and points and miles to take amazing trips for free, but travel hacking has a steep learning curve.  You have to put in a lot of time and pay close attention to detail to consistently earn enough rewards to cover your travels.

In this post, I’ll help with the learning curve by sharing five secrets of successful travel hackers, plus a new app that shortcuts the learning process and instantly travel hacks for you. (Psssttt … that’s the part you really don’t want to miss!)

5 Secrets of Successful Travel Hackers + The Cheat Code You’ve Been Looking For

1.  It’s All About the Bonuses – Finding the Best Signup Offers

Credit card companies often offer sign-up bonuses to tempt new users to sign up. Let’s be honest, the card companies are hoping you’ll sign up for the card and spend lots of money so they can collect purchase fees, annual fees, and interest payments from you for years to come.

If you’re smart, you can turn the tables and take advantage of generous signup bonuses to pay for your awesome trips instead.

In fact, collecting credit card signup bonuses is the number one way travel hackers rack up points and miles.

Let’s take a look at the offers available now. A quick Google search reveals that Chase is offering 80,000 bonus points to new Sapphire Preferred cardholders. Those 80,000 points are worth up to $1,000 and can be redeemed for flights, hotels, gift cards, or cash.

Like to fly Southwest? You can get 40,000 points for signing up for a Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa card. Prefer American Airlines? How does 50,0000 AAdvantage bonus miles sound?  You can earn them today by signing up for a Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.

Every bank has different partnerships and unique bonus incentives, and the offers are constantly changing. Travel hackers regularly scour the internet to find and take advantage of the best deals.

2.  Keep ‘Em Coming – Adding & Rotating Credit Cards

Dim Sum Credit Card American Express RF

Collecting sign-up bonuses is an essential part of any successful travel hacking strategy.  There’s no faster way to earn travel rewards, but there’s a catch.

You’ve probably spotted this by now, but the downside of sign-up bonuses is that they’re one-time offers only for new users.  Experienced travel hackers refuse to be deterred.

Instead, they constantly rotate cards through their wallet, opening several new cards every year based on their travel plans and the best bonus deals, while canceling cards they no longer need.

Contrary to popular opinion, opening new cards and maintaining multiple accounts doesn’t damage your credit score long term, so there’s no danger there.  But to effectively rotate your wallet, you do need to play by a few rules:

Understand bonus eligibility. You can’t just cancel a card and immediately reopen it and collect a new sign-up bonus. Every card is different, but most impose an 18 – 24 month waiting period before you’re eligible to qualify for sign-up bonuses on the same card.

Avoid annual fees. Many cards waive annual fees for the first year.  If you’re just adding a card for the initial bonus, you’ll want to make sure to cancel or downgrade before it’s time for the annual fee.

Space out your signups. Just because you plan to open 10 new cards to earn points for your next grand adventure doesn’t mean you should sign up all at once. Spreading your new card applications throughout the year helps you manage your minimum spend and makes you more likely to get approved.

3.  Know Before You Go – Understanding Hotel & Airline Partnerships

Air NZ plane airport flight RF

Not all points and miles are created equal. Depending on your destination, some points and miles are more valuable than others.

Experienced travel hackers know this and use their knowledge to choose the credit cards that best fit their plans. For example, let’s say you’re planning a trip from the U.S. to New Zealand.

Air New Zealand has a partnership with United Airlines, so a card that lets you earn United reward miles is better for you than one offering Delta reward miles.

Putting in the time to understand hotel, airline, and credit card partnerships helps you refine your travel hacking strategy and target rewards that fit your travel goals.

4.  Maximize Every Dollar — Managing Minimum Spends & Reward Categories

Travel hacking is not about spending more money to earn rewards — it’s about figuring out how to pay for your travels by earning maximum rewards from the money you already spend.

With that said, there are two main things you need to manage: minimum spends and reward bonus categories.

Most signup bonuses are contingent on you spending a certain amount of money within the first few months of opening your account. For example, to claim the 80,000 bonus points on a new Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you have to spend $4,000 in the first three months.

When you’re opening several cards a year, those minimum spends can really add up. Here are a few of the tricks travel hackers use to avoid spending extra money just to meet a minimum spend:

  • Space out your new cards throughout the year
  • Time new card signups to coincide with big purchases such as new computers, annual car insurance payments, or Christmas shopping
  • Use your credit cards to pay your federal taxes and other bills
  • Cover group dinners and ask friends to reimburse you

Rewards Category Bonuses

Online grocery shopping credit card RF

Now that we’ve covered minimum spend, let’s talk about rewards category bonuses. Many cards offer bonus rewards for certain categories. Some cards offer bonus rewards on dining and travel, while others reward spending on gas and groceries or rotate categories throughout the year.

By knowing the bonus categories for every card and using the right card for every purchase, you can earn maximum rewards to use for your adventures.

For example, I have a Citi card that offers 2 points per dollar on all purchases and an American Express that give me 6 points per dollar on groceries, 3 points per dollar on gas, and 1 point per dollar on everything else.

I use the Amex at the grocery store and the gas station and the Citi card everywhere else. I’m nowhere close to being an expert travel hacker, but by taking advantage of category bonuses, I managed to earn almost $2,000 in rewards in 2020.

One more tip: you can earn extra rewards by using hotel and airline online shopping portals to buy clothes, electronics, sports equipment, and more.

5.  Put it All Together – Redeeming Rewards for Point & Miles

Credit card booking travel RF

Once you’ve carefully accumulated the points you need for your next vacation, it’s time to put them all together and book your trip.

Travel hackers have perfected the art of figuring out the best way to combine points and turn them into flights and hotel stays. There are two main ways to redeem your points:

  • Book travel directly through your card’s rewards portal
  • Transfer your points to your preferred airline or hotel loyalty program and book travel based on the program’s current award rates.

Just like everything else in travel hacking, the best redemption strategy for you depends on your plans and requires some research to figure out.

An Easier Way to Travel Hack

Phone airport traveler plane RF

By now you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “Wow.  Travel hacking sounds awesome, but there’s no way I have time to research all the deals and keep up with all those cards.”

I feel you and I have good news – there’s a new app that takes care of all the hard work of travel hacking for you.

The app is called Card Curator and it’s a cheat code to help you win the travel hacking game.  It was built by a guy who has used credit card rewards to visit over 80 countries, including a two-week tour of Japan and Korea. He flies first class and stays in five-star hotels for free.

The best part? He used all his travel hacking expertise to create an algorithm that researches the best credit card deals and makes personalized recommendations based on your travel plans. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Download the App & Set Up Your Profile

Credit card curator

You can download Card Curator from the Apple or Google Play stores. Once you’ve downloaded the app, setting up your profile is quick and easy, with a handy tutorial to guide you through every step.

Step 2: Set Your Travel Goals

Use the app’s My Goals feature to set your travel goals. Enter your destination and details such as your preferred airlines and hotels and the flight class and type of hotel you want.

If you don’t have a specific travel goal right now, you can choose other goals such as maximizing cash rewards to spend however you want.

Step 3: Get Personalized Recommendations

Based on the goals you set, the Card Curator algorithm will give you a personalized list of credit cards to help you earn the rewards you need as quickly as possible.

The best cards for you are based on your travel plans and on the sign-up bonuses available at the time. No research required — the app does all the hard work for you.

Step 4: Start Earning Max Rewards

Card Curator also helps you manage your cards and maximize your rewards. You’ll get push notifications telling you when it’s time to apply for a new card or downgrade an old one to avoid an annual fee.

But that’s not all! The Card Curator app also includes a feature to help you choose the right card for every purchase to make sure you meet your minimum spends and maximize your rewards from category bonuses.

Step 5: Track Your Progress & Cash In Your Rewards

You can see your progress towards your travel goal in the app.  Once you have enough rewards for your trip, the app helps you figure out the best way to transfer your points and book your flights and hotels.

Help Build The Card Curator Community

Full disclosure: Card Curator is a new app and it’s still in the “beta” phase. All the main features are there, but the team is still working out a few bugs. They’re looking for active users to give input on the app and help build the Card Curator community.

The first 1,000 active users get free access to the premium travel features for life, meaning this is a great opportunity for you to up your travel hacking game for free. Plus, you get to help build something awesome.

If you’re interested, you can visit www.cardcurator.com to learn more or head straight to the Apple or Google Play store to download the app.

Megan is an Australian Journalist and award-winning travel writer who has been blogging since 2007. Her husband Mike is the American naturalist and wildlife photographer behind Waking Up Wild; an online magazine dedicated to opening your eyes to the wonders of the wild & natural world.

Having visited 100+ countries across all seven continents, Megan’s travels focus on cultural immersion, authentic discovery and incredible journeys. She has a strong passion for ecotourism, and aims to promote responsible travel experiences.

    

    2 Comments

  1. The tips above are fab Meg and all about legwork. Kelli and I are house sitting in El Valle de Anton now at a spa-worthy, eye-popping house, just like a resort. We are living here rent-free for one month. Easily, we would be paying 300 to 500 USD a night because the house, the meticulously landscaped grounds and the views are exquisite.

    We do oodles of research on sitting and how to land the best ones then hack our way to free lodging by being all over these opportunities, knowing how to bond with homeowners. Then we do a fab job with each sit to increase our 5 star reviews.

    Rocking hacks!

    Ryan

    • Sounds amazing Ryan! Housesitting is an incredible hack for free lodging, I need to become as pro as you and Kelli!

      Thanks for reading & sharing :)

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