Travel hacking is a virtually no-brainer for consumers with higher income and strong credit. Travel hacking has obvious benefits. What are the limited downside considerations? Time and learning. Credit score is only slightly impacted and can expect to maintain your score 800+ with proper credit oversight.
In my opinion travel hacking includes the following buckets: Churning credit cards, manufactured spending, booking award travel efficiently and travel hacking without a credit card. Let’s break down these buckets in greater detail to help you plan your first travel hacking experience.
1) Churning Credit Cards
What is churning credit cards? Credit card churning is the act of repeatedly opening credit cards solely for the welcome bonus. The welcome bonus is usually the crux of receiving a large lump sum of airline miles or rewards points. For example, I recently opened the Chase Ink Preferred Card for the 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points after hitting the minimum spend. This is worth nearly $1,250 of travel rewards. I think I could find a destination for that.
2) Manufactured Spending
Manufactured spending is a loophole for generating more points using ‘artificial spending’ to turn credit card spending into cash. This cash, in turn, is used to pay off your credit card leading to $0 in net spend. You do manufactured spending for two primary reasons:
1) Meet the minimum spending requirements to meet the signup bonus without buying extra items.
2) Generate significant rewards points without actually buying anything.
How do you do manufactured spending? There are plenty of ways to do it and it is ever-changing, so stay nimble. However, there are some commonly known ways to participate in manufactured spending:
1) Funding bank accounts is the easiest manufactured spending method out available. It is fast and safe. You can only do this so often so choose your spots wisely. Doctor of Credit has a pretty comprehensive list of bank accounts (https://www.doctorofcredit.com/does-funding-a-bank-account-with-a-credit-card-count-as-a-purchase-or-cash-advance/) that can be funded with a credit card, including the limits and which credit cards have been reported to treat these as a cash advance.
2) Using your rewards card for all of your purchases and bills is another way to increase your spending on the card. With services like Plastiq, you can even pay your mortgage, rent and other major expenses with a credit card. The payment times lag, so you need to plan accordingly.
3) Purchase virtual gift cards and convert them into money orders.
This popular manufactured spending method of buying Visa, Mastercard or Amex gift cards has two steps: find a place to buy a gift card, then find a way to liquidate it. While most gift cards have activation fees, these can be offset by buying them at a store that qualifies for a category bonus on your credit card (e.g. such as a location offering the Chase Freedom 5% cash back categories). One-time promotions can make the deal even better. Often times, around Christmas, Simon Mall offers discounts on gift cards. Even if your credit card does not have any category bonus, some places sell gift cards with low activation fees that should easily be offset by whatever rewards you’ll get from the transaction. Simon malls are a popular example as most of them sell $500 Visa gift cards with a $3.95 activation fee. That equates to less than 1%, so if you are getting 3x points or even 2% cash back you are instantly coming out ahead.
Here are a few popular ways to liquidate gift cards with a PIN:
Buy money orders. Some grocery stores will allow you to buy a money order using a debit card (in your case, a Visa gift card) for a nominal fee, which you can then deposit in your bank account. Not all grocery stores will allow this and you need to do research or find data points reflecting what grocery stores will work. Not all grocery stores will allow this and you’ll need to do some online research then field testing to find one that will work. Please not that some banks do not like frequent money order deposits. Do not deposit money orders in to your personal bank account; set up a separate account.
Load your gift cards onto reloadable prepaid cards such as Amex Serve (https://www.serve.com/). If you receive a money order or check from manufactured spending, you can cash the check instantly.
3) Booking Award Travel Efficiently
An underrated component of travel hacking is booking your award travel efficiently. Travel hacking is solely a numbers game. Once you have amassed a large fortune of awards points, you need to deploy them in an efficient manner similar to how you would with spending or investing.
Some important definitions to consider include the following:
1) Cents per point – To calculate, you take the cost of the flight or hotel stay divided by the points redemption. For example, if you could pay $2,000 for a flight or redeem for 60,000 miles, your cents per point would equate to 3.33x. That is a very good redemption. Try to target anything above 1.5x. These are great ways to book award travel.
2) Transferability – The crown jewel rewards programs are typically the programs that offer the most flexibility with the rewards points. Rewards programs such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards offer maximum transferability. These programs have partnerships with virtually every airline imaginable, so you can transfer your point dollar for dollar to other airline programs for maximum redemption value. Additionally, they even offer flexible options to redeem for gift cards at your favorite stores. I would advise against this, however, since the redemption value is lower than travel. Organization is key here. Track all of your rewards programs in a simple document.
4) Travel Hacking Without a Credit Card
There is always a consideration to be made with travel hacking beyond credit cards. Far too many people believe that travel hacking only means opening a significant amount of credit cards. There is so much more that you can do other than solely just credit card reward bonuses.
Things that help with travel hacking without credit cards include:
1) Be cognizant of where you stay relative to the location – Staying in an American branded hotel in a foreign country (even it if it considered a 3-star hotel in America) may be viewed as a luxury hotel in a different country.
2) Find those hidden deal – Oftentimes, traveling via train/bus in foreign countries have opportunities for amazing deals. Hidden deals are hidden for a reason, so you must do your own research in certain cities. 3) Make sure you are earning rewards for anything that you do while traveling (especially work travel).
3) Oh, keep an eye out for bonuses too – Oftentimes these rewards programs offer bonuses like a free night for staying 2 nights over the course of a few months. Try creating a dummy email account where you can scrap the benefits for these various bonus options and avoid a bunch of promotional emails. However, if you can get on all these email lists, you will likely get targeted for special promotions.
In order to travel hack without a credit card, you need to travel and act like a pro. Are you going to be staying in a big city that you will spend most of your time outside exploring all of the landmarks? Well, why should you spend all your money on a luxurious hotel? There is a learning curve. This may be stressful for a rookie, so taking things very slowly will help you understand how the game works, and lets you get your feet wet. Also, it’s very important to always have a backup plan. Opening a number of different travel rewards programs takes some time and monitoring. It’s not easy. However, there are limited downside risks to travel hacking. It just takes some time and organization. I don’t know about you, but generating free money and rewards is highly attractive to me.