Travel Hacking For Beginners

Many people ask me how I obtain certain luxury hotel stays or premium airline products. I simply answer, “Oh with credit card points”. Then the real questions start. A short conversation is impossible to convey all the intricacies of credit card point hacking. I hesitated to write a guide since I don’t consider myself an expert and there are masterclasses on this subject. However, I wanted something I could easily share with friends and coworkers who ask, so I decided to write this travel hacking for beginners guide. This is as basic as I can make it for people just getting started.

What is Travel Hacking?

This is a catch-all phrase that means to utilize credit card bonuses and points to obtain free or upgraded flights and hotel stays. You can accumulate and use loyalty points, and rewards miles to reduce travel costs.

Travel hacking for beginners is daunting. You should keep it simple when you are a beginner. Sometimes just having one card will get you far. You can turn the money you spend on everyday things, like gas, dining, and groceries into rewards. Many people are leaving money on the table by not using the right credit cards.

Some people want these travel rewards so they can reduce the cost of a big family trip with some free flights and hotel stays. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to fly in a swanky airline’s first-class or stay in an upgraded hotel suite without the exorbitant price. The first thing to do when entering the travel hacking world is to decide your goals. This will be important for where you invest your energy and what strategy you use.

View of Ocean from Plane Window

How to Accumulate Points and Miles for Travel

I have divided this post into Accumulating Points and Spending Points. This first part is the easiest of the two but involves having a credit card and spending strategy.

What are the Best Credit Cards to Have for Travel Hacking?

I’m going to start with the most important question. Which credit card to get? Every airline has a credit card as does every big hotel group. However, the best cards to start your travel hacking career with are the ones that have multiple transfer partners such as Chase, American Express, Capital One, or Citi. I’ll do a summary of these below. Remember that most travel points are earned via the introductory signup bonus (SUB) or initial spend bonus. It’s hard to accumulate that many points with regular spending.

Hot Tip: If you are only going to have ONE card for all of your travel hacking, make it either the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the American Express Platinum.

Things to Know About Travel Credit Cards

Before we get into specific cards, these are some general principles you should be familiar with.

Annual Fee

All the best travel credit cards have an annual fee. This ranges from $95 to $695. Sometimes, the fee is waived in the first year. You can try calling after the first year or so and say you want to cancel and they may lower the fee. This is NOT foolproof and won’t work for certain cards.

High-Interest Rates

Travel credit cards have high interest rates so you should pay the bill every month in full if you want to travel hack. Otherwise, the benefits you are earning may not be so great.

No Foreign Transaction Fees

Look for cards that have no foreign transaction fees so you can use it while traveling abroad. Most travel credit cards don’t have these fees.

For more information about using cards while traveling, read Accessing and Spending Money Abroad

Big Introductory Point Bonus

The ideal card would have a big juicy welcome bonus. This is the introductory offer to get X amount of points after spending X amount of dollars in X amount of months.

Category Spend Bonuses

Most cards will give you 1 point per 1$ spent. The best cards have special category bonuses such as 3 to 5X points per $1 on travel-related purchases or 2-3X on certain categories like gas or groceries.

Good Credit Card Hygiene

Check Your Credit Score

No travel hacking for beginners is a good idea until you have good to excellent credit.

Don’t Buy Things You Don’t Need

I cannot stress this enough. You also need a strategy before you go opening cards willy-nilly. You see that some of these require a hefty initial spend and you should not be buying things you don’t need, just to buy them. This defeats the purpose of travel hacking.

Hot Tip: Plan to open one card at a time when you have big purchases you know you need to make.

I have put off making deposits on trips until my new credit card arrived or I’ve waited to buy that new camera until the card arrived for this reason. Not everyone can simply go out and buy thousands of dollars of things they need every 3 months. You don’t want travel hacking to destroy your credit or your finances. There are many hacks out there to spend the money necessary for that initial bonus or to get more points. You can offer to pay for group meals on your card and have your friends Venmo you. I have asked family members if they had big purchases coming up that I could put on my card. You can put your mortgage on your card for a small fee via some 3rd parties. This is not generally a great idea but if you are desperate over the short term you can look into this. Here is an article about paying your mortgage with a credit card.

Certain cards have 3-5X points for grocery purchases. Many people will buy gift cards at the grocery store and get their points growth that way. Keep in mind that you have to read the fine print on your card’s bonus categories as to what counts as groceries. Generally, anything purchased in a grocery store counts whereas this usually does not include convenience stores, superstores, discount stores, warehouse clubs or meal-kit delivery services. It also doesn’t typically include drugstores that also sell food.

Avoid incurring late fees and interest fees

Pay your bill in full every month to avoid late fees or interest fees.

Hot Tip: Set up auto-pay from the start so you never forget or miss a payment. If you’re like me and traveling and don’t like to constantly check email, you may miss a payment reminder. When you have over 10 credit cards to manage, this is easy to do. Auto-pay is your friend.

Will it hurt my credit score?

No. Unless you make some of the mistakes I mentioned above. Late payments hurt credit. Opening tons of cards in a short time frame can give you a slight hit but if this is your only strike and you started with excellent credit, your score will stay in a high range. The ratio of your credit limit to your card balances can hurt your credit. Closing cards is more damaging than opening them but that doesn’t mean you can never close a card. Just never close a card unless you’ve had it for at least a year.

Having a flurry of credit card activity in a short time frame may dip your credit score, however, if you space things out properly, it shouldn’t make a significant dent. Anytime there is a credit inquiry, there is a slight dip. I have had dozens of cards, applied for them, and canceled regularly and my credit has stayed excellent.

Here is some more detail to read about how canceling credit cards affects your credit.

I suggest getting one card to start and put EVERYTHING on it to maximize the points. Once you feel like you have some big purchases to make and can make another initial spend bonus, you can add to your collection. You will have to start keeping track of which cards have category spend bonuses such as which gets the most from gas or from booking a flight etc. I currently use a spreadsheet but there are apps available

You can speed up those point earnings by getting 3X or 10X the points per dollar.

Most Popular General Travel Credit Cards

General travel credit cards that are not co-branded with a particular airline or hotel are considered better since you don’t need any brand loyalty to use and these are the most flexible points you can earn. Just remember that your points with these are tied to the bank that owns the credit card and if you cancel the card, you lose the points.

American Express Platinum

  • Annual Fee: $695
  • Introductory offer: 80,000 points after $8,000 spent on purchases in 6 months
  • 5X rewards per dollar on flights and prepaid hotels on their travel portal. You can also book directly with the airline using your Amex card for these points.
  • Airline Lounge Access: Centurion Lounge, Delta Sky Club (if you are flying Delta), and Priority Pass Select
  • $189 towards a Clear membership yearly. Clear is a program similar to TSA precheck but better and faster because fewer people have it and you don’t need to show your ID to the TSA agent at security. You have a separate line and get priority over the precheck line.
  • $200 in annual credit for airline incidental fees. You choose one qualifying airline (they are only domestic carriers) to receive this credit. You have to enroll on the Amex site and then you can charge incidental fees like checked luggage, in-flight food and beverage or seat upgrades and even lounge passes for that airline to the card.
  • $200 toward Uber and Uber Eats yearly (this is a monthly credit of $15). You also are automatically enrolled in Uber VIP status which connects you to top-rated drivers. You get a bonus of up to $35 in December.
  • $200 in Annual Hotel Credit: If you book travel at The Hotel Collection (2 night minimum) or the Fine Hotels + Resorts properties) via Amex Travel you will get $200 back per year. Many times you also get VIP services such as free breakfast, free upgrades, a free spa treatment, late checkout, etc.
  • $240 Digitial Entertainment credit. This is $20 monthly for digital entertainment. Includes Audible, Peacock, SiriusXM, NYT, WSM, Disney Plus among others. You must enroll first.
  • $100 annually at Saks Fifth Avenue. This is divided in $50 from January to June and $50 from July to December.
  • You will be automatically Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status and Hilton Honors Gold Status

Remember, to get perks with any card, you have to USE that card for the purchases. You won’t get the Uber credit if your Uber account is not associated with the card. That may sound like a no-brainer but people do forget! If you add all these up, you are getting way more than the cost of the card.

American Express Gold

A less expensive alternative to the Platinum.

  • Annual Fee $295
  • One of the best for grocery spending
  • Earn 4X points at restaurants; 4X points on up to $25,000 a year in spending at U.S. supermarkets; 3X on airfare booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com; and 1X on all other spending. There are dining credits and a nice welcome offer, and your points are transferable to airlines and hotels. 

Chase Sapphire Reserve or Sapphire Preferred

The other hard hitter in the travel hacking world is the Chase Sapphire. Like Amex, these cards have multiple airline transfer partners plus hotel partners like Hyatt and Marriott.

Both of these currently have the same signup bonus. You will get 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. Both allow you to transfer your points to any of Chase’s 14 travel partners. Some of the most valuable partners include Air France-KLM Flying Blue, Air Canada Aeroplan, and World of Hyatt.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

This is their premium card with a higher annual fee and greater rewards but may not necessarily be the best one for you.

  • Annual Fee: $550
  • 10 points per dollar on hotels, car rentals and Chase Dining purchased through the Ultimate Rewards portal
  • 10 points per dollar on Lyft through March 2025
  • 5 points per dollar on flights purchased through the Ultimate Rewards portal
  • 3 points per dollar on dining and all other travel
  • 1 point per dollar on everything else
  • $300 annual travel credit
  • Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or Nexus fee credit (up to $100) every four years]
  • DoorDash DashPass subscription (activate by Dec. 31, 2024) and $5 in DoorDash credits each month
  • One-year complimentary Instacart+ membership (activate by July 31, 2024) and up to $15 in Instacart statement credits per month (through July 2024)
  • Access to Chase Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection
  • Priority Pass and Sapphire Lounges
Chase Sapphire Preferred
  • Annual Fee: $95
  • 5 points per dollar on travel purchased through the Ultimate Rewards portal
  • 5 points per dollar on Lyft through March 2025
  • 5 points per dollar on Peloton equipment and accessory purchases over $150 or more with a maximum earn of 25,000 total points through March 2025
  • 3 points per dollar on dining at restaurants worldwide, online grocery purchases, and select streaming services
  • 2 points per dollar on all other travel
  • 1 point per dollar on everything else
  • $50 annual ultimate rewards hotel credit
  • DoorDash DashPass subscription (activate by Dec. 31, 2024)
  • Six-month complimentary Instacart+ membership (activate by July 31, 2024) and up to $15 in Instacart statement credits each quarter (through July 2024)
  • No lounge benefit
5/24 Rule

With all Chase cards, you have to be cognizant of the 5/24 Rule. This means that if you have opened 5 credit cards in the past 24 months, you will likely get denied. This is why if you are planning to get several credit cards in the future, get the Chase ones first. This doesn’t always apply to business cards, FYI and the rules regarding this are not always crystal clear.

If you get the SUB from one of them you will have to wait 24-48 months before you can get the bonus from the other one. If you for some reason have one and want the other one instead, the best strategy is to first downgrade to a no-annual-fee Chase card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. You can request this by calling the number on the back of your card. Then, you can apply for the other one and earn the welcome bonus.

Some points experts advocate waiting for the higher SUBs that Chase often has. Sometimes it can be 80k and sometimes even 100k. Other experts say you shouldn’t wait because that’s time wasted you could have been earning the 60k points and counting down the 24 months or so until you can get the next bonus.

Citi Premier Card

This would not be the first choice but if you already have the 1st two and looking for some points, the Citi Premier is a good option. I opened it when they had a 90k bonus.

  • Annual fee: $95
  • Initial Spend Bonus 60,000 bonus points after spending $4000 in the first 3 months. You can only get this once every 48 months.
  • 3X restaurants 3X gas stations 3x supermarkets 3x air travel 3x hotels and 10x hotels and car rentals when booked through citi portal
  • Partners include Air France, KLM, Emirates, Etihad, Qantas, Qatar, Singapore, Virgin Atlantic and Turkish

Capital One

Venture X is the premium card and one that gets you into the shiny new Capital One Airport lounges that look incredible. Here is the summary of the various cards.

Summary of Capital One Credit Cards

Capital One has a 1:1 transfer ratio for the following loyalty programs:

  • Aeromexico Club Premier
  • Air Canada – Aeroplan®
  • Cathay Pacific – Asia Miles
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Choice Privileges®2
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Guest
  • Finnair Plus
  • Flying Blue
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • TAP Miles&Go
  • Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles
  • Virgin Red
  • Wyndham Rewards

Just by owning some credit cards, you have already leveled up your travel experience by having lounge access and elite hotel status. These little perks make a huge difference when you travel. I am spoiled and have a low-key meltdown when I can’t be in a lounge. It’s hard to justify having the premium of all the various card categories but many frequent travelers do have them all and are diligent about getting all the benefits from them to offset the annual fees.

Inside of a Business Class Flight

Airline Credit Cards

Once you have gotten the hang of those other cards you may consider one of these depending on how you travel and what you think will work best for you.

United

I happen to fly United the most domestically and United has the most European partners so I opened a United Business card. It had a high SUB of 100k at the time. Nothing lures me in like a huge SUB. I keep that card open because I get certain perks like 2 free checked bags, free upgrade to premium economy, etc. I don’t have many other airline cards. Here is a summary of the various cards they offer. As you can see there is a range in annual fees and benefits. You can learn more about United credit cards here. When you are on the flight, sometimes they will have a great credit card offer that you won’t find elsewhere. Take the brochures they offer.

Summary of United Credit Cards

American Airlines

If American is the airline you fly the most, it may make sense to get one of their co-branded cards. American is one of the harder airlines to get points on because they don’t have many transfer partners. Chase and Amex don’t transfer to them. It’s sad because some of the BEST international first-class flights I have booked have been via American Airlines. They are partners with Qatar, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, to name a few so great for Asia travel but not as much for Europe. The only card that transfers to them is Bilt, which many people love because it will allow rent payments.

Summary of Citi Advantage Credit Cards

Another American Airlines card out there is the Aviator Card with Barclay Bank. It is a good one because the initial bonus of 60k Advantage points is easy to get. You just need to make one purchase!

Advantage Aviator Card

As always you have to balance the yearly fee which is around $100 for most basic airline credit cards with the benefits you are getting from it.

Delta

I seldom fly Delta based on the airports where I live, so this is the program I know the least about but many people like it and they do have some good international partners. I don’t think their program is as lucrative or has as many options as the previous two but if this is the airline you fly the most, it’s worth looking into the cards they offer. You can compare the various cards. Right now it seems they have higher than normal offers.

Summary of Delta credit cards

Hotel Credit Cards

I have shared graphics from the respective websites for you to have in one handy place but I suggest choosing one based on where you think you will stay the most OR if you have a certain dream luxury hotel goal somewhere in the world that is one of the respective chains. Opening a card is a great way to kick start the points bank and get a reduced or free luxury stay someplace exciting.

Hotel Credit Cards are nice because many of them give you a free night and elite status. With elite status comes perks like club access, free welcome gifts, free upgrades, etc. Using the hotel’s credit card AT one of the hotels lets you get closer to elite status and earn credit card points at a higher rate.

Marriott Bonvoy

Marriott has the largest worldwide footprint of any of the hotel groups which makes it a good one to choose. It may not offer as much in terms of luxury as the others, depending on who you ask.

One unique and wonderful thing about Marriott is that it has the only hotel points that can be converted to airline points. They transfer at a rate of 3:1 so this isn’t the best use of points however in a pinch, they come in handy. For me, these points are easier to get than airline points so I have transferred them to certain airlines that have zero other transfer partners like Korean Air for example. You will get a bonus of 5000 airline points for every 20,000 you transfer. Therefore 60,000 Marriott points = 25,000 airline points.

Marriott credit cards are co-branded with both Chase and American Express. Remember that when you earn points on this card, they are not Chase or Amex points, but Marriott points. This is the same for all the hotel cards. I have seen others be confused by this.

Summary of Marriott Credit Cards
Marriott Elite Status Chart


Hilton Honors

Hilton credit cards are co-branded with American Express. It is sort of a mystery how they decide this but if you recently got a huge Amex point bonus on a different card, they may not give you another bonus (even though it would be Hilton points, not Amex points). I had tried several times to get a straight answer from American Express why I was getting denied the signup Hilton point bonus back in 2021 and finally in 2022 they allowed me to get it.

Hilton benefits

Note: You can transfer your Amex points to Hilton at a 1:2 ratio but many experts don’t consider this a good transfer because Amex points are more valuable than Hilton and are truly worth more than that ratio. Upgraded points values Amex points at 2.2 cents apiece and Hilton points at 0.5 cents apiece. These are not interchangeable. However, sometimes Amex will offer a bonus of 30% to transfer points. If you are short a few thousand Hilton points that you need to top off an award reservation, this can help.

Another option if there is a Hilton room you have your eye on but don’t have the Hilton points is to simply book it through the Amex travel portal. You will get many perks for booking with Amex that are very similar to the perks of having Hilton status such as free breakfast, a free night, etc. Remember I said there are many ways to play this game.

Hyatt

Hyatt at this time only has two options. They are with Chase Bank.

Summary of Hyatt Credit Cards
Hyatt Credit Card Benefits

I only mentioned the 3 big ones, Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt because these have the biggest footprint and all of their cards can be useful. You may want to take a gander at which hotels are part of each group and where they are. Perhaps there are more Hilton brand hotels in the places you like to travel or want to visit. Or maybe you have a luxury dream trip you want to do someday. It’s good to have a goal to work towards. Or you could be like me and just keep trying to accumulate a nice point bank in many places to have for some unspecified date in the future when I may want them.

Notice that each brand has several options for cards, each with differing annual fees and perks. I have one of each because the yearly fee pays for itself since I utilize the free nights and other perks.

Once you have an Amex, a Chase, an airline card, and a hotel card, you are now looking at $1000 or more yearly spend on annual fees. So you need to always assess and make sure these cards are giving your money’s worth.

IHG

The IHG or Intercontinental Hotel Group is another one to consider but not going to go into much detail. Just know that they offer a personal and business credit card with some great perks and an excellent SUB. This hotel group includes Holiday Inn, Crown Plaza, Kimpton plus many others so fairly easy to find them and rack up points without spending a fortune but then you can redeem points at some seriously luxurious hotels in this group.

Business Credit Cards

I didn’t want to make this post too long but briefly, I will say that if you own a business of any kind, even a small side hustle, you could be eligible for a business credit card. You don’t need an EIN. Business cards don’t all count towards your 5/24 limit. Also, many of these cards offer great SUBs with low annual fees. The con is that you typically have to do a very high initial spend to get the SUB.

Chase Ink has several great business cards to look into. Two of them have ZERO annual fee. Unfortunately, last month they just ended a fantastic high sign-up bonus of 90k points.

Photo of yellow suitcase by the ocean

How to Book Travel with Points

This is much more complex than earning the points. Earning them is the easy part. Booking them is a different game. I think airline booking is more complex than hotel booking so I will concentrate on that.

Hot Tip: For hotel booking, know that you can find luxury hotels through the various bank card (Chase /Amex/Citi) portals and sometimes get some great perks and deals.

Enroll in the Airline Awards Programs

Make sure before you attempt any airline or hotel point travel that you have an account with that brand. This is easy to do on their website and takes just a few minutes and is free. You should have an account number before you apply for a hotel or airline credit card so they will be associated. Every time you book a hotel or fly with that airline OR its partners, make sure your account number is on your reservation so you get credit. I have accounts for airlines I’ve never flown because I’m always searching for deals.

Learn the Various Airline Partnerships

There are major airline partnerships that are good to have a general idea about. Let’s say you have loyalty to one of the US carriers but you are flying international carriers. You can get points from that on YOUR favorite airline. Keep in mind you can choose which airline account to link to any flight but you can’t get more than one.

Hot Tip: Make sure you find out which US carrier your international carrier is partnered with and make sure your account number is attached so you get the points. You can fly Lufthansa and get United points. You can fly British Airways and get American Airlines points. It is wise to keep all your points in the place you are most likely to use them.

Star Alliance

The Star Alliance has 26 airlines including United, Turkish, Lufthansa, Brussels, Austrian, Air Canada, Aegean, Swiss, TAP, Thai, Copa, Avianca, ANA and Singapore. So if you have points on one of these, you can typically get an award seat on the partner airline. Note you cannot simply transfer points in between. It doesn’t work that way.

One World Alliance

The One World Alliance has American Airlines, Alaska, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, Japan Airlines, Iberia, Qatar, Qantas, Air Tahiti, and Fiji Air among others.

Sky Team Alliance

The SkyTeam Alliance has Delta, Air France, KLM, Korean Air, Vietnam Airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas, and more.

Sometimes you will find a redemption for a United Polaris flight on a partner’s website like Canada Aeroplan or Avianca LifeMiles. A flight that that is 150k points on the United Website may be only 75K on another site. This is where knowledge and research are your friends. I recently booked a business class flight on Air Tahiti for 60,000 points on the Alaska Website and the same flight was 80,000 on American’s website. I go into more of this below.

Booking Economy vs Premium Cabins

Typically booking economy seats on flights is much easier than the premium classes because there will be more award availability. Airlines want cash for those premium cabins so they only release a limited number of award seats, especially to their partners. Same with hotels. You will find more points availability in the lower-tier hotels in the various groups but getting an over-water bungalow at the Ritz Carlton in the Maldives will be harder.

Everyone will have different goals with both airlines and hotels whether it be to reduce your overall costs for a large family or to indulge in a special luxury experience. One-way in first class on some of these luxury airlines can cost around $10,000 but if you get it with points that you earned for spending just $3000 on things you were going to buy anyway, it seems like a bargain. However, for the same amount of points, you may be able to get 4 economy seats.

Where to Start When Looking for a Flight Award

After you’ve been doing this awhile, you just sort of know which airlines fly to certain parts of the world and you know which airlines have great premium products so this helps when you search. But if you are just starting, a good place to begin is by going to Google Flights and searching the route you want. Another resource is FlightsFrom.com. You can find what routes are direct from your airport of choice.

Once you see which route makes sense for you, you will know which airline to look for points for. If it’s not an airline you have points with, you then look to see if your credit card points with the general travel cards like Chase or Amex will transfer to that airline. If you have no points anywhere that will work, you can research how to get those points by opening a new card, provided you have enough time for this process. As I mentioned earlier, transferring Marriott points may be a last-ditch option.

That was a very basic summary of the procedure. Once you go to the airline that you want to book with, you have to make sure you search “award travel” or “book with miles” to see what awards are available. Some airlines’ websites are intuitive and easy but some are seriously a hot mess. You can always call the airline to see what award flights are available. At times the agent can find something I couldn’t on the website. Sometimes nothing may show up on the date you want but if you look at other dates and if you can be flexible, you may find a great award seat.

Hot Tip: Never transfer points to an airline unless you know for sure you are going to use them. You cannot transfer them back to your credit card once they are deposited at the airline.

Practical Example

Since the process of finding an award seat is not always straightforward, I think it is best explained with an example of a flight I actually just booked this week. Iwant to fly from Washington DC to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I literally had no idea which flights go there or what cities they go through (I knew it wouldn’t be direct). So, a quick Google Flights search showed me this. (Of course, I’m looking at business for this long route) Note, I typically search one-way flights when trying to book awards simply because I have found it to be easier and less complicated.

I was interested in the Turkish Airlines flight because I heard they have a very nice business class and a lot of award availability. I certainly don’t want to pay over $5000 for a one-way flight! So my next step was to go to the Chase travel portal to see if I could get a good award seat through there. You just go to your credit card account page and click on rewards then you get to this page. I then clicked on “Book Flights”.

My initial search of IAD to UBN showed no results so then I just searched IAD to IST.

This a TERRIBLE deal. SO MANY POINTS plus $2000. No, thank you. And it doesn’t get me to the final destination. This is why you generally don’t book points through the portal. Just for shits and giggles, I tried the Citi Bank portal since I also have points there. Spoiler Alert, also a terrible deal.

Ok next step is to go straight to Turkish Airlines. I quickly signed up for a Miles and Smiles Account and began searching for business award seats. Some airlines won’t even let you search for award seats without an account. For this particular search, I couldn’t find all the way to UBN so I looked at round trip for IAD to IST. There was decent availability. Business class round trip would be 210,000 points plus $588 in cash. Best deal I’ve seen so far. Many airlines now have a cash fee you have to pay for airline fuel surcharges or taxes or some BS I don’t fully understand. I am going to look around more for a better deal. But I know this possibility exists and I would just have to transfer points here. But I’m still not seeing the flights I want all the way to Mongolia.

I happen to know that both United Airlines and Canada Aeroplan are partners with Turkish Air so I want to look at their sites as well. I went to Canada Aeroplan first because they are well known for having good awards with low redemptions. Well, I finally hit the jackpot. I found a flight all the way to Ulaanbaatar with minimal fees and it was a way lower redemption than anywhere else.

(FYI I checked United and they had a similar one. I got lucky twice which is rare!). I then went to my Chase account to transfer points to Aeroplan. You go back to that same Chase portal but this time you hit “transfer points to partner”.

Then you choose the airline partner, enter your Airline number, and decide how many points you want to transfer. Right after I clicked the transfer I went back to Aeroplan, refreshed the screen, and my points were there. Easy.

Next, I booked my flight. They give you a nice variety of cash + points options. The fees were fairly low, only $63. FYI United had the same flight for 500 more points and only around $20 in fees, so that would have been the best deal but for some reason, the flight wasn’t showing up for me until it was too late.

Ok so after at least an hour of searching, I got a great award seat. As you can see, this can take time and it’s not as simple as people make it out to be, especially when you are new. That’s why there are services you can pay for that do this legwork for you. Your best plan of action when you are new is to see what flights are going to your destination, and then google how to fly them with points.

Let’s say you want to experience Qatar QSuites, one of the best airline products in the sky, but don’t know how. Just google how to book it with points and multiple experts have written about it like this article about finding QSuites step by step. And there are similar articles for just about every airline out there.

Hot Tip: To snag award travel in premium cabins, look at one-way flights, be flexible with the dates and use the award calendar

Booking Through the Credit Card Portal vs Transferring the Points

Typically it is best to transfer points but not always. You should always compare the deal you are seeing in the Chase or Amex portal vs what is on the airline website. You don’t ever want to waste your points. Again, you must have an airline account number before doing this. Also, don’t transfer unless you know for sure you have a flight that you want because you can’t transfer them back. Sometimes there are “deals”. For example, American Express had a deal that you could transfer points to KLM or Air France with a 25% discount. This is phenomenal because you will get 25% more airline points for the same amount of Amex points. With Chase and Amex, the transfer time is usually immediate so you don’t have to wait and risk losing the flight you want. Remember that the flight award you find won’t hang around forever. Snatch it up!

My Travel Hacking Strategy

As I mentioned earlier, I routinely open a new card once I have completed my initial spend on another card. Of course, I try to be reasonable and only open them when I have big purchases to make. I always keep a Chase, Citi, and Amex for those easily transferrable points. Also, I am constantly looking ahead at trips I think I’d like to do and strategize about which points I need to obtain that trip.

Once you spend the required amount, you will have to wait until the next billing cycle for the points to post. So you may not get the points exactly when you want them. I have been honestly sweating checking the airline psychotically waiting for points to be deposited. There have been tears. Sometimes this is a long game and I don’t recommend you try to do it last minute.

Example 1: I had always wanted to fly Emirates First Class so I researched how to do it, and what kind of points I would need. I opened the right card, obtained the points, and then booked the flight. This process was started almost a year before the flight.

Example 2: I had always wanted to stay in the Conrad Bora Bora Nui which is a Hilton Hotel. I opened one of the Hilton cards and began staying in Hilton group hotels every chance I could to specifically gain those points. This process started over two years ago.

Also when booking certain luxury airline products, the seats you want will be gobbled up quickly for any given date so I start as early as possible. I only got my 1st class seat on Japan Airlines by stalking the American Airlines website daily starting a year before my flight. The day they released an award seat on the date I wanted, I grabbed it. They may only release 1 to a partner such as American. This doesn’t mean you can’t snag a great award seat any other time, it is just harder. Some people have last-minute luck. I sadly have not but then again I rarely leave trip planning until the last minute. This works for people who have time off and choose where they go on what type of free flight or hotel they can get.

Woman in Emirates First Class Cabin

Booking Award Travel Is Frustrating

I’m saying this because so many influencers make it seem easy. This is a lie. If you get frustrated, just know you are not alone.

There isn’t only one way to book things, which is why it can be complicated. There is no way for me to explain it all in one post which is why I just wanted to give you basic guidelines. I am STILL researching these things all the time. I follow people on social media who post about how they booked certain flights but the way they do it doesn’t always work because the airlines are constantly changing the rules. Very annoying.

If you need extra help, please see the resources I have linked below.

Travel Hacking Resources

This hobby takes time and energy. Loyalty programs are constantly evolving. There are services out there that can search for awards for you but the best ones are going to charge.

Finding Award Flights

Straight To The Points.com They constantly search for premium award availability and flight deals to popular international destinations. They can consistently “alert” you of premium cabin flight availability and/or fare sales multiple times weekly. Once they have found a deal, they email you the pertinent information in an Award Alert Newsletter! The yearly premium service is $99/year and may be helpful for people who find themselves spending hours on this and not having luck. Otherwise, you can try their free service.

There is a website and app called seats.aero that many people use. Forbes has a good article about it. In their own words: “Finding the route you want to fly on the dates that work for you can quickly morph into your worst nightmare. You won’t be surprised to find out you’re not the first person to wonder if there’s a better and easier way to find award space availability. The good news is there are better ways, and one of them is Seats.aero.” However, this is not for total newbs because you need to have some idea of flight codes and airport codes and the interface is not the easiest to deal with.

Award Hacker is another free website where you can search a route (not specific dates) and see which airlines fly it and what type of points that airline takes. This one isn’t always helpful either.

A better version of Award Hacker is Roame

In their own words, “Roame is Google flights using credit card points and miles. Using Roame, you can search across 16 airline loyalty programs in one single swoop, enabling you to see the award availability for over 200 airlines. This functionality transforms what is traditionally a time-consuming and often frustrating endeavor into a more efficient and user-friendly experience. Whether you are well-versed in utilizing your credit card rewards or find yourself overwhelmed by the complexity of points and miles, Roame was designed to simplify credit card rewards and to help you maximize the value of your points and miles.”

Just remember, there is a reason people do masterclasses on this topic and charge for award-finding services.

Blogs and Classes

10X Travel Insiders Facebook group and free class. I find this group helpful and the free class is wonderful. However until you take the class and learn the terminology, you may not understand most of what people are posting about. They also offer a service where an expert will look for awards seats for you.

World Travel Adventurers These guys are fantastic people who truly want to help you. I suggest taking their course if you want to get serious. Follow their social media accounts for great tips for family travel.

These others also have websites and fun social media accounts sharing great travel hacking tips!!

Upgraded Points

Adventure Parks

Frequent Miler

Summary of Travel Hacking for Beginners

Once you have decided on your travel hacking goals, you can figure out the best cards to get started. To obtain points to spend on anything, you will want Chase, American Express, Capitol One, or CIti. If you always stay in a certain hotel chain, get their card. If you typically fly one airline, get that card. Travel Hacking can be simply having 1 or 2 cards. Many people don’t need more than that. You don’t have to make it complicated but you can eventually build on this if you want. I hope this was helpful!! I know it’s A LOT!

Tell me in the comments what questions you have!

About The Author

Cherene Saradar

Cherene is a travel expert with 30 years of experience in over 100 countries and 7 continents. She has traveled solo to over 50 countries. She is also a nurse anesthesiologist with over 20 years of healthcare experience. Her passions include wildlife travel and visiting wine regions of the world.

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