The Anatomy of a Travel Hack

Joshua Chiu, the Common Sense Money & Travel Guy,  is an accomplished travel hacker and blogger who has traveled the world for pennies on the dollar thanks to clever use of credit card signup bonuses, special promotions, and good old fashioned ingenuity.  Joshua offered to share his travel hacking experience and to teach our readership more about the fundamentals of travel hacking.  If you’d like to learn more directly from Joshua, he offers consultation services for beginning and aspiring travel hackers.  Thanks again to Joshua for sharing his knowledge with us!

The Anatomy of a Travel Hack

Travel hacking is very similar to hacking your financial independence — you need to know your time frame (retirement date vs. when you want to travel), what your balances are (401k/IRA/investments vs. miles/hotel/rewards points), and your plan of attack to achieve your goal (early retirement vs. taking your entire family to Hawaii next summer for free)!

These days, when it comes to travel and finding the best deals for a trip, there are so many things vying for our attention. These range from advertisements from big search engine companies such as Expedia.com (yes, you know that jingle went off in your head, don’t deny it) and Priceline (William Shatner really struck it big here) to Internet pop-up ads to banks throwing credit card offers at us through our email inboxes. It is very easy to become inundated and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information out there. What I want to do is walk you through the simple steps I use to help my clients achieve their travel goals!

The Destination

“Where do I want to go?” As someone who may not be familiar with travel hacking, but wants to travel for free or on the cheap, this is by far the most important question to ask yourself. Friends and family often ask me, “Is this credit card offer a good deal?” This is a very hard question for me to answer, as I have no idea where they want to go, and thus have no idea if the credit card offer in question would be beneficial towards their intended destination! So before you overwhelm yourself with the nitty-gritty details of various credit card offers and ongoing travel deals, decide where you want to go first!

The Cheapest Way To Get There

Great! Now that you know where you want to go, the next step is to find the cheapest way to get there! Since we already mentioned it above, let’s use Hawaii as our example. You could simply do a Google search of “best award redemption to Hawaii”, and what you would find is that there are some very good options for flying economy (business or first would obviously cost more):

1) Redeeming with British Airways Avios (only if you’re flying from West Coast cities), would cost you 25,000 miles + $11.20 in taxes and fees to fly on either American or Alaskan Airlines.

2) Redeeming with Korean Air would cost you 25,000 miles + $11.20 in taxes and fees to fly on Delta or 30,000 miles to fly on Alaskan or Hawaiian Airlines.

3) Redeeming with United Airlines would cost you 45,000 miles + $11.20 in taxes and fees.

4) American Airline miles would cost you 35,000 miles + $11.20 in taxes and fees.

Keep in mind all of these are at the Saver Award Level (the minimum redemption cost for an Economy ticket, which may include more stopovers or off-hours departures), so the miles needed only go up from here! Depending on where you are located in the U.S., you now have at your disposal several ways of getting to Hawaii on the cheap!

Accruing Miles/Points

Now some of you may already have some miles accrued with the 4 airlines mentioned above. Those are more than likely what we call “butt-in-seat” miles— miles accrued from actually flying those individual airlines. However, the best way to quickly accrue the miles/points is to take advantage of credit card offers! If you are wary about signing up for and leveraging the use of credit cards, I’ve addressed those fears in 3 posts (so far): Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

In order to find the best credit card offer available to build up our needed miles/points total, we turn, yet again, to Google. If you were to search for something similar to “top bonus mile credit card offers”, you would be able to find the best current airline/hotel/rewards points credit card bonuses that are being offered!

Looking at the amount of points needed for each of the reward redemptions, I personally would shoot for accruing British Airways Avios or Korean Air miles. There is currently a 100,000 sign-up bonus offer for the British Airways Visa, which I blogged about back in September. This bonus, however, does require $20K in spend within a calendar year. So if you decide to go this route and plan on meeting that minimum spend through everyday spending, you may not end up enjoying that Hawaiian luau until next summer! 100,000 points = 4 round trip tickets to Hawaii, costing a mere $44.80 in taxes and fees!

Let’s look next at how to accrue Korean Air miles. Accruing these “butt-in-seat” miles may be slightly more difficult, unless you are consistently flying Korean Air out of the U.S. into Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. In this case, the best way to accrue the needed Korean Air miles would be to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which currently has an increased bonus of 50,000 points, up from 40,000 points. Another thing you definitely want to do is add an authorized user, as Chase gives you another 5,000 point bonus for doing so! The Chase Sapphire Preferred accrues points in Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program, a flexible points program, which allows you to transfer your points into miles to various different travel partners, at a 1:1 ratio — Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Korean Air to name a few. Knowing this, the Chase Sapphire Preferred’s sign-up bonus alone would give you (at bare minimum) 2 free round trip tickets to Hawaii, costing $22.40! The primary difference between this card and the British Airways card is that here you have options – you can transfer either to Korean Air or British Airways. There may be more award redemption availability on one airline versus the other!

Conclusion

As you can see, the process for hacking a trip can be pretty easy! If you were thinking about planning a trip to see the beautiful islands of Hawaii, you now have a general outline on how to do it! You also can’t go wrong choosing either the British Airways Visa or the Chase Sapphire Preferred – it’s just a matter of getting more points versus having more points flexibility.

Thank you Mr. Frugal Vagabond for the invite to share my knowledge!

Thank you, Joshua!  If you have any questions about travel hacking concepts, getting started, or anything else, let us know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Travel Hack

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Awesome! I earned about 600K points over the past twelve months, mostly with signups, but I have ratcheted waaaay back this year because we’re seeking three rental mortgages. I have so many points accumulated that I won’t have a chance to use this year, so I’m not taking it too hard. I have also been lucky enough to be the “designated office supply order guy” for one of my clients, so I am putting about 10-20K of spend on the Ink Bold card each year, for another 50-100K points after the 5X bonus. The Ultimate Rewards points are awesome because they’re so flexible!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hi Joshua,

      There’s probably nothing specific to Norway that would be very different– a lot depends on where you need to depart from, and where you will be flying to. Have you checked the travel hacking search engine I introduced over at The Earth Awaits? It may help you figure out what the best airline award chard to use would be, and which card would be best to quickly accumulate those points.

      Since all of Scandinavia is so expensive, I would suggest using AirBnB to find apartments rather than staying in hotels. You’re likely to save a bundle there.

      If you can give me your departure airport, I can probably help make more specific recommendations.

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