How I Travel to Expensive Places for Cheap

How I Travel to Expensive Places for Cheap

A few months ago, out of curiosity, I decided to look up the cash price of our upcoming honeymoon flights.


San Francisco to Auckland

Multiply that by two because my husband’s also coming on the honeymoon (duh). So, almost $14,000 total.

And at the risk of sounding like a jerk, the flights would be even more expensive since one leg is actually in first class, and I was too lazy to change that setting in Google Flights.

You might be wondering: How can she afford this?

After all, I don’t come from a wealthy family, I’m super cheap about haircuts, and I’m known for packing my work lunches from time to time.

I can afford it because I didn’t actually pay the $14,000. I found a way to pay just $144 instead. For the same exact flights. And I’m not a management consultant racking up tons of frequent flier miles for work, either.

Let me ask you this: Have you ever been chilling at the gate in the Zone 4 line, wondering how THAT GUY made it into first class? And how that could never be you? Well, he’s probably not that much different from you. He may not be any smarter than you. Or richer than you. He may not even fly that much.

But he’s probably more of an opportunist than you.

What Is Travel Hacking?

The secret of that guy in first class (and me) is that we take advantage of this hobby called travel hacking.

Travel hacking is a shortcut to collecting lots of miles without actually having to fly. Then you exchange those miles for flights, paying cash for just taxes and fees. Most people know that you can collect miles by flying. But earning a stash of miles that way can take forever, especially if you don’t fly a lot. This is where the “hack” part comes in handy. The “hack” part of travel hacking is that you can turbocharge the amount of miles you can earn by signing up for credit card bonuses. Many credit cards offer you 40k, 50k, or even up to 100k points, as long as you spend a certain amount by a specific period of time (example requirements: Spend $3,000 in 3 months and earn 40k points). And despite the horrible name, travel hacking is totally legal.

Yay, right? Who doesn’t dream of traveling to exotic places? But too often the barrier for why we don’t travel is money. We can’t afford it, we say.

If you think travel is too expensive because that’s just “the way it is,” then yeah, you’re not going to make an effort to brainstorm any other solutions. So if I sound like I’m bragging in this post, understand that what I’m trying to do is show you what’s possible. Because if I show you what’s possible, it can expand your thinking. By expanding your thinking, you’ll start to see that an elevated lifestyle is more attainable than you thought.

And you can be an opportunist, too.

We live in a new world where there are more options than ever. Gone are the days of having to be a business person who actually has to fly a lot to earn frequent flier miles, or someone who’s in the top 1%. My favorite thing about travel hacking is that it’s the ultimate equalizer. Now average people with regular incomes can have dream vacations, too. Imagine an immigrant mom who’s never made more than $14 hour, getting to spend a week in Maui for practically free. A travel-hacking daughter can make that happen.

So if you are in the US, don’t pay a cent in credit card interest, and like to travel, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have at least one travel credit card. It’s like leaving money on the table.

Four Places I’ve Traveled to Thanks to Travel Hacking

Besides the upcoming trip to New Zealand, which cost 300,000 points for two tickets, there are four other places I’ve visited using points. After making this list, I’ve realized the places I’ve exchanged my points for tend to be expensive. That’s because I prefer to save them up for outsized experiences. Here are some examples of places I’ve been to, how many miles I needed, and which credit cards I used.

1. Tokyo

Number of Tickets: 1 round-trip economy ticket on Delta Airlines
Number of Points: 70,000 + $47.60 in taxes/fees
Credit Cards: Delta Skymiles and Starwood Preferred Guest
Retail Cost: ~$1,400

2. London

Number of Tickets: 2 one-way economy tickets on United Airlines
Number of Points: 60,000 + $11.20 in taxes/fees
Credit Cards: United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer and Chase Sapphire Preferred
Retail Cost: ~$500 x 2 = ~$1,000

3. Paris

Number of Tickets: 2 one-way economy tickets on American Airlines
Number of Points: 60,000 + $11.20 in taxes/fees
Credit Cards: Citi Aadvantage and Starwood Preferred Guest
Retail Cost: ~$600 x 2 = ~$1,200

4. Hawaii

Number of Tickets: 4 round-trip economy tickets on Delta Airlines
Number of Points: 120,000 + $44.80 in taxes/fees
Credit Cards: Citi ThankYou Premier, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Starwood Preferred Guest
Retail Cost: $950 x 4 = $3,800

If I add up those four trips our points have covered over $7,400 in flights. Add in the New Zealand flights and that’s over $21,000 in award flights in the past three years. We wouldn’t ever pay out of pocket for premium class, so that number is a little deceiving, but still, you’ll get a lot more bang for your points if you use them for international and premium flights.

How I Earn the Points

I earn points through a combination of the following:

  • Flying
  • Online shopping through credit card portals (using affiliate links to buy things I’d buy anyway)
  • Credit card bonuses

The credit card bonuses are far and away the most lucrative option, so I concentrate my efforts there. If I see a high bonus I’ll usually try to get it, then build my trips based on the points I have. I have 2-3 everyday credit cards, and then I supplement with new cards with high bonuses, which I eventually close once I earn the miles.

For example, I just signed up for the Barclays Aadvantage Aviator card where I’ll earn 60,000 American Airlines points just for making a single purchase. That’s enough points for a roundtrip ticket to Europe.

I also am planning on applying for the JetBlue Plus card, because I saw they were offering 60,000 points after spending $1,000 within 3 months. Usually they only offer 30,000 points, so this is a rare opportunity.

Both of these cards I’d close right after I’ve used the points.

How to Get Started Today (Without Credit Cards)

So I just finished talking about the virtue of credit cards…and now I’m not gonna tell you which credit cards to get. Doing justice to credit cards requires a whole separate post, and I wanted to first introduce the idea of travel hacking to those who weren’t familiar with it.

And just like personal finance, travel hacking is one of those topics that seems super complex and overwhelming. It’s good to start small with bite-sized information. I see a lot of blog posts that list 10 ways to earn free miles. But if you’re a newb, you don’t need the 10 ways; you need to start with just a few actionable, practical things. Here are three easy steps that you can knock out in a couple of work lunch breaks.

1. Sign up for frequent flyer accounts. It takes just a few minutes, and each time you’re flying somewhere and don’t have a frequent flyer account, you’re losing out on miles because you were failed to do a simple task If you’re US-based, a few main ones to start with could be United, American Airlines and Delta. Aim for those three right now.

2. Once you sign up for these accounts, immediately set up a system for yourself so you can easily retrieve the number and username and password. If you don’t have a system to track these account #s, then you’re putting up an unnecessary barrier for yourself to earn points. Make things easy for yourself, and you’re more likely to do it! Remember the last time you couldn’t remember an account #, got frustrated or annoyed, and then just blew off the whole task?

Always remember to include this # when buying plane tickets. You can do this on third-party sites like Orbitz and Travelocity too, not just actual airline sites. Also, always remember you can earn miles through work travel. Just do the above step if buying yourself, or make sure to send the # to your work travel coordinator. There is nothing that incites more fury in me than when people travel for work and forget to plug in a frequent flier #. That’s so much wasted potential.

Case Study: At one point my husband and were working to build up American points, so I told my husband to fly American every time he had a work trip. In a couple years, he’s built up over 15,000 points, just from flying work trips he would have needed to fly, anyway. See? Easy.

3. Start shopping for flights. One of my favorite resources for looking up how many points I need is Award Hacker. Play with the tool by plugging in a few destinations you have in mind, and seeing how many points you need for each airline or program. Not all points are created equal. Do you see which airlines tend to require the least amount of points? And vice versa? Are any of the airlines listed a hub near where you live? Start practicing planning with a specific goal in mind, and then go backwards.

That’s it for this intro to travel hacking post!

So let’s hear it! Do you travel hack? If not, what questions do you have about it?

Image: Unsplash

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  • Dave @ Married with Money

    Nice! Those are some awesome deals 🙂

    We just started looking into this recently. 10k Delta miles for Delta AMEX card, plus another 60k for my wife. We enjoy travel but sometimes the cost is prohibitive for sure. It used to be a lot easier when i’d travel for work – 9000+ miles a month guaranteed.

    • Wow, 9k in miles per month! Just drooling thinking about what I’d do with those miles. Well, with 70k Delta miles there’s certainly respectable hacks you could redeem. I’ve also had fairly consistent experiences with Delta, as well.

  • Yeah, we’ve used signup bonuses for airline backed credit cards and coupled those with deals and spending on those cards to score some pretty good deals. None along the lines that you have, but we don’t travel often enough to do the deep dive work, though obviously it pays off!

    • “The deep dive work” – some flights are so easy (Tokyo and Paris, for example), but New Zealand was the hardest one no doubt. I just don’t live in a place where there are direct flights, so I’m jealous of those West Coasters. Just as I’m sure they’re jealous of how much closer I am to Europe. And for me, getting a lie-flat for a 12+ hour flight was a priority, especially as my husband is a fussy sleeper. So that added to the difficulty factor. Otherwise, economy is fine for shorter flights.

  • GYM

    I love travel hacking 🙂 we are in Hawaii right now and paid $75 for our tickets. I once dreamed of doing a “RTW” round the world trip with travel hacking. Our credit card bonuses aren’t as lucrative in Canada compared to US. Do you limit the amount of cards per year you sign up for in case it affects your credit score?

    • I’ll be honest–I don’t care about my credit score right now, because I’m not buying a house soon or taking out any loans. Anyway my credit score has stayed in the high 700s to 800s even after I opened up the cards. I’m not a total churner either–I just apply one at a time, so I don’t limit myself. If I see a good deal, I usually pounce!

      Yes, I was wondering about your Hawaii getaway, and have been eager to see pics! I always thought a RTW ticket was the absolute best redemption in terms of value. I guess I should nail down a FIRE date, huh?

  • Malik Williams

    When I was in high school I saw a guy with an Amex Delta using manufacture spend at a grocery store. Buying 10,000 dollars worth of giftcards everyday. I sorta figured it out after that but I’m not opening up a travel card until I graduate with my degree cause I’d never be able to meet minimum without manufacture spending and converting giftcards back to cash which is a headache and you can be suspected of fraud. 2-3 more years before I can start getting all the goodies!

    • Well, I don’t go THAT far. There are definitely hardcore enthusiasts, but I’d say I’m middle of the road. I only open up cards when I’m sure I can meet the minimum spend. When I was single I could only charge about $600-$1000 per month on cards so some bonuses were a challenge. In those cases I’d buy a gift card from a grocery store I shop at anyway for future use.

      If you’re looking for a no-annual fee card, and don’t spend a lot, Chase Freedom is a good starter card to get into travel hacking. You can then transfer the points to the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

  • Erin @ Reaching for FI

    I’m still a travel hacking baby but am looking to get more into it in the future. Signed up for the CSP in March and I’m just gonna sit on those lovely, lovely miles until I need them (sadly it’s money AND vacation time that’re my constraints right now). Signed up a few months later for the Chase Freedom and use the rotating categories to get even more Chase points!

    • Yay for accumulating miles! CSP is a great card.

      Yeah, vacation time was a problem for me, too. Like many Americans, I had 10 days of vacation and I worked at a place that frowned upon taking more than a week. So I used Thanksgiving break (when the office was closed a few days) to go to Japan! And for NZ we’re going over Xmas break, when both of our offices are closed. Still, I am super privileged to have better-than-average vacation time now. That’s something I never thought about when I was younger with no money. But something I value much more that I’m older.

  • I’ve used award points for hotel stays mainly. I have used airline points but it’s difficult unless you have a flexible schedule. Another thing I notice when trying to book flights is that often times, it’ll have a layover (for a short flight) and I’d prefer a direct flight with kids. Honestly we don’t fly that often now with kids anyway but I have a good amount of Chase Ultimate Reward points for future use.

    • Yeah, I think flexibility is one of the core requirements for travel hacking, and it can be such a challenge for families and those with rigid schedules no doubt. That’s part of the reason why I’m trying to “live it up” now, since I might not be able to in the future. I do find that flights are a lot easier to redeem for if you plan a year out or more. Although not many people will want to do that!

  • I’m in the accumulation phase. We started about 6 months ago. I did not do much traveling in 2017 to keep costs down. In 2018 we will fly and stay mostly for free!

  • Dr. Curious

    I do some light travel hacking, but don’t go too crazy with credit card churning for the bonus points. It’s too much to keep track of and I’m lazy. I might sign up for a new card every 2-4 years, and otherwise use reward points to pay for flights.

    AMEX gold and Chase Sapphire Preferred have points that you can use to directly cover the costs of travel if you book through their websites. I find that trying to get airline awards flights can be frustrating if you don’t start looking early enough.

    • Yeah but, don’t you keep track of your money? It’s like the same thing! All I do is have a simple spreadsheet to track when I open and close cards. I then set calendar reminders for when the annual fee comes up. But other than that, it’s not too hard for me to track. I also don’t go crazy with the churning. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever re-signed up for the same card just to get the bonus.

      There definitely are different levels of travel hacking and redeeming them through the portals are totally legit. Sometimes your time is worth more than saving a couple extra bucks. With that said, I do tend to look about a year out if I can, because it’s a hell of a lot easier to find good flights that way.

  • I am new to travel hacking, and I agree it can get complex and overwhelming. I signed up for the American Express Everyday Preferred card and I am slowly accumulating points on it. I have my heart set on using points for a trip to Hawaii, but I also want to pace myself on using the card because my income is limited right now as a college student.

    • It seems like you’re basing your strategy on your income and real spending habits, and that’s definitely what I would recommend. I just build up points based on my real expenses, and then see how I can turn those points into a trip later. Instead of the other way around. You can def score a sweet deal to Hawaii with those points!

  • Yes, travel hacking is my jam! I wouldn’t be able to travel as much as I do without it. Thanks for sharing it to people who might think it’s a lot of effort to do. It’s really not once you set up certain habits so you end up accumulating points without really thinking about it.

    • Oh, that’s so cool! Do they have good credit card options where you are? I feel like travel hacking is kind of like personal finance in a way. Once you start it all becomes a habit and you don’t think much about it at all!

      • They don’t have the shopping portals unfortunately, but airlines do have partner cards and accumulating points isn’t all that hard. Like my fave card doesn’t have a cap for max points I can get per transaction. 😊 I am so so jealous of your cashbacks on that side of the pond though!

        • Interesting. All I’ve heard is no other country has good travel hack opportunities the way the US does! So glad to hear you have decent options.

          • You’re right that they’re not as good as where you’re from, but they’re improving. Probably because people ask for it. 🙂 Looking forward to your next post (no pressure lol)!

  • I’m so envious – we just don’t get these kinds of opportunities here! I wonder if we ever will. I have just one CC for simplicity but you can bet I’d put in the work if there were decent travel hacking opps in NZ.

    • Yeah, part of me is like, people in other countries don’t have these opportunities we do, so it’s kind of your American duty to take advantage! Although responsible credit card use is another story…

  • I thought you going to answer with “Teleportation”. 😉 ahhh, if only we had that Star Trek technology NOW. Great read on hacking travel. I’ve had to use up a good amount of my precious stash lately to fly to Michigan for Airbnb setup. Thank goodness I could travel “for free” or my setup costs would be that much more insane.

    • Trust me, I’ve wished for teleportation many times. Particularly when I’m cold, hungry, and just want to be home in 2 seconds flat! I feel you on having a stash of points ready for unseen circumstances, or for utilitarian purposes. How cool is it to be able to fly at the last minute when prices are crazy high?

  • Travel hacking sounds like a super power! I was so amazed by how much you spent on those flights. I just had the longest “conversation” with Vadim and his stance is that it’s limiting to fly with just delta or American-he’s firm on not supporting Delta bc of their terrible track record…I’m curious to know what your thoughts are. My stance is flying first class in delta is still better than flying economy with any other airline, especially for a super long flight like New Zealand or when we went to Bali. Anyway, loved reading this!

    • It so is! My husband has mentioned it to coworkers and their brains explode because they’ve never heard about it before, and are immediately intrigued. Oh, the flights I got just happened to be with Delta or American, but you can in theory use the points with any airline, as long as you have the right cards, and they have flights available. We’re actually flying United to NZ, and I almost got to fly Cathay Pacific (so nice) on the way back, except I didn’t have enough points. So, for example, if you want to go to Seoul, you could use the United points to fly on Asiana, since Asiana and United are in the same alliance. My friend used United points to fly to Taipei on EVA Airways. Sorry if that made your brain explode…

      My stance is that I’d rather save up the miles to fly premium on longhaul flights, so like, Asia and beyond, so you can actually sleep on the plane. I’d take the lie flat on Delta over economy on a nicer airline for any flights that are 10+ hours long. But I wouldn’t do premium to fly anywhere in the US, because the flights aren’t long enough for me to justify the extra points usage.

  • Yes! I love the Starwood card too, and now I have two of them 🙂 So cool how you were able to use them to get upgraded to suites. Do you just ask them for an upgrade, or do they just do it? I do tend to use my points for flights, although nice hotels seem fun, too! There’s a Park Hyatt here in NY and if I got the Hyatt card, that would be a possibility for me.

  • Nina Thomas

    I’m so tempted to do this but does it ruin your credit? Also, do you need to spend a lot of money to really take advantage?

    • Great question! You definitely don’t want to do it if you’re looking for a mortgage or loan. As a data point, my credit has stayed pretty consistent in the high 700s-800s. How much money you have to spend varies per card, but the decent cards you’ll need to spend about $3000-$4000 within 3 months. That can be tough for many (including me), so it’s best to time it to when you have a big expense coming up.

  • Wow, it seems like you have the travel hacking on lock! I know what you mean about deals not being as plentiful as before. And every year it seems like they get worse and worse! But I do think the squeaky wheels will almost always find a way to win and get a deal, if they put the work into it.

    $800 actually sounds like a deal for transatlantic business class. Is that with the use of points for the upgrades? Or totally revenue?

    I love the trick you use for Europe. I’ve thought about using the flexible open-jaws to extend trips, but the planning has been a problem, for sure. Although I hope one day to take advantage of that nifty perk. I’d actually love to go to Croatia at some point, but I know the reward flights won’t be awesome. Maybe I’ll stop in Paris first and book an intra-Europe flight. And I’ve seen people go to both Hawaii and Japan on the same ticket without paying more, which is amazing.

    Thanks for sharing your tricks!

    Sounds like I know exactly who to hit up if I have questions on complicated routes 🙂

  • Freezeman24

    Wow that sure is some awesome travel hacking. I have never done any hacking, I’m not sure we have a lot of travel hacking options here in Canada. You now have my mind spinning and wanting to find the answer. Thanks for the post Luxe really enjoyed it. 🙂

    • Hey Matthew,

      Gen Y Money and Money We Have are both in Canada, and they seem to travel hack alright!

      I’m glad I made your head spin–it means I’m doing a good job 🙂

      • Freezeman24

        You are doing an excellent job. Thanks for letting me know about Gen Y Money and Money We Have I will have to check out our credit cards more thoroughly

  • It’s funny cuz I’m really into getting great deals, but for some reason I’m really averse to credit card points and bonuses. I’m such a maximizer so I feel like I would have to spend so much time learning and perfecting everything before I start doing it…but it looks like the rewards might be pretty worth it. going to have to bookmark post for later haha

    • To me, if you’re going to travel anyway, why wouldn’t you want to decrease the price? Especially since travel is cost-prohibitive for many people. I think lots are scared of ruining their credit, but all you have to do is ask someone who does it what their credit is like, instead of guessing. I guess if you want to maximize everything you should read The Point Guy from start to finish!