Travel Hacking Credit Cards Saved Us $12,203

Travel Hacking Credit Cards Saved Us $12,203

We knew 2020 would be an epic year for our family vacations because we wanted to kick off international travel. Add to that a desire to hit up Aulani in Hawaii and the potential cost became unmanageable. Luckily, through travel hacking credit cards, we were able to book both vacations and save $12,203.76 while doing it! This is a guide to how we did it, what credit cards we used, and the trips to Hawaii and Europe we are going on this year. Full disclosure: We only recommend the cards we personally use. If you choose to use any of the credit card links below to sign up, we will get a miles bonus as well.

Travel Hacking Credit Cards

If you are unfamiliar with what travel hacking is, check out our post, What is Travel Hacking, or our podcast on Travel Hacking 101. Essentially, it is signing up for credit card offers that will give you large sign up bonuses in exchange for hitting a minimum spend requirement (minimum dollar amount charged within a specified time frame). Sure, there are ways to save money on vacations without signing up for cards. However, travel hacking credit cards are by far the best way that we have found to do it.

I need to explain a couple of things before we get started, though. First, our redemptions below are not the best value that we could have gotten. However, we have kiddos in school and need to travel during breaks. Since these times are popular times to travel, you don’t get the best deals on miles and points (I will use these two words interchangeably) redemptions. Second, you do get miles from buying things on these credit cards, but you get the most points from sign up bonuses. Since you only get these bonuses once, we opened a lot of different cards to get as many bonuses as possible. This means we had to spread our travel around to different airlines to use as many miles as possible.

Okay, let’s do this…

Our 2020 Travel Plans

We are taking two epic trips this year that we needed to save as much money on as possible (because they ain’t cheap, people!!). These are the two vacations we are using points for:

  • Disneyland and Aulani – Spring Break (March) 2020
    • We are spending a day and a half at Disneyland to start this trip. The boys have never been, so we thought it would be fun to show them the two parks.
    • We will then fly to Honolulu and spend six nights at Aulani in a one-bedroom villa
  • Disney Mediterranean Cruise and Europe – June 2020
    • We fly to Barcelona and spend one night exploring
    • Boarding the Disney Magic, we sail around the Mediterranean Sea for seven nights
    • After disembarking in Rome, we spend one night before flying to London
    • Ending this amazing trip, we will spend two nights in London and four nights in Paris

There are four of us, which makes getting expensive flights that much more expensive, whether you’re using miles or cash. Luckily, we really don’t have that problem with accommodations. Here is the breakdown:

Hawaii – Saving Money With Credit Card Points

Flights

  • I booked four one-way flights from Tulsa to Los Angeles for 103,776 Citi Thank You Points, valued at $1,297.20.
    • We did this by Leslie and I both signing up for Citi Premier Master Cards
    • This credit card currently has a $95 annual fee and a sign up bonus of 60k points with $4k spend/3 months
  • I then booked four multi-city tickets from Los Angeles to Honolulu and from Honolulu back to Tulsa six days later. For this I used 242,440 American Express Points plus $1,602.93 in cash, valued at $4,641.20.
    • We did this with three AMEX credit cards
    • I signed up for the American Express Platinum Card
      • This credit card currently has a $550 annual fee and a sign up bonus of 60k points with $5k spend/3 months, but you might be offered 75k points if you use this link. There are additional perks to this card like access for you and two guests to the AMAZING Centurion Lounges. I value this at $300 for this trip, since we will eat our meals in two different airports here.
    • Leslie and I both signed up for an American Express Gold Card
      • This credit card currently has a $250 annual fee and a sign up bonus of 35k points with $4k spend/3 months, but you might be offered 50k points if you use this link.

Accommodations

  • We are staying in Anaheim across from Disneyland the first night at the Hilton using a free weekend night that came from one of our Hilton Honors Aspire Cards, valued at $193.17.
    • We both signed up for this one – this is my favorite card right now
    • This credit card currently has a $450 annual fee and a sign up bonus of 150k points with $4k spend/3 months (there are additional perks like the free weekend night)
  • We are using DVC points for the rest of our nights, but that is a topic for a different post.

Europe – Saving Money With Credit Card Points

Flights

  • Having never booked internationaI flights using points before, I wanted to take care of that first. This was early on in the beginning stages of signing up for credit cards (before booking Hawaii) and I was anxious to use points and secure those flights as quickly as possible.
  • So, in order to pool as many points as I could, I transferred 96,500 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points and 84,300 Capital One Venture Rewards Points to KLM (Air France). I got a transfer bonus for doing this and booked four open jaw tickets. These were from New York City to Barcelona and then from Paris back to NYC two weeks later, valued at $3,612.40. Note – I did have to pay $949.40 in fees, so it probably wasn’t the best redemption.
  • I then booked four round trip tickets from Tulsa to New York City at both ends of the trip. This used 175,000 American Airlines Miles plus $171.77 in cash, valued at $2,019.96.
    • We did this with three American Airlines partner credit cards.
    • I signed up for the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red card, which currently gets has a $99 annual fee and a sign up bonus of 60k miles when you pay it and make one purchase in 3 months!
    • Leslie and I both signed up for a Citi AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard.
      • This credit card currently has a $99 annual fee (waived for the first year) and a sign up bonus of 50k points with $2.5k spend/3 months

Accommodations

  • We used a ton of the American Express Aspire points and benefits for this trip, including:
    • 80k points to stay at a Doubletree in Times Square, valued at $359.23
    • 281k points to stay in a two-bedroom suite at a Doubletree in London, England, valued at $983.10
    • A free weekend night at the Hampton Inn at LaGuardia Airport for our return trip home, valued at $294.21
  • I also signed up for a Barclaycard Arrival Plus. This is the other one of my favorite cards, but unfortunately is no longer available. This card reimburses travel expenses you put on the card. So, we reimbursed the following:
    • One night in Rome, valued at $260.25
    • Four nights at an Airbnb in Paris, valued at $670.00

Conclusion

Now, you’ll notice that I didn’t include any annual fees in my savings of over $12k on the two trips. I did this intentionally. While we have paid $2,627.00 in annual fees for all of these points, this is offset by benefits not included above. I did not include over $3,000 in unused miles, airline credits, companion passes, global entry credits, etc. In the interest of brevity, I’m calling this a wash.

So, there it is, how travel hacking credit cards saved us $12,203. We are looking forward to these trips so much! Please let us know if you have any questions. As always, you can follow along on our journeys with our Podcast or on our YouTube channel.

What is Travel Hacking Using Credit Card Points?

What is Travel Hacking Using Credit Card Points?

If you asked me this question not that long ago, I would have looked at you like you were crazy.  Travel Hacking?  What’s to hack?  You get on Kayak or CheapOair, search for flights, filter results until you get a low enough price that still gets you flights that you can at least live with, and then buy them (all the while of course praying that a better deal doesn’t pop up next week).  Then, make your reservation at your hotel and you’re done.  Voilà!

Sadly, we have spent too much money on travel in the past.  But no more!

If you’ve listened to us or watched our vacation videos (you can check them out here), you know we are obsessed with travel, but I needed to find a way to make it more accessible.  By that I mean, I wanted to take our family on international trips on a frequent basis and could not afford to do so by just paying cash.  Sure we love Disney World and will continue to go there obsessively, but we want to explore the world and expose our kids to many different cultures.  However, it can be REALLY expensive.  The cost of international flights alone is almost prohibitive, especially for a family of four.

So, I started reading, watching, and listening to all of these travelers that seemed to be going all over the world without spending a ton of money and they were all talking about travel hacking!

What is Travel Hacking?

Travel Hacking is the art of gathering miles and points, then combining them with a strategy that allows you to maximize your travel by getting free or cheap transportation and accommodations.  If you’ve ever signed up for a frequent flyer club, you’re familiar with the basic concept of miles and points.  Companies in the travel industry (airlines, hotels, etc.) have loyalty programs that give you a currency in the form of miles or points to use toward their services again.  Where the hacking comes in is maximizing those miles and points.  And you don’t even do this by being loyal (ok, sometimes you do)!  Travel hacking strategies center around credit cards.

Travel Hacking Using Credit Cards

Skeptical yet?  I might judge you if you weren’t at least a little bit.  I know I was when I first started learning about this little hobby of mine.

Here’s how it works:
  • Credit card companies primarily make money off of interest, transaction fees, and annual fees.  To do this, they need customers who will apply for, qualify, and use their card for as long as possible.  Credit Card issuers compete for your business by advertising huge sign-up bonuses (SUB) to get you to apply for their cards.  These come with conditions that you must meet in order to get them, most often charging a certain amount on the card in a given period of time (known as minimum spend requirement or MSR).
  • The banks take the risk of losing money up front (due to the large SUB) in the hopes that they will make it back in the form of the three fees mentioned above over time.
  • In order to keep you using the card, credit issuers will often sweeten the deal to keep you spending in the form of category bonuses.  For instance, you might normally get 1x points (i.e., 1 point per dollar spent) on normal spending, but 3x points on travel purchases and 4x points for purchases at restaurants.
Here’s how to beat the system:
  • Pay all credit card bills in full every month.  Never, ever, EVER carry a balance on the credit card.  The high percentage rates you will pay will far outweigh any benefits from SUBs or bonus categories.
  • Always meet the MSR terms.  If you don’t charge what is required in the time period it is required, you don’t get the SUB.  No SUB = No hack.
  • Don’t spend money that you wouldn’t have spent anyway.  Only suckers (yes that’s you mom and dad) pay for everything with cash, checks, or debit cards.  Okay, so if you seriously can’t help but carry a balance on credit cards, then paying cash is better than paying high interest charges.  Otherwise, you’re leaving free money on the table.  That said, if you buy things solely for the purpose of getting SUBs (meaning things you wouldn’t have bought anyway), then you’re paying way more for the stuff you shouldn’t have bought than the bonus is worth.
  • Understand the Annual Fee. As a rule, the better the SUBs, category bonuses, and other perks (trip protection, travel credits, etc.), the higher the annual fee.  Sure, you can get a no-annual-fee card and get 1% cash back.  But, you can very easily offset annual fees with the value of what you get with better cards.  We’ll talk more about value in a later post.
  • Work within the rules of the credit card issuers.  People try and game the system.  Banks are not stupid and they know what these people are doing.  While they might not be doing anything illegal, it isn’t worth getting banned from the banks or having your accounts closed.

Understanding How to Use Points and Miles

First, you need to understand the three basic types of currencies we will be covering here: airline miles, hotel points, and credit card rewards points.

  1. Airline Miles – These have been traditionally earned through opening frequent flyer accounts with airlines and then flying.  However, co-branded credit cards make it possible to get huge airline miles SUBs simply by meeting MSRs.
  2. Hotel Points – These are extremely similar to airline miles except you’re booking accommodations instead of transportation.
  3. Credit Card Rewards Points – Major credit card issuers have their own currencies that can be used directly with the credit card issuers (for things like cash back, tickets, travel, etc.).  However, the most valuable use of these currencies are transferring them to travel partners.  For example, I found a flight through the Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) Travel Portal on United Airlines for one of Leslie’s clients from Chicago to Munich in Business class for four adults for 2,579,424 UR Points.  While this is better than paying cash for $32,242.80 (more on determining the value of points in a later post), it is not nearly as good as transferring.  Since United Airlines is a transfer partner with Chase at a 1:1 ratio (i.e., 1 Chase UR Point = 1 United Airline Mile), the client had the option of transferring points to United to book the exact same flight for 141,000 miles per person plus $5.60 each.  That’s a savings of over 2 million points!!!!  Here’s the proof:

Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel PortalUnited Airlines

The Main Transferable Points Currencies Are

  • American Express (AMEX) Membership Rewards
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Citi Thank You Points
  • Capital One Venture Miles
  • Marriott Bonvoy – SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest)

In the next post, we will dig in a little deeper.  As there is a lot to the subject of travel hacking and things are constantly changing, we are going to take this one step at a time.

Summary

So, this has been a very basic overview on the concept of travel hacking.  As I continue this series, please follow along with not only these posts, but also our podcasts on travel hacking.  Here is a great one to start with, Addicted to the Mouse Podcast 114: What is Travel Hacking?

As we go further in depth with travel hacking, I’ll give you my favorite credit cards and the reasons why.  But, if you can’t wait and want to support Addicted to the Mouse, here are links to my current favorite cards:

Here is the referral link to our favorite card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred with a 60k point bonus: https://www.referyourchasecard.com/6a/32MOLX1VZA

Here is the referral link to the American Express Platinum Card that has the amazing perks such as Centurion Lounge Access and 60k bonus rewards: http://refer.amex.us/JAMESLjfab?XLINK=MYCP

Here is the referral link to the American Express Hilton Honors Aspire Card that has the great hotel benefits, Diamond Status, and 150k bonus points: http://refer.amex.us/JAMESLU7Km?XLINK=MYCP

If you use the link to apply and get approved, we get a miles bonus on our cards. 

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