How can you travel more and spend less? By learning to travel hack. The term travel hacking is rather broad but here’s how I define it; using credit card points and reward programs to receive free flights, hotels rooms and other benefits.
Here’s our real life example of travel hacking from our recent trip to Hong Kong and Macau. I hope by demonstrating how we used specific travel credit cards and rewards programs that you’ll be inspired to do the same.
Planning a trip to Hong Kong? Here's our recommended Hong Kong Itinerary--Four Great Days.
Travel Hacking 101
We used two credit cards and one rewards program to receive free flights and hotel rooms for this trip. First, we used points from two credit cards; Chase Sapphire Reserve and Barclaycard Arrival Plus. Then we used one free night from Hotels.com Rewards. Each of these programs works differently so I’ll give an overview of each.
Travel hacking credit cards are the easiest and fastest way to earn free travel. The Chase Reserve card gives points for each dollar charged to the card with the exception of travel and dining that earn three points per dollar. So for frequent travelers like us, we both use points and gain points simultaneously.
When we first signed-up for Chase Sapphire Reserve we received a bonus of 100,000 points after spending $5,0000 in three months. According to industry expert, The Points Guy, this bonus was worth about $1,500 for travel booked through the Chase travel site. The bonus points offered on credit cards is really important. When considering the addition of a new card, I thoroughly search for all the best awards available.
Chase has its own excellent travel booking site for use of its points. So for our recent airfare I went to the Chase rewards center, selected our dates and destination and then “purchased” it with points. There is also an option to use both points and dollars combined if you have not accumulated enough points--essentially offering a discount.
Here's a great article about Cheap Tours and Activities in Hong Kong.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus may be a better option for less frequent travelers since it gives two points for every dollar charged. We charge groceries, car repairs, and some bills to this card (we only charge bills to the card when we do not incur an additional fee). This card however does not have its own booking site. Instead we charge something travel related to our card and then redeem points for a statement credit. After using the Chase card for over two years, the Barclaycard system was a bit confusing for me at first, but now I love it.
I’ve been using Hotels.com Rewards for about eight years and absolutely love it. The program is straightforward--book and stay for ten nights at any hotel on their site and receive one free night. The value of the free night is the average of the ten nights purchased. I’ve saved an average of $480 a year for the past six years with Hotels.com Rewards.
Our Hong Kong and Macau Trip Expenses
Our Out-of- Pocket Costs
$35 Public transportation (included Peak Tram and Star Ferries)
$53 Ferry tickets (Hong Kong Macau and Macau to Hong Kong International Airport)
$252 Lantau Island Tour booked through Get Your Guide
$15 Admission to sky peak
$908 Hotel in Hong Kong--Royal Plaza Hotel in Mong Kok
$70 Parking at Los Angeles International Airport
Covered by points and rewards
$808 Two round-trip airfares from LAX to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific--Chase Reserve points redemption
$462 Two nights accommodation in Macau at Legend Palace Hotel--Barclay points redemption
$184 One free night in Hong Kong at the Royal Plaza Hotel--Hotels.com Rewards night
$100 Ferry tickets purchased through the hotel concierge in Macau--Barclay points redemption
Combined out of pocket and travel hacking value $3,782
Travel hacking responsible for 41% of our trip
Other Travel Hacks
Travel hacking can include other cost savings and upgrades that may not be easy to quantify, but can make a trip more comfortable and enjoyable. Our favorite hack is airport lounge access offered through travel rewards credit cards like Chase Reserve and the Platinum American Express.
With Chase we received a membership that offers access to 1200 Priority Pass lounges in airports around the world. American Express Platinum includes this membership plus access to the premium Centurion Club lounges. Most lounge passes offer admission for the cardholder and two guests.
On a typical trip we spend time in at least two lounges and receive free food, beverages and high-speed WiFi. In a Centurion lounge the food is a full buffet including an excellent salad bar and premium liquor. During our trip to Hong Kong and Macau we estimate a cost savings of $160 by using the lounge benefits.
(Beyond the point accumulation and airport lounge access, the Chase Sapphire Reserve benefits are impressive and include an annual $300 travel credit, $100 credit towards Global Entry or TSA Pre-check, and trip insurance. Additional American Express Platinum card benefits include a $15 monthly Uber credit and annual $200 incidental credit on one airline.)
How To Get Started Travel Hacking
How to get started travel hacking really depends on the type and frequency of your travel, so I have three different recommendations. However, all of these are premised on the importance of a good credit score and the discipline to pay cards off regularly. There’s no point in travel hacking if you are regularly paying for credit card interest.
- Dreaming of Travel
For a person dreaming of more travel, but watching their budget carefully, then a domestic airline card may make the most sense. My favorite is the Southwest family of credit cards. Their cards offer low annual fees and generous bonus point offers. More importantly, the Southwest Rapid Rewards program is one of the easiest to navigate in the industry. Southwest even offers a few international destinations like Mexico and Costa Rica.
Other domestic airline cards to consider are JetBlue and Alaska. Another general travel card for consideration is Capital One Venture. It works similarly to the Barclay card described above, but includes a waived annual fee for the first year.
- Want to travel more
For individuals, couples or families in a position to travel more if you could stretch your budget, then I recommend researching Chase Sapphire, Chase Reserve, and Barclay cards. These will require higher credit scores and a larger annual fee, but also come with more benefits and bonus points.
Be sure to research the bonus point offers which tend to range from 50,000-100,000. When acquiring a new card the goal is the highest bonus possible. If your credit score is high, then use the Card Match Tool to see if you qualify for high point offers not currently being promoted. This is how we recently received 100,000 AMEX membership points instead of the frequently advertised 60,000.
- Travel regularly for business
For anyone that travels regularly for business and sometimes for pleasure, the opportunities for travel hacking are endless. In my experience, many people in this category already know quite a bit about the topic, so I’ll give some additional tips.
These are the people for whom airport lounges are a necessity. A three hour layover can be a very productive time with high-speed WiFi and quick access to food and beverages. Any of the high-end travel cards will offer Priority Pass membership and make the annual fee worth it, but the Centurion Lounges can be especially beneficial for this group. It’s for this reason alone that I suggest the American Express Platinum card.
Chase Sapphire Reserve vs. AMEX Platinum? Here’s a great article to help you decide.
These are also the people that can combine points and awards from both work and personal travel in order to plan that extra special trip, or even upgrade to business class airfare. Just be sure to understand how each card works so that points don’t expire or go unused.
I find friends and colleagues in this category often have financial means to acquire plenty of points, but haven’t taken the time to understand how to apply for the best cards, redeem points and maximize benefits. If this is you, just remember that the savings opportunities are substantial.
Why You Should Learn Travel Hacking 101
While the Hong Kong and Macau trip is the first one for which I tracked expenses rigorously, I estimate that our travel hacking savings in 2018 was $3,500. That amount will cover one to two future trips for us.
The travel hacking tips provided in this article are just the tip of the iceberg, but I look forward to addressing this topic in more depth in the future. I also hope you’ll share your travel hacks in the comments below or on Facebook!