How to Find Cheap and Even Free Travel By Travel Hacking

When I’m watching movies or television, I sometimes find myself struck by a momentary flash of panic. In scenes with crowded rooms, on public transportation, or bustling city streets, I — for a split second — find myself wondering: “where are their masks?” —

Since the pandemic hit, I’ve become so accustomed to expecting everyone to be masked up that I’m surprised, and a little appalled. When I get too into a movie and forget that: 1. It’s not real; and 2. Even if it were, most films were set before 2020.

Now that more and more people are vaccinated and mask mandates are being lifted around the country, in these moments I’m astonished by how much everything has changed. From how we act around each other, what we owe each other, to how we configure notions of community.

In the early months of the pandemic, this meant staying home and misguidedly sanitizing our produce and cereal boxes — remember that? Then it evolved into wearing masks and social distancing. Then, community courtesy involved getting vaxxed. Now, it looks like being mindful of how our plans affect others, getting tested before major events, and researching international guidelines when traveling out of the country.

The world of travel is not the same as it was two years ago. From juggling national policies, scheduling tests, and the constant anxiety about another lockdown, there’s so much about travel that’s out of your control.

What you can control — to some extent — is how much you pay for it.

With two years of little to no travel, lots of people’s best-laid plans got canceled. However, many used these forced cancellations to sock that money away for future travel. The average American saved around 33% of their income in 2020, but 2021 brought it down to 9%.

According to CNBC, “Between dining out and taking trips, Americans are now spending an average of $765 more a month compared with last year when much of the country was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the MassMutual Consumer Spending & Saving Index … Young adults, in particular, are determined to make up for lost time. Millennials and Gen Z, who reported feeling the financial impact from the rise in reopenings and social gatherings, said they are shelling out $1,016 more a month, on average, than they did during the summer of 2020. MassMutual polled 1,000 U.S. adults from July 21 to 28.”

While some are okay with making up for lost time by gleefully spending all their money, not everyone has the desire to blow up their budgets on trips. Yet, the allure of travel still calls. Thus, the appeal of travel hacking.

Travel hacking has been around as long as credit card rewards have. But during the pandemic, travel hacking gurus found unprecedented fame on TikTok and Instagram. With time to learn about the points and miles community, suddenly people were planning for future travel using tips and tricks gleaned from experts sharing their knowledge on social media.

Though it might sound complex, anyone with a fair credit score can enter the travel hacking game. Here’s how:

What Is Travel Hacking?

Travel hacking is using reward points and miles from airlines, hotels, and credit cards towards free or heavily discounted travel. This ranges from opening a number of credit cards for the reward bonuses, optimizing your normal spending in order to max out your points per shopping category, and leveraging loyalty and status for awesome perks.

To a lot of people, the term “travel hacking” can sound shady. The “hacking” scares people off. Is it illegal? Is it a scam? Can you get punished for opening too many cards? Will you ruin your credit score? The answer to all of these concerns is no.

There’s no hidden trick to travel hacking. It’s not a game of risk or cheating, it’s a game of research and planning.

Travel Hacking 101

Most commonly, travel hacking hinges on the points you can get from certain travel credit cards. Credit cards aren’t merely a way to manage cash flow. Many offer rewards programs that give you points for each purpose. These points can then be repurposed to pay for part or all of a trip.

Different networks have different systems, but most can be transferred to a range of partners. Top credit cards are with Chase, Amex, Citi, and Capital One. Simply accumulate points on your credit card, then you have the option to transfer those points to airlines, hotels, and more — for free.

When learning travel hacking, The best tip is to go backward. Don’t just open popular cards with high bonuses. Identify where you want to go, then find out what actions to take. Which airlines travel there? Which cards’ points can be transferred to that airline? Where do you want to stay? Which hotels can you book with points? Once you’ve planned out your dream vacation, see how many points you need. Then strategize for the best way to nab them.

Choose which cards are right for you, then start stockpiling those points towards free travel.

One way to quickly amass points is to take advantage of sign-up bonuses. Many credit cards use sign-up bonuses to entice users. And if you play smart, just one or two sign-up bonuses can account for one entire flight cost. However, there’s one catch: you must meet a minimum spend requirement to qualify for the bonus.

The best way to approach this is to funnel all of your regular expenses through those credit cards to chip away at the minimum spending. Pro tip: open your card right before you need to make a lot of purchases. The holidays are a good time to open a card so the cost of festivities ends up working for you.

And remember: it’s key to always pay off your monthly credit card balance before the due date! The benefits of those points are useless if you go into debt to accrue them.

And here’s a hack for you newbie travel hackers out there — be sure to manage your money and keep track of how much you’re spending for that bonus with the MeetCleo app.

MeetCleo is the personal finance tool that’s actually fun to use. Taking control of your money while “earning” free travel using your credit cards? Finances have never been more fun.

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