vacation for free

Travel Hacking: How We Escape the RV and Vacation for (Almost) Free

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You might want to assume that full-time travel means we never need a vacation. After all, Heath and I spent this year exploring the Florida Keys, summering in Maine, and watching the leaves change across New England. Sounds pretty “vacation-y”, right?

But just like everyone else, we feel the itch to get out of the RV and go somewhere new. Take a plane, stay in a hotel, drink a piña colada, and you know, not have to dump our black tank every couple of days.

Heath and I don’t have the luxury of tons of disposable income. We’re able to travel full-time on the cheap because we make smart decisions on the road (i.e not eating out all the time, using membership programs like Passport America, and enjoying free entertainment).

While paying off debt, Heath and I have managed to take several out-of-the-RV trips during the past few years to Hawaii, Portland, San Diego, and Colorado. We didn’t break the bank during any of these trips or set ourselves back from paying off our student debt. In fact, these trips are what I like to call “almost free vacations”.

We took these trips through a bit of creative travel hacking. Let me explain.

Travel Hacking

Travel hacking is where you join rewards programs to earn and redeem points that save you money on vacations. This means saving on airlines, hotels, rental cars, etc.

We’re not talking about cashing in points to save 10% when you book through a reward program (which is common and not at all worth it), but the kind of points that will allow your spouse to fly anywhere with you for free (Heath and I have done this for over a year).

My parents have used Southwest’s reward program for years, but it wasn’t until we met our friend Chris Guillebeau—who visited every country in the world via travel hacking—that Heath and I got serious about using these methods ourselves.

I’m going to outline a few of the best ways we’ve earned points and share with you the cool ways we’ve redeemed them. This post is pretty lengthy so click on one of the links below to skip ahead to the parts you may be interested in:

How to Fly for Free

How to Fly for Free Internationally

How to Stay for Free

Caveat: The fastest, easiest way to earn points for travel hacking is through credit cards. If you’re terrible at managing credit cards or have accrued credit card debt, stop reading this post now. This is not for you.

How to Fly For Free

hawaii plane

I am a huge Southwest Airlines fan. They are friendly, helpful, and they never charge you for canceling your flight or changing your reservation. Plus, our bags fly free, we can sit wherever we want and they always give us Ritz crackers (which Heath hoards!). When we fly, they are always our preferred airline.

Southwest has a rewards program called Rapid Rewards where you can redeem points for flights. You earn points in a few different ways: by flying Southwest, by shopping online through their links, or through renting cars or reserving hotels with their partners. But the easiest and fastest way is through their credit cards.

We use two Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards: the Plus and the Premier, both offered by Chase.

Since we signed up for these cards during bonus periods, here’s a snapshot of what we earned:

The Plus

  • 50,000 bonus points* after spending a minimum of $1,000 in your first 3 months
  • 3,000 points on our anniversary every year
  • 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest Airlines and partners
  • 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • $69 annual fee

The Premier

  • 50,000 bonus points* after spending a minimum of $2,000 in your first 3 months
  • 6,000 points on our anniversary every year
  • 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest Airlines and partners
  • 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • $99 annual fee

*If you sign up not during a bonus period, you earn only 25,000 bonus points per card. You can wait for the next bonus period to roll around, or you can sign up through our referral and earn up to 50K bonus points anytime.

You’re looking at earning 100,000 points right off the bat, which could be up to five free round-trip flights!

These two cards are very similar and it may not be immediately clear why we would sign up for two of almost the exact same card. But Southwest offers something special that makes having two of these cards totally worth it.

The Companion Pass

Southwest offers something every other airline NEEDS. It’s what they call the companion pass.

Here’s how it works:

When you earn 110,000 points in one calendar year, you are given companion status.

This means that you can fly one person with you anywhere for free until the end of the next calendar year. This is why you want to apply for both credit cards above in the same calendar year during bonus periods. You are guaranteed to hit companion status! And if you do this early in the year, you can have companion status for almost two full years!

Let me give you an example to explain how earning the status worked for us:

We applied for the Premier card in February and the Plus in June of last year. After hitting the minimum spend on the Premier, we had a little over 53,000 points in our Rapid Rewards account. Hitting the minimum spend on the Plus card added another 51,000 points to our card. This meant we only had to charge a couple thousand more dollars to our card to hit the 110,000 mark.

This wasn’t hard to do at all since we had a half a year to do it. We earned companion status in July 2015 and our status was valid through the end of 2016. I’ve flown free with Heath to San Diego, Denver, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Nashville and more.

Once you hit the 110,000 mark, Southwest sends you an email letting you know that:

  1. You’re clearly awesome and
  2. You need to designate who you want to fly with you. You can change this person up to 3 times while your companion pass is valid.

We could pay for Heath’s flight in points and mine was free. We have to pay is $5.60 per leg, which is the US government tax for domestic flights.

If you want to start travel hacking and earning free flights easily, Southwest is the best place to start. I can’t recommend it enough.

There’s only one small con: They mostly fly domestically. They expanded to more of Mexico and the Caribbean, but you’re definitely looking at a vacation in this hemisphere. Our round-trip flights to Mexico cost us roughly $20 in taxes, but the rest was free!

How to Fly For Free Internationally

Heath has never left the continent. He’s visited all fifty states + Canada, but I have yet to get him off of North America. That’s why we signed up for Delta SkyMiles.

Heath flew Delta while on a book tour and since his schedule was flexible, he always offered up his seat when the airline overbooked. He ended up receiving a $600 Delta gift card for this, which paid for our return flights from Alaska (If you’re an airline, this is the fastest way to my heart).

For my first time flying Delta, this is what you call a stellar first experience. Plus, for some reason we couldn’t figure out, they waived our baggage fees. Score!

Since I was already a fan, when I saw the big ad on the side of their website about joining Skymiles, I signed us up. Skymiles is the same type of program as Rapid Rewards. You earn miles by flying Delta, booking hotels and rentals through partners, shopping through their portal, and applying for their credit card.

Disclaimer: When I say we earn miles, this does not mean literal miles. Delta “points” are called miles. When we flew from Anchorage to Austin, which is 4,000 literal miles, we earned roughly 1,000 Skymiles. If you’re flying 3,000 miles from LA to NYC, your flight does not cost only 3,000 miles. Miles is just a fancy sounding word for points.

We applied for the Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express.

Here are the details:

      • 60,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months
      • A $50 statement credit if you make a Delta purchase in your first three months
      • 2 miles per dollar spent on Delta
      • 1 mile per dollar on everything else you spend
      • Bags fly free (saving you $50 a flight)
      • Priority boarding
      • No annual fee for the first year, then $95

Delta changes their bonus mile offerings often and from what I’ve seen, they offer up to 60,000 miles only once a year. It’s pretty hard to catch them on a good promotion, but totally worth it. The 60,000 miles we earned is the cost of a round-trip flight to Europe from America. Their typical bonus of 30,000 miles is a one-way flight to Europe. Either way, you’re looking at saving hundreds or well over a thousand dollars.

In the past year, we’ve earned nearly 200K points which Heath and I are using to fly to New Zealand in a few months. This would be a few thousand dollars, but we will only have to pay the associated government fees for international travel.

We’ve flown Delta a few times domestically since joining Skymiles and really enjoy it. Sometimes they have a cart of snacks at the gate waiting for you, plus, we get to board early. Not to mention just having the card means we never have to pay for our bags. I’m a fan.

Delta’s only con is that it tends to be more expensive than other airlines like Southwest, but they have way more options for locations to fly + they have more partner airlines to get you where you’re headed. You can learn more about Delta’s SkyMiles program and their Amex card here.

Those are our two big ways to fly for free. But there’s still one other hefty expense during travel: lodging.

How to Stay For Free

Hanging poolside at the Eilan in San Antonio. Can we stay here forever @heathpadgett? ???

A photo posted by Alyssa Padgett (@alyssapadge) on

I love hotels. There’s something about falling into a hotel bed that is incredibly relaxing.

Heath and I are members of pretty much every hotel reward program. (But we don’t have the credit cards associated with each program). We have accounts with Choice Hotels, IHG, Marriott, Starwood, and Hilton.

I find hotel groups particularly confusing. For example, no one knows what IHG means. It’s Intercontinental Hotel Group. They own a LOT of hotels. They cover Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, Kimpton, Crowne, Staybridge, Candlewood, and so on.

Basically, no matter where you’re going, there’s probably an IHG hotel. Then there’s Hilton, which owns Doubletree, Embassy, Homewood, Hampton and more. Marriott is at least pretty good at tagging on “by Marriott” at the end of all of their hotels but Starwood and Choice never make it clear which hotels they own.

It’s all incredibly confusing, which is why I’ve joined all the programs (joining the reward program is always free) so I can always earn points. This is extremely helpful when you travel for business and the company pays for your hotel. You can still get the points! (Or if your RV breaks down and your insurance is paying for your hotel for the night.)

Anyway, like I was saying, we’re in all the programs but we only have two hotel credit cards: IHG and Marriott, both offered by Chase.

Personally, I prefer IHG because they have more “budget” hotels whereas Marriott can be a little pricier.

Here’s what you’re looking at for the IHG Rewards Club Credit Card:

      • 70,000 bonus points when you spend $2,000 in your first three months
      • 1 free anniversary night each year
      • Earn 5 points per dollar spent on IHG hotels
      • Earn 2 points per dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores, & restaurants
      • Automatic platinum elite status
      • $0 fee for the first year, then $49

Update: Currently if you use our referral link, you can get up 80,000 bonus points!

Hotels run anywhere from 10K points to 30K points a night (in my experience), so if you choose right, your points can last a while. You can get eight free nights between the bonus points and the free night you’re given just for hitting the minimum spend on the card. That’s INSANE. That’s your entire week-long vacation paid for.

Here’s the best part: By earning 75,000 points, which you’ll easily do after hitting the minimum spend, you earn “Spire Elite Status.” This status makes you like the Regina George of the Holiday Inn.

If you have no idea who that is A) go watch Mean Girls and B) it means you’re the coolest person in the room.

Spire Elite status has gotten us upgrades at every hotel visit. Not just “Here’s a complimentary bottle of water” (which yes, they do give you), but I’m talking about the sweet upgrades. Every time we’ve stayed IHG in the past year, we’ve stayed in suites. We do not book or pay for suites. We pay for the cheapest room they have.

But with our Spire Elite status (and maybe a little bit of southern charm) they give us an automatic upgrade to their nicest room, plus other perks like free breakfast, early check-in, late check-out, etc. Essentially, if you want to walk into a hotel and feel like a queen, this card is perfect for you.

Now, all hotels and airlines will give you better treatment for being a member of their reward program (you don’t even have to be a credit card holder), but IHG has given us the biggest bang for our buck. Marriott lets you skip the check-in line if you’re a reward member and Starwood lets you check in early. Every reward program has perks. But no one has been as good to us as IHG, so I’ll brag on them the most.

As I said, Heath and I are pretty frugal people who love to travel. That’s why we travel full-time in an RV. But sometimes you just need a “real” vacation away from it all and that’s where travel hacking comes in. If you’re fiscally responsible enough to pay off your credit cards and not accrue debt, I cannot recommend travel hacking enough. I don’t remember the last time Heath and I actually paid for a flight or a hotel room, and that is a great feeling.

I just want to reiterate that we’re not promoting credit card debt. We pay off our bills every month. However, by strategically signing up for credit cards (and using them for our normal expenses) we’ve been able to take advantage of tons of free travel.

PS We are in no way associated with the above companies or banks, we just really like flying for free and wanted to share the love!

8 Responses

  • Thanks for the great thoughts! My wife and I just recently got the Southwest cards and are working towards the Companion Pass. We’ll definitely take a look at your other recommendations soon!

    • Awesome! The companion pass has been the bomb. I keep trying to convince Alyssa that since we have it, we should hop on a plane spontaneously and go on an adventure. One day I’ll convince her!

  • […] Travel Hacking: How We Escape the RV and Vacation for (Almost) Free […]

  • I have a question about Southwest, do you have two credit cards in one name (to get all the miles in one account)?

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