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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 memberships to save on camping fees, 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.
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 to fly for free, 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:
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, this is not for you.
How to Fly For Free
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, which can really add up with other airlines.
When we fly, they are 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 three Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards: the Plus and the Premier, offered through Chase, as well as a business credit card.
Since we signed up for these cards during bonus periods, here’s a snapshot of what we earned:
- 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
- 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
The biggest thing with signing up for a travel reward credit card is that you sign up during a bonus period or use a referral link. You can earn around 25,000 points when you sign up normally, but if you wait for a bonus period or sign up through our referral, you can earn up to 100K bonus points anytime. (Bonus points differ based on the type of CC you choose.)
We signed up for the plus and the premier at the same time, which may not make sense on paper. But it meant we earned 100,000 points almost instantly, setting us for even more rewards.
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 125,000 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 almost guaranteed to hit companion status! And if you do this early in the year, you can have companion status for almost two full years!
Once you hit the 125,000 mark, Southwest sends you an email letting you know that:
- You’re clearly awesome and
- 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 would pay for Heath’s flight in points (we had plenty!) and mine was nearly free. We have to pay is $5.60 per leg, which is the US government tax for domestic flights.
To save money on domestic flights, Southwest is the best place to start. I can’t recommend it enough.
There’s only one small con: They don’t fly everywhere, like an American or United. The fly to most major airports and 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
We’ve been dreaming of RVing abroad since we hit all 50 states. Which is why we signed up for Delta SkyMiles American Express card.
Skymiles is the same type of program as Southwest’s 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, more like 30,000. Miles is just a fancy-sounding word for points.
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 70,000 miles max, usually during a bonus period or through a referral link like ours. 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 normal 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 earned nearly 200K points, covering round trip flights to New Zealand and Italy. All we have to pay our government taxes, which are sometimes a couple hundred dollars depending on the country you fly to.
We’ve flown Delta a few times domestically since joining Skymiles as well 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
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 when I stay.
Personally, I prefer IHG because they have more “budget” hotels whereas Marriott can be a little pricier.
Here’s what we got when we signed up 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
These bonuses have changed a lot since we signed up, namely your elite status and the annual fee. If you use our referral link, you can get up 125,000 bonus points!
Hotels run anywhere from 10K points to 40K points a night (in my experience), so if you choose right, your points can last a while. You can get easily 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 hidden best part: By earning 75,000 points, which you’ll easily do after hitting the minimum spend, you earn elite status. We hit the “Spite Elite status”.
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 and even had access to executive lounges. We do not book or pay for suites. We pay for the cheapest room they have, but with our status, they give us an automatic upgrade to their nicest room, plus other perks like free breakfast, free drinks from the bar, 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.
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!