vacation for free

Travel Hacking: How We Travel for (Almost) Free

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When we were full-time RVing, we still loved taking to the skies and heading on far-off adventures. That included flying to RV abroad in countries like New Zealand and Italy. Now that we’ve got two kids in tow, we’re still part-time traveling and taking our family all over the world.

We could never have afforded so much travel in our adult lives if it wasn’t for “travel hacking.”

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 almost a decade!

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:

How to Fly for Free

How to Fly for Free Internationally

How to Stay for Free

How to Score Cheap Flights

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 strategy is not for you.

How to Fly For Free (Domestically)

I am a huge Southwest Airlines fan. They are friendly and 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 domestic, 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 by 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:

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

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 80K bonus points anytime. (Bonus points differ based on the type of CC you choose/current promotion.)

We signed up for the plus and the premier cards 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. 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:

  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 would pay for Heath’s flight in points (we had plenty!) and mine was nearly free. We have to pay $5.60 per leg, which is the US government tax for domestic flights. (The cost may be more if you take an international flight, for example to Mexico, when there are more fees and taxes involved.)

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. They 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.

How to Fly For Free Internationally

We’ve been dreaming of RVing abroad since we hit all 50 states. This 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 3,000 miles, more like 30,000. Miles is just a fancy-sounding word for points.

Here are the details from when we signed up:

      • 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 lowest 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 is our government taxes, which are sometimes a couple of hundred dollars per person 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. They also have a companion pass on the Platinum card, but it’s for one flight a year, not every flight like Southwest. We’ve actually never used our Delta companion pass now that I think of it…we need to take advantage!

The gluten-free breakfast option on our overnight Delta flight to Sydney.

 

The biggest con with Delta is that it is an American Express card, which many small businesses do not accept. When we travel abroad, we’ve noticed that it’s really best to bring a Visa or Mastercard because you can use it everywhere.

You can learn more about Delta’s SkyMiles program and their Amex card here.

Those are our two big hacks to fly for free.

But there’s still one other hefty expense during travel: lodging.

How to Stay For Free

free hotel in paris
Our free hotel in Paris

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. That’s because joining these hotel reward programs is free (joining most airline reward programs is also free!). We have accounts with Choice Hotels, IHG, Marriott, and Hilton.

But we’ve only had the credit cards for IHG, Marriott, and Hilton.

I find hotel groups particularly confusing since a group will have a dozen different brands of hotels under their umbrella. For example, no one knows what IHG means. It’s Intercontinental Hotel Group. They cover 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 IHG and Choice never make it clear which hotels they own.

(And those are by no means the only hotel chains out there, just some of the bigger ones.)

We’re in all the programs and have three hotel credit cards: IHG and Marriott, both offered by Chase, and Hilton, by American Express. We’ve gotten multiple free hotel nights with each card. Marriott used to give annual free nights but stopped a few years ago. Hilton points landed us three free last-minute nights in London in June, but that used up all our sign-up bonus points. With IHG, I’ve probably gotten 20 free nights. I’ve had it the longest, but in general their points go longer than any other hotel brand.

Of the three, IHG is my favorite.

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 140,000 bonus points (and see their current promotion period benefits as these change often).

This year (2022) IHG has done a massive overhaul of its benefits, so I’m wondering if the card will still be worth it in the future. But if you get the 140,000 bonus points at sign-up, that’s nearly two weeks of free hotel nights, which is the highest bonus I’ve ever seen on a hotel card.

Right now, the free anniversary night each year is why I’ve had this card for almost a decade. The annual credit card fee is way lower than the cost of a hotel night! They are phasing out that benefit, though.

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 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” when we first signed up.

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. Almost every time we stay at an IHG hotel, we’ve been upgraded to suites and even had access to executive lounges with free snacks. 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.

Like when we got to Paris in June and they gave us a card for free wine. It’s the first time a hotel has ever given me a wine tasting to help me choose my red:

The right is the “full-bodied” wine and the left is the “light-bodied, fruit-forward” wine. That might be the most French thing I’ve ever said 😂 🍷

 

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.

Keeping Track of Reward Programs

Back in 2013, I started a note on my phone that looks like this:

Choice Hotel

#

username:

Southwest 

Alyssa #

username:

Heath #:

username:

Hilton Honors HH

And so on and so forth. It’s a very long note all these years later! It stores my Skymiles/Rapid Rewards/Hotel number and my username for each account so I can easily reference them. Any time I book a flight on Delta, like I literally did this morning, I can easily open the note and copy Heath’s Skymiles number and even Ellie’s number! Yes, even Ellie has her own account. (Not her own credit cards, to be clear, but her own Skymiles account so she can earn points for every flight. When she turns 18, she can go on a free epic trip of her own.)

Our (Current) Favorite Credit Card for Flight and Hotel Points

Having a lot of flight and hotel cards can negatively affect your credit (especially if you’re signing up for a lot in a single calendar year or if you’re not paying off your credit cards every month like you should).

Which is when it’s good to consider a card that gets you points for both!

Our current fave is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

(You may see from this post that a lot of the CCs we use are Chase credit cards. I like their app the best for managing banking, particularly when we’re abroad.)

At the time we signed up, the card sign-up bonus gave you 100,000—literally the highest it had ever been. At the time of writing, it’s at 60,000, which is still good, but that promo was seriously impressive. Signing up for any card during a big promo makes a big difference!

The Chase Sapphire Preferred will earn you points that you can transfer to multiple airlines and hotel groups. Currently, you can transfer points with no fee to:

Airline Travel Partners

  • Aer Lingus, AerClub
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Emirates Skywards®
  • Flying Blue AIR FRANCE KLM
  • Iberia Plus
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®
  • United MileagePlus®
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Hotel Travel Partners

  • IHG® Rewards Club
  • Marriott Bonvoy®
  • World of Hyatt®

I recently transferred points to our Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards account when I was 10,000 points shy of booking flights for our family of four to visit Mexico. The process was extremely simple and it took around five minutes for me to refresh my Southwest account and see that the points had been deposited.

I love the flexibility of this card since it can partner with so many companies. If I need a hotel night and I’m shy a few points, I can easily cover the difference by transferring points—making this a great card to have in conjunction with my other travel cards.

Mistake Fares and Cheap Flight Deals

I love free flights, but there is a time for shelling out for a flight.

We love the Faredrop app to find ultra-cheap flights from the US to countries all over the world. Faredrop, created by our friends Kara and Nate, is an app that sends you flight deals directly to your phone or email. You can set your “home airport” AKA where you would like to fly out of and which region of the world you’re most interested in traveling to. Then you’ll get updates immediately as their software finds deals.

faredrop.com

Some deals are mistake fares. Mistakes fares are accidental price mistakes made by airlines. Other deals may be promotions airlines are running, short-term sales, or just unexpected low prices. Deals usually only last a couple of days (if that long) so you want to keep watch on your notifications to see if there are deals on the places you’re wanting to visit.

For our first international trip with our daughter when she was four months old, we found a Faredrop deal to Italy.

Flights to Venice were under $500—normally $1,150!

We quickly booked two round-trip tickets to spend a month in Italy. Flights were under $1,000 for us both, and we paid a nominal fee for an infant-in-arms ticket.

Whenever we are looking for flight deals but don’t have points, Faredrop is our go-to resource for saving money.


Heath and I are pretty frugal people who love to travel. If you’re fiscally responsible enough to pay off your credit cards and not accrue debt, I cannot recommend travel hacking enough. Heath and I rarely pay for flights or hotels, and that is a great feeling.

Because we travel as often as we do, all of the annual fees on all of these credit cards are worth it.

Do you utilize travel benefits from credit cards? What’s your favorite? I’m always looking for another good deal!

Note: 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!

16 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!

    • We regularly shop at Sam’s Club and buy our gas there and at Costco. By having each of these credit cards, we rarely pay for gas for our RV. Before a trip, hubby goes into the stores and gets the gas cards with our accrued points.

      • That’s a great strategy—especially with current gas prices! I just finally signed up for a Sam’s Club membership. They have the best almond butter! 😂

  • […] 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)?

    • I’m not sure if you can upgrade an existing card through a referral! That would be a question for the bank.

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