Flights are usually the most expensive part of my adventure. A luxury apartment in Vietnam is $600 a month and a full on vacation in the Galapagos Islands costs as much as daily life in Dallas, Texas. That means getting to a destination is a huge chunk of the overall expenses, if you choose the right destination. Knowing how to get free flights, and knowing the best rewards credit card for travelhacking, and having a process for doing it each year has saved me thousands…which I willingly waste on food, wine, and more great adventures.
In this article, I’ll outline the 7 steps I use to “travelhack” flights. I do it every year, for about 30 minutes, and as such I haven’t paid for an intercontinental flight since I first got addicted to traveling. 80% of “travel hacking” is getting a free flight to your destination of choice. The remainder of travel hacking (how I do it) is choosing destinations that deliver everything I want for a fraction of the price of the popular destinations.
Disclaimer: This post has absolutely nothing new on the topic of travelhacking. It is simply a no nonsense summary of a simple process that I’ve repeated for years to let airline points build up between travels. Essentially I open a credit, meet the minimum spend, receive the bonus, and close the card before I’m charged an annual fee. That’s it.
But will opening and closing credit cards ruin my credit score?
Not in my experience. I’ve been doing this consistently for 5 years and have never had a credit score hit. My score has never gone below 800.
The Side Note: You must pay your balance in full every month. Live off your cash and spend it via your credit card but do not live off your credit via your credit card. Pay your balance in full each month. If you can’t do that, leave this process alone.
Now…on to the travelhacking process…
How to get free flights by using the best rewards credit card for your destination
Carlito’s Travelhacking Process for Free Flights
Step 1: Decide where you want to go (e.g., Southeast Asia, Europe, Argentina, Mexico, etc.) to figure out how many points you’ll need to get there.
Step 2: Identify the best airline to get your chosen destination and how many points it will take get there on that airline
Step 3: Identify a rewards credit providing a large (50,000+) introductory points bonus for your chosen airline
Step 4: Meet the minimum spend to attain the points bonusa
Step 5: Keep making your payments and close the card sometime between the 1 and 2 year mark
Step 6: Reopen the same credit card two years later and repeat the process.
How to Get Free Flights Through Travel Hacking – A 6 Step Process
Step 1 of How to get Free Flights : Decide which continent you want to travel to (e.g., Southeast Asia, Europe, Argentina, Mexico, etc.) and when
The first step in knowing how to get free flights is defining your goal (and destination). If you know where you’re going you can then open credit cards based on how the airlines fly, who they partner with, and how many points it will cost.
If you are trying to budget and willing to explore, use this as a starting point for your research based on where you want to go.
If you are traveling for:
- Beaches: Go to Asia (Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka)
- Mountains: Go to South America (Patagonian Chile and Argentina or Bolivia if you like it rough…)
- European feel with flair: Buenos Aires, Medellin
- Europe, but cheaper: Portugal, Croatia
- Pure adventure and chaos: Bolivia, Peru, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia
Step 2 of How to get Free Flights : Identify the best airline for getting to your chosen destination and how many points it will take get there on that airline during your chosen period
Each airline’s service and booking processes are excellent for a certain region and type of travel. Granted, each airline listed below is part of global network, I prefer to plan solely based on the booking services and flights offered by these primary airlines, to keep things simple
American Airlines (Best for travelhacking flights between the US and South America, Asia, Europe, or Africa)
Any destination originating in or terminating in the US is a reasonable option for American Airlines. The flights can be easily booked on line without any operator assistance. For flights completely outside of the Americas, American Airlines Award travel can be an extreme headache as the travel must be manually booked by the awards line operators – a miserable experience. Booking my flight from Nepal to Ecuador was a nightmare that made me wish I’d reserved more United miles
American Airlines Award flight book fees and tips
The optimal time to book is 21 days in advance to avoid any fees – meaning a completely free flight! Anytime after 21 days will result in a $75 booking charge
For flights coming from or going to the US, American Airlines is a good bet
View the American Airlines Award chart
Get an idea of American Airlines Award flights availability and costs by viewing the American Airlines Booking Page and checking for your destination
United Airlines (Best for travelhacking flights beginning and ending outside of the US)
United Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance and makes it very easy to book through partners online for virtually any international destination. United is my go to for any flight originating outside of the US and ending outside of the US
United Airlines flight book fees and tips
Just like with American Airlines, the optimal time to book is 21 days in advance to avoid any fees – meaning a completely free flight! Any time after 21 days will result in a $75 booking charge
View the United Airlines Award Travel Chart
Get an idea of United Airlines Award flights availability and costs by viewing the United Airlines Award Travel Booking Page and checking for your destination
Southwest Airlines (Best for travelhacking North America and Central America)
For any flights in North America and Central America, Southwest Airlines should be your bet. Whether your destination is San Diego or Costa, Rica, Southwest covers it. The extreme upside is with points you make a reservation and cancel it without losing your points – which I’ve done so many times I’m surprised Southwest still lets me onboard.
Slim to none. Just taxes and fees, which are around $5-$20 depending on destination
Southwest Airlines International Destinations
In Central America, Southwest Airlines serves the following international destinations:
- Cabo San Lucas/Los Cabos
- Grand Cayman
- Liberia, Costa Rica
- Mexico City
- Montego Bay
- Nassau, Bahamas
- Puerto Vallarta
- Punta Cana
- San Jose, Costa Rica
- Turks and Caicos
For more info, checkout the Southwest Airlines Route Map
Southwest Airline’s fares change all of the time, but they’re always reasonable. To view award travel points required, search the Southwest Airlines Low Fare calendar and change from the dollars to points option
My Approach to collecting airline points – diversify your points so that you always have an option to go anywhere for free
I prefer to keep options for every path and continent in my stash, so I constantly build points with American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines, This way, I’m covered in a rational way for any rote, and keep a few points on standby for friends
So a review on planning out your airline points and where to get them
American airline for my flights originating or terminating in the US
United airlines for any non US travel during Round the World
Southwest Airlines for any vacations in North America and Central America
Step 3 of How to get Free Flights : Identify the best rewards credit Card for your travel destination & ensure it provides a large (40,000+) introductory points bonus for your chosen airline, and signup
Now that you know your destination and airline of choice, find a credit card that gives a significant (40,000+ points) introductory bonus for your airline. To get the introductory bonus you usually have to spend a minimum amount of $3000-$5000 in the first 3 to 4 months. We’ll talk about how to meet that minimum spend later.
There are plenty of credit cards with bonuses that fit our criteria, but these are my most trusted ones I’ve used, by airline based on reward size, :
Best Rewards Credit Card For American Airlines:
Citi Aadvantage Platinum Select Card (50,000 point bonus after spending $2,500 in the first 3 months)
Best Rewards Credit Card For United Airlines:
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (50,000 point bonus after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months)
Chase Sapphire Reserve Card (50,000 point bonus after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months)
United Mileageplus Explorer Card (40,000 point bonus after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months)
Chase Business Ink Card (80,000 point bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months)
Best Rewards Credit Card For Southwest Airlines:
Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Card (40,000 point bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months)
Step 4: Meet the minimum spend to attain the points bonus
Now, to get the introductory points bonus, you will need to spend the amount stated in the fine print for the card within a period (usually 3-4 months) stated in your contract. This minimum spend can be met a few different ways, but these are my go-to methods, in order
- Pay your normal bills and utilities with your credit card
- Pay rent using Plastiq, Rentshare, or Renttrack services using credit card (~3% fee)
- Purchase gift cards that you can used on routine expenses that you will incur normally (Amazon gift cards, grocery cards, etc.)
- PayPal yourself or someone you trust (2% fee)
- Buy ice cream. Lots of ice cream.
Pay your normal bills and utilities with your credit card
This is straightforward. Pay all of your normal expenses (gas, groceries, bills, etc.) with the card you’re aiming for minimum spend on
This will require signing up and paying a 2% service fee but the $60 service fee on a $3000 of rent is well worth 2 $1000 tickets to Argentina.
Purchase gift cards that you can used on routine expenses that you will incur normally (Amazon gift cards, grocery cards, etc.)
When I’m not traveling, I hate going shopping anywhere except for the grocery store, so I order everything on Amazon. In fact, I think Jeff Bezos and I need to have a talk. As such, if I need to meet my minimum spend I’ll by $1,000 worth of Amazon gift cards and use them for my purchases through the year.
PayPal yourself or someone you trust (2% fee)
If you have someone that you trust, other than your dog Baxter, you can PayPal them $3,000 financed via your credit card and then just hand the cash back to you, or a check. Also, if you keep two different sets of accounts (separate accounts in a marriage, personal and business accounts, travel and non-travel accounts, etc.) this is an option to do on your own. And again, the $60 service fee is well worth 2 tickets worth $1000 a piece.
Buy ice cream. Lots of ice cream.
This one will be a lot easier if you’re feeling overly emotional, so, go ahead and stir up some drama in your life before undertaking this one.
Note that the following transactions usually do not count towards your bonus or points on the card:
- Cash Advances
- Balance Transfers
- Purchasing money orders
- Cash cards (like Vanilla or prepaid credit cards)
HUGE WARNING on spending more than you can pay off!!!
For the sake of financial sanity DO NOT buy anything that you would not normally buy just for the sake of making the minimm credit card spend. It is very possible to accomplish this without building unnecessary debt, so please do so
Step 5 of How to get Free Flights : Use your points to book your dream trip
Once you have you have your points in your account, know your destination, and know your dates of travel, book as soon as possible! “Award travel” options tend to be limited, so the earlier you book, the more options you will have available. Also, if you book more than 21 days in advance you avoid all fees, giving you a completely free flight. And that rocks. A lot.
Book online with your chosen airline to keep costs low and see all of your flight options. Using a customer service representative to
- United Airlines Award Travel Booking Page
- Southwest Airlines Low Fare calendar (find your fare there and then continue to booking)
If flights are through partner airlines, be aware of additional taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges. These taxes and fees vary by partner airline and can be $0 or $100s, so book early to ensure you get the flight leaving when you want with the lowest fees.
Step 6 of How to get Free Flights : Continue your normal spend on your rewards credit card, keep paying the full balance each month, and close the card sometime between the 1 and 2 year mark, before the annual fees hit
After your trip, continue spending on the card, and paying it off in full each month, to accrue points and maintain a good credit score.
Sometime between the one and two year mark (before the second year annual fee is charged), call and cancel the credit card, and restart the process with a new credit card earning a new bonus.
Step 7 of How to get Free Flights : Reopen the same credit card two years later and repeat the process.
For most credit cards, applicants are either eligible for a new introductory bonus offer two years after they last closed their credit card account or two years after they last received an introductory offer. Check with the credit card company before applying again to ensure you’re eligible, once you know that you’ll receive the offer again, signup again and repeat the process
Use points for intercontinental flights and use budget airlines to travel between countries within the same continent
- Europe – RyanAir, Easyjet, Norwegian Air, Aerlingus
- Asia – Air Asia
- North America – Spirit, Southwest
- South America – Avianca
Or use Skyscanner to find the domestic budget airlines flights
Pack light and keep to carryon sized luggage cut down on fees with budget airlines
Bringing extra baggage on domestic budget airlines can cost you anything from $25 to $70 USD depending on when you pay for the baggage.
Keep it free by carrying baggage according to the following restrictions
- 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm) – Note this varies by airline
- 22 pounds (10 Kilograms)
Check with your airline to make sure the same parameters apply but these measurements work for most
Travel slower to enjoy cities longer and keep costs low
The longer you are in a destination, the cheaper it will become. Lodging is cheaper, the cost of your flight is spread over a longer period, and you start to eat at the great (cheaper) local spots instead of as a tourist. The longer you stay, the cheaper your trip gets.
- Will closing the credit cards for travel hacking hurt my credit score?
Your credit score will take a temporary dip (1-2 months) and then come back up when you close an account, but you will not be hurt in the long term. I’ve done this repeatedly for the last 7 years and my credit score has never gone below 800. I do experience a slight dip after closing and opening credit cards at the same time, but my score always rebounds.
- Will this travel hacking with credit cards work for non-US citizens?
The short answer – as long as you have a Social Security Number or Tax payer ID number. If you do not, then you will likely not be approved for most of these credit cards