How to Travel Hack Your Way Through a Flip (& See the World For Free!)

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Have you heard of travel hacking? It’s a way to get free (or almost free) travel by opening a credit card — or a series of them — and spending the minimum amount of dollars required to earn the big bonus points or miles to travel for free. Here’s an example.

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The Upside

A few years ago, British Airways was offering 100,000 Avios (the name of their rewards program) points to anyone who would sign up for their card and spend $3,000 in the first 3 months after opening the account. I was skeptical when I first heard about it because I don’t frequently travel to Britain. Little did I know. A touch of research (thanks, Google!) turned up that British Airways has a sister airline, American. American flies to Hawaii for as little as 35,000 points round trip — if you book in the off-season and follow a number of other restrictions. “Sister airline” means you can use the points from one program to fly on another airline.

So those 100,000 Avios points make up almost 3 round trip flights to Hawaii. I have two daughters and a husband. Doing some quick math, I discovered I could get FOUR round trip tickets to Hawaii if we both opened a card and spent the requisite amount. And we just so happened to be flipping a house. Six thousand dollars is easy to spend when you are in the middle of a rehab.

But wait, there’s more! British Airways allows you to combine Avios accounts into one household account if you would like. Um, yes please.

Before we continue, I have to tell you that each card opened had a $95 annual fee, which I don’t love to pay, but I do love to pay $190 for four round trip tickets to Hawaii!

For those of you keeping score, I just took the $6,000 that I would have spent on flipping supplies, and turned it into $6,000 worth of flipping supplies PLUS four round trip tickets to Hawaii. Oh, but wait. Thirty-five thousand points times four is only 140,000 points. What happened to those other 60,000 points? Well, how about four round trip tickets to Florida? Flying in the off-season really helps you maximize your rewards.

Not only do you earn those bonus points, you typically earn a point for every dollar you spend. Since I spent $6,000, I earned 6,000 points. I didn’t quite have enough for four round trips to Florida, so I ended up spending $40 to buy 1,000 more points to get there.

The Downside

OK, there really isn’t any bad news, per se. Let’s call it a caution. You really don’t benefit from any of these programs if you don’t pay off your credit card every month. Carrying a balance on a card wipes out any “free” anything. Those interest charges add up quickly, turning it into a sort of robbing “Peter to pay Paul” deal…

When you open a card, your credit score gets a “hard inquiry,” which can knock the score down a few points. Once you are approved, your “available credit” goes up, which can also take your score down a few points.

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What if I’m Not Flipping Houses?

Periodically, I open a new card because I need the points or miles. While I am a frugal person, I am still easily able to make the minimum purchases to get the rewards because I simply switch spending over to the new card. I hate going into the gas station to pay for gas when there is pay-at-the-pump. (First world problems, right?)

Related: How to “Hack” Your Housing and Get Paid to Live for Free

My husband is self-employed, so we pay for our own healthcare 100% out of pocket. Enter the Affordable Healthcare Act, which connected us with our current provider, who just happens to take credit cards. We don’t qualify for any subsidies, so the entire amount goes onto whatever card we are trying to rack up spending for. It accounts for more than half of the spending requirement. Since we both work from home and need internet access, that goes onto the card, too. Groceries, gas and the occasional meal out top off the spending, and we are able to meet our goals easily.

I learned everything I know about travel hacking from my friend Brad, who blogs about travel hacking over at Richmond Savers. Since he knows so much about this, I thought I would share with you some of his thoughts and tips.

4 Questions About Travel Hacking, Answered

Why do credit card companies offer rewards? What’s in it for them?

Customers! It is a competitive landscape out there for credit card companies, and the major banks are all competing over the same lucrative customers. They traditionally offer rewards (even the 1-2% of “normal” rewards) as a way to keep their customers happy and provide some incentive to continue using the credit card.

Where we move into more interesting territory for travel hackers is when we talk about the huge signup bonuses the banks offer for new card accounts (often in the range of 50,000 miles/points, which you should be able to turn into $500-$1,000+ of travel). These are incentives to open new cards and move your business from one bank to another; these are generally only on the premium cards that require well over a 700 credit rating to get approved for, so you’re talking about the most creditworthy customers.

What is the best way to make use of the cards? Plan the vacation first, or acquire the points and then plan around them?

This is really all about the signup bonuses, as that’s where the vast majority of the points/value comes from, so you need to maximize as many of these bonuses as you feel comfortable with. My wife and I systematically go through these cards and continually open up new ones, so we’re always working on another bonus. That enables us to get about 20%-30% rewards on all of our regular spending instead of the standard 1%-2%.

For people just getting into this, I think planning around a vacation is the best way to get started because it is more concrete and definable. Travel hacking seems a bit odd when you first encounter the concept, so getting that first “win” under your belt is a great way to start. For the more seasoned travel hacker, it is all about amassing these points constantly, especially the more valuable, transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards (which transfer to many different airlines and hotels, so they have built-in flexibility and diversification).

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What are your best tips for travel hacking?

The mechanics of travel hacking are fairly easy once you get into it: earn points, find airline and hotel award availability, book your nearly free travel and enjoy! Sure, there are hundreds of little rules and tricks that you need to know to fully maximize your points, but from an 80/20 perspective, you can get up to speed on the basic mechanics fairly quickly.

The mental approach, however, is more difficult and requires a bit of a re-think on your travel plans. I tell people that the biggest thing you can do to succeed with travel hacking is to be flexible. Flexible with dates and times most importantly; flexible with potential destinations, airports, points you earn, etc. Any bit of flexibility you can build in will help you succeed because the reality is that there are limited “Saver Level” award seats, and people book these flights. This is what most people erroneously call “blackout dates,” but what it really means in most cases is that someone booked the award seats before you did.

If you can be open-minded and see that travel hacking will save you many thousands of dollars potentially each year and help you see the world, then you will love this! If you are dead set on your dates, times and destinations and there’s no changing anything, then you probably aren’t ideal for this concept (but amazingly, you can still save money with cards like the Cap One Venture and Barclaycard Arrival Plus).

More concrete tips would be:

  • Earn points well in advance of your trips, as there’s nothing worse than having to scramble for points last-minute while you’re hoping award seats you found don’t get booked.
  • Understand that with the airline alliances, you can fly on many airlines with one miles currency. For instance, with United miles, you can fly on Air Canada, Lufthansa, TAP Portugal, Turkish Airlines and many others just to get to Europe.
  • Start with transferable points, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, because you have 11 different transfer partner options just by having these miles.
  • The low-hanging fruit of the rewards world: Southwest Airlines because there aren’t award seat limitations, hotel rooms at most major chains for the same reason (if they have a “standard” room available for cash you can use your points, right up until the last minute), “fixed value” cards, such as the Venture and Arrival Plus, because you just use your card to pay for travel and you get a statement credit on your credit card when you redeem your miles after the fact.

What are the downsides of travel hacking? Hit to credit score, etc.

The biggest downside of travel hacking is losing control of your finances. This is only good for a small sliver of the population, as you must be responsible with your cards, which to me means paying off on time and in full every single month.

If you’re organized and can keep track of your spending, then you shouldn’t have a problem with this concept.

There are usually minor impacts to your credit score, but that of course is dependent on a lot of factors, and I can’t definitively say that you won’t have an impact. I would say that if you’re looking to get a mortgage in the next 12-18 months that you should consider the impact of having many new credit card accounts on your credit report, even if only from the human perspective of an underwriter looking at it and wondering what you are up to.

Related: Upgrade Your Driving for Dollars Campaign With This Awesome Hack!

My credit score has actually increased from when we started 4 years ago, though it did drop by as much as 25 points at one time, which was quite acceptable based on my own risk tolerance for a potential drop. You need to do what you are comfortable with!

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Travel Hack Your Way Through Your Next Flip

A huge thanks to Brad for sharing this with us.

Travel hacking is a fantastic way to get free or almost-free travel. Building up these points by charging rehabbing supplies on a rewards credit card just seems like a no-brainer. If you have to spend the money anyway, why not get something out of it, too?

I like to open a new card for each new house or project that I tackle. I take the money I would already be spending on the project and turn it into vacation rewards. I also close the accounts when I am finished with the house or project, so there isn’t the open credit dinging my report. Rinse, repeat.

Like Brad said, if you aren’t able to pay off a card every month, then perhaps this isn’t the program for you. But if you can swing it, the world is your oyster.

Have you ever used a credit card to fund a flip? Would you consider trying your hand at travel hacking?

Please share your experiences.

About Author

Mindy Jensen

Mindy has flipped numerous homes in the past 10 years, one at a time and doing much of the work with her husband. She lives in Longmont, CO, and is always looking for an ugly duckling to turn into a swan.

31 Comments

  1. Tiffany Johnson

    Great article! I thought I was finding good deals before, but have never flown to Hawaii for free. I just recently discovered travel hacking, and I like your idea of opening a new card with each new house. We’re closing on a fixer soon, and with major rehab expenses coming up, I think we’ll definitely earn a free trip.

    • Mindy Jensen

      Tiffany, you would be surprised at how fast you can meet your spending requirements with a new flip. It is also helpful to keep track of purchases and returns at the big box stores with one card for each property.

    • Mindy Jensen

      A good point, Adrian.
      Manufactured Spending is where you get your spending requirements by purchasing things to use later, such as gift cards. I like to put all expenses on one card until I hit the requirement. Towards the end of the introductory spending period, you can use gift cards to push you over the limit so you qualify for the rewards, without having to purchase unnecessary things.

  2. Kate H.

    Yeaahh, the magic of travel hacking! We’ve traveled to Europe (round trip) for free a couple of months ago through United. We have a companion pass with Southwest (lets you take someone with you for free) until the end of 2016 plus >110.000 miles to use on flights. Needless to say, we’ve already traveled a lot this year. Oh and then there are the hotel bonuses that we’re also loving. All without ever paying a dollar in interest.

    • Mindy Jensen

      It really is an awesome concept. But you bring up a great reminder, this really only works if you pay off the cards every month. It isn’t free if you are paying hefty interest charges.
      And I’m so jealous of the travel pass. I don’t have one yet, but I am so looking forward to some day qualifying for it!

  3. Michael S.

    I just did this on my BRRRR, i opened 2 credit cards ( just for the sign on bonus )only i spent 4000$ and got 1000$ in gift cards to Homedepot. a lot of cards waive the first year annual fee. I think as long as I close out the card before year 2 you dont have to pay the annual fee. I could be wrong though.

      • Mindy Jensen

        Sorry, Nasar!

        Audrey, having accounts open for a long time can help your score, but having lots of open credit accounts can have a negative effect. For the purposes of this article, if you are finished with the card, closing it out can be the best thing for your credit. Having thousands of dollars in available credit that you aren’t using doesn’t help your score, though.

  4. Todd G.

    Mindy ~

    Good article & kudos for linking Brad, as he is well-versed with this method.

    Consider the drawbacks, though, folks! With all the good of this method, there are also significant downside(s).

    Don’t get yourself in trouble, make certain that you’re financially responsible enough to charge & pay off the spending minimums that are required.

    • Mindy Jensen

      Thank you for the reminder, Todd.
      Travel Hacking only works if you can pay the cards off every month. Getting yourself into deep credit card debt to rack up enough points to fly to Hawaii for free isn’t worth it.

    • Mindy Jensen

      Hi Nathan.
      I don’t typically keep the cards open past the first free year. Your credit score is made up of many factors, including available credit – the amount of money you ‘could’ spend if you ran up every card you had. The more available credit you have, the higher a risk you are perceived to be. I like to keep my score up so I close these accounts after I have earned the rewards.

  5. Chad Steinhausser

    Use those credit cards somewhere with a Fuel Points program to pick up $100-$500 gift cards (Home Depot, Lowe’s, Amazon, etc) to purchase your rehab materials and enjoy a couple free tanks of gas as extra icing on your Travel Hack cake.

  6. Ryan Chlebek

    Great article, Mindy! Another great resource for travel hacking is The Points Guy, http://www.thepointsguy.com. I get daily updates in my inbox from this site with some excellent credit card strategies. It’s such a fun hobby!!

    Btw, you mentioned Southwest as being low-hanging fruit. I would like to add that by applying for 2 different versions of the Southwest credit card (especially when the bonus for each is 50,000 miles), it’s VERY easy to get a companion pass (when you earn 110,000 points in a calendar year), meaning that whenever you book a ticket on Southwest, a companion flies for free for the rest of that calendar year AND the entire following year, potentially saving thousands of dollars depending on where/how often you fly.

  7. Jim Stoffey

    Hi, Mindy! I used this concept once (and love it) — with American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card which has a $195 annual fee I think. I got 100,000 free miles and they waived the fee for the first year. At the end of the year, I called and asked to cancel, and Amex offered to waive the fee for another year. No problem! So I recently called again (hoping they’ll waive the fee again) but had no luck and closed it (well, switched to their no-fee card to keep an account with them as I love Amex). Still, I thought this is something people might want to know…

    I do have a question, though. Have you had experience with closing the accounts after, say, a year? I have read that your score can be impacted negatively if you close an account shortly after opening it, and this has stopped me from opening any new accounts explicitly for the points.

    • Jim Stoffey

      In my experience, you must use the points before you close the account. However, a lot of companies, Amex for sure, will allow you to transfer the points from Card A to another card with them. For example, I transferred excess points from my Gold Card after they wouldn’t waive the fee for a second time to my Amex everyday card, which has no fee.

      • paul j.

        It depends who the points are with. For instance, if you open a Chase MileagePlus Explorer card, you accrue United MileagePlus miles. Those stay alive for something like a year-year & a half after they are earned, and it’s easy to ‘refresh’ them using programs such as MileageX or the dining miles program. If it is a ‘ban’ points account, like Amex Member Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards, the points die with the account. The good news here is, if you ultimately decide to 86 the account, you can transfer the points to one of the affiliate programs first and retain some value from them.

        • paul j.

          ‘ban’ = ‘bank’. Bank program points generally die with the card or the death of all the cards that earn them, in the case of American Express.

  8. John Hyatt

    Hi Mindy, great article! I have a question about how you manage the credit cards. for example the credit card you got for $95 that requires you to spend $3000 in first three months. After you get the rewards, do you close the credit card or continue to pay $95 a year on a credit card you don’t use anymore? I have always struggled with cards that charge annual fees because I heard that closing a credit card can actually hurt your credit score worse than if you just leave it open. If you don’t use it anymore and have to pay $95 a year it could get expensive over time or at least I would think.

    • paul j.

      The hot tip here is to set yourself a calendar reminder for 11 months out from opening the account. If you’re not quite that organized, many but not all AF cards will allow you to cancel shortly after the new fee posting or on a pro-rated, by-the-month basis.

      Rather than cancel these accounts and look like a poor customer to these banks (because lets face it, I might want another card from them in the future…) I try to downgrade the card by calling customer service. Depending on the issuer, many cards have a ‘free’ version with less benefits, that allow you to keep both the credit line history and the relationship with the bank. Or, some cards have multiple AF and free cards that contribute to the same program – for instance, I had an AMEX Platinum card with a high AF that earned Membership Rewards points. I wanted to close it prior to the 2nd AF hitting, so first I opened an AMEX Everyday card, which has no fee at all, which netted me an extra 10,000 MR’s and also allowed me to retain a Membership Rewards account as both cards feed into the same points program.

  9. Kathleen Hendricks

    Mindy, Thanks for sharing this. Great tips for anyone who loves travel. I just finished listening to the BP podcast with you and have to say that you are an inspiration. I’m going to go ahead and plan some repair and refurbish projects to do myself instead of hiring them out. We’ll see how I do!

  10. scott stevens on

    Mindy,

    One cool benefit of some credit cards is extended warranty benefits. Basically, if your card has the feature, for a lot of items with manufacturer warranties of five years or less, the card will extend the warranty by one year if you purchase the item in full on that card.

    I had a first world problem… an ice maker went out at one of my rental homes and the warranty from the manufacturer expired 6 months prior.. Since I used a card that had this benefit, I called the card company to file a claim. I filled out a simple form, provided the sales receipt, card statement, and copy of manufacturer’s warranty, along with the appliance company’s repair receipt ($220), and five business days later, I got a call saying the card company approved my claim and would be mailing a check.

    Pretty awesome, something I think BP members should be aware of. I would actually recommend people look more into the cards with annual fees as I find their benefits and point potential to pay for the card many times over.

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