UPDATE: We updated this post in November 2022 with new links and all of the current sign-up bonuses for cards we recommend. We also added the Capital One Venture X card that we just picked up.
If you’re wondering how to get free flight tickets, read on for a little crash course we like to call Travel Hacking 101. We’ve been travel hacking for years now and have scored tons of free flights (and even a free iPhone!) in the process. We’ll show you some of the best travel hacking credit cards and help you get started.
But first, let us answer an important question…
What is Travel Hacking?
Travel hacking is a way to earn free flights, hotel stays, and more. The best way to become a travel hacker is by signing up for airline and hotel credit cards. Before we go on, it’s important to state this loud and clear:
DO NOT SIGN UP FOR A CREDIT CARD IF YOU CAN’T PAY IT OFF IN FULL!
Travel hacking credit cards are great if you can pay them off, but they’re terrible if you can’t. Getting points and even free flights is not worth it if you end up paying a ton in interest and/or late fees.
We only recommend you continue with this Travel Hacking 101 post if you can responsibly use credit cards. For the record, we have never missed a payment or paid interest fees, and we don’t want you to, either!
We should also add that this is a perfectly legal and normal practice.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get back to the exciting stuff, like how to get a free flight or hotel stay.
Basically, travel hacking is a system where you apply for credit cards to take advantage of generous sign-up bonuses. Banks want you to get their credit cards, so they partner with airlines and hotels to offer rewards programs.
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How Travel Hacking Works
Generally speaking, this is how it works – you sign up for a credit card and you have to spend X amount of dollars in a certain amount of time. Most travel hacking credit cards give you three months to do this. Once you’ve crossed that threshold, you’ll be rewarded handsomely with thousands of points.
With those points, you can book flights or hotel stays. Voila – that’s Travel Hacking 101 at its simplest!
But wait – there’s more!
Most travel hacking credit cards come with lots of other perks. For airlines, this usually means free checked bags, priority boarding, and discounts on in-flight food & beverages. Some of the better cards even come with passes for airport lounges.
Hello, free Bloody Marys!
Hotel cards may reward you with early check-in or upgraded rooms. Just another perk of travel hacking!
If you’re wondering why banks would just give away tons of points like that, there are a few reasons. Many people don’t pay their bills off in full, thus incurring interest charges. Once again, don’t do this!
In addition, a vast majority of these travel hacking credit cards have an annual fee. This typically ranges from somewhere around $70 up to $500 for some of the super fancy cards. It’s not like the banks aren’t getting anything out of the deal. That being said, these fees are usually waived in the first year of your card membership.
The thing with sign-up bonuses is that you can only earn them once for most cards. That’s why we do a thing called churning where we get a different card every year or so.
Once we’ve gotten a sign-up bonus, we typically cancel that card before the annual fee comes due. That is of course unless it’s worth it to keep the card.
One of our top travel hacking 101 tips is to find a travel card that’s worth hanging onto. For us, that’s the Chase Sapphire. We’ll have more on that in a bit, so hang tight.
Travel Hacking 101: How to Get Free Flights
Our Travel Hacking 101 post is focused on how to get free flights, as that’s our top priority when travel hacking. We much prefer Airbnb to hotels these days, since we travel as digital nomads.
We like having our own kitchen and living space, so we don’t currently have any travel hacking credit cards for hotels. We’ll still list some of the most popular ones for you later in the post, though, because we’re awesome like that.
So you want to find out how to get free flight tickets?
Well, first of all, think about which airline is the best for you. This depends on your home airport and the places you want to travel to.
I’m from Detroit, which is a pretty big hub for all the major US airlines, but especially so for Delta. If I were still living in Motown, a Delta credit card would be a great choice.
As a matter of fact, the first time I dabbled in travel hacking was with a Delta American Express card. After earning the sign-up bonus, I was able to score a free non-stop flight from Beijing to Detroit when we were teaching English in China. It saved me a ton of money and got me home for Christmas.
For the past few years, we’ve been using Puerto Vallarta as our home base for half of the year. That’s why we’ve been loving the Southwest Rapid Rewards card, as we can get to and from Puerto Vallarta with them.
Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll want to check the current promotions for airline credit cards. Sometimes they offer bigger than normal sign-up bonuses, so you definitely want to take advantage of those whenever possible.
You will need to spend a certain amount of money in a set period of time, but you don’t want to be frivolous. Only sign up for travel hacking credit cards if you can meet the minimum spend with necessary purchases and pay them off in full.
For example, I needed a new computer last year and also wanted a new drone. I made sure to sign up for new cards before making those purchases, and also made sure I had saved enough money to cover them.
After a trip to the Apple store and an online DJI order, I found myself with 150,000 Southwest points plus the companion pass, meaning Rachel flies for basically free (just taxes and fees) for the entire year. Now that’s a Travel Hacking 101 success story!
The Best Travel Hacking Credit Cards
We have lots of experience with points hacking, as we’ve been doing this for several years now. In that time, we’ve cycled through plenty of travel hacking credit cards. Here are our top choices based on our experience:
Chase Sapphire Preferred
In our humble opinion, this is hands down the best card for travel hacking. It’s so good that we’ve kept it for several years and happily pay the annual fee, which is $95.
At the moment, they are running a pretty great offer. You can earn 60,000 points by spending $4,000 in the first three months. That’s worth a whopping $750 towards travel!
A few years ago, we both signed up for this card when we headed to South America for a big trip. We both earned the sign-up bonus, which I believe was 50,000 points at the time.
My points got us round-trip flights from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands and then one-way tickets from Lima to New Orleans. Rachel’s points helped us fill in the gaps with other flights around the continent. Between the two of us, we probably scored $2,000 worth of free flights!
Just by using the card regularly, we book at least one free flight a year. That’s because you get 2 points per $1 spent on both dining and travel, two things we spend quite a bit on.
We redeem our points for travel most of the time, and Chase has their own system that’s very easy to use. You end up getting the most bang for your buck by using points for airline tickets. That’s our best advice for how to get free flight tickets without pigeonholing yourself to one airline.
They also run promotions from time to time with other merchants. Last year points were worth 25% more with Apple. Since travel was on hold, I cashed in my stash of points for a brand new iPhone SE 2nd generation. Travel Hacking 101 FTW!
Just to reiterate, this is the best offer Chase has ever had. We highly recommend you start your travel hacking journey with this card. It’s the only card we’ve kept for several years and is by far our top choice.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
We’ve used just about all of the airline credit cards for points hacking over the years, and Southwest is far and away our favorite. They’re just the best airline in the US if you ask us, as they always offer two free checked bags and always have excellent deals.
They have several different options when it comes to their credit cards, so here’s a quick rundown, starting with their personal cards:
- Plus: $69 annual fee, 3,000 anniversary points, 3% foreign transaction fee
- Premier: $99 annual fee, 6,000 anniversary points, no foreign transaction fee
- Priority: $149 annual fee, 7,500 anniversary points, no foreign transaction fee, $75 travel credit, 4 upgraded bookings
We started out with the Plus card, but recently upgraded to the Priority. It’s a no-brainer, really – the $75 travel credit basically covers the difference in cost. You also get 4,500 more anniversary points and the upgraded bookings. Plus, there’s no foreign transaction fee.
At the moment (November 2022), you can earn 75,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months with any of these cards. This is one of the most generous sign-up bonuses we’ve seen in years, so we highly recommend adding this to your wallet.
If you’re like us and you have a business, it’s definitely worth looking into the options for their biz cards. There are two to choose from:
- Premier: $99 annual fee, 6,000 anniversary points, no foreign transaction fees
- Performance: $199 annual fee, 9,000 anniversary points, no foreign transaction fees, four upgraded boardings and more
For their Premier card, you can earn 60,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months. If you go with the Performance card, you can net a whopping 80,000 if you spend $5,000.
You’ll also get 3 points per $1 for Southwest purchases and can get a credit to use towards TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry. That’s a great perk for anyone who often travels internationally, as we do.
We use the Premier card for our business and are just fine with that. Using both a personal and a business card from Southwest is our top tip for Travel Hacking 101 if you can. I got both cards last year and earned the companion pass as a result.
When you get the Southwest companion pass, you can choose a companion who flies with you for basically nothing. On domestic flights, I pay $5.60 to add Rachel to my itinerary.
You get the companion pass for the remainder of the year that you earned it in plus the entire next year. Even though we stayed put in PV for eight months, we’re still going to rack up about 15 free flights with it.
I used points for my flights and added Rachel for pennies on the dollar. We’re saving at least $2,500 this year as a result. We’re going to hit a ton of shows on Phish tour 2021 as a result and get Rachel to #100!
Capital One Venture X
Updated November 2022: This is the newest card in our travel hacking arsenal, and we’re already loving it! We were looking for a new card to help us rack up some points to get home from South America next year, and this one gets great reviews and has some amazing perks.
At the moment, the Venture X card has a sign-up bonus of 75,000 points after spending $4,000 in 3 months. This is higher than the usual minimum spend, but it’s the holiday season and we’ve got a 3-month trip on the horizon so we’re not concerned with meeting it.
The annual fee is a bit steep at $395, but this card has a $300 travel credit. We will spend every dollar of that as soon as we book an Airbnb for Buenos Aires, so really the card is only $95.
In addition, it comes with access to the shiny new Capital One lounges. We’ll get to try out the Dallas lounge in January, so we’ll report back about it then.
While they are working on opening their own lounges, this card also comes with both the Priority Pass and Plaza Premium Lounge. This gets you access to around 1,400 lounges around the world!
There are lots of other perks with this card, such as cell phone protection and $100 credit towards TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry. We finally plan to sign up for that now that we both have a card with a discount.
Last but not least, Capital One card holders get pre-sale access to lots of different events. Hopefully, this helps us score some tickets to an in-demand show. We’ll report back if it does!
Chase Ink Business
For business owners out there, we also highly recommend adding the Chase Ink card to your arsenal. We picked it up last year so we could have a cash-back business card with no annual fee.
There are two standard options for an Ink Biz account, both of which come at no cost. The only difference is the cashback – one has unlimited 1.5% cashback while the other offers 5% on select categories (office supply stores, internet/cable/phone). We went with the former as we don’t have internet or phone accounts for our business.
Both cards currently offer a $750 cashback bonus after spending $7,500 in the first three months. We’re pretty happy with our Chase Ink Business Unlimited card so far and plan to hang onto it.
Note: We are current cardholders of all of these Chase cards and will receive a points bonus if you sign up through our link. You still get the same promotion as you would otherwise and are really helping us out if you apply with our links. We do not have affiliate links for any of the other cards listed in this post.
American Airlines Advantage
If you fly with American Airlines often, it’s definitely worth it to pick up one of their cards. We grabbed their CitiBusiness Platinum Select card a few years ago and have held onto it mainly because they fly into Tri-Cities, the small regional airport nearest Rachel’s hometown.
The annual fee for that card is $99, but it’s waived in the first year. Their current promo is 65,000 points for spending $4,000 in the first four months.
We got their sign-up bonus two years ago and only just finished using the miles we got as a result. We’ve mostly used them to get between Johnson City and Detroit/Chicago and also got our flights from Denver back to Puerto Vallarta.
If you’re just looking for a personal card, you can earn 50,000 points after spending just $2,500 in three months with their Platinum Select Card. The fine print is the same as the business card and both give you free checked bags on domestic flights for up to four companions.
With checked bags costing $30 per person these days, you’ll get your money’s worth in the 2nd year just by taking two one-way flights.
For travel hacking beginners and those not planning on making any big purchases in the next few months, their MileUp Mastercard is a solid choice. You’ll get 10,000 points and a $50 statement credit after spending just $500 in three months.
On the flip side, those with a bit more cash to burn can check out their Executive World Elite Mastercard. The annual fee is a bit steep at $450, but it gets you an Admiral Club membership in the process. That gives you access to over 50 airport lounges around the world, which is an awesome perk of Travel Hacking 101.
To explore all the various AA options, just click here.
UPDATE: We canceled the AA business card and I applied for a new personal one this summer. It helped knock $200 off our flight to get us to the Midwest for Summer Camp and gave us free bags.
I also got 40,000 points and used them plus another 4,000 I earned from regular spending to book flights from Asheville to Buenos Aires (!!!) for January. This flight usually costs around $700 per person, so it’s an incredible deal.
We don’t fly United much these days, but we’ve had great experiences with points hacking with their cards. A few years ago, we both picked up their Explorer card before our epic South America trip.
A quick search of flights will show you that it is quite expensive to jet-set around the continent. Since you can redeem United points for any airline in the Star Alliance network, we managed to save a boatload of money.
We used my points to book flights from Medellin to Quito and then Guayaquil to Lima. A few months later, we used Rachel’s to get us from Santiago up to Brazil for Carnaval and then back from Iguazu Falls. There’s no way we could have pulled that trip off if we had bought those tickets ourselves.
Their current promotion is 30,000 after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months for their stater Gateway card. This card has no annual fee at all, so you don’t need to worry about canceling it.
For the Explorer card that we recommend, it’s 70,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first three months. You also get an additional 10,000 points if you spend $6,000 in 6 months. The annual fee is waived the first year and goes up to $95 for year two.
You also get free checked bags for you and a companion as well as two United Club passes to use per year. Those really came in handy for us on a couple of long trips. Layovers ain’t so bad with free champagne! Travel Hacking 101 wins again.
As with all the other major airlines, United has several options for both personal and business credit cards. Just click here to learn more.
UPDATE: As it had been a few years since we had this card, we were eligible for a bonus again. I once again got the Explorer card when I had to book an emergency flight from Asheville back home to Detroit.
I saved $250 on the flight with an instant statement credit and earned 35,000 points after spending $2,000 in 3 months. We also got free checked bags on our Europe trip and cashed in our lounge passes during a 6-hour layover on the way to Lisbon. Score!
As I mentioned earlier, we had some success with travel hacking with Delta a few years ago. It was actually our first experience, and to be honest it wasn’t the best one. I had a very difficult time cashing in my points to get that flight from Beijing to Detroit and they were not exactly pleasant to deal with.
A few months later, Rachel also signed up for their card and spent enough to earn the sign-up bonus. They denied it to her because she had apparently applied for one of their cards many years earlier, although she never got it or used it.
They offered her the sign-up bonus when she applied for the card and then denied it to her after she spent thousands of dollars on their card. Based on this terrible experience, we do not personally recommend using a Delta credit card and we avoid flying with them.
That being said, we realize they are a major airline and are still the best option for many people, especially for those in Atlanta, Detroit, or other hub cities. They do have several options for travel hacking credit cards. Just click here to explore them all.
Just about every single airline has some sort of rewards credit card. This includes budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier. We had the Spirit credit card for a year, just because the bonus was a $200 credit on a flight and they were our best bet to get home from Phish Halloween one year.
It was great saving $200 on a flight, but that card was a waste of time. The sign-up bonus wasn’t enough to get even a one-way domestic flight, and you still have to pay for bags on this no-frills airline.
We would advise sticking to the major airlines or just using a general travel card like the aforementioned Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Best Travel Hacking Credit Cards for Hotels
As I mentioned earlier, we don’t stay in hotels very often. We usually opt for an Airbnb so we can more comfortably work online. Once in a while, we’ll stay in hostels as we enjoy the social atmosphere of them.
We realize that most people quite enjoy staying in hotels and thus wanted to share some of the best travel hacking credit cards for hotels:
- Hilton Honors
- World of Hyatt
- IHG Rewards
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
- Hotels.com Rewards Visa
Since it’s not really in our wheelhouse, we recommend reading up on the best hotel cards in this post from the Points Guy.
Final Thoughts on Travel Hacking
Well there you have it, folks – you’ve made it through our Travel Hacking 101 post! I hope you’ve learned something and are ready to start flying for free. Here are just a few final thoughts on travel hacking…
If you’re just starting out, we highly recommend going with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. We’ve had it for almost 5 years now and we’ve found that the $95 annual fee more than pays for itself. We book at least one free flight a year with it, sometimes more.
Don’t go racking up a massive charge on a new travel hacking credit card at first unless it’s necessary. You can use the card for everyday purchases throughout the three months and can earn the sign-up bonus that way.
See if you can transfer any automated payments to your new card while you’re working towards a sign-up bonus. And just be sure to keep track of the account from the day it opens to make sure you don’t miss the cutoff.
Some people apply for multiple credit cards at once and spend a ton of money in a few months to get a ton of points. We can’t really employ that strategy, so we tend to get one new card each year.
You also have to be mindful of rules, such as the 5/24 rule with Chase. They will not approve you for a card if you’ve opened five or more accounts in the last 24 months with any issuer.
After you’ve earned the Chase Sapphire Preferred bonus, you’ll have $750 worth of points to use towards travel.
How awesome is that?! Go ahead and book a dream trip somewhere like Thailand and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Next, we’d recommend picking one of the major airline cards that work best for you. We are partial to Southwest but it all depends on your location and where you want to travel to.
If you have a business and can meet the minimum spend amounts on both a personal and a business Southwest card, you may be able to earn their companion pass. It’s like the golden ticket of traveling and is such a great thing to have.
Whatever card(s) you get, make sure you sign up for every frequent flyer and loyalty program you can. Then use Award Wallet to keep track of all your points so you don’t let any of them expire.
Also, make sure you take note of when your account will renew. Many cards waive the annual fee for the first year, so you’ll want to know when the due date is coming up to decide if you want to keep it or not. Many times we’ve called to cancel a card and have been offered to keep it for free or half the advertised rate, so that’s worth a try.
If you have any questions about travel hacking and how to get free flights, just leave a comment or send us a message. We want to help you travel the world and pay less for it!
Thanks for reading, and happy travels!
2 thoughts on “Travel Hacking 101: How to Travel for Cheap (or Free!)”
Sasha! Love the Travel Hacking 101. Thanks thanks thanks for putting it together and sharing same. I’ll have to read it 2-3 more times to actually get it straight in my head, but that’s fine. Since I plan to fly around Mexico and Costa Rica in the next few months, and also convert a van to a camper/photography van, for which I have already banked the funds, I think most likely the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is in my future, as is the new MacBook Pro, which is also funded, so am I correct in thinking I’ll pay for these things with the CARD, get the bonuses, then pay off the CARD immediately?
Hey Bruce! Thanks so much for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the post. It can be a bit confusing at first but you get the hang of it. We’re always on the hunt for a new card, especially when we have big expenses or travel coming up. I actually just saved $250 on a flight home to Detroit and got 35,000 United points by doing some more travel hacking! The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is definitely the way to go to get started. I need to update the links in the post but here’s my current one: https://www.referyourchasecard.com/6/L3362GOTCS … At the moment, the deal is 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. Seems like you will hit that almost immediately with your plans and you’ll be ready to pay it right off. Then you’ll get those points in your account and they’ll go a long way – about $750 towards travel. So basically you spend 4k and get $750 back just because! Drop us a line if you have any other questions and best of luck in your travel hacking journey!