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What is travel hacking and how is it done might be your question now, but by the end of this beginner’s guide you will be well on your way to traveling the world for FREE!

This post (and video) dives into the world of Travel Hacking covering all the basics to get you started on your journey to free travel. Learn the foundations and common strategies, plus tips on meeting spending requirements, booking stopovers, and more!

I am so excited to make this video for you. Part 4 of the Cent$ of Adventure series. A series dedicated to helping you save for travel and save during travel! There is nothing I love more than finding clever ways to stretch the budget and see more of this gorgeous earth we call home.

This post is loaded with information you can begin to apply immediately following. Don’t forget to claim your FREE Bucket List Budget and Travel Planner at the end. Without further ado let’s begin!

Psst. . . Looking for more tips on affording travel? Check out my other posts.



what is travel hacking

What is travel hacking and how is it done?

Travel hacking is essentially leveraging loyalty programs and credit card introductory offers to accumulate points for transfer to airlines and/or hotels and redeem for free travel. This is the most popular strategy for travel hackers. 

Does it hurt your credit? Some believe having too many credit cards can hurt your credit score. I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t. Your credit utilization, on-time payments, and length of credit history weigh more than anything else. Keep those in excellent shape and you will be just fine

This post is going to teach you how to use credit cards and loyalty programs to earn free travel. 

Travel Hacking 101

Travel Hacking does not need to be complicated in the beginning. You are starting out, so keep things simple. Slow and steady, mastering little by little. Before you know it you will be earning two, three, four trips per year.

So, how is travel hacking done? You first need to get organized on where you currently stand.

  • Organization is key
  • Write down loyalty programs and credit cards you are already using if any. 
  • Next is to determine which strategy is best for you.

There are three ways you can go about it:

  1. Travel hacking using credit cards
  2. Travel hacking using reward and loyalty programs
  3. Travel hack: using a mixture of both

Know Your Airline Alliances

There are 3 major airline alliances: OneWorld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam. That means your airline miles can be used to book flights with any airline in that alliance. 

OneWorld Partners: American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, FINNAIR, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Latam, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines (Moscow based who partners with other Russian Airlines), SriLankan Airlines, and Fiji Airlines.

Star Alliance Partners: Aegean, Air Canada, Air China, Air Indian, Air New Zealand, Ana, Asiana Airlines, Austrian, Avlanca, Brussels Airlines, CopaAirlines, Croatia Airlines, Egyptair, Ethiopian, Eva Air, Lot (Polish Airlines), Lufthansa, SAS, Shenzhen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss, Air Portgual, Thai, Turkish Airlines, and United.

SkyTeam Partners: Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, Aero Mexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, Czech Airlines, Delta, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, MEA, Saudia, Tarom, Vietnam Airlines, and XiamenAir.

PRO TIP: When booking travel, pick one airline in each alliance to accumulate your points. Say you choose American Airlines (AA) as your OneWorld airline. Even when you fly another airline within that alliance you can still put your AA frequent flyer number on the ticket. 

By now you should be organized on your current situation and familiar with the three airline alliances. Now we will dive into travel hacking with credit cards.

travel hacking with credit cards

Travel Hacking with Credit Cards

Travel rewards credit cards are also partnered with airlines and hotels meaning your credit card points can be transferred into miles or towards hotels, car rentals, all things travel.

Before you begin swiping there are a few things to do and know.

  • Research cards and make a list of current cards you would like to get and their offers
  • Are any of them old enough to qualify for introductory offers? You can actually reapply for cards you currently have and take advantage of their new offers. 
  • Some credit card providers limit how many cards you can get within a certain amount of years. Chase is one of them. Their limit is 2-years. 

Keep a spreadsheet of which cards have a 1:1 transfer and to where. Reasons being you want to get all the bang for your point earned. You will eventually be transferred to the airline or hotel of your choice.

At the time of writing this (April 2020), these are credit cards offering amazing introductory offers.

United Club Infinite Card 100,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Marriot Bonvoy Boundless 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Chase Sapphire 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

A word of advice: only apply for cards if you can meet the minimum spend without getting into debt. For example, our car insurance was due to be renewed which was $1,200 for 2 cars (pay in 6-month intervals). I used the credit card to pay that bill and immediately paid it off.

Mindset and discipline are especially important. I do not recommend this if you are what I call irresponsible with credit cards. This is not intended to dig you into debt. Only do this if you have the time and amount of regular monthly expenses to meet your minimum spending requirements. 

Ways to Meet Minimum Spending Requirements

The best way to meet spending requirements is to apply for a new card around the same time you have a major purchase or trip coming up. I DO NOT recommend racking up debt for travel rewards. Instead, use a credit card for purchases you are already intending to buy and therefore have the cash in savings to pay it off right away.

Here are a few ways to meet your spending requirements:

  • Purchasing a car
  • Pre-pay auto insurance. I pay my auto insurance 6 months at a time. For two cars that’s nearly $1,200.
  • Purchasing Travel
  • Pay the bill at restaurants and have everyone Venmo you or give you cash instead.
  • Groceries. We spend around $600 per month on groceries. That’s $1,800 over three months. 
  • Medical Expenses: I have an HSA Account but since I earn points on my credit cards, I use it then submit claims for refunds from my HSA account.
  • Moving Costs: If you are moving, use your credit card for all moving costs. I used my credit card when moving for the U-Haul, boxes, apartment application fee, etc.
  • Have a roommate or domestic partner? Make all the household purchases on your card and have everyone pay you cash for their share. Return the favor when they get a card. Everyone wins!
  • Pay bills. I use my credit card to pay my monthly cell phone and car insurance bill.
  • Pay your rent. Even if you get charged a transaction fee, in the long run, it’s cheaper than waiting for you to accumulate the points to earn free travel

Have a partner? Stagger applying for credit cards then pool points in the end.

To cancel or not to cancel?

After you redeem your points you will most likely be the owner of many credit cards. Unless you plan to use on a continuous basis or if there are no annual fees, I say cancel the card. 

how to travel hack free flights

How to travel hack free flights

The first step to redeeming is figuring out how many miles you need for the free flight.

Flexibility is key to getting the best deals. A simple search can get you the airline award chart. I googled “Singapore Airlines Award Chart” and found this.

Where do you look for reward flights when you’re ready to redeem?

Any airline will have the ability to search reward flights but some are more user friendly than others.

British Airways and Qantas are great for One World, Delta and KLM for SkyTeam, and Air Canada or United for Star Alliance.

Award Hacker Is also a great search tool to help you find flights with your frequent flyer program of choice.

For example, both Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points have a 1:1 transfer to Singapore Airlines which is part of Star Alliance. 

If you’re looking for a flight to Turkey on Turkish Airways that costs 240,000 miles, however, your cards only transfer 1:1 to Singapore Airlines. Luckily, both are in the same Star Alliance. So you begin the transfer to Kris Flyer aka Singapore Airlines.

On your Citi Premiere, you have 100,000 points, 100,000 on Chase Sapphire, and 40,000 on Chase Slate. You can transfer those points 1 for 1 to your Kris Flyer account and book your flight. You will then use your KrisFlyer miles to book your Turkish Airlines flight. 

One caveat to this. Research maximum point transfer rules for each credit card. 

For example, Citi allows you to transfer and receive up to 100,000 miles a year. Chase I believe is unlimited.

Take Advantage of Stopovers and Long Layovers

You may be familiar with layovers. Hours sitting at an airport gate waiting for your next flight. Well, rather than wasting those hours opt for a few days and add an extra destination to the itinerary for zero to a little extra with a stopover.

A stopover is anywhere from 1 day to a few days in a city in between flights to your final destination. Some airlines incentivize this with free hotel stays, guided tours, and more. These travel packages vary by airline and city.

Below are the most popular stopover offerings:

  • Air Canada allows stopovers in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto if your layover is six or more hours.
  • Air China offers one free overnight hotel stay in Beijing & Shanghai
  • Avianca Airlines allows a two-day stopover in Bogotá, Colombia
  • Brussels Airlines allows up to a five-day stopover in Brussels
  • Emirates will allow up to a thirty-day stopover in Dubai when booked through their call center or a travel agent
  • Ethiopian offers a free hotel when your connection in Addis Ababa is eight to twenty-four-hour
  • Etihad offers a free two-night hotel stopover city in Abu Dhabi
  • Finnair allows stopovers in Helsinki up to five days
  • Iberia allows stopovers of six days or more in Madrid
  • Icelandair stopover program allows up to three days in Reykjavík
  • Japan Airlines offers stopovers in Tokyo and Osaka
  • Oman Air allows up to three nights in Muscat upon request through their website
  • Royal Jordanian provides a free hotel stay in Amman if your layover is eight or more hours and there are no same-day connections available
  • Singapore Airlines offers a stopover package in Singapore including hotel and attractions
  • Swiss Air offers stopover packages
  • TAP Portugal allows up to a five-night stopover in Lisbon or Porto
  • Thai Airways periodically offers stopovers in Bangkok
  • Turkish Airlines provides free hotel if your stopover is twenty or more hours
  • Qatar Airways has a stopover program in Doha

With a little patience and research, you can leverage connecting flights and get a free stopover In the hub city of your airline of choice.

You can always call and ask the airlines for a 24-hour stopover, or play around with multi-city tickets and see what pops up.

My favorite websites for searching long layover flights are Airwander and Clever Layover


Bucket List Budget

Snag your FREE Bucket List Budget and Travel Planner. This planner includes: travel budget breakdown, savings tracker, checklists, and itinerary templates. 

Still don’t have enough points? Here’s How to Find Super Cheap Flights

  1. Keep an eye out for special offers
  2. Be flexible with your travel dates. This is always a tough one if you’re working a 9-5. At least it was for me when I worked a desk job. I had PTO that needed to be approved ahead of time, which meant I couldn’t be ask flexible as I hoped. That and making sure my schedule aligned with my travel partner if there was one (aka my boyfriend). If you find yourself in this situation, be upfront with your boss, or whoever approves your time off. Let them know that you are looking around these dates for whichever is the cheapest flight. I’m sure they will have no problem with it. Glass half full ya’ know?
  3. Follow Scotts Cheap Flights. This one, in particular, is great. You get daily emails with super cheap flights to destinations all around the world. I can’t say for sure a Japan destination will be on every email, but surely one. Keep an eye out. They are also great to follow if you enjoy playing travel roulette and will go wherever. You can get some seriously cheap flights.
  4. Fly into hub cities for less than book a cheaper local carrier to your final destination. You add a new destination and saved money. 
  5. Spot mistake fares. If you stay consistent in your research you can sometimes find mistake fares. You must act fast because they will quickly go away once the airline notices the mistake. Secret Flying is a great website to help you spot mistake fares and other cheap flights.

Travel Hacking with Loyalty and Reward Programs

The trick here is brand loyalty. You want to pick a hotel family and stick with it;  climbing their tiers as a loyal guest.

Not sure who owns what? These are the top 5 biggest hotel brands in the world and their hotel chains. This means if you’re in their loyalty program you can earn and redeem points to any of their hotels.

Hilton Hotels & Resorts 

  1. Canopy
  2. Conrad Hotels
  3. Curio
  4. Double Tree
  5. Embassy Suites
  6. Garden Inn
  7. Hampton Inn
  8. Hilton
  9. Hilton Grand Vacations
  10. Homewood Suites
  11. Home2 Suites
  12. LXR
  13. Tapestry Collection
  14. Tru by Hilton
  15. Waldorf Astoria

A current list of all the Hilton credit card offerings from American Express


  1. Alila
  2. Andaz
  3. Caption
  4. Destination Hotels
  5. Grand Hyatt
  6. Hyatt Centric
  7. Hyatt House
  8. Hyatt Place
  9. Hyatt Regency
  10. Joie de Vivre
  11. Park Hyatt
  12. MiRaval
  13. The Unbound Collection
  14. Thompson Hotels
  15. Zilara

World of Hyatt credit card might be a good choice for budget travelers. Their current offer (June 2020) earns you 50,000 points equivalent to 10 free nights in a category 1 hotel.

To see all their category hotels from 1-8 check out this link. Super helpful. One of the best I’ve seen of all the hotel brands.


  1. Avid
  2. Candlewood Suites
  3. Crowne Plaza
  4. Even Hotels
  5. Holiday Inn
  6. Holiday Inn Express
  7. Holiday Inn Vacation Club
  8. Hotel Indigo
  9. Hualuxe
  10. Intercontinental
  11. Kimpton
  12. Regent
  13. Staybridge Suites
  14. Voco

I found two credit card offers from the Chase/IHG card (June 2020).

IHG Premier Rewards card from Chase Bank. They are offering 140,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 USD in the first three months. Annual fee $89.

IHG Traveler Rewards card from Chase Bank. They are offering 70,000 bonus points for spending $2,000 USD in the first three months. Annual fee $0.

From what I gathered, points per night are anywhere from 10,000 to 70,000.


  1. AC Hotels
  2. Aloft
  3. Autograph Collections
  4. Courtyard by Marriot
  5. Delta Hotels
  6. Design Hotels
  7. Edition
  8. Element
  9. Fairfield Inn & Suites
  10. Four Points by Sheraton
  11. Gaylord Hotels
  12. Homes & Villas
  13. JW Marriot
  14. Le Meridien
  15. Luxury Collection
  16. Marriot
  17. Marriot Executive Apartments
  18. Marriot Vacation Club
  19. Moxy
  20. ProTea
  21. Renaissance Hotels
  22. Residence Inn
  23. Ritz-Carlton
  24. Sheraton
  25. Springhill Suites
  26. St. Regis
  27. Towne Place Suites
  28. Tribune Portfolio
  29. W Hotels
  30. Westin

A current list of all the Marriot Visa credit card offerings


  1. AmericInn
  2. Baymont
  3. Days Inn
  4. Dazzler
  5. Dolce
  6. Esplendor
  7. Hawthorn Suites
  8. Howard Johnson
  9. La Quinta
  10. Microtel
  11. Ramada
  12. Super 8
  13. Trademark
  14. Travelodge
  15. Tryp
  16. Wingate
  17. Wyndham
  18. Wyndham Garden
  19. Wyndham Grand

These are only the top brands. Choice and Best Western also have loyalty programs and hotels around the world.

Again, your best strategy when it comes to earning free hotel stays is to pick a brand and stick with it. As you move up their tier your points go even further.

The only other option I will suggest it to join loyalty programs for hotel finders like or They have their own programs that can lead to credits and free nights.

Now that you know what travel hacking is and how it’s done you can finally begin implementing your plan. We covered all the basics for any new travel hacker. This beginner’s guide is enough to get you started in the game and soon on your way to free travel around the world.

Remember, travel hacking is TEDIOUS and takes some research before making purchases. But with a little patience, you can really rack up those points. It’s like extreme couponing but with travel rewards!

Psst. . . Looking for more tips on affording travel? Check out my other posts.

This post probably contains affiliate links. I earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you purchase through these links, which helps me keep my lights on and order pizza from Dominos! I am extremely grateful. Thank you.

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guide to travel hacking for beginners

travel hacking for beginners