Travel Hacking Guide: What is travel hacking and how to get started?

I’d like to take a moment and share with you how to travel hack.

In this article, you will find a fool proof, step-by-step guide on how to start travel hacking.

I started travel hacking five years ago and have since accumulated MILLIONS of frequent flyer points and miles. Needless to say, it’s changed my life phenomenally. I can now travel the world for free or close to it. Read this guide so you can learn on how to travel for free too.

What is Travel Hacking?

I know – travel hacking – it sounds like something out of The Matrix. Although the term is misleading, it’s actually a totally legitimate way to travel for free or as close to it as you can imagine. So what is travel hacking?

Travel hacking is the art of leveraging loyalty and rewards programs to accumulate frequent flyer points/miles to access free flights, hotels, tours, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and more. It’s about knowing how to take advantage of free promotions and bonuses to obtain as many points as possible for as little as possible.

There’s no question it’s a lot of information to take in initially, but I promise it’ll be worth it if you take the time to follow this blog. And of course, I’m here to help. So read through my blog, subscribe to get the latest updates, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Now, let’s get started!

1. Sign-up for Frequent Flyer Programs

A frequent flyer program is a loyalty program offered by most airlines, hotels, and credit card organizations. To start benefiting from these frequent flyer programs, all you have to do is start signing up for reward programs with different airlines, hotels, and credit cards.

These are the programs that I recommend and have the most amount of points with:

  • Aeroplan – Air Canada’s popular loyalty program with over 4.5 million members.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) – Loyalty program for the Starwood hotels chain (Westin, Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, W Hotels, Le Meridien, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, Aloft, and Element).


2. Earn Frequent Flyer Points & Miles

There are many ways to earn frequent flyer points and miles. You can earn points and miles whenever you fly, stay at a hotel, or anytime you make purchases on your credit card.

  • Airlines – Earn loyalty miles whenever you fly with Air Canada (Aeroplan), British Airways (Avios), WestJet (WestJet Rewards), etc…
  • Hotels – Earn loyalty points whenever you stay at select hotel chains.
  • Credit Cards – The easiest and fastest way to earn points, miles and free travel is to apply for credit cards. The best travel credit cards offer generous welcome bonuses. For example, you can earn up to 75,000 points for signing up for a single card. Plus, you’ll also earn points and miles for every dollar charged to the card.

 

3. Apply for Credit Cards 

  • Free Credit Score Reports
    Before you start signing up for credit cards, check your credit score. Travel hacking isn’t for everyone. It’s for those who are financially responsible with a credit score of over 700, in addition to paying off their credit card bills in full every month. You can check your score by getting a free credit score report at CreditKarma and Ratehub
  • Minimum Spend Requirements
    Most of the best travel credit cards have a minimum spending requirement within a certain time frame before you’ll receive your welcome/sign-up bonus. For instance, if you sign-up for the American Express Gold Rewards Card, you’ll get 25,000 Membership Rewards points only if you charge $1,500 in purchases in the first three months of signing up. Charging $1500 in three months may sound like a lot, but it isn’t if you break it down to $500/month. So, it should be fairly easy to achieve if you charge all your expenses – groceries, gasoline, bills, shopping, dining, and so on – to the card.
  • Annual Fee
    Some credit cards charge an annual fee, some don’t. Generally, credit cards that do charge an annual fee will offer more points and benefits. Some cards waive the annual fee for the first year. The best travel credit cards range from free the first year, $120/ year, up to $699/ year.  
  • Which are the Best Travel Credit Cards?
    Having been in the travel hacking game for a while now, I make it a point to thoroughly research and compare all travel credit cards that I carry.

Here are my Top 5 Favourite Travel Credit Cards:

1. American Express Gold Rewards Card

American Express® Gold Rewards Card
This card is often voted the #1 Best & Most Flexible Travel Credit Card because it offers a 30,000 points sign-up bonus with no fee for the first year. It is also the first card most travel hackers will sign-up for to start travel hacking.

Benefits:

  • Great sign-up bonus of 25,000 Membership Rewards points when you charge $1,500 in purchases to your card within first three months of card membership.
  • Additional 5,000 Membership Rewards points for one approved supplementary card (no fee first year – $50 value).
  • Enough points to redeem for one round-trip flight rewards to anywhere in North America.
  • No annual fee for the first year. A value of $150.
  • Flexible program. Can transfer your points one-to-one to Aeroplan and Avios.
  • Earn 2 points for every $1 in Card purchases at eligible gas stations, grocery stores, drugstores, travel purchases – including flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises.
  • Earn one point for every $1 in Card purchases everywhere else.
  • Low annual income requirement of $20,000.
  • As a card member, refer a friend and earn a bonus of 5,000 Membership Rewards for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 75,000 Membership Rewards points.

Negatives:

  • American Express is not accepted everywhere. You’ll need to have a Visa or MasterCard as a backup for purchases.
  • It’s a charge card so the balance must be paid for in full or they’ll charge a higher than normal (30%) annual interest rate.
Click here for more details or to sign up for the American Express Gold Rewards Card.

2. Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Credit Card from American Express

Starwood Preferred Guest®* Credit Card from American Express
This is the best card to earn Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints, considered in some circles as the most valuable loyalty currency.

Benefits:

  • Nice sign-up bonus of 20,000 Bonus Starpoints when you charge $1,500 in purchases to your card within first three months of card membership.
  • $120 annual fee.
  • Earn 2 Starpoints for every dollar of eligible purchases charged to the Card at participating SPG & Marriott Rewards hotels.
  • Earn 1 Starpoint for every $1 in purchases charged to the Card.
  • Receive a Free Weekend Night Award at hotels and resorts worldwide when you reach $40,000 in purchases on the Card each year.
  • Experience once-in-a-lifetime events with SPG Moments (biggest music, sports and cultural events in the world).
  • Low annual income requirement of $15,000.
  • As a card member, refer a friend and earn a bonus of 10,000 Starpoints for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 150,000 Starpoints.

Negatives:

  • American Express is not accepted everywhere. You’ll need to have a Visa or MasterCard as a backup for purchases.
  • It’s a charge card so the balance must be paid for in full or they’ll charge a higher than normal (19.99%) annual interest rate.
Click here for more details or to sign up for the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Credit Card from American Express

3. The American Express Platinum Card

The Platinum Card®
This is the ultimate premium credit card to own. Although it comes with a hefty $699 annual fee, it’s well worth it if you spend a lot and travel often. The card is made for the discerning traveller who loves their perks and is one of the most prestigious cards to own.

Benefits:

  • Incredible sign-up bonus of 60,000 Membership Rewards points when you charge $3,000 in purchases to your card within first three months of card membership.
  • Enough points to redeem for two round-trip flight rewards to anywhere in North America.
  • Access to over 600 airport lounges world-wide including the Platinum Lounge Benefit, the Airport Club Program and Priority Pass.
  • Earn 1.25 Membership Rewards points for every dollar in purchases charged to your Platinum Card.
  • Extensive travel benefits, including a $200 Annual Travel Credit.
  • As a card member, refer a friend and earn a bonus of 15,000 Membership Points for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 225,000 Membership Rewards points.

Negatives:

  • $699 annual fee
  • American Express is not accepted everywhere. You’ll need to have a Visa or MasterCard as a backup for purchases.
  • It’s a charge card so the balance must be paid for in full or they’ll charge a higher than normal (30%) annual interest rate.
Click here for more details or to sign up for The American Express Platinum Card.

4. American Express AeroplanPlus Platinum Card

American Express® AeroplanPlus®* Platinum Card
This premium credit card is for heavy travellers and spenders in Canada, and one of the best credit cards to have to if you’re looking to earn Aeroplan miles.

Benefits:

  • Great sign-up bonus of 51,000 Bonus Starpoints when you charge $3,000 in purchases to your card within first three months of card membership.
  • Earn 1.25 Aeroplan Miles for every $1 of Card purchases up to $25,000 annually.
  • Accelerate your earn rate to 1.5 miles for every dollar in purchases over $25,000 annually.
  • Enjoy a 2-for-1 short-haul flight reward when you redeem 15,000 Aeroplan Miles, with the Partner Ticket benefit.
  • Breeze through airport lines with Air Canada Priority Check-in.
  • Access to the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge.
  • As a card member, refer a friend and earn a bonus of 15,000 Aeroplan Miles for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 225,000 Aeroplan Miles.

Negatives:

  • $499 annual fee
  • American Express is not accepted everywhere. You’ll need to have a Visa or MasterCard as a backup for purchases.
  • It’s a charge card so the balance must be paid for in full or they’ll charge a higher than normal (19.99%) annual interest rate.
Click here for more details or to sign up for the American Express AeroplanPlus Platinum Card.

5. RBC Visa Infinite Avion

Credit Card Image
With its universal acceptability, the RBC Visa Infinite Avion card is one of the most popular travel cards in Canada. RBC Rewards points can be converted to the following frequent flyer programs on a 1:1 ratio: British Airways Avios, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles and American Airlines AAdvantage Miles.

Benefits:

  • Great sign-up bonus of 15,000 RBC Rewards – enough points to redeem for one round-trip short-haul flight.
  • $120 annual fee.
  • VISA is accepted everywhere.
  • Earn 1 RBC Rewards point for every dollar you spend.
  • No blackout periods or seat restrictions – ever.
  • This is the backup card I use when a merchant doesn’t accept American Express.

Negatives:

  • No referral program
  • Requires a minimum personal income of $60,000 or a minimum household income of $100,000.
  • You must book at least 14 days in-advance when using points.
  • Can only book economy class tickets with rewards points.
Click here for more details or to sign up for the RBC Visa Infinite Avion Card.

4. Refer Travel Cards to Friends/Family

The best part about the American Express cards I mentioned above, is that they have a lucrative referral program. Once you’re a cardholder, you can refer friends/family to earn extra bonus points for each approved referral.

Referral Summary:

  • AMEX Gold Rewards Card– Earn 5,000 bonus Membership Rewards for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 75,000 points.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from AMEX– Earn 10,000 bonus Starpoints for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 150,000 Starpoints.
  • AMEX AeroplanPlus Platinum Card– Earn 15,000 bonus Aeroplan Miles for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 225,000 miles.
  • The AMEX Platinum Card– Earn 15,000 bonus Membership Points for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 225,000 points.

For example, the American Express Gold Rewards Card will give you 5,000 bonus Membership Rewards points for each approved referral, up to a maximum annual referral bonus of 75,000 points. So, let’s say you sign-up for the card and refer your spouse (you get 25K welcome points plus 5K referral bonus, your spouse gets 25K welcome points = 55,000 total Membership points)!

Now, extrapolate that and refer more friends and family. Better yet, sign-up for multiple cards and refer multiple cards to friends and family. You can quickly see how easy it is to accumulate a massive amount of points.

You’ll get your own referral link once you receive and activate the card (log into your AMEX online account and click the “Refer a Friend” link on the left column).

It’s surprisingly easy referring friends and family to sign-up for the card because the card sells itself.

Insider Tip!

If you have The American Express Platinum Card, you can earn an incredible 15,000 bonus points for each approved referral to the American Express Gold Rewards card, which, incidentally, is the easiest card to refer  with 25,000 welcome points – enough for round trip flight to anywhere in North America, and no annual fee  in the first year.

You get 3 times more points with The Platinum Card for referring the same Amex Gold Rewards Card (15,000 points vs 5,000 points). This was the main reason that got me to sign-up for The Platinum Card. Refer 15 people to sign-up for the free Amex Gold Rewards Card to get your maximum 225,000 annual referral points. 

 

5. Using Rewards Points & Flyer Miles

Now that you know how to acquire lots of frequent flyer points & miles, we’ll look at tips on how best to use those hard earned frequent flyer points. Plus I’ll give you invaluable tips for saving money while on the move.

Tip #1: Book business class flights for best value
By far, the best redemption value when using your points & miles is to redeem business class flights. Business class seats are normally very expensive and cost at least five times the price of an economy ticket. When using points & miles, a business class award is typically twice the miles of an economy award (varies with loyalty program). Flying business class within North America is nice, but you’ll get even greater value when you book a long-haul international business class ticket – the ultimate goal for most people who travel hack.

Of course each travel experience is different and  preferences vary from individual to individual, so you’ll have to decide if you value business travel benefits enough to pay the extra mileage.  

Here’s some of the perks and benefits of flying business/first class:

  • Breeze through the airport with priority check-in and boarding
  • Lounge access with complimentary food and drinks
  • Larger seats with extra legroom and on long-haul international flights, you can lay down to have some shut eye
  • Menu with option of full course meals and unlimited beverages and snacks.

Tip #2: Using points & miles to redeem merchandise and/or gift cards gives worst value
Most loyalty programs allow you to use points & miles to redeem merchandise and/or gift cards. It might be tempting to get that vacuum or BBQ you’ve always wanted, but it’s a poor trade for the value of points. You’ll likely get $0.01 cent or less in value, vs getting $0.05 cents or more when you redeem a business class flight ticket.

Tip #3: Try booking as early as possible
Some loyalty programs allow you to book reward travel up one year in advance. Most of the popular international flights (especially business or first class) have limited seating and are booked well in advance. Try to book as early as possible for the best selection of dates and flight times.

Tip #4: Avoid paying hefty fees and taxes
Some airports apply fuel surcharges which can dramatically increase the amount of fees and taxes you pay when you book a rewards flight. Look around and see if it is cheaper and worthwhile to take another route, and avoid airports that charge hefty fuel surcharges.

 

6. Money Saving Travel Tips

Tip #1: Wait for seats sales
I never pay retail price for flights. I always wait for a seat sale or promo code whenever I have to book a flight. If you’re a savvy travel hacker you eventually learn that whenever one airline has a seat sale, competing airlines will often quickly match or have a similar promotions. You’ll find it well worth your time to compare airlines for the best price and best selection of flight times.

Tip #2: Look for deals and promo codes:

  • Groupon – get 50-90% discount
    Save money whenever you travel by checking Groupon for hot deals in the city you’re visiting. Groupon has amazing local deals in 500 cities worldwide which you can find including dining at local restaurants, and enjoying services like massages, spas, health & beauty, golf, to mention a few. The best part is most deals on Groupon are discounted 50-90% off!
  • Uber – get free $15 promo code
    Uber
    is a low-cost ridesharing option that connects you with on-demand transportation in minutes. Uber is available in 300 cities worldwide. Sign-up for Uber and enter my invite code uberDealsBlog to get your first Uber ride for FREE (up to $15 credit)! Uber is more convenient and 30% cheaper than a traditional taxi ride.
  • Airbnb – get $40 travel credit
    Airbnb
     offers a huge selection of vacation rentals, apartments, homes, rooms, cabins, castles, etc… for rent in 34,000 cities. It’s one of the best and cheapest ways to rent unique, local accommodations on any budget, anywhere in the world. Sign-up for an Airbnb account and you’ll get a free$40 travel credit towards your first booking!

 

7. My Best Travel Tips

  • Apply for a NEXUS card – save time at the border
    I would say this is my number one piece of advice for travellers. Even if you don’t travel often, it’s one of the best investments you’ll make. The NEXUS application costs $50 for a five-year membership (children under 18 are free). That breaks down to only $10/year. You’ll save lots of time whenever you cross the border thanks to expedited security & border clearance. How much is your time worth? 

  • Research more efficiently
    Save time and research more efficiently by using travel aggregator sites like Kayak.com, Expedia.ca, and Pricelne.com. They search hundreds of travel sites at once to find the information you need to make the right decisions on flights, hotels & rental cars. Why waste time by checking each site individually when aggregator sites do all the work for you.
  • Explore and travel local
    In addition to seeing all the popular tourist attractions, I always make an effort to explore and try to live like a local. Initiate conversations with locals, eat local food, and visit local hot spots. You’ll gain a better appreciation and understanding of the place you’re visiting.
  • Pack light and pack smart
    You really don’t need half the stuff you pack when you travel. Try to pack as light as possible and only bring the absolute necessities. It’s OK to wear the same outfit more than once when you’re travelling. Packing tip: roll up your clothes – you’ll fit more stuff in your luggage and have less wrinkly clothes.
  • Let loose and have fun!
    Try to enjoy every moment when you’re travelling. Don’t stress about the little things. Be spontaneous. Try new things. Splurge a little. Take lots of photos.

 

Summary

Travel hacking will take some time to accumulate reward points or flyer miles but once you start, you won’t be able to stop. You’re going to love all the free flights, free hotel stays, and travel rewards. Travel Hacking is addictive and fun, and best of all – you will save a ton of money.

Safe travels everyone!