How to travel hack

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Now that you know what travel hacking is, you’re probably wondering how to travel hack? As mentioned, all you really need to do is sign up for a few credit cards. Not only will you get a welcome bonus when you get a new card, but you’ll also earn points on all your everyday purchases. 

The key thing to understand is that you shouldn’t just be applying for credit cards randomly. You should have some kind of goal in mind. That could be a business class flight to Asia or even a free night’s stay at a five-star hotel. Once you know what your goal is, you can apply for the appropriate credit card/s. 

Since this is a beginner’s guide, I’m going to keep things as simple as possible. That said, I’ll have more advanced tips in later parts.

How to travel hack without any effort

For lazy travel hackers, you can use just two credit cards. Have one credit card where you earn the majority of your points. Once a year, get another credit card to take advantage of the welcome bonus. For example, you could have an American Express credit card as your primary card and get a new Aeroplan credit card every year. These two cards complement each other well since you can transfer your American Express Membership Rewards Points to Aeroplan. In other words, you can combine your points. 

You might be wondering why you should even bother with another card, but think of it this way. With one travel credit card, you can travel for free eventually. However, with two cards, you can travel for free every year. This is possible because of the welcome bonus that you’d get with the new application every year. 

I think it’s fair to say that even lazy people can handle one new credit card application a year. You would then cancel your credit card right before your annual fee posts for the second year (about 11 months after your initial application). Since you’re only cancelling and applying for one card each year, there will be a minimal effect on your credit score. Additionally, reaching the minimum spend requirement likely won’t be an issue since most people will have at least one major expense a year that will cover the entire amount needed for the sign-up bonus. 

Of course, you can apply for more cards if you want more points. I personally apply for 6 – 10 cards a year, and that’s considered mild compared to other travel hackers. That said, this guide is meant for people who want to keep things simple and don’t want to apply for more than one credit card a year.

What credit cards to apply for when travel hacking

As mentioned, your first priority is to establish what your goals are. If you want to take a business class flight to Asia with Air Canada, then you should focus on Aeroplan points. If you’re looking for a cheap trip across Canada with your kids, then earning a companion voucher with WestJet Rewards may be the best use of your time.

With that goal in mind, you can reorganize your credit card portfolio. First off, decide on a core primary credit card. This will be the card you use for all your daily spending moving forward. I personally recommend the American Express Cobalt Card since it has a high earn rate in multiple categories and you can transfer your points to airline and hotel partners. If you already have a credit card earning you travel rewards, but they don’t line up with your new goals, you may want to cash out all your points and start fresh.

You should only apply for your second card after you’ve met the minimum spend requirement for your primary card or when you have a major purchase coming up that will help you reach your new spending requirement. Remember, your second card should complement your first credit card or help you reach your goal.

What cards you apply for are up to you, but here are a few of the most popular cards that people start travel hacking with. Keep in mind that the welcome bonus often change, so it’s always worth checking back to see what offers are available.. 

American Express Cobalt Card

  • $12.99 Monthly fee ($155.88 yearly)
  • 2,500 monthly Membership Rewards points after charging $500 in purchases each month for a year (30,000 points total)
  • 20,000 additional points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months
  • Earn 5 points per $1 spent on eats and drinks
  • Earn 3 points per $1 spent on streaming services
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on travel
  • Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

As mentioned, the American Express Cobalt Card is a good credit card to start travel hacking with if you’re lazy. The earn rate is 5 points per $1 spent on eats and drinks,  3 points per $1 spent on streaming services, 2 points per $1 spent on travel, and 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. That’s a lot of categories where you get an increased earn rate.

The welcome bonus is usually worth 2,500 points each month when you spend $500, for 12 months (30,000 points total). There are other cards that come with a sign-up offer that’s easier to obtain, but the American Express Cobalt Card is an ideal card to hold long term. Read my American Express Cobalt Card review now.

American Express Platinum Card

  • $699 annual fee
  • Up to 105,000 Membership Rewards points welcome bonus when using a referral link
  • Earn 3 points per $1 spent on dining, 2 points on travel, and 1 point on all other purchases
  • $200 annual travel credit
  • Unlimited airport lounge access
  • Hotel status upgrades

I absolutely love the American Express Platinum Card. It’s the best card if you frequently travel since it comes with a ton of travel benefits. Even though the annual fee is $699, you get an annual $200 travel credit, so the fee is actually $499. 

Although the earn rate isn’t as impressive as the American Express Cobalt Card, the welcome bonus is usually worth 2-3X more points. In other words, the American Express Platinum Card is an ideal secondary card since you can earn a lot of points quickly and you can transfer them to airline or hotel partners. Read my American Express Platinum Card review for more details.

TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card

  • $139 annual fee – First year free
  • Earn 10,000 Aeroplan points after your first purchase
  • Earn 15,000 additional Aeroplan points + Buddy Pass when you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days
  • Earn 1.5 Aeroplan points per $1 spent on gas, groceries, and Air Canada purchases
  • Earn 1 Aeroplan point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • First bag checked free on Air Canada flights

The TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card is low hanging fruit. The annual fee is usually waived for the first year and the welcome bonus is usually worth between 20,000 – 50,000 Aeroplan points. Note that the offer is sometimes 20,000 – 25,000 points + an Air Canada Buddy Pass, which can also be valuable. If you want to read more about the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card, I have a full review here.

The key thing with this card is the minimum spend requirement to get your sign up bonus. You usually only need to spend $1,000 in the first three months for the full bonus. That’s pretty easy to reach for many people. This is an ideal secondary card if you’re looking to rack up your Aeroplan points.

American Express Aeroplan Reserve Card

  • $599 annual fee
  • Earn up to 90,000 Aeroplan points as your welcome offer
  • Earn 3 Aeroplan points per $1 spent on Air Canada, 2 points on dining and food delivery, and 1.25 points on all other purchases
  • Unlimited free access to Maple Leaf Lounges in North America for you and a guest
  • Free first checked bag, priority check-in and boarding on Air Canada

The American Express Aeroplan Reserve Card is ideal for people who want to earn a lot of points fast. The welcome bonus is usually worth between 75,000 – 100,000 Aeroplan points. That’s often the highest number of bonus points available from any Aeroplan Credit card. The only “catch” is that the minimum spend requirement is often more complicated than it needs to be.

Similar to the American Express Platinum Card, you get tons of travel benefits. The free checked bags are access to Maple Leaf Lounges in North America are clearly aimed at people who fly Air Canada frequently. $599 is a fair amount to pay for the annual fee, but the points earned with the sign-up offer and benefits could be worthwhile for you. Read my American Express Aeroplan Reserve Card review to find out more about the card. 

Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card

  • $120 annual fee
  • 70,000 Bonvoy points when spending $1,500 in the first three months
  • Earn 5 Marriott Bonvoy points per $1 spent at participating Marriott properties
  • Earn 2 Marriott Bonvoy points for per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual free night certificate worth up to 35,000 points

So far I’ve been focusing on credit cards that earn you points for flights, but you can also travel hack hotels. The American Express Marriott Bonvoy Card gives you up to 51,000 points as the welcome bonus. That’s enough points for five free nights at a category 2 hotel during standard times when you factor in Marriott Bonvoy’s book 4 nights on points, get the 5th-night free standard feature.

Marriott International has more than 7,000 properties in over 115+ countries, so finding a hotel won’t be hard. Additionally, this card gives you a free annual night reward worth up to 35,000 points. That stay would easily be worth more than the $120 annual fee, so this card is worth holding long-term. For more info on the American Express Marriott Bonvoy Card, read my review now.

How often should you apply for a new credit card?  

If you’re new to travel hacking, you should aim to get one new card every year. By doing this, you’re always taking advantage of at least one welcome bonus. Generally speaking, the sign up offer can often be worth $500+, that’s why you want to get a new one every year.

Since welcome offers are always changing, it’s worth keeping an eye out to see what’s available. Every so often there’s a good enough bonus that it’s worth signing up for a new card even if you weren’t planning to. For example, as covid was starting to get under control, American Express had multiple offers of 100,000+ points for new sign ups. If you don’t want to manage more cards, then don’t bother. That said, it’s always in your best interest to see what offers are available.

Some people get worked up about the annual fee, but if the welcome bonus is worth more than the annual fee, then who cares? For example, the American Express Platinum Card has an annual fee of $699, but the welcome bonus is usually worth around 85,000 points. 1 American Express Membership Rewards point could easily be worth 2 cents. That means your welcome bonus has a value of up to $1,700 which is clearly more than the annual fee.

Remember, you’ll also be cancelling one card every year. You’ll always hang onto your primary card, but you’ll cancel your secondary card and apply for a new one each year. As long as you hang onto your primary card (or the card you’ve had longest), your credit score won’t change much. Sure, your credit utilization ratio may drop a bit, but it’ll go back up when you apply for a new card.

Travel hacking is not some secret. All you need to do is apply for a few credit cards to get the welcome bonus, cancel your old cards before the annual fee is up, and repeat. How many cards you apply for is up to you, but you can travel hack with as little as two cards. 

Travel Hacking for Lazy People

How to travel hack

About Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert who frequently makes media appearances. His blog Money We Have is one of Canada’s most trusted sources when it comes to money and travel. You can find him on Twitter:@barrychoi

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