What is travel hacking? A beginners guide for lazy people

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Have you wondered what travel hacking is? It’s a technique available to everyone where you can save big on travel. I personally have travel hacked myself to a free first-class flight on Emirates from Dubai to Toronto. I’ve also stayed in hotel suites that normally cost $1,000+ a night for free. More recently, I flew my family of three from Toronto to Vancouver round-trip for just $225. The regular price would have been close to $1,800. Overall, I estimate I’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars on travel thanks to travel hacking.

Admittedly, travel hacking is nothing new, but it’s become a bit complicated over the years. Many travel hackers are looking for bragging rights, so they go big. The reality is, many people aren’t interested in signing up for multiple credit cards for travel discounts. That’s where this 10-part guide comes into play. Even though it’s aimed at Canadians, many of the tips apply to Americans too. My goal is to teach you how to travel hack without much work or changing your spending habits. Note that the eBook version of this guide can be downloaded at the bottom of this post.

What is travel hacking?

So what is travel hacking? Essentially, there are two parts. First, you’re going to maximize the points you earn from credit cards. This is known as “earn.” The second part is the redemption side of things. Known more commonly as “burn.” In an ideal world, you’ll earn and burn your points as quickly as possible or when you have a specific redemption in mind.

What many people don’t realize is that there is more than one way to travel hack. I’m going to focus on travel hacking for lazy people, but you’ll want to know the different methods in case you decide to dive deeper later.

Here are some ways you can travel hack:

  • Sign up for multiple credit cards for the welcome bonus – Applying for some of the best travel credit cards in Canada will give you huge welcome bonuses. To simply put it, the more cards you apply for, the more points you’ll get. Since you’ll have so many points, you can use them for free flights or hotel stays.
  • Two credit card method – With this trick, you’ll have one primary credit card that you’ll keep long term. You’ll then apply for one new credit card each year. This requires minimal effort, but you’re still earning a lot of points.
  • Use multiple credit cards for the perks – Every travel credit card is different. Some offer an increased earn rate on specific categories, while others may have travel benefits such as no foreign transaction fees or a companion voucher. By using all the benefits available, you can save big.
  • Earning points wherever you can – You need points to travel hack, so accumulating them as quickly as you can is important. Charge everything to your credit cards and see if there are additional ways to earn points such as shopping through online portals or entering contests.
  • Maximize your loyalty programs – Some people are shocked to learn that the value of your points can vary depending on the redemption you’re making. The higher return you get for your points, the better off you are. That said, some loyalty programs also have a few features that can make some of your redemptions incredibly valuable.

How many tips you adopt is up to you, but ideally, you start with the two credit card method. This allows you to get your toes wet and a feel for the travel hacking game. Once you’re comfortable, you can adopt more tips. That said, lazy travel hackers may just want to stick to the two card method since minimal work is involved.

How applying for new credit cards affects your credit score

The biggest concern for people who are on the fence about travel hacking is how applying for new credit cards affects their credit score. While it’s true that your credit score will take a hit when you apply for a new card, it’ll only go down 5-10 points. Assuming your credit score is in good standing, that minor hit won’t make much of a difference. More importantly, as you use your new card and pay off your bills in full each month, your credit score will eventually go back up.

Keep in mind that the two credit card method could also affect your credit score since you need to cancel one card each year. Ideally, you’re keeping one card permanently. That will build your credit history since it’ll be the longest existing card on your file.

As for the card you’re cancelling. It is possible that your credit score will drop when you cancel it since your credit utilization ratio will decrease. That said, when you apply for a new card, it’ll go back up, so it’s pretty much a wash.

To be realistic, applying for or cancelling one credit card a year will have an insignificant impact on your credit score. Even if you plan on applying for a mortgage in the near future, you shouldn’t be worried about a single credit card application. 

Of course, if you decide to apply for multiple cards in a short period of time to get more points, then you could see a big drop in your credit score. You obviously don’t want that, so spread out your applications if you’re going to go that route.

Is travel hacking illegal?

Another concern for people who are thinking about travel hacking is the legal aspect of it. To be clear, there is nothing illegal about applying for new credit cards and then cancelling them later. You’re not breaking any laws. People apply for and cancel credit cards all the time. The fear likely comes from the term “hacking,” but that’s just a name someone made up to make this trick sound sexy.

That said, many credit card issuers have put rules in place to prevent excessive travel hacking. For example, some providers have a once per lifetime, or once per year rule when it comes to the welcome bonus. That means if you got the welcome bonus already for a specific card, you wouldn’t be able to get it again in the future. However, not every financial institution enforces that rule.

American Express has also recently cracked down and banned users who have abused welcome bonuses and their card use. This isn’t a huge surprise as Amex typically has some very generous sign up offers and there were many people who were applying for multiple cards a year and then cancelling them.

If you’re doing the two credit card method, you’re only getting one new credit card a year. You wouldn’t get banned unless you were abusing your credit card in some other way. For example, anything that breaks the terms of your cardholder agreement.

The pros and cons of travel hacking

Now that you have a better understanding of how travel hacking works, you’ll likely see why it’s so attractive. I was on the fence about travel hacking at the start, but I quickly learned to embrace it at a pace that I’m comfortable with. Before you start applying for credit cards or continue reading this guide, think about the advantages and disadvantages of travel hacking.

The pros of travel hacking

  • Travel for less – You can save big everyday travel.
  • Enjoy aspirational travel – Travel hacking allows you to enjoy dream trips that you may have never been able to afford (or want to pay out of pocket).
  • Travel more often – Since points offset your costs, you can travel more without increasing your budget.
  • Free benefits – Many credit cards come with free perks such as lounge access, free checked bags, travel insurance, and more.
  • Requires minimal work – You’re hardly going out of your way to travel hack.

The cons of travel hacking

  • Hit to credit history – Your credit score will drop a few points when you apply for a new card.
  • Requires some maintenance – You need to make sure you’re on top of applying for new cards, meeting the minimum spend requirements, and cancelling your cards before the second year annual fee posts.
  • You may spend more – Travel can become addictive, you may end up spending more than you normally do for points.
  • Welcome bonuses may not be good – Sign up offers change all the time. There may not be a good deal when you need to apply for a new card.
  • Loyalty programs can change – The value of your points can change at any time or it may cost you more points in the future for a particular redemption.

In my opinion, travel hacking is worth it. There are plenty of opportunities to save money on travel and you don’t need to sign up for dozens of credit cards. I personally think the two card method is the easiest way to get started since you’ll be able to earn enough points for free travel almost immediately. Once you get to know how your points and loyalty programs work, you can decide if you want to dive deeper into the travel hacking game.

Travel Hacking for Lazy People

What is travel hacking? A beginners guide for lazy people

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

5 Comments

  1. M.Collier on February 7, 2022 at 8:22 PM

    Hi Barry,
    I’ve been reviewing your Travel Hacking eBook and your recommendations/suggestions on other newsletters. In your eBook, you mention what a great deal Aeroplan is with their re-vamp. I put in a test flight or two and it was outrageous. I used to earn/churn/use my points to get biz class flights but now it is entirely untenable. The additional fess/costs are insane – why do you think that they’re not bad? I put in a test booking from YYZ to LHR return. The amount of points going Business class there and returning Premium Economy was crazy and THEN there was close to $800 in fees. Why on earth do you think there’s been an improvement? I’ve been collecting with them for years (no travel during COVID, so hadn’t checked out the flight situation until now) but cannot see much point in giving them my business, since it’s out of the realm of reality to get even close to what they used to offer as rewards and cannot understand how you can recommend them after they’ve “improved”. I would love to see your response to this.

    • Barry Choi on February 8, 2022 at 7:33 AM

      M. Collier,

      Thanks for reaching out. Let’s make something clear, with the exception of a few routes, the new Aeroplan costs more points for the same flights as previously. There’s no denying that. However, since you can’t change that, you need to look at what’s changed and what works in your favour.

      You can now pool points as a family, there are no extra taxes and fees when booking rewards, all seats on Air Canada are available, there are better credit cards, and there is still a fixed price for partner airlines. For the majority of users, this is a big improvement. For example, in the previous Aeroplan, getting a direct flight to Orlando from Toronto would cost you 60K+ points return. Now it’s not difficult to find something under 30K. Flights within Canada are often cheaper too. That said, there’s also a lot of dynamic pricing where flights are crazy expensive.

      Another way of looking at is like this. If you’re not going to give Aeroplan your business, then who will you use? WestJet has limited flights and their rewards program is mediocre. American Express has a great loyalty program, but the base value is still 1 cent per point. I personally still find better value with Amex.

      With any loyalty program, you need to find the sweet spots. With the current Aeroplan, that’s using partner airlines in business class. That said, some of the most popular routes e.g. Toronto to London or Paris will always be crazy expensive.

      It’s also worth noting that the credit cards have been improved as they come with a higher welcome bonus and better benefits such as free checked bags.

      • M.Collier on February 11, 2022 at 11:25 PM

        Hi Barry,

        Pooling isn’t available for everyone, so I completely discount that as an “option”.

        You have a point…who else is there if not Aeroplan? I guess maybe no one if it’s a Canadian carrier, but there are other non-Canadian carriers to choose from, so a good way for Aeroplan/Air Canada to lose our business.

        You say you can find a deal to Florida…so what? Flights to Florida aren’t that expensive (right now, I know a couple who just flew one way for $260 – all in, taxes, bags, etc. for BOTH). And this is prime winter getaway time. So what’s the benefit of using up Aeroplan points on those short-haul trips? That’s not a big selling point.

        When you say that the more popular routes (e.g. Toronto to London or Paris) will always be crazy expensive…that’s my point. There is no excuse for this gouging. The same flights that cost about 110 K miles not long ago for business, round trip (and that was increased from 90 K) are now 132 K ONE WAY. And these are for your basic 7 – 8 hour flights…not lengthy 10 – 14 or more hours. And by the way, these flights used to include a stopover/open jaw option for the same amount. Not any more.

        You say the credit cards have been improved with higher bonuses and free checked bags? Well, we’re paying for it – the cards cost more (if we don’t get rid of them after the 1st year free, which, as you suggest, we ought to do). And if you travel business class, you get the free checked bags already.

        It’s absurd to endorse them and their system when they are simply gouging us all. You should be using your platform and influence to lead the charge with them to let them know that we (the previously-loyal customers) aren’t going to stand for it anymore.

        • Barry Choi on February 12, 2022 at 7:58 AM

          M. Collier,

          I’m clearly not going to change your mind, but let me give you my point of view.

          While I agree pooling doesn’t work for everyone, it’s something that many people (families) have wanted for a long time. It’s much easier to make a redemption when a family of 4 is collecting points together instead of individually.

          You’re right that there are other options besides Air Canada and you could take your business elsewhere, but we’re talking about loyalty here. If you look at all the other airline loyalty programs in the world, Aeroplan is actually one of the better ones. They have tons of airline partners and ways to earn points. Plus, as a Canadian, it’s easier to use your points on Aeroplan since there are more flights as opposed to say British Airways. That said, I certainly understand that Air Canada may not be the best option for everyone.

          My route to Florida was just an example. Remember, Aeroplan now prices dynamically, sometimes redemptions will be a good value, sometimes it won’t. You need to compare the value of your points vs. the cash price. With Aeroplan, it’s not hard to get a value of 2 cents per point these days. Although that’s about the same as the previous version of Aeroplan, there are more flights available.

          I already made it clear that the cost of flights under the new Aeroplan have gone up, so your argument there is valid. That said, the price of flights in general and operating costs have also gone up. All loyalty programs eventually raise their prices. Aeroplan hadn’t done so in 7 years, so we were due up for a devaluation. The exact same theory applies to any loaytly program. Look at Tim Horton’s and McDonald’s, their loyalty programs have been devalued. That’s just standard business practice.

          Yes you are “paying” for it for the credit card, but if you’re getting more value than the fee, then it’s worth it. You said you read my hacking guides. If so, then you’ll know I encourage people to cancel every year and get a new card to maximize their benefits.

          I’ve advocated against tons of different business practices with my platform, and let me tell you, they don’t care. When it comes to loyalty, it’s my job to share the sweet spots and “hacks” so people can maximize their returns.

          If you’re frustrated with Aeroplan, you can definitely take your business elsewhere. I prefer to earn my points and take advantage of what I can. I actually tried to use WestJet more when Aeroplan was going through changes, and their loyalty program does not offer much so I came back to Aeroplan.

          • M.Collier on February 12, 2022 at 10:00 AM

            Barry,

            Thanks for responding to my comments. Yes, all plans evolve – usually not for the customer’s benefit – especially Aeroplan. While I am annoyed and frustrated with Aeroplan, I am not with you! I enjoy reading your hacking guides/emails/lists and your e-book.

            You make a lot of good points, and I’ve been hacking that way for years (with credit cards). It’s nice to get the updates on the various programs and alternatives that you put out.

            Thanks for letting me vent – keep on hackin’!



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