In Spring 2013, I had been cultivating and developing my travel plans extensively, maybe to the point of obsession. It wasn’t long until I realized I would have to find a way to obtain cheaper-than-usual flights. I was working with a tiny budget, after all. I searched for ways to get cheap flights over and over again and I thought to myself, “there has GOT to be another way.” Finally, I discovered that I could use credit card rewards to get free and cheap flights.
When you have an obstacle in your path, it’s just Life testing you to see if you really deserve your dream.
I dove into research and read for hours each night. There was one solution that seemed to reveal itself more than the others: using credit cards to somehow earn free flights, aka Travel Hacking. The idea was elusive and seemed sketchy but I would have done anything to travel.
I had always been skeptical about credit cards. For years, I heard people describe the sneakiness of credit card companies and how they were not to be trusted. Plus, even though I knew virtually nothing about credit at the time, I knew it wasn’t something to take lightly. But when it came down to it, I needed cheap airline tickets. I needed to prove to Life that I deserved the worldly experiences I craved.
You can tell where this is going, right? I did my research, I worked the system, I played at their little game and I won!
Having said all that, there are a few caveats that come hand-in-hand with this method.
(I just have to tell you,though, I am not a finance or credit guru. I am just sharing what has worked for me.)
First you need to spend a lot of time researching before you apply for anything.
Second, you need time to be able to earn these cheap flights; it’s not just a secret search engine that pulls up dirt cheap flights.
And third, this strategy can be complicated. I’ve seen enthusiasm quickly fade and smiles turn droopy after a brief overview of the method. Just keep at it and don’t do anything until you fully understand all the terms. And leave me comments if you have more questions.
Now…onto the strategy that could get you a flight for the same price as your daily vice.
After extensive research, a detailed decision matrix and thinking it over, I decided to apply for my first credit card, The Delta Gold AmEx. The sign up bonus offered 30,000 miles after I made $1,000 worth of purchases in the first 3 months. This was a value for me because all my bills and food added up to several hundred each month so it was money I would spend anyway.
Unfortunately, I ran into one hiccup when I tried to book my reward travel: the airline required that I have a balance of at least 35,000 miles to redeem a flight. Since the card gave me 1 mile for every dollar spent, I had to spend another $5,000 to get the flight.
Now, you might be thinking, “if you had to spend another $5,000, you may as well have just abandoned ship and bought the plane ticket the regular way since no airline ticket costs $5,000 (not in coach, anyway).” So many people get swept up in chasing a deal that they don’t stop and think about what it’s really costing them.
Thankfully, I found a way to make the most of my situation. I asked all my friends if I could pay their bills, fill their gas tanks and pick up the tab at restaurants and bars if they could just give me cash in return. This got me pretty far towards my $5,000 spending goal at no cost to me, but my trip was approaching and I needed something fast to get me the rest of the way.
I knew I would have to bite the bullet and pay for some of my tickets the old-fashioned way. I was working with AirTreks, a magnificent company that specializes in Around-the-World, or multi-destination tickets. They told me to book my reward travel from Seattle (home) to Mexico City (the first stop of my trip) and I could buy a ticket from them starting there to get me everywhere else. With AirTreks, I booked a ticket from Mexico City to The Philippines to Thailand to Mauritius and back to Seattle at the sweet sound of $4,000. And here is where opportunity struck.
AirTreks allowed me to pay for the ticket with two credit cards. I put $1,000 on the first card, which was enough to meet my spending goal and earn 35,000 miles with Delta, and I put $3,000 on a new card to immediately earn the sign up bonus of 50,000 miles! With the money I had saved from working two jobs I paid off both credit cards immediately.
How I used credit cards to get cheap flights.
Since the card was already paid off and I had the airline ticket, confirmation number in hand, I canceled that card. I got my reward and avoided paying any fees since the annual fee was waived the first year. (This method of using cards just for sign-up bonuses is called “churning”. More on that later.)
I had my Around-the-World ticket as well as 50,000 miles to save for a rainy day. This was one of the highest points in my life: I was traveling to my top bucket-list destinations, the most expensive part was already paid for and all I had to do was wait for September to come around.
Later, I used the second sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles to book a trip for my fiance and me to Barcelona and paid only $11 for the two of us.
Since it can get a little confusing, especially for credit card newbies, I highly recommend taking full advantage of the Customer Call Centers and Live Chats with the credit card company. Asking them specific questions and getting real time answers is a crucial part of this process. And it’s not so much that credit card companies are awful, they just make the most of people who don’t keep track of their purchases and have to pay interest. Those extra charges are totally avoidable and you don’t have to carry a balance to earn a healthy credit score.
This tactic may seem long-winded but in the end, it only cost me some time and a bit of planning to conquer the #1 travel challenge. The airlines aren’t just going to hand over the cheap tickets for nothing. Like anything in life worth having, it’s not easy, but totally worth it.
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