Travel rewards harvesting (travel hacking) has become one of our favorite hobbies. We enjoy the strategy of deciding which credit cards to open, when to open them, and how best to redeem the points. We also like that unlike most other hobbies, it actually puts money (or the points equivalent) in our pocket.
When I mention travel hacking to people in passing, I get two common reactions: people either say it sounds like too much work or simply say nothing at all. I suspect the second group are thinking, but not saying, the same as the first group. And honestly I understand why people are skeptical of travel hacking; at first thought, systematically opening credit cards to earn signup bonuses sounds cumbersome (and strange). But when done correctly, travel hacking is lucrative, easy, and even fun. How lucrative? Each of the signup bonuses we have earned has exceeded $500 in value, and many have topped $1000 in redeemed value. How easy? Less than one hour per card, including opening, registering, and managing the card. Taking the conservative values of $500 and 1 hour of work, each travel rewards card yields us at least $500/hour. That beats my day job!
When done correctly, travel hacking is lucrative, easy, and even fun.
To make sure we get the most out of travel rewards, I have developed four tools and placed them in a single excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet can be downloaded below for free, and each of the four tools has its own tab within the spreadsheet. I have left some of our examples in the spreadsheet for clarity… but please don’t treat our specific examples as recommendations. You must decide which, if any, travel reward policies, strategies, cards, and redemptions are appropriate for you. The four tools are also briefly introduced underneath the download link, in case you want to know what’s in the file before downloading.
1. Travel Rewards Policy
Travel hacking involves opening up credit cards to receive signup bonuses, and credit cards–more specifically the persistent high interest rate debt they encourage–cause financial problems for far too many people. That is why our first and most important travel rewards policy is to forego opening new credit cards if we are ever unable to pay our balances on time and in full. To see our other policies, download the spreadsheet above and open the first tab. To see other travel hacking best practices, see this post from The Points Guy.
2. Travel Rewards Strategy
Not all travel rewards are created equal, and not all travel rewards are equally valuable to everyone. Developing a travel hacking strategy will keep you focused on harvesting the points you need to meet your travel goals. Our top two priorities are the Southwest Companion Pass and Chase Ultimate Rewards. To understand why, and to see how we rank other travel rewards, download the spreadsheet above and open the second tab. If you’re new to travel hacking and struggling with the different reward options, check out the free TravelMiles 101 course.
3. Travel Rewards Credit Card Log
Ok you’ve started opening credit cards. How do you keep track of everything? With another spreadsheet, of course. In the third tab of the download above, you can see how I keep track of our cards. Columns A-I contain the card and signup bonus details. Columns J-N keep track of dates in case you need to downgrade, cancel, or reapply (and re-harvest a bonus) for a card. Columns O-U are checklists for setting up the credit card account, enabling auto pay to avoid interest charges, and incorporating the credit card into my favorite life optimization tools. The remaining columns keep track of which card is set as the default payment option for various recurring or common expenses. This can help you shift all of your spending to a credit card with an active minimum spend requirement. Otherwise, you can maximize points earned by allocating certain expenses to cards that earn extra points in those spending categories.
Note: if you decide to cancel a credit card, make sure you understand the impact it may have on your credit score, your previously earned bonuses (i.e. will they be revoked?), and eligibility for future cards/bonuses. There are too many possibilities to cover in one post, so you must do the due diligence for your specific case.
4. Travel Rewards Redemption Calculator
Time to enjoy the points of your labor. But not without one last optimization. The fourth tab of the spreadsheet allows you to enter the travel rewards redemption and regular price for your travel plan(s). It will also calculate the $/point of your redemption, which you can compare to the points valuation guide from The Points Guy. This comparison tells you whether or not your redemption is favorable within the rewards program. You may also want to shop non-rewards alternatives to see if they have lower price offerings. For example, if a hotel has a regular price of $200 and costs 10,000 points, the value of your points is $200/10,000 = $0.02/point, which is respectable. However, if there are equivalent Airbnb options in the same area for only $100, you could argue that the effective value of your points is $100/10,000 = $0.01/point. The lower effective value may steer you to preserve your points and pay for the cheaper option, hopefully on a card with an active minimum spend.
So that’s how we manage our travel rewards credit cards…
If you travel hack, or plan to travel hack, please download the spreadsheet and let me know what suggestions or questions you have.