Is Travel Hacking Really a Scam?

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Last month, I wrote an article on how to travel anywhere for $1,000. I wanted to show people how, by changing how you save and using a few budget techniques, you could make any trip happen for $1,000 (or less) from start to finish. While that is a lot of money to most people, it’s not an insurmountable amount of money to save with a few clever ninja techniques (it works out to only $2.74 per day).

In the article, I picked expensive destinations as examples because I didn’t want to be accused of copping out by picking cheap places. If I had, I imagined the Internet would rise up and say “Oh, sure, Matt! Anyone can travel to Thailand on a budget. That’s easy. What about (insert expensive destination)? This article is fake news!”

In picking expensive destinations, I used points and miles to help mitigate the costs of getting to each destination. Using points and miles for cheap and free flights and accommodation was a must. After all, it’s one thing to pay $700 for a flight if the destination only costs a few dollars a day. It’s another thing to pay that much when you’re going to Australia! You won’t get far with only $300 to spend in Australia!

But a different — and unexpected — backlash erupted. On the blog and social media, people kept commenting that points/miles are money, have a cost, aren’t easy to get, only work in the States, and that, basically, the whole article was BS. For example:

“Matt, like some people have mentioned before me in the comment section: not everyone has miles or bonus points. You know I’m a travel writer…and yet I have never joined a frequent flyer program. I don’t have miles or points to redeem, and likewise, there are also people who might not have saved up enough points to fly entirely free.

“Between cheaper destinations and relying on bonus points, you chose the latter for your article’s premise, and it feels a bit like saying: I could be telling you to go camping, but hey, that would be too easy, so let’s talk cruising — now, redeem 100,000 Airmiles for this two-week cruise and you’ve got $1,000 to play with on board!

“It doesn’t seem entirely fair.”

First, let me say you are all correct. From the outset, I should have factored in taxes and fees into the cost of the trips, and have since changed the expense chart to reflect that. It was silly of me to not include that from the outset. I apologize for the oversight.

But, second, I don’t think using points or miles is in anyway cheating or unfair. (I’d also like to say that while they were a big part of the article, many of the other tips helped lower costs just as much!)

To me, points and miles are free money. They have no cost to me. I don’t give up anything to get them. I think of them as the perk for being smart about my spending. Sure, I have to spend the points/miles in addition to money, and I know some of you view points and miles as having some value with an opportunity cost to them, etc.

But I don’t think of them that way.

They are just a thing I get when I spend money that I would have spent anyway.

Let me explain in more detail. A lot of people think points and miles are hard to get, that you have to do crazy stuff to get them, or you have to spend lots of money to get there:

“To collect miles requires spending money. To say one can travel anywhere for $1,000 and then condition that on free airfare is disingenuous. The advice is aimed at people who might find $1,000 a lot of money. Let’s assume you need 80,000 miles for an award and can find a sign-up offer for 40,000. That means you probably have to spend $40,000 to collect the other 40,000 miles. Then the advice to use hotel points for free rooms. Assume you want a seven-day vacation and rooms are just 15,000 a night. That’s another 105,000 hotel points, and another $105,000 spend. Even if your hotel card gets two-for-one points, that’s still $52,500 in spend. So for me to go on a vacation for $1,000 I need to charge $92,500. I’m surprised you missed telling us to just go for one day and avoid six more days of hotel, meal, and local transportation expenses.”

I hear you and I see the logic but I disagree. You can earn a lot of points and miles per year with much less spending than described because there are pretty easy ways to earn multiple points/miles per dollar spent.

I’m a terrible travel hacker compared to my friends. I don’t do some of the crazy things they do to earn points and miles because I don’t have a lot of time, so I like to make it easy on myself. I don’t buy extra things, overspend, resell furniture or gift cards, or give up my Saturdays to go buy stuff in bulk and then sell it online for a profit.

I simply go about my life and spend wisely. I have chart for which cards I use for which expenses, so I always get the most miles per dollar spent. Here it is:

How I Optimize My Spending with My Travel Credit Cards
credit card chart for travel hacking
(Note: I also have all the co-branded airline cards but I rarely ever use those.)

Through all this, I earn a million or more miles per year. If it was really only 1 point/mile per dollar spent, then I would have to spend one million a year but that’s not the case. When I need to buy something, I do it online for bonus points through airline shopping portals (I recently got 6x American Airlines miles for my Macy’s shopping on top of my credit card points). Need something on Amazon? I buy a gift card from Office Depot for 5x points and then go through JetBlue for 3x more points. Buying a new computer? I’m off to get a new card to hit the minimum spending for the bonus. Got a few minutes? I answer some surveys for points.

I’m always earning multiple points per dollar spent. It’s rarely one to one. (Note: You can click here to see a more detailed breakdown of where I earn my million points/miles.)

I don’t view collecting points/miles as a cost because I don’t spend extra money to earn them. To me, something has a cost when I give up money to get it.

Sure, there are taxes and fees are included in the ticket that vary wildly among airlines (I’m looking at you, BA and Virgin), but it’s still cheaper than the price of a full ticket. And hotels don’t charge these fees, so the cost of them using points is literally zero. Also, some credit cards allow you to wipe charges off of them, making those expenses literally zero too.

If you want to travel more, points and miles have to be something you do (providing you live in a place where they are an option). Even if it takes you are year to accumulate them, they help you unlock your dreams by drastically reducing the cost of everything.

When I ask most people why they don’t travel hack, they just shrug their shoulders and go, “I don’t know. Seems hard, I guess.” I think people believe because travel hacking seems complicated, therefore it must be so. Actually, it is not.

In addition, travel hacking seems to run counter to everything we have learned about finance. We’re taught to think of money and credit in one way:

“Credit cards a bad. The companies are bad. Never pay a fee. Your score is sacred and doing things like this hurt it, and you’ll never get a loan.”

But that is just bullshit. It’s a myth perpetuated by….well, I don’t know who exactly, but people keep believing it.

You earn points and miles for everyday purchases you would have bought anyways and the perks outweigh the credit card fees. For example, with my $450 per year Chase card, I get:

  • $300 in airline credit
  • 3x points on travel and restaurants (so I can earn points faster)
  • Global Entry ($100 every five years)
  • Purchase protection so I can get refunded if things I buy are lost, damaged, or stolen
  • A priority pass for lounge access (about $100 a year)
  • Trip insurance

My $49-a-year IHG card gives me a free night at a category 1-5 property (around $200 a night) and my American Airlines card comes with free checked bags, saving me hundreds of dollars a year!

Additionally, my credit score has only gone up because of this as now I have more credit and less debt as well as a good payment history. (And, as my friend Gary says, “What good is a credit score if you don’t use it?”)

If you pay your bills off each month and are reasonable with your money, not collecting points and miles is saying no to free money. It’s saying, “I don’t want to be rewarded for my good spending habits.”

Free is the best word in travel.

When you don’t travel hack, the only person you are hurting is yourself. You aren’t hurting the banks or the airlines. They are in on the game.

In my view, travel hacking is something to be embraced. It reduces the cost of travel. You can do this in a lot of countries around the world! Even if takes you a year to earn a free flight, why not take the flight? One free flight is better than no free flights.

Anything that saves money and reduces the cost of travel is something every traveler should do.

Saying no to travel hacking is saying yes to spending more money on travel — and why would you ever want to do that?


P.S. – If you want to learn more and figure out how to collect points and miles, click here to download the book I wrote on travel hacking. It will tell you how program work, what cards to get, give you step-by-step instructions, tips, tricks, and secret ways to collect miles.

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