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Travel hacking is the practice of amassing credit card rewards, airline miles, and hotel points and using them for free flights and hotel stays.

Although an overwhelming majority of consumers spend these points and miles on coach tickets and no-frills hotel rooms, the most valuable way to use these points is quite the contrary.

The most Instagram-worthy experiences like flying in first class while being able to take a shower on the plane, taking exotic points vacations by staying in opulent villas overlooking the crystal-blue waters of the Maldives, and even dream vacations to Italy’s Amalfi Coast are once-in-a-lifetime experiences that can be free.

How? Travel hacking.

So, why doesn’t everybody do it?

Because it’s hard. Extremely hard. It takes a lot of knowledge, skill, and patience to plan first class vacations.

Most people will probably take a stab at it once or twice and then give up after unsuccessfully trying to locate a comfortable business class ticket to Europe.

To begin with, proper travel hacking involves meticulous record-keeping of your credit cards.

If Microsoft Excel is not your strong point and you refuse to keep better track of your points and credit cards, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Besides that, you need to keep track of which airlines are in alliances, which airlines have individual partnerships.

To add to this, you need to know how much mileage tickets cost for the flight you want to book across 10+ different loyalty programs.

Above all else, you need to know how to actually use your points for maximum value.

Seems overwhelming? It can be.

But if you have patience and understand the end goal, which is to permanently change the way you travel for the better, then committing 30 minutes to an hour per month is a small price to pay.

In this guide, we’ll be walking you through 7 of our biggest tips you can use to jumpstart your first class points travel. We’ll show you how to walk the fine line between travel hacking and upsetting the big banks.

Learn more about our points consulting services!

7 Laser-Focused Tips To Help You Fly in First Class Using Points

Travel hacking is a continuous process. Changes happen every day. Here are just a few details that you’ll need to be mindful of:

  • Changes in credit card sign-up bonuses
  • Changes in credit card application rules
  • Changes in credit card benefits
  • Changes in frequent flyer program structures
  • Changes in flight prices
  • Changes in flight availability
  • And much more!

Contrary to popular belief, most true travel hackers don’t spend any extra money, go into debt, or have any anomalous behaviors. All they do is make the most of their everyday spending. You don’t need to be rich to start travel hacking.

In fact, most travel hackers had to figure out how to travel while being limited financially. But perseverance prevails when you know that travel experiences are something you will not compromise on in life.

At the same time, you recognize that travel is expensive, and you can use travel hacking not only to enjoy posh experiences but also to objectively save tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run.

Can you imagine if you: a) never had to pay for travel again, and b) only flew in business or first class and stayed in 5-star luxury hotels?

This is at the core of what travel hackers do, so the next section is dedicated to offering the top 7 tips you can use to begin travel hacking.

Pursue Sign-Up Bonuses Aggressively

Sign-Up Bonus

Opening cards and earning sign-up bonuses is the key to accruing points faster than everybody else. Image Credit: robertindiana via Shutterstock

While some people, including business owners, have the ability to spend tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, it isn’t feasible for most people. So how do you get ahead of the curve and earn points much faster than normal?

Sign-up bonuses.

What are sign-up bonuses? Sign-up bonuses, also known as welcome bonuses, are one-time incentives that banks and credit card issuers offer to people who apply for the card and spend a certain amount of money within the first few months.

If you already have an ultra-premium card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’ll already know that you can earn 3 points per dollar on an ongoing basis with categories such as dining and travel.

However, if you look at the sign-up bonus of the same card, you’ll find that you can receive around 50,000 points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months.

That means that you will earn more than 12 points per dollar for signing up for the card and meeting the $4,000 spending within the first 3 months.

You would be racking up points 4 times faster just because you’re pursuing sign-up bonuses! If you’re a business owner, check out our 6 top tips to fly first class using points from your business!

So you can either spend 4 times as much money or earn 4 times as efficiently.

You’ll probably agree that you’d rather earn 4 times as many points with the same amount of spending.

The lesson here is to always pursue sign-up bonuses.

You’ll always get ahead if you’re using your spending to earn sign-up bonuses, instead of just ordinary bonus categories.

Nugget of Advice:

You can access our best-recommended travel rewards credit cards with the touch of a button, thanks to our partnership with Upgraded Points. 

Don’t Apply For Too Many Cards Too Quickly Either

Information Overload

Be careful not to open cards too quickly; there’s a perfect balance between accumulating lots of points and staying safe from getting shut down by the banks. Image Credit: CebotariN via Shutterstock

On the other side of the token, you don’t want to apply for too many cards too quickly.

Think about travel hacking as a marathon and not a sprint.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to apply for a bunch of cards in quick succession. There are a couple of reasons doing this can land you in hot water:

  1. You run the risk of banks “shutting you down” and closing all your cards and confiscating your points
  2. You run the risk of being blacklisted by the banks and not being able to get credit cards
  3. You run the risk of damaging your credit
  4. You run the risk of losing track of all the cards you apply for, and you can even forget to schedule AutoPay, resulting in late fees and interest
  5. You run the risk of overspending beyond your budget to meet spending requirements for a bonus

There’s a lot of different ways you can find trouble by trying to open too many cards too fast. You’d rather take it slow and pace yourself accordingly.

Nugget of Advice:

Consider enrolling in The Points University, our 16-week travel hacking bootcamp, which is a regularly-updated, one-stop shop vault where you can access everything related to rewards, credit cards, and luxury travel.

Figure Out Where You Want to Travel

Decision making

One of the first steps you need to take is to figure out where you’d like to travel to with points. Image Credit: fizkes via Shutterstock

The key to success in travel hacking is to design a plan to book travel to the places you want to go to.

For example, the type of points best-suited to fly Japan Airlines first class to Tokyo may not be the same type of points you want to use to fly first class to Germany.

To drive the point home, you can book Lufthansa first class directly to Germany using different points than you would for Japan Airlines first class. 

If you’re starting from scratch and you find out you need to earn, say, Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a business class ticket, all you have to do now is sign up for the credit cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points, and you’ll rapidly be on your way to sipping Champagne and sleeping in comfort on a plane.

Need some inspiration for some memorable points trips you can book for your family? Check out the 5 best vacations you can book for your family using points from your business!

Nugget of Advice:

Need a travel advisor, who can help you plan your points vacations, navigate travel restrictions, and help optimize your credit card portfolio? Check out all of the reasons why a points consultant is the best investment you can make for your travel.

De-Prioritize Airline Elite Status Benefits

Elite status

Chasing elite status is much less useful than amassing your points wealth. Image Credit: Aha-Soft via Shutterstock

This particular recommendation is a controversial but incredibly important tip to help you prioritize your travel hacking goals.

If you’ve read this far, your biggest goal is probably not to get free, domestic flights in coach from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Your ultimate goal is to book luxurious first or business class flights for your long-haul travel plans.

Elite status is a common marketing tool that airlines use to encourage loyalty. Elite status affords certain benefits such as upgrades, free checked bags, priority boarding, and lounge access.

Unfortunately, pursuing elite status is often in direct conflict with the main goal: racking up a war chest of the best types of points.

If you’re booking international business or first class, your upgrade is your ticket

You’ll no longer think about upgrades, free checked bags, or priority boarding when you’re flying first class because you already get 3 or 4 checked bags, you’re the first passenger to step onto the plane, and you have access to the best airport lounges via your plane ticket.

To the Point:

Flying first class internationally entitles you to some of the best airport lounges that even the highest elite status holders can’t dream of accessing. Check out our set of guides showing you the best airport lounges in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East!

The benefits associated with elite status will come naturally as a result of booking first/business class flights with points.

Elite status is generally only helpful for the shorter-haul flights that you might be booking with cash, such as a short flight from San Francisco to Seattle or a short flight from New York to Washington D.C. Besides that, elite status benefits are limited in practice.

Simply put, it’s not worth getting elite status benefits that are worth $100 to you if you have to compromise $2,000 worth of points and miles.

Plan Your Credit Card Applications Obsessively

Ultra-Premium Credit Cards

Different credit card issuers and banks have different criteria to approve or deny your applications. Image Credit: AuPACS

As mentioned previously, travel hacking is a lot more technical than initially meets the eye.

Much of travel hacking is data entry into spreadsheets and accounting practices, except for credit cards and not taxes.

To maximize your success, you will need to make sure that you’re:

  1. Following credit card application rules to prevent instant denials
  2. Spacing out your credit card applications specific to your own situation
  3. Proactively applying for a card 1-2 weeks before you need it, to account for application processing times, shipping times, etc.
  4. Sprinkling credit card applications across different banks
  5. Applying for the cards that are hardest to get approved for first
  6. Applying for the cards that are easiest to get approved for last

Coordinating and timing credit card applications is a lot like being a conductor for a symphony orchestra or being a construction foreman: you have to manage a lot of moving parts.

Use Transfer Partners, Not Travel Portals

American Express Transfer Partners

American Express has partnerships with many different airlines and hotels to book points travel. Image Credit: American Express

Once you’ve started accumulating points, you’ll eventually want to redeem them.

There are tons of terrible ways to use your points, such as getting gift cards and even magazine subscriptions.

The big banks spend a lot of resources and time marketing these to you because they want to tempt you into using your points for subpar value.

One of the most popular ways to use your points is to book travel through bank travel portals, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal, American Express Travel, and Citi Travel Center.

For the most part, using your points at travel portals is not the best way to maximize your points. So what is the best way to maximize your points?

Transfer your credit card points to travel partners.

Each credit card rewards program may have partnerships with airlines and hotels, and these partner lists will vary across different banks.

For example, Chase allows you to transfer points to United Airlines, while American Express allows you to transfer points to Delta.

In general, it is always best to transfer points to airline/hotel partners to book first class travel. Let’s use a quick example.

If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you can use 50,000 points to book a $750 economy plane ticket through the Chase Travel Portal.

On the other hand, if you transfer 50,000 points to travel partners, you’ll be able to book a $5,000 business class plane ticket. By following this 1 rule, you’ll quickly open up a new world of possibilities to maximize your points.

Plan Your Travel Far Out or Last-Minute, Not Anywhere In Between

Travel planning

To plan points travel effectively, you should stick to planning very far in advance or last-minute. Image Credit: Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock

Whether planning flights or hotels, most people book around 1 to 4 months in advance.

You have to throw out everything you think you know about the best time to book flights because luxury points travel is completely different.

Once you’ve got the requisite amount of points to book your travel, you need to then figure out when to actually start searching.

Knowing when to search is arguably the single, most important factor that determines your success in the entire booking process. As a general rule of thumb, here are the 2 timeframes that’ll increase your chances of success:

  1. Last-minute (1-2 weeks before departure)
  2. Extremely far out (11-12 months before departure)

Although there are numerous exceptions depending on the airline you’re planning on flying, these are 2 of the most reliable windows to plan your points travel.

If you stick to these 2 windows, you should have a much easier time booking travel than everybody else.

If you need some inspiration to figure just how extravagant your vacations can become even in a post-pandemic world, check out our best post-pandemic first class flight deals you can book using points.

Final Thoughts

Travel hacking is a daunting mountain to conquer. But the prizes and compensation are so rich that it’s worth committing the time to learn how to hack travel.

Behind the first class flights and luxury hotels lies an obsession to have once-in-a-lifetime experiences that literally transform the way you travel.

To implement this new lifestyle, you need to take travel hacking seriously and fundamentally shift your mindset of personal finance and booking travel.

What we’ve done here is to help provide numerous tips that’ll help you avoid many of the often irreparable mistakes you can make when travel hacking.

Hopefully, you found these tips useful!

Full Disclosure:
Advertiser Disclosure: We’ve partnered with UpgradedPoints.com to help make the best recommendations on our favorite credit cards. We may receive a referral bonus from card issuers if you apply for cards through these links. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers.
Editorial Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Any offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication but are subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.
Featured Image Credit: AuPACS