First things first. I’m not talking about anything illegal, I promise! Travel hacking involves leveraging frequent flyer miles and points in order to travel the world at a deeply discounted price. But doesn’t it only apply to those who constantly fly for work? Not at all. That’s a common misconception, and I’m here to show how your family can travel for close to nothing without taking even one paid flight. But first, let me tell you how I stumbled into this hobby/addiction.

My story

I moved to USA from Eastern Europe  in the late nineties. At that point, I knew nothing about miles and points. Naturally, my American husband and I had to fly to Europe to visit relatives. So, the airline agent who sold me tickets suggested we sign up for frequent flyer accounts. It was free, so why not? Few years later, we had about 25,000 miles each, enough to fly within Continental USA for free. But I saw something on airline website that intrigued me. There was an offer for a co-branded credit card which would give 10,000 miles after just one purchase. That would increase our mileage balances and allow us to fly  from Florida to Maui.

So, that’s what I did, and we ended up flying to Hawaii on award tickets. Of course, the card had an annual fee coming up, which I didn’t want to pay. So I canceled it. Interestingly, just a few months later, I got a letter in a mail offering to sign up for the same exact card and receive the bonus again. I went ahead and applied, and got another 10,000 miles. And this is what I’ve been doing ever since. Things in this hobby have changed so much over the years, in many ways, for the better. Right now, you can easily find  an airline credit card that offers 50,000 miles once you fulfill the minimum spending requirements.

Some important considerations

The biggest concern people have is what this will do to their credit score. And it makes perfect sense, good credit is essential in the society we live in. While signing up for a new card does negatively impact your score, it usually goes down only 5-10 points per application. If your credit is good (above 700), the effect will be minimal. In fact, many times, your score will go up. Why?

There are many factors that go into credit score algorithm, among them  utilization (how much available credit you are using). When you get a new card, it comes with a line of credit, which  decreases your utilization. That, in turn, increases your score. Of course, it’s important to go slow, which is why I recommend people get just one card and see what it does to their credit.

It’s also important to note that it’s best to avoid new credit cards if you are planning to get a mortgage or a major loan within the next 2 years. Why 2 years? That’s how long it takes for a credit inquiry  to fall off your file, so mortgage lenders don’t see it anymore. Obviously, if someone has been applying for a bunch of cards, it’s perceived as a red flag.

It’s also important to consider your own spending habits. If you are someone who tends to overspend when using plastic, then it will negate any rewards you will earn from sign-up bonuses. This is extremely important because the danger of buying things on credit that you can’t afford is very real. So, if this describes you, then this hobby, unfortunately, is not a  good fit.

Go big or go small, it’s your choice!

While I tend to switch credit cards constantly, it certainly is not for everyone. In fact, it’s probably best to just get a few decent long-term cards and sign up for few new bonuses per year. Let’s face it, most families are super busy, and the last thing they need is to keep track of 10 cards. This hobby is about using your limited spending so you can afford travel. For many, it means focusing on cash back instead of miles. Once again, the choice is yours. Some examples of best long-term cards for family are:

1. Amex Blue Cash Preferred  

You get 6% cash back on groceries (on up to $6,000 per year), 3% cash back on gas and department stores, 1% on everything else.  The card does have $75 annual fee, but Amex has various promotions, so it’s easy to make up for it.

2. Amex EveryDay Preferred

You get Membership Rewards points, a currency transferrable to miles. The card earns 4.5 points per dollar on groceries (on up to $6,000 per year), 3 points on gas, and 1.5 points on everything else. The catch is that you have to make 30 transactions in a billing period in order to get this payout. An easy way to achieve this is to buy $1 Amazon gift cards. This product has an annual fee of $95 but once again, you should be able to make up for it.

These are just a  few examples. Every family is different, so it’s important to do the math and determine what will be the best fit for your own unique situation.

 “Low-hanging fruit” bonuses for family

Of course, the biggest allure of travel hacking is receiving a sign-up bonus through minimal effort. But which one should you choose? Once again, it will vary and largely depend on your goals and spending ability. Some cards require you to spend $4,000 in 3 months. Can you handle it? If not, then maybe it’s best to stick to bonuses that have lower barrier to entry, like $1,000 or $2,000. Here are a few excellent choices to consider:

1. Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card 

There are several versions of this offer, but you want to make sure to  sign up when the bonus is 50,000 points (it is right now). The annual fee of $69 or $99 (depending on the offer) is not waived, but is totally worth it. You have to spend $2,000 in 3 months in order to qualify for the bonus.

Rapid Rewards program is an excellent fit for a middle-class family. The bags fly free, there are no blackout dates for award seats, and you can cancel and redeposit the points at no cost.  The price varies depending on the route but in general, you can expect to get 1.6 cents per point on certain fares. Southwest has an excellent coverage, which now includes Caribbean.

Just a few months ago, we flew from Orlando to Jamaica non-stop via Southwest airlines. The price per person: 9,900 points+$110 in taxes, roundtrip. Last year, we also flew to Buffalo, NY to see Niagara Falls for around 10,000 points roundtrip. So, this should give you an idea on just how far you can potentially stretch your sign-up bonus.

2. Chase IHG MasterCard

Probably my favorite card in the world! The bonus is currently down to 60,000 points (sometimes it’s increased to 70,000 points). You have to spend $1,000 in 3 months in order to get it. This stash can go far if you utilize their PointBreaks list. It’s a special promotion where a group of hotels costs only 5,000 points per night, and it rotates every few months. It is like a box of chocolates, as in you never know what you are gonna get.

But even if you redeem points at a regular rate, you can still get tremendous value out of the sign-up bonus. The cost starts at 10,000 points per night for the lowest category, and goes up from there. But the perks of the card are what makes this offer a standout. For only $49 annual renewal fee, you get a free night certificate at any IHG property, good for 12 months. IHG has outstanding coverage and if you regularly vacation in Florida, you definitely want to investigate this card. There are many oceanfront properties that go for close to $300 per night in peak season. Want to stay near Disney? Once again, there are many options, and you can even use the renewal certificate for a 2-bedroom vacation rental at Holiday Inn Club Vacations Orlando. And for $49, how can you go wrong? Obviously, it makes sense for both spouses to get this card, so you have two renewal certificates each year.

But wait, there  is more! The card comes with complimentary Platinum status which can give you free upgrades and other perks. For example, when we stayed at Holiday Inn all-inlcusive property in Jamaica (naturally, on points), we got a free couple’s massage and a special lobster dinner due to my Platinum status. BTW, you can use your renewal certificate here as well, and for $49 get to vacation at a  beachfront property where kids under 12 stay and eat free. The room at this resort goes for $350 per night in high season.

I recommend this card to everyone in my family. This is truly a low-hanging fruit of travel hacking. You get the sign-up bonus, the perks, and you don’t even need to cancel it, ever.[td_smart_list_end]

Bottom line

Of course, there is much more to miles and points hobby, and you can learn it by going to my website. I recommend you start out with “Beginner’s Guide” page at the top. But I hope I gave you an idea on what travel hacking is about. It is most certainly not rocket science, and basically involves being organized and disciplined with credit. If you can manage this, your family can travel for pennies on a dollar.