Travel Hacking 101: A Beginners Guide to Free Travel via Credit Card Rewards

If you’re not experienced with travel hacking or budget travel techniques, you may think that airfare is the most expensive part of travel. But once you’ve learned the practices outlined below, you’ll find that airfare is free, or at least incredibly cheap if you’re willing to put in a little work.

travel hacking

Wondering how to fly for free? This in-depth travel hacking for beginners guide will cover everything you need to know about using credit cards for free airfare and lodging. Let’s get started!


Table of Contents


What Is Travel Hacking? 

Travel hacking is the process of getting free or highly discounted travel services, including flights, hotel rooms and more. The term is also used to generally describe the practice of traveling on a budget through various strategies. In this guide, we’ll focus on the process of how to get free airline tickets by utilizing credit card rewards.

Although it’s referred to as “hacking”, the process is entirely legal, and seeks to work within the existing system of credit card and airline rewards. It certainly exploits some loopholes, but the bottom line is that the hobby is entirely above-board. The banks and airlines are well aware of travel hackers, yet the costs associated with offering such lucrative rewards are but a drop in the bucket for these massively profitable banks.

So, if you’re interested in traveling and saving money (who isn’t?), this is the guide for you. With the tools listed here, you could easily cut your travel budget in half – or just travel twice as much! Let’s get started.


What You Need to Get Started

In order to find success with the tips listed below, here’s what you need:

  • You need to be a US citizenSimilar opportunities exist for citizens of other countries, but this guide is US-focused.
  • You need to be responsible with money & credit. Otherwise, this is not the hobby for you!
  • You need a decent credit score. Ideally you want a 700+ FICO score to take advantage of the most offers, but 650+ will suffice for some. You can check your credit score for free with Credit Karma.
  • You need a reasonable income. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but higher incomes make things easier. $30,000+ is a good baseline.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get started with the fun part!


The Basics of Travel Hacking 

So, what’s this “travel hacking” thing all about? In short, you can sign up for credit cards to earn lucrative sign-up bonuses. Bonuses might include airline miles, free hotel stays, cash, and more. The rewards vary, but there are tons of cards offering bonuses of $500+ cash value – or even more.

To earn these bonuses, you must 1.) get approved for the card and 2.) meet the minimum spending requirement. The spend requirement is typically $1,000-$3,000+ within the first 3 months, and includes any purchase you put on your card.

To earn a bonus, you DO NOT have to carry a balance or pay interest fees –  and ideally, you never should. If you’re going to be successful at this hobby, you need to treat your credit cards like debit cards, paying the full balance off each month. By paying the full balance, you’ll never pay a dime in interest, and you can reap the rewards for free.


Travel Hacking: Step by Step for Beginners

travel hacking basics

1. Select a Card

Do some homework to select a card that fits your travel goals, credit score, and spending habits. Consider:

  • The minimum spend requirement, and how it fits with your spending patterns
  • The bonus amount, and how it matches your travel goals
  • The general credit score required for the card
  • The annual fee and other terms

For help selecting a card, jump to the “choosing a card section” below.

  1. Apply for the Card

Once you have chosen a card, simply apply for it online. Once you’ve applied, you’ll receive one of three responses:

  • Instant approval
  • Instant denial
  • Decision pending

For an instant approval, move on to step #3. For an instant denial, see our guide on what to do if you get denied.

For a pending decision, you can either wait it out or call in to inquire about the application. Most of the time you will receive a written confirmation of approval or denial within 7-10 business days of your application. Some banks also offer an option to check your approval status online.

  1. Meet the Minimum Spend

Your card will come with terms attached to the bonus. Usually you will be required to spend $1,000-$4,000 within the first three months of card membership – but check the terms of your individual offer. Any purchase put on the card will qualify, so you can just go about your normal routine, putting all your purchases on your new credit card. 

For help, see our guide on how to meet minimum spending requirements.

  1. Wait for the Bonus

Once you’ve met the minimum spending requirements, you’ll need to patiently wait for the bonus to post to your account. The timing varies significantly depending on the specific bank and even the individual card. In general, you’ll usually have to wait at least until your next statement closing date – and in some cases it could take up to several months.

  1. Redeem Your Bonus!

Every card offers a different bonus – regardless, they usually stack up to free or highly discounted travel. Some common bonus structures are:

  • Airline miles, which can be redeemed on a specific airline for flights
  • Hotel points, which can be redeemed at specific hotel chains for rooms
  • Flexible points, which can be redeemed for flights, hotels, gift cards, and more
  • Cash, typically in the form of a statement credit (which reduces the amount you owe on your credit card bill).


An Example

  • The American Express Gold Gold Delta Skymiles Card typically offers a bonus of 50,000 Delta miles (currently 60,000) when you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card within the first 3 months.
  • You can apply for the card, and if you are approved, you have 3 months to meet the minimum spending requirement.
  • Purchases can be anything – bills, groceries, restaurant meals, gift cards, etc. etc.
  • You should pay off the charges in full every month, never carrying a balance.
  • Once you meet the $2,000 in purchases within 3 months, you’ll receive 50,000 Delta miles (bonus is currently 60,000 miles), plus whatever you’d earn from the charges themselves (typically 1 mile per $1 spent).
  • That means you’d end up with ~52,000 Delta miles.
  • You can redeem those Delta miles for approximately 2 round-trip domestic flights, or maybe even one round-trip international flight (learn more about using Delta miles here)
  • You’ll pay just a small amount for taxes and fees (as low as $6), and otherwise the ticket will be free!
  • After the bonus, you will continue to earn 1 Delta mile per $1 you spend on the card.

The process is more or less the same for each card, but the bonus terms, signup bonus and other perks vary significantly.


Choosing a Card & Where to Start

There are hundreds of credit cards out there, and it can be a bit overwhelming. If you’re looking to get your first rewards credit card, here are some things to consider:

  • Premium cards require a higher credit score (700+ ideally). Lesser cards (with lower signup bonuses) are more flexible in terms of credit rating/income requirements
  • You should choose a card that offers a bonus that is valuable to you. Live near a Delta hub? Get the Delta card from American Express. United hub? Get the United card from Chase. Not sure? Get a card with flexible points, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Capital One Venture, etc.
  • Find a card with the annual fee waived for the first year. Most cards offer this
  • If you’re going to continue applying for multiple cards, you should start with Chase cards. Chase makes it difficult to get new cards if you’ve had more than 5 new accounts (from any provider) opened within the last 2 years. So, if you’re going to hit it hard, your first 5 cards should be Chase cards. See our guide to the Chase 5/24 rule to learn more.

For specific cards, check out our guides linked to below:


Frequently Asked Questions

Won’t This Ruin My Credit?

Nope! As long as you are financially responsible and pay off your balance in full, churning credit cards might even improve your credit score. Lenders want to see that you can responsibly use credit, and they actually like to see more accounts than fewer – so long as the accounts are in good standing.

With that said, applying for multiple credit cards can have a temporary affect on your credit score. If you’re applying for a mortgage/car loan/etc. soon, it’s best to limit new applications. Otherwise, there is little harm in applying for several cards (again, as long as you are responsible with credit!)

How Good Does My Credit Need to Be?

You need at least decent credit to really find success in this hobby. There’s no hard and fast rule – but if your credit score is under 650, you’ll probably want to first focus on repairing/building your credit. If it’s over 650, you are likely to be approved for many cards, and if it’s over 700, you should be good to go even on premium cards. There are lots of factors, however, including your income level.

How High Does My Income Need to Be?

All credit card applications will ask for your income. This is used by the banks to determine your credit worthiness, and the credit limit that the bank will extend to you. There’s no hard number to go off of, but I’ve heard of people finding success with incomes of less than $20,000 (albeit with good credit scores).

That said, having lower income will make it more difficult to be approved for multiple cards, and will obviously make it harder to meet minimum spending requirements. If you have good credit and you’re income is in the $30,000+ range, you’ll be in great shape for many cards. If you make $50,000+ and have good credit, you are likely to be approved for pretty much any card. Also, keep in mind that most credit card applications will ask for household income, so if you live with a spouse, partner, etc. you are allowed to list your combined income on the application.

This Seems Like a Lot of Work – Is it Worth It?

If you like traveling and free stuff – it’s absolutely worth it. Even if you don’t like to travel, you can earn cash bonuses and gift cards (although the travel cards are typically the most lucrative).

For reference, I’ve been travel hacking for about 3.5 years now, and I’ve redeemed around $25,000 in free airfare, gift cards, cash, hotel stays and more. I have an additional ~$5,000 worth of miles/points that I’ve yet to redeem. I’ve paid $0 in interest and about $1,500 in annual fees. I’ve hit it pretty hard, with 25+ credit cards opened (and many closed), but you can go at the pace you are comfortable with. For beginners, aiming for 1-2 new cards per year is a good starting point.

How Can I Meet the Minimum Spending Requirement?

Everyday expenses such as bills, groceries, gas, etc. can all go on your card. You can also time your applications to align with major purchases, so you can make the purchase on your new card and knock out a good chunk of the spending requirement right away. If you struggle to meet the minimum spend, you can prepay bills, buy gift cards to use later, and more. See our guide to minimum spending requirements.

Won’t I Have to Pay a Bunch of Fees?

Nope! Credit cards do have fees – interest fees for carrying a balance, annual fees, etc. As long as you pay off your card in full every month, you will never pay interest fees.

As for annual fees, many cards that have good sign up bonuses DO have annual fees, but they are typically waved for the first year. After the first year, you can call in and they will often waive or lower the fee. If not, you can downgrade the card to one with no annual fee – this won’t affect your credit at all, it’s simply changing the product on the card issuer’s end. Or, you can simply close the account to avoid the fee (this may temporarily ding your credit score – but the effect is minimal, and temporary).

What Do I Do with the Cards After Earning The Bonus?

After you earn the bonus on a card, you can continue using it as usual, or simply stop using it and keep it somewhere safe. If the card has no annual fee, there’s no reason to close the account – so just store it somewhere secure and maybe use it once a year to keep it active.

If the card does have an annual fee, you have a few options. You could keep it long-term, if the perks of the card are worth the fee to you. You could close the account, which might slightly ding your credit score (temporarily) but would save you money on the annual fee. Or, you could call the bank and do a product change, which lets you switch to a different card with no annual fee. Product changes have no effect on your credit score.

Do I Have to Apply for So Many Cards?

Nope! You can take things as slow as you want. Even getting one or two new cards per year will help you drastically reduce your travel expenses. You might find, however, that you get addicted to the “game”! As long as you’re responsible, getting 5-8+ cards a year is completely possible, and makes travel much more affordable. But again, that’s not necessary – if you’re just getting started, take it easy with one card and see how it goes!

Why Do Banks Offer Such Good Bonuses?

Simply because credit cards are ultra-profitable for big banks. Banks earn a small interchange fee (roughly 1.5-2%) on each purchase, but the real money is in the interest charges. Banks charge very high interest rates, often of 25% or more. Banks hope you will be that customer that carries a balance, which is why they offer sign up bonuses. Credit cards are also a gateway to other products, as banks know that if a customer has a credit account with them, they are more likely to open a checking account, apply for a mortgage, etc. 

Is This Just for Airfare? What About Hotels?

There are tons of credit cards out there with solid bonuses. Some offer airline miles, some offer cash back, some offer free hotel nights, and others offer flexible points currencies that can be used for lots of different stuff.

What If I Just Want Cash?

Most of the very lucrative signup bonuses involve airline miles – but there are still several great cards that have cash signup bonuses. There are also lots of cards that earn flexible points, which can be used for gift cards or cashback. See also: How to cash out airline miles & points

Are Banks Getting More Tight with Credit Card Approvals?

In 2019 and beyond, it does seem like some banks are getting more particular about who they approve. This is particularly true for big travel hackers with an extensive history of many credit card applications. For beginners, this doesn’t really change the strategy – the guide above is still quite relevant. For experienced travel hackers, it may be wise to slow down a bit, timing applications strategically. For example, I used to apply for a new credit card every 1-3 months – now, I keep it to once every 3-6 months. The travel hacking landscape is always changing, but it will remain lucrative for years to come!

Resources & Further Reading

Good credit cards for travel hacking: 

Minimum spending:


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