Twentysomethings Hannah and Chad Janis just quit their jobs to depart on an adventure around the world. They booked their 40-country, $62,000 trip with a classic travel hack — ‘free’ airline points.
Fresh out of college last year, Chad Janis found a job as a banker in New York City. He hacked his first free flight to JFK for the interview.
Chad knows personal finance, and his job paid well. So he and his wife, Hannah, have a little cushion. But they also have an idea that they think is worth spreading: Buy less, do more. Or at least try to travel hack your next adventure.
Inside Credit Card Travel Hacking
Travel hacking is essentially collecting frequent flyer miles (or points) in the most rapid manner possible to fly for free. The easiest way to earn airline points quickly is through the signup bonus you get when opening a credit card.
For example, Barclays Red Aviator card gives you 60,000 American Airlines points after swiping the card one time. It sounds easy. But Chad studied and experimented with travel hacking extensively over the last five years to figure it out, some 20 hours a week beyond his day job.
He started small by seeing how many single vacation destinations he could get to for free. He flew to Mexico, Italy, France, South Africa, Switzerland, and Iceland — for nothing.
Then, they kicked things up a notch. Eventually, the couple systematically opened 26 credit cards and accumulated over 2 million points, documenting the whole experience online for others to follow.
In theory, the premise of a travel hack is pretty straightforward. “We hit the minimum spend on each of our cards to activate signup bonuses ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 points by simply planning ahead of time what our expected expenses would be in the near-term future,” Chad said.
It’s the details that make it a potentially onerous side hustle.
Frequent Flier Miles: Keeping Track of It All
The Janises’ own travel hacking led to building the web-based premium app Wall Street Minimalist, which has since morphed into a side business. It includes a free flight search engine, a video course, and a tracking system to help others travel hack easier.
The app was a result of trying to manage cards and minimum spend data through a Google spreadsheet, which Chad said was difficult.
“You still have to be responsible with paying off your balances and closing credit cards before annual fees roll around,” he explained. “So the app is just meant to help you track all of the moving parts and information.”
Timing is another struggle. Travel hackers must open and close credit cards at the right time for their best rates.
“You never know whether a bank is going to raise or lower their signup bonus offer,” Chad said. “You also have to be wary of certain rules that each bank has to restrict individuals like us from opening and closing too many cards.”
For example, Chase only allows you to open five cards in a 24-month period.
“Obviously, their rules are only so effective, though, as we were still able to hack our way to over 2 million points. However, for someone who is just taking a couple of trips each year, these rules aren’t very applicable, as they will never be restricted by them.”
What About Credit Scores?
What may be most surprising to those new to travel hacking is that the Janises simultaneously boosted their credit scores. They managed to build Hannah’s credit so she could open more cards while keeping Chad’s credit intact the way most of us were taught: paying credit cards on time and never carrying a balance.
But with 26 pieces of plastic, that requires some serious organizational skills. “When you have so many credit cards, it’s important to develop an autopay system so you never have to worry about missing payments,” he said.
“If you’re good about living within your means and never spending more than you have in the bank, you can use credit cards instead of cash to quickly build up enough points to redeem for your next free flight.”
That means to start small, like with your next flight to somewhere cool.
Travel Hack Cheats System, Not Your Wallet
Chad and Hannah know money doesn’t grow on trees. They live within their means. “We never went on any spending rampages to rack up points, and we’ve never had credit card debt,” Chad said.
“We saved up money over the last year by living intentionally as minimalists. For the trip, we’ll cover our food and activities using the cash we saved. However, without our points, we never would have been in a position to afford this.”
For their global journey, which starts next week, the Janises booked the majority of flights with Singapore Airlines, which has a Star Alliance Round The World Award. The business-class program costs 240,000 points per person. The cash value of the couple’s flights to 40 countries is around $62,000, according to Chad.
“We used the points we earned with other airlines through our cards’ signup bonuses to book ancillary tickets such as our flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to Vava’u, Tonga,” he said.
Free hotel stays are another perk of a credit card travel hack. Chad said he still has several hundred thousand points he can apply to hotel stays. He’s already redeemed some abroad, including a free, all-inclusive weeklong splurge at Marriott’s Fiji Momi Bay.
Because after all that work, the Janises deserve some vacay. Check out a handy list of their travel hacks below.
10 Steps for Your First Travel Hack
- Boost your credit score. It’s important that you first build your credit score so you’re eligible for the best credit cards with the highest awards rates.
- Pick your vacation spot. Look at the map and decide where in the world you want to adventure to next.
- Plan months in advance. Preparing to book a free flight with credit card points can take a little time. To earn the required points, give yourself six to nine months from the day you open the card to the day you want to leave for your vacation.
- Search your favorite airlines. Pick three to four of your favorite airlines. Go online and check flights on each airline’s “search award tickets” filter. Then, track award seat availability on your desired vacation days.
- Select the lowest rate. Comparison shop: Some airlines require fewer points than others to book the flight. Just like you do when booking with cash, you’ll want to fly with the “cheapest” airline (the one requiring the fewest points).
- Find the right card offer. After you know how many points it’ll take to book your free flight, and which airline you’ll be flying on, start earning points toward that airline’s rewards program. Do a quick Google search to find the credit card offering the highest signup bonus with the desired airline.
- Evaluate annual fee and minimum spend. Pay close attention to whether the credit card you’re considering has an annual fee or a minimum spend amount that’s out of your range. I try to open cards that waive the annual fee for the first year, and most people find that everyday expenses sync up with hitting a minimum spend of $3,000 within three months of opening the card.
- Open the credit card. Once you decide on the card that will help you earn the required points for your trip, submit your application to open the card.
- Stay responsible. As you use your new card, make sure that you never miss any monthly payments and focus on spending within your means. Use autopay!
- Book your free flight. Once you hit the card’s minimum spend and the signup bonus triggers for your account, you will have thousands of points to redeem for your free flight. Go back to the airline’s website and book your flight using your freshly earned points.
Finally, celebrate. You just saved anywhere from $300 to $1,500 on an expensive flight. “I can’t think of a better reason to relax on the beach sipping a pina colada,” Chad told GearJunkie.