It’s Not Just for Russia: How (Travel) Hacking Saves Us Thousands

We saved nearly $5,000 yesterday. It was absurd.

It started when we were planning the next leg of our trip. We have been dreaming of visiting Mongolia ever since we saw the Departures episodes where Scott and Justin slept in gers and collected firewood with a tribe of nomadic reindeer herders. The best time of year to visit Mongolia is June – August, so we have been thinking we would visit after Japan.

We found a tour which would visit all our must-see sites and also have us back in Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia) in time for their biggest festival, Naadam. We were sold. There were only two things we had to look into before making our final decision, lodging and transport. Lodging was easy, we love AirBnb and found lodging to be super inexpensive, averaging around $30 per night in Ulaanbaatar. Then came flights. Yikes.

One of the panic inducing screens we came across while searching for flights.

We checked with lots of different airlines and flights from Tokyo, Japan to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia were expensive. Like nearly $2,500 for a one-way ticket in economy expensive. But, thanks to our accrued airline miles, we booked two business class tickets using miles and only had to pay $72 in taxes and fees. A whopping $4,702 in savings! And this isn’t the first time we’ve saved.

So how did we do it?

Before we left for this trip we knew our two largest expenses would be lodging and transport. To lessen the impact of the big flights we knew we would be taking, we focused on accruing airline miles through a light version of travel hacking.

For those of you who don’t know or understand what miles or travel hacking are, don’t worry, that was us a few years ago!

Some supplies needed for travel hacking.

Some supplies needed for travel hacking.

First things first, it is important to know some of the lingo. One part that was confusing to yours truly for a long time was miles versus points. Many people use the words interchangeably, or use the word miles when they mean points or vice versa, but they are not the same! For this post when we refer to miles, we mean frequent flyer miles which accrue through flights and airline loyalty programs. Points are earned through a variety of ways including credit cards, and can be used as a form of currency to buy flights, hotels, or other goods.

Travel hacking is a way to accrue those miles or points for little cost. I said we did “light” travel hacking because there was a lot more we could’ve done. If you check out this article you can read about how one of our favorite bloggers earns more than 1,000,000 miles a year. We didn’t need that many miles and there were a few aspects of travel hacking which seemed slimy, so we stayed away.

The Plan

Before we started any kind of hacking, we had to determine what made sense for us. We knew we would be traveling internationally, Chicago was our home base, and the focus of our trip would be Asia. From there we could narrow down a few things.

The Methods

While there are dozens of ways to travel hack, we earned our miles focusing on six things: Frequent Flyer Miles, Airline Credit Cards, Other Credit Cards, Rocket Miles, Mileage Plus X, and the Opinion Miles Club.

Frequent Flyer Miles

If you haven’t signed up for a frequent flyer program yet, you should. It’s free and it keeps track of all the miles you’ve flown on a particular airline. Since Chicago is a United Airlines hub, both Ben and I have the United MileagePlus frequent flyer accounts. We also have frequent flyer accounts with Southwest and American Airlines. If you travel a lot, those miles add up and you can earn premier status which gives you additional benefits including free baggage, free upgrades, or more miles. It was typical for Ben to travel internationally at least once a year for work, so when he booked his flights, he made sure to enter his frequent flyer number to collect those miles.

Travel hacking frequent flyer card

Once you have signed up for a frequent flyer program you will get a card like this with your membership number.

Even now we enter our frequent flyer miles on every flight we book. There are three major global airline alliances, Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam which allow you to earn or spend your miles on any airline within the alliance. United is a member of Star Alliance which is made up of 28 airlines across the world and earlier this year, when we flew Thai airways, we got to use our miles for a hugely discounted flight.

Even if you don’t fly often, it is important to have a frequent flyer membership so the miles you accumulate can be fed directly into your account.

Airline Credit Cards

An easy way to accumulate a lot of miles quickly is to look for signing bonus miles on airline credit cards. We lived in Chicago for many years and would fly back to Minnesota frequently to see family, head to weddings, special occasions, etc. We love Southwest Airlines so our first airline credit card was actually with them. They were offering two free flights on their RapidRewards card, so we signed up.

Travel hacking Southwest credit card.

Our first free flights came with this card.

As mentioned above, Chicago is a United Airlines hub, so our next airline credit card was with them. We waited until they were offering 50,000 bonus miles, which seems to happen a couple times each year, and then signed up for the United MileagePlus card. (It looks like they are currently offering 50,000 bonus miles.) *Please note in order to receive the bonus miles you have to reach a minimum spending limit. When we signed up, we had to spend $3,000 in the first three months. If you time getting your card around a big purchase, or if you live in Chicago and have expensive rent like we did, those minimums were easy to meet. After the first year there is often an annual fee on these credit cards.

Travel hacking bonus mile offer

We got this email while I was writing this post. Check out all those miles!

Once we had those two cards, we made sure every ticket we booked on Southwest we used the RapidRewards card and every ticket we booked with United we used the MileagePlus card. The reason is you get bonus miles for each dollar spent booking with that airline. For example, if I was flying from Chicago to NYC on United, I would book with my MileagePlus card which gives me two miles for every $1 spent on United tickets. If my ticket was $200, then I just earned 400 miles. Add those miles to the miles I earn during the flight and they start to add up. Booking with the airlines’ credit card also gives you perks like one free checked bag, which can save you $20-$40.

Credit Cards

While the airline credit cards were a great start to our accumulation of miles, we bolstered our earnings by signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. There are many great options out there, but for us, our plans, and our spending habits, this was the best fit.

Travel hacking credit cards

Our everyday card. Earning us points like crazy!

The card doesn’t give miles, it gives points and like the United MileagePlus card, it offered a 50,000 points signing bonus after meeting a spending limit. However, the huge selling feature for us was the points were convertible at a 1:1 ratio for miles on both United and Southwest along with a few other carriers. This is rare. Typically points don’t translate to miles, and if they do it isn’t at a 1:1 rate. Additionally, the Chase Sapphire Preferred gives us two points for each $1 spent on travel and food; essentially our lifeblood.

Another benefit with the card is our ability to book travel through their rewards site in which they boost our point value by 25 percent. The portal works just like Kayak where you can simply enter your origination, destination, and dates, see a range of flights, and book one that works for you. We like this feature because of the flexibility it provides in case we can’t find a Star Alliance flight to our desired destination.

Travel hacking Chase Sapphire Preferred Rewards Dashboard

The view from the travel rewards dashboard for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

There is a newer version of this card called the Chase Sapphire Reserve which gives you three points per $1 on travel and dining with a more expensive yearly fee, but it came out after we hit the road.

Rocket Miles

Travel and lodging go hand in hand and we love Rocket Miles for allowing us to kill two birds with one stone. Rocket Miles is a website and app (owned by Expedia) which allow you to book hotels and earn miles at the same time. For example, we met up with my parents in Madison, Wisconsin for Mother’s Day last year and booked our hotel through Rocket Miles. We had to pay for a hotel anyway, but by booking through Rocket Miles, we earned 10,000 miles in the process with no extra cost. There aren’t always hotels which offer Rocket Miles, and sometimes the rooms they offer are extremely expensive, but it is an easy thing to check before you hop over to Booking, Priceline, or AirBnb.

A screen shot from our Rocket Miles app.

A screen shot from our Rocket Miles app.

Mileage Plus X

Mileage Plus X is exclusively for United Airlines and it was my favorite way to earn miles. There may be something like it for other airlines, but again, we focused on United knowing that Star Alliance had a great network in Asia.

The way it works is you download the app to your phone. Anytime you are out shopping or heading to a restaurant, you open the app and see if the store or restaurant you are in is a participating member. For example, if I was shoe shopping at DSW in Chicago, I could earn four miles for every dollar spent there simply by using the app. There are hundreds of retailers and restaurants where this is true, even Amazon!

I did a quick search of Chicago on our Mileage Plus X app and there were pages and pages of deals.

I did a quick search of Chicago on our Mileage Plus X app and there were pages and pages of deals.

All you have to do is select where you are at checkout, click pay now, and enter your total amount once the cashier has scanned everything or once your waiter has brought the bill. From there, the app creates a gift card which the cashier will scan. Just like that, you’ve got miles. The app is hooked up to a credit card which it charges automatically. If you have your United MileagePlus card tied to the app, not only do you get the miles offered, you get miles for paying off your credit card, plus an additional 25 percent of miles added.

While this tool appears to be specific to United, all the US airlines have online shopping portals that work in a similar fashion. Simply visit their shopping portals, look through the deals on offer, and click the link to get sent over to a specific website for that brand to make your purchase, earning miles along the way. They all have shopping portals so here is American’s, Delta’s, United’s and Southwest’s.

Opinion Miles Club

This last method didn’t yield a ton of miles, but if you do it consistently over an extended period of time, it would definitely pay off. This specific club was again focused on United, but there has to be options out there for other airlines as well. How does it work? Well you get an email survey and spend 15-30 minutes answering questions and at the end of it you receive miles. Ben’s strategy was to just do a quick survey on the way in to work while riding the bus. The typical payout was about 60 miles, so if you complete an average of one survey a day for 300 days of the year, you’ll build up to 18,000 miles. Not too shabby.

Travel Hacking Opinion Miles

Want to join Opinion Miles? Here is some information.

The Drawbacks

One concern that we hear often when we tell people about travel hacking is the impact of opening all these credit cards on your credit score.

Your credit score is calculated using five factors – payment history (35%), debt level (30%), age of credit (15%), types of credit (10%) and credit inquiries (10%).

Graphic from The Balance.

When getting a credit card, companies do a credit check that does impact your credit score. However, one or two inquiries won’t make a huge impact, only a few points, and the difference they do make is often negated within 6-12 months.

In addition, assuming you are responsible with any new credit you’re awarded and pay it off before the end of each month, the boost to your borrowing level (lowers your level of debt) more than offsets the credit check hit.

The Resources

The only reason we could do this was because many people before us have done it. In addition to Nomadic Matt, there are dozens if not hundreds of blogs and websites that have great information about travel hacking and reward travel. The Points Guy does an awesome job of breaking down all of the different mileage programs and keeps us informed of all the changes to those programs along with many other resources we’ve used: Boarding Area’s One Mile at a Time, Million Mile Secrets, and Nerd Wallet.

See? Easy enough. Now get started! And let us know if you have any further questions.

*As a reminder, each airline, credit card and/or hotel has different ways of accumulating and spending miles and points, so be sure to research what would work best for you. 

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