travel hacking how to use credit cards to earn travel points and travel for free or discounts feature image

Travel Hacking – How to Travel for Cheap or Free With Reward Points

We get it, travel can be expensive. But it doesn’t always have to be. If you really want to travel then you have to make it a priority in your life.  The good news is that it is entirely possible to find creative ways to save for your vacations and even earn money for vacation by doing things you already do. And one way we do that is called travel hacking. It just takes some time & planning to figure it out.  That’s exactly people like us and members of my family have booked vacations valued at nearly $3000 for roughly a $1000 bucks.  So keep reading to learn all about travel hacking and how you can use it to travel for cheap or even totally free!

boarding the airplane in Cambodia to fly to Kuala Lumpur for Cheap

What is Travel Hacking? 

Travel Hacking is a method of maximizing travel rewards and loyalty program points in order to receive discounted or free travel.  It’s one of the best ways to plan a cheap vacation because you can get free or discounted hotels, flights, activities, and even cashback to pay for your vacations. You could do “travel hacking” occasionally in your daily lives, or you can do it really aggressively to rack up as many points as possible in a short amount of time for a trip.

Most often, people who are travel hacking will focus on taking advantage of credit card sign-up bonus offers. However, there is typically a minimum spending requirement to get the bonus. For example, you might be required to spend $3,000 in the first 3 months to earn the bonus rewards of 60,000 points. 

People sign up for the cards even though they might not need the credit card. They really only want the points.  They will use the card until they get the bonus rewards, then they may not use it anymore or even get rid of the card after a period of time. 

The goal is to continually look for the next great bonus card to build your points.

Coronado Springs Pool at Disney World - we often use your disney rewards points to pay for trips
Relaxing by Disney’s Coronado Springs resort pool – we love our Disney Rewards Points!

Beware – Travel Hacking Takes Discipline & Can Affect Your Credit if Not Careful

Okay, so let me preface this by saying that “extreme travel hacking” is not for everyone.  It takes work, good credit, and careful discipline. If you have trouble with debt or controlling yourself when it comes to spending money, then I DO NOT recommend that you get into this.

However, if you have good credit and good control over your finances and spending then travel hacking might be an awesome way for you to earn some free or discounted vacations. For us, we don’t spend a ton of money and don’t shop a lot. We always pay our credit cards off every month and have excellent credit. So this form of travel hacking works great for us. Plus, opening credit cards and using them / paying them off regularly might actually help boost your credit too. Although, keep in mind that opening a bunch of accounts at the same time (or closing them) can adversely affect your credit too!

Daily Travel Hacking vs. Extreme

Technically, we earn travel points literally every single day! All of the credit cards we use are tied to points. From groceries, gasoline, and everything in between. However, there are times when we might stumble across a sign-up bonus for a new credit card or if we have an upcoming trip that we might apply for a new one. We ONLY sign up for a card when we know we have upcoming expenses already planned that will help us meet the minimum spend. We would never sign up for one and then just buy something we don’t need to meet the minimum, that would defeat the purpose!

For example, a while back we knew we were going to buy a new MacBook and a nice DSLR camera.  So we signed up for the Chase Sapphire, met the requirement with those items and earned 50,000 miles. Things we were going to buy anyway! Using this method of aggressive travel hacking, there have been times when we earned over 200,000 points in just 9 months!

The Points Guy is also a great resource to learn more about travel hacking on a deeper level. 

carry multiple credit cards and forms of payment when you travel is a good money travel tip

Travel Hacking 101: How to Get Started & How It Works

Now that you know a bit more about what travel hacking is, let’s go into a little more depth about how you can get started and the steps you need to take to start earning and using your travel points!


1. Sign up for Loyalty Points Programs – Immediately

If you are not already signed up for various loyalty points programs through airlines, cruise lines, hotels, etc. then you have been missing out! Many casual travelers overlook this, but this is the simplest way to earn free travel. 

Sure it may take some time to earn enough points for a free trip, but you have to start somewhere. And if you need to actually be a member of the program before you can start earning. Loyalty point programs are not going to give you free travel all the time, but there are all sorts of ways you can build up your points to use them on future travel. Which is really the point of travel hacking. Fill that bucket of points!

silver medallion status on delta frequent flyer program for rewards points and travel hacking

Popular Airline Travel Rewards Programs to Sign Up For Include:

  •  Delta
  • American Airlines
  • Hawaiian
  • Alaska
  • United
  • Southwest
  • Air Canada

Popular Hotel Reward Programs to Sign Up for Include:

  • Mariott
  • Hilton
  • Wyndham
  • Hyatt
  • IHG
  • Radisson
  • Best Western

Be sure to read up on each program because they are all different.  Some can be combined with each other, while others can’t.  You will also want to figure out the best ways to earn points for each program. For example, some of them you might only be able to earn points by flying with them or staying at the hotel. But others might be tied to credit cards, merchants for shopping, etc. (we’ll talk about this in the next section)

Do Travel Points Expire?

Yes, some do. But others don’t expire.  In some programs, the points never expire. Which is amazing! But others do expire and you don’t want to be surprised and lose a bunch of points that you were saving up for a big trip. So for every program, you need to know whether or not they expire, and if so, when.

we used travel hacking to get a hawaiian airlines credit card and earn a sign-up bonus for free flights to hawaii
We used Travel Hacking to sign up for a Hawaiian Airlines credit card simply because we got a ton of bonus points – enough for free Hawaii flights!

2. Ways to Earn Travel Points & Rewards

There are many different ways that you can earn travel points that can later be redeemed for free or discounted travel. 

Earn Loyalty Points For Flying or Staying at a Hotel

The standard way to earn points is by using the services they promote.  For example, when I fly on Delta Airlines (my preferred airline) then I earn frequent flyer points. The amount of points vary depending on how much I spend and how much I fly. But every program is different. So one airline might have a certain method of calculation for earning points, others may have a different way.

You can also earn points by staying at a certain hotel too. Similar to airlines, oftentimes the points you earn will depend on how much you spend and how often you stay with them. 

Receive Special Member Rates or Discounts

Another way you can benefit from these loyalty programs is that you may be able to receive special member rates or discounts for being a member. One example of this are cruise lines. Most cruise lines will give special discounts to repeat cruisers or cruisers who members of their loyalty program. For example, my mom is a frequent cruiser on Carnival and she basically always cruises for free (plus taxes and port charges) because she has Diamond status (the original Travel Hacker, she is!). 

setting sail on disney cruise line. As Castaway Club members, we get discounts on sailings a great way of travel hacking
Setting sail on Disney Cruise Lines – we are also past cruisers and get discounted rates

Use Credit Cards to Earn Travel Points

Credit cards are the most popular way to earn travel reward points. And credit cards are actually how we earn the majority of our points. Having a specific card that is tied to a loyalty program lets you earn points every time you use the card. 

We also pay attention to bonuses or special offers related to these cards.  For example, many cards will have promotions on certain days of the week or month where you earn double or even triple points for things like dining out at restaurants or buying gasoline. This is a great way to earn points for things that you already purchase on a daily basis.

3.  Travel Hacking Credit Cards

There are many different types of credit cards that you might want to use for travel hacking and earning points. The cards that you use will depend on the loyalty programs you are a member of and how you plan to redeem the points. Everyone is a little different in their preferences. 

Some credit cards are specific to a certain loyalty program while others are not tied to specific program. 

Loyalty Program-Specific Credit Cards

Some credit cards are tied to a specific rewards program. For example, our American Express card is tied to Delta Airlines. We have a Southwest Airlines credit card too, as well as a Disney Credit card through Chase Bank. We also used to have a specific Hawaiian Airlines credit card as well as an Alaska Airlines credit card too. There’s even a Carnival Cruise Lines credit card too.


Every time we use these credit cards for our daily spending we are earning rewards points. They build up until we are ready to use them for a vacation. Whether it’s an airline ticket or a trip to Disney!

Loyalty Program-Agnostic Credit Cards

Other credit cards are not tied to one specific loyalty program. Instead, they let you earn generic reward points that you can then spend on a variety of programs. For example, we LOVE our Chase Sapphire Credit card because it lets us earn “Chase Rewards Points.” These points can be redeemed for multiple travel loyalty programs in a variety of ways (or we can just get cashback!). chase sapphire  

4. How to Earn Travel Points Without a Credit Card

While credit cards are one of the most popular ways to earn travel hacking rewards points, it’s not the only way. As mentioned you can also earn points when you use the services provided, such as flying on a Delta flight and earning frequent flyer points. But some people are surprised to learn that there are even more ways to earn points too!

Shopping Portals (say what!)

Yes, it is totally possible to earn travel points without traveling or using a credit card. You could earn them just by shopping on a specific online portal / store. For example, if you know that you need to buy a new pair of wireless headphones, instead of going to Amazon you could just go to the Delta Sky Miles store online and earn points when you buy the headphones on there!

Believe it or not, all of the major airlines here in the US have their own shopping portal where you can buy items online and earn points toward their frequent flyer programs. 

During different times of the year different stores might have certain promotions or deals when you can earn even more points. But if you feel overwhelmed checking all the different stores, a great website to check is CashBackMonitor where they actually give you a comparison of a ton of different online stores to see where you will earn the most rewards in return (or just cashback). 

Point-Earning Debit Cards (not Credit Cards)

If you aren’t a fan of credit cards or just don’t like to use them all the time, then you’ll be happy to learn that some banks actually offer debit cards that earn points! Sun Trust bank is one example of this, and I even used to have a Sun Trust card linked to my Delta Frequent Flyer program. So every time I used my debit card I earned frequent flyer points! (I don’t have it anymore simply because I moved, got married and changed banks over the years – but I loved it!). 


Partner Programs

Whenever you sign up for loyalty programs, such as Delta Airlines or Hilton Rewards, you should check their partner pages to see if there are some ways you can earn points for those programs through other vendors. These are changing all the time, so you’ll have to check back for special deals and updates or just keep your eyes peeled.

For example, when I lived in Georgia my natural gas bill was tied to my Delta frequent flyer account so that I earn points for paying my monthly bill!  There are also many partner companies or websites where you can earn points, such as buying flowers or renting a car.  Be sure to check out these details on the reward program websites.

5. How to Use Credit Card Points for Travel

Okay, now that you know how to earn all these amazing travel rewards points it’s time to talk about how to actually use them. Every program has a little bit different method of doing this and it also depends whether or not you are going straight to the provider (such as Delta Airlines) or if you are using generic points from a credit card such as Chase Sapphire. 

Direct Booking With an Airline or Hotel

This is one of the easiest ways to use your points. Basically, when you are searching to book a flight or a hotel room you can look at the cash price but if you are a loyalty member, you can usually look at the “points price” too. That way you can choose how you want to pay. Redeeming the points directly through the loyalty programs website is one of the best ways. 

For example, when I am booking Delta flights I can log in and see my total points at the top of the screen. Any time I’m looking for a flight I can switch between a points price and a cash price. I also like that Delta has the option of doing a combination – points and cash. Doing it like that allows me just to use partial points to get a discount on the overall cost. This is helpful especially if I have a last-minute trip and prices are a little expensive. I can use some points just to offset the cost. 

Searching for flights on delta airlines I can use frequent flyer points and see how many points I have for travel hacking
Here you can see my Delta flight booking screen. In this example, I have over 102,000 total points (top right) and can book this flight to Cancun for 35,000 points + $99

Redeem Points by Booking Through a Partner Portal 

Another way you can redeem points from programs, such as a credit card rewards program, is to log into their portal and book travel directly through them. What I like about this is that being an agnostic program, I can search for flights and hotels from many different providers and find the best deal. Then when I book it from my account, it simply deducts the point value of the purchase from the points I have available. 

Redeeming Travel Points for Cash Back from a Credit Card (What We Do the Most!)

Honestly, though, the number one way that I prefer to redeem my travel rewards points is by getting cashback from a credit card. The reason I like this is that I can buy my travel products wherever I can find the best deal. All I need to do is log into my credit card account and access the reward point section. From there I can see how many points I have available and how much that equals in cashback. 

Then all I need to do is submit the cashback request. Depending on the program, I can request that the cashback amount go directly into my bank account or I can just apply it to my credit card bill, thereby reducing what I owe. 

However, this only works if you have a credit card that allows you to earn and redeem points for cashback. Some of the cards that do this include Chase, Capital One, and even Discover Card. 

How to use Chase Sapphire Points for Travel

I use my Chase cards the most for earning and redeeming travel points. My main card is Chase Sapphire, but I also have a few other Chase Cards including a Chase Ink Business Card as well as a couple of others. All of these programs accumulate points in the Chase Rewards Program. I can log into their Chase Rewards Portal and see exactly how many points I have and how much “value” they have in the form of cash or reward travel. I may choose to search for and purchase travel directly through their portal. And when I check out, I will just pay with my points (as discussed above).

However, usually don’t buy my travel through their portal because oftentimes I find more options and can find better deals on another website! 

For example, I do a lot of my hotel shopping on  So I may book it on that site and make a note of how much it cost. Let’s say $300. Then just log into my Chase Rewards account and I can see how much total rewards I have for cash back. I can tell you right now, I probably have about $3000 on there currently.

So then I just indicate that I want to redeem some “cashback” and I’ll redeem the amount of points that equals $300, the cost of the hotel I booked on the other website. Usually, I can designate where I want the cash to go – to my personal checking account or I can just apply it to my credit card bill directly. 

Doing it this way gives me more freedom as far as where I find my travel deals. It also lets me convert those points directly into cash to cover all sorts of things – from dining, hotels, flights, activities, etc. Another perk is that I could even just redeem the points for straight cash into my pocket that I can bring with me on my trip to spend on whatever I want!

READ MORE: How to Plan a Trip – Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Example: REAL VACATION Worth $3000 But Only Paid $1000 Using Travel Points!

So back to the original question, how we get that $3000 vacation for only $1000? By using accumulated travel points on various loyalty programs! Here is the breakdown for the trip:  2 people with round trip flights to Florida, a day at Disney World, then an 5-day cruise around the Eastern Caribbean!

Airfare to Florida (2 people)

  • Price of tickets:  $800
  • Actually paid:  $0 (used Delta frequent flyer miles)

1 day / night at Disney World (2 people tickets, hotel & meals)

  • Price:  $700
  • Actually paid:  $0 (Redeemed Disney Rewards Points earned from Chase Disney Visa Card)

5 Day Cruise to Eastern Caribbean

  • Price (including meals): $1500
  • Actually paid:  $1000 ($100 cruise line loyalty voucher + $400 points from cruise line credit card)

And that’s it!

Travel Hacking is a GREAT Way to Travel More for Less!

The key to travel hacking is being strategic about it. Strategic about earning points (finding every possible way to do so) and crafting your vacations specifically so you can take advantage of the rewards points you have. For example, a few years back we had some Southwest points as well as Hawaiian Airlines points. We were in Seattle and wanted to go to Hawaii for as cheap as possible. And we found that with a little creativity, we could get the flights for super cheap.

  • Seattle => LA (2 free tickets using Southwest Airline Points)
  • LA to Maui (2 tickets on sale – I can’t remember the price, but they were a deal!)
  • Maui => Kona (Big Island) => Honolulu (2 people totally free using Hawaiian Airlines points!)
  • Rental Car (we used Chase Points)

So taking advantage of credit card offers, cashback bonuses, and frequent flyer programs, we were able to help offset the cost of that trip as well as so many others over the years. Travel hacking really is one of the best ways to be able to travel more often and spend less money. 


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