Travel Hacking: Tips for Traveling on a Budget
Want to explore our world, but your budget is holding you back? Travel hacking could be your answer.
Contributing Writer at Tally
December 20, 2022
Few things in this world are as liberating as traveling. Unfortunately, travel can get rather expensive, putting it out of reach for some. However, you can save cash on your trip and earn other valuable rewards through travel hacking.
But what is travel hacking, and how does it work? We provide the answer and offer four valuable travel hacking tips below to help you maximize your savings.
What is travel hacking?
Travel hacking is perfect for folks living on a tight budget who still want to see the world. It focuses on finding free or deeply discounted travel and accommodations using various methods, such as credit card rewards, coupons and more. Beyond that, travel hacking takes things a step further by finding obscure and unique ways to save big on travel, such as combining multiple offers to make a larger travel deal.
How can you start travel hacking?
Travel hacking isn’t something you can wade into by accident. It requires some preparation and maintenance to keep it going. Here are some tips for getting started as a travel hacker.
Build a good credit score
A big part of travel hacking is using credit card points and rewards programs to get deep discounts on airline tickets. The downside is some of the best travel rewards credit cards require at least a good credit score to get approved. So, if your FICO Score is in the 600s or lower, you may not get approved for these credit cards.
If this is the case, work on building your credit score to qualify for the best credit cards and enjoy all the travel perks. You can build your credit score many ways, but here are a few quick tips:
Automate monthly payments: By automating your monthly payments, you ensure you don’t have late payments. Any payments 30 days or later can negatively affect your payment history, which accounts for 35% of your FICO credit score.
Lower your credit utilization ratio: Lower your credit utilization ratio (your total revolving credit balance relative to your total credit limits) to 30% or lower by paying down your revolving debt balances with the debt avalanche or debt snowball method. Keep it low by refraining from making large purchases with your credit card, as this is a big part of the “amounts owed” factor in the FICO scoring model, which accounts for 30% of your score.
Don’t close any accounts: Your length of credit history accounts for 15% of your FICO Score, and closing old credit card accounts and other revolving debts can negatively impact this variable. So, just leave them all open, even if you aren’t using them frequently.
Don’t apply for new debt: You will eventually find the right rewards credit card for you and apply for it. For now, however, refrain from applying for any credit cards or other debt, as each hard credit inquiry (when a creditor views your credit report to approve or deny your application) can negatively impact your credit score for up to 12 months.
Become an authorized user: If you don’t have any credit cards, you can become an authorized user on a friend or family member’s credit card account. This may result in their payment history and account history showing on your credit report and helping build your credit.
Get a rewards credit card
A rewards credit card is a great step toward building the points you need to start traveling and getting big discounts and freebies. You can choose cards from well-known credit card issuers, like American Express, Chase Ultimate Rewards or Capital One Venture.
You can get cards even more tuned for travel by picking up branded credit cards from various hotel and airline chains, such as United, Delta, American Airlines, Marriott, Hyatt or Hilton. Though these credit cards have a hotel or airline brand on them, they are still traditional credit cards you can use like any other Visa, Mastercard or Discover.
What’s great about getting a new credit card with rewards points are the introductory bonus points they often offer. These credit card sign-up bonuses can give you gobs of hotel points, frequent flyer miles, free upgrades to business class or first class, or reward points just for meeting a specific spending requirement within a certain number of months.
For example, as of November 2022, the United Club Infinite Card offers 100,000 welcome bonus airline miles for spending $5,000 on the credit card in the first three months after opening the account.
Some of these welcome bonuses are large enough to earn you free travel and free nights at a hotel in just the first few months.
Branded travel rewards cards also tend to include other perks that can help you during your trips, such as free Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, free checked luggage, priority boarding, no foreign transaction fees and exclusive airport lounge access.
When comparing reward cards, consider your lifestyle and find a card that fits it. If not, you may have this great rewards credit card you cannot make the most of. For example, if you buy all your groceries at a big-box store, such as Walmart, and your rewards credit card’s biggest perk is 5X points at grocery stores, you’re leaving a lot of points on the table.
Watch out for a few negatives associated with rewards credit cards. First is the annual fee. It’s common for these cards to include a fee every year. Make sure the fee matches or exceeds the value of the perks you’ll use. Also, review the rewards redemption rules and regulations, as some may include inconvenient blackout dates.
Sign up for loyalty programs
Airlines and hotel chains are all about loyalty and offer great programs to keep you coming back. But that doesn’t mean you have to sign up for just one. For optimal travel hacking, you can sign up for as many as you’d like, as there’s no penalty or cost associated with joining these programs.
You may want to create a separate email address for all your loyalty programs. First, you will receive many marketing emails, and you don’t want to clutter your inbox. Plus, you could miss out on great offers if one of the marketing emails gets lost in your other daily emails.
Sign up for cash-back shopping apps
Another great way to get secret savings is through cash-back apps like Capital One Shopping, Rakuten or Top Cashback. These sites get a commission from the travel sites you book through, then they share that commission with you through cash back.
The percentages are often small — about 1% to 5% — but these small percentages can add up to big total discounts when travel hacking. That said, as of November 22, 2022, Rakuten offered up to 8% on Priceline and 10% on ParkSleepFly, so the rewards can be significant at times.
Not sure which app to use for maximum cash back? Cashback Monitor, a cash-back aggregator, can help you find the app with the best rates.
4 Travel Hacking Tips
With your travel hacking preparations made, it’s time to get to work saving cash on your travel. Here are four travel hacking tips to help you see the world for less money.
1. Use rewards credit cards wisely
A rewards credit card is critical to travel hacking, but you must use it wisely. We mention choosing a card that meets your lifestyle and shopping trends, but you don’t have to limit yourself to just one rewards credit card. Perhaps have a few to maximize the points you earn at various places you shop.
For example, you may have one card that offers great rewards at grocery stores, another to maximize your fuel purchases and a third that offers a higher reward for all other shopping.
But to truly get the most from your rewards and cash back, be sure to pay off your statement balance in full by the due date. This ensures you fall within the interest grace period and avoid interest charges.
2. Stack your deals
Make the most of all the offers by stacking multiple deals together and earning even more travel rewards. For example, if you’re purchasing something online, you can use a rewards credit card and go through a cash-back app to get the most rewards for your purchase that you can apply toward travel.
And when you’re booking travel, you can go even further by using your hotel or airline branded rewards credit card to get even more points. On top of that, you can use a cash-back app to save money and your loyalty program to earn points toward future travel.
Some credit cards have special offers on travel too. For example, American Express has its Amex Offers, which can give you additional cash back at select retailers.
3. Find the best prices
Sites and apps like Hopper, Airfarewatchdog and The Flight Deal monitor airfare and hotel stay prices to help you find the best possible deals. Sometimes, you can also find mistake fares — when an airline or hotel posts incorrect and often dramatically cheaper prices on accident. If you subscribe to these sites, you can get the news about these mistake fares and book before the price changes.
Even if you don’t land a mistake fare, you can still find out when prices for your desired routes are the cheapest and book them. Don’t forget to enter your frequent flyer or loyalty program number when booking to ensure you get all your rewards. If the site doesn’t offer a place to enter your number, check the official website for your airline or hotel to see if they offer the same price and book there instead.
4. Be realistic
Though you may hear about free flights and hotel stays online, there is usually a cost associated with these “freebies.” You may have to pay taxes on what is supposedly a free flight or pay resort fees during a free hotel stay. Plus, don’t forget to factor in an annual fee on your credit card, parking fees and other additional costs.
Yes, travel hacking can save you a lot of cash, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch — err, free travel.
Travel hacking is rewarding for experts and beginners alike
Whether you’re a savvy travel hacker or are just getting started, seeing the world on a budget is rewarding. Travel hacking requires some setup, as you’ll need a rewards credit card, various cash-back apps and loyalty rewards programs. But after that, it’s relatively straightforward to find the best prices and stack your credit card reward, loyalty program perks and cash back to keep the net cost of your travel as low as possible.
If you need to improve your credit score to get a rewards credit card, debt may be holding you back. Try the Tally† credit card debt repayment app to help you manage your payments and efficiently pay off higher-interest credit cards with a lower-interest line of credit.
†To get the benefits of a Tally line of credit, you must qualify for and accept a Tally line of credit. The APR (which is the same as your interest rate) will be between 7.90% and 29.99% per year and will be based on your credit history. The APR will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate. Annual fees range from $0 to $300.