Award Travel is Changing!

Award Travel is Changing

Hello folks! Hope all is well. And I hope today’s title doesn’t catch you off-guard. Credit card award and frequent flyer award travel has always made me cringe when I hear it. Award travel is a complicated world and it appears it only keeps getting more complicated. I hate booking with awards as it always feels like I could be getting a better deal out there (not much different than booking airfare regularly…), but I do love taking advantage of free awards and credit card bonus award offers. Hard to go wrong booking with bonus miles! Today we will be talking about how award travel is changing and how I managed to save approximately $3,774 with my travel hacking in 2016 alone.

Your Money Matters

I enjoy listening to the Your Money Matters podcast from The Wall Street Journal and one jumped out at me recently. It discussed New Ways to Fly with Miles. I’m always looking for new deals out there. If there is an easier or cheaper way of getting something I already buy, then I’m all over it.

Also, I’ve been looking for a good time to do a post on my travel hacking experience…so perfect timing!

In the podcast, it is discussed how using awards has gotten more complicated as award seat inventory has been limited and award travel isn’t “free” as fees and fuel surcharges are levied and continue to go up. Lastly, while airline partnerships have expanded, thereby allowing miles to be used elsewhere, not all partnerships can be booked online with award travel!

The podcast mentioned American Airlines in particular who has 26 partnerships around the world, however only half are bookable on their website. The airlines have been supposedly struggling to get award travel inventory meshed across its platform and available online…how convenient!

The end result…well if you are anything like me it results in hours of searching for the best use of my miles and awards. It means tracking airfare prices over months to find the best time to buy, and searching for the best destination airport, layover location, and airline to use. No wonder a world of professional bookers has popped up…

Professional Bookers

Yes, you heard me right. Booking travel awards has gotten so complicated that it has sprung a new industry of professional bookers! One that was mentioned specifically on the podcast was Book Your Award. This was the first I had heard of professional bookers. Has anyone ever used them before? Please share in the comments what you thought!

How about another easy and great solution put out there by a fellow blogger, the Frugal Vagabond. Just earlier this week he wrote a post on Braindead Easy Travel Hacking where he discussed a new feature on his The Earth Awaits platform for Award Travel Search. This tool combines the following features with more to come:

  • Knowledge of 18 different airline award charts
  • Which points transfer to which airlines and at what ratios
  • 61,000 airline routes
  • Up-to-date credit card offers with the highest signup bonuses

Impressive work, Vagabond! Thanks for the great tool!

My Tips for Using Award Travel

Booking airfare is no fun. I’d probably rather go to the dentist. Seriously. And booking award travel is no different. As the podcast has mentioned, it is becoming increasingly painful. So below I outline my philosophy toward award travel (don’t take this as advice, you need to make up your own mind and find what’s best for you):

  • Maximize free offers. I have always gladly accepted reward perks through frequent flyer programs and credit card rewards, but in 2015 and 2016 I’ve become increasingly focused on credit card travel hacking. There are credit score considerations to make regarding this, but I haven’t found my score to be negatively impacted much. And I’ve gladly accepted and utilized offers for “40,000 bonus miles when I spend $3,000 in the first 3 months”…That way if I end up getting hosed on the utilization of these awards, at least they were generally handed to me for free. And the opportunity cost of simply sticking with one 2% cash back card is easily outdone.
  • Use awards as soon as I can. Awards will only get less valuable over time as award programs are modified and de-valued or points expire. And also, awards sitting idle in your account are like having cash sit in your checking account earning you 0%. I’m not saying book travel you otherwise wouldn’t, I’m simply saying using them sooner rather than later is better.
  • Consider first or business class tickets. This is where you can get more bang for your award buck. There have even been a few occasions in 2016 where my wife and I flew first class for fewer miles than what it would have been to book in economy class! Shocking, I know, but true! Those occasions were first and only times we ever flew first class and I’m sure everyone else up there loved the peace and quiet our two year old brought with him! J

Travel Hacking is Simple

In the last couple years, my wife and I have signed up for countless cards. Literally, countless cards…there’s the Southwest card, American Airlines card, Barclaycard, Capital One Venture card, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards, Citi American Airline card… I could be missing one or two that have come and gone. Needless to say, it takes a good system to stay on track of all these cards.

  • Right away we put the card on auto payment for the full balance so we don’t ever get stuck with late fees or interest charges.
  • We put a calendar alert to cancel the card before the annual fee kicks in. Often times the first year fee is waived. So in 12 months we call up the card company, tell them we are going to cancel to avoid the fee and sometimes they will actually waive the fee for another year to entice us to keep the card open. And this is preferable to us so our “credit account” is out longer and there is less of a negative impact on our scores. If they don’t offer to waive the fee for year two then we will cancel…better to get rid of the card then pay any fee.
  • Also, if you forget to cancel the card and the annual fee kicks in, we’ve had luck calling the company and subsequently getting them to waive and credit it back to us.
  • Another option to cancelling is simply downgrading the card to a no fee card and not risk your credit score the slight, short term negative impact from closing it.
  • We’ve never had trouble reaching the spend limit. And usually we meet it within just a month or two…not because we are huge spenders…it’s because of daycare. Yes, daycare is the key for us, they accept credit cards at no extra fee. We know our monthly spend, put everything we can on the card, and pay it off in full to ensure we reach all spending targets.
  • And once we hit the spending limit required for the bonus travel, we cycle to the next card.

Credit card travel hacking isn’t for everyone and credit score implications are important. While my score has been dinged for the number of “new accounts” (accounts opened within the last two years), it has also benefited from “available credit” (the more credit cards opened with less utilization demonstrates handling available credit appropriately) as well as no late payments.

After somewhat intense travel hacking for about two years my credit score has dropped modestly, but remains “excellent” in the upper 700s.

My Award Travel

As I mentioned above, in 2016 alone my wife and I utilized $3,774 worth of free award travel. On top of that, we are each sitting on over 150,000 of award miles ready for the next trip. Perhaps we slow down the travel hacking a bit…

Our total vacation spend in 2016 was $8,410, net of the reward benefits it was only $4,637 out of pocket. Our vacation spend won’t always be so high. Last year was a big travel year as two of my brothers got married. And our little one was over two years old for both of those flights back home to the Midwest meaning we had to buy his plane ticket too! And on top of that, I had a couple bachelor parties I was drug along to…

Questions for you:

  • Have you had any major travel hacking successes or failures?
  • What are your tips for using award travel?
  • Have you ever tried a professional booking service?

Thanks for taking a look!

The Green Swan

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31 Comments

  1. I struggle to get much headway with reward flights on my credit cards but I did book return flights from Australia to Denver later this year which did end up costing $400 in taxes and anything else the airlines can dream up. But all in all, it was a cheap way to get to the USA and return. As for credit card rewards, I do take advantage of the free comprehensive travel insurance provided with my AMEX but since I’m not a huge spender, the actual reward points do take a long time to accrue.

  2. Good tips. I’ve just never been able to get into the travel hacking scene that much. Seems like too much of a hassle to keep track of so many cards. But – there does seem to be lots of potential for savings. Maybe something to consider in the future…

    1. I hear you! I thought the same thing. I started out real slow, just dipping my toe in the water to see how it all worked at first. No need to over complicate it.

      Thanks for the comment, Freedom 40!

  3. We save $2k on flights last year and just booked flights and hotel for taxes and fees for our family of five using our rewards. It takes a little extra work, but overall it worth it given the amount of money we are saving.

  4. Hooooly cow, I didn’t know an entire career field emerged just for travel hacking. But hey, it makes sense. Regular people want to score great deals but don’t have the time/resources to dedicate to it.

    Mr. Picky Pincher and I have only been on one real “trip” and that was Disney World for our honeymoon. Admittedly I didn’t know anything whatsoever about travel hacking, but I managed to minimize a few expenses. We booked a package that didn’t include meals and used Disney gift cards we received as wedding gifts. At the end of the day, we probably spent $200 of our own money at Disney. Not too shabby. 🙂

    1. Not shabby at all!

      Travel hacking has definitely gotten big and the credit card companies continue to ramp up bonus offers in search of good customers. Quite a deal to take advantage of!

      Thanks for the comment, Mrs Picky Pincher!

  5. Hey, thanks for the kind mention! You’re right, Travel Hacking has gotten complicated, though I think there’s still a lot of low hanging fruit (easy short-hop Avios redemptions, flights to Europe on KLM/AF, using stopovers somewhere awesome to reduce miles needed, etc.), and if you follow the basic process you set out, it’s definitely possible to travel for near-nothing. The key is to have a plan going in, and not just mindlessly accumulate miles!

  6. We don’t really travel that much with a newborn anymore, but when we did we tended to drive more than fly. We get to see a lot of the country that way and even meet some interesting folks!

    1. Yeah it’s a great way to see the countryside. We’re over 15 hours from home now and with a young one we resort to flying. And that consumes most of our vacation days lately! Although we’d like to travel more and take some real vacations again soon.

      Thanks for the comment, TPOH!

  7. I have to admit I find the entire topic overwhelming. We haven’t done any travel hacking and I’m not sure where to begin. Neither of us has the patience to turn it into what seems to be a part time job. Any suggestions on where to start simple?

    1. One thing I’d suggest Mrs. G is Chase cards that give you Ultimate Rewards. They can be used lots of different ways. We earn those and then transfer to Southwest or use them to pay for cheap car rentals, etc.

      Great post JW! We travel hack too. The SW Companion Pass was our best hack in the last 3 years! We just got the 100,000 Chase Reserve (in branch) this week too 🙂

      1. That’s great, Vicki! Quite successful hacking on your part. The Ultimate Rewards is a good suggestion. They’re flexible and easy to use.

        Thanks for the comment!

    2. Do you have a rewards card already today that gives 1 or 2% cash back? I’d start by signing up for another that has a bonus offer that is from a card not affiliated with a particular airline so you have more flexibility to use it. Double check the annual fee is waived for the first year and you can’t really go wrong. I can’t advise as to the best card to start with but there are some good resources available with a Google search. Hope that is helpful but feel free to email me directly with questions too! It’s really not too hard or overwhelming.

      1. Our current cards give us some type of points we can later cash in but not under a 1 or 2% cash back program. Clearly we have a lot to learn. Thank you both for your responses.

  8. The highlight of our travel hacking to date came on the back end of some significant work travel. We went to Hawaii from Philly with our then one year old child free on American. A little tip, on some airlines the partner awards are better then the main airline. My points were with Qantas. They covered the full fare minus a twenty dollar fee or basically 2600 dollars worth of tickets. Conversely flying to Australia from here on Qantas using the same points only offset 800 dollars in quantas costs on a similarly priced ticket.

    1. Ah interesting, sounds like it’s definitely worth looking at partner airlines. I’ve never really looked at that before, great tip! And what a deal on that travel to Hawaii!

      Thanks for sharing, FTF!

  9. Travel hacking seems bit stressful and overwhelming but thats awesome that you figured it all out! I love travel and getting free rewards sounds worth the hassle.

    1. The good thing about travel hacking is you can take it slow by just doing one card a year, etc and still get some good benefit.

      Thanks for the comment, David.

  10. Great post. I’ve been successful at scoring at least one free international plane ticket every year for the past 11 years now. My tickets usually range from $1500 to $3500 depending on the time of year. My biggest tip is to know all the airline partners associated with your award points and research all of their routes first. My best itineraries are those that I planned myself and then called-in to book myself because the online search tools don’t do a good job of connecting routes between different affiliate airlines. Back in 2007, my buddy and I figured out a way to go from Micronesia to Guam to Tokyo to Tahiti to Peru to Easter Island off of 25,000 points. Yep that was going West to eventually go East, just like Christopher Columbus! Unfortunately when we called it in the partner airline had stopped their route between Tokyo and Tahiti so we would have had to fly through Hawaii which would have made the cost jump to 125,000 points. We ended up going to Guam (3 days) Hong Kong (2 days) India (1 month) and Nepal (1 month) instead for 25,000 points.

    1. Wow that’s impressive on many parts, I don’t know where to begin! 11 years is an epic track record with lots of value each year, solid work. Something for me to look up to!

      Unfortunately just like Christopher Columbus, great plans can turn out wrong and lead to new discoveries. Sounds like a great trip!

      Thanks for the comment, Stuart!

  11. Hi JW,

    Always interesting to read, and I can’t believe that there is now an entire industry on booking your reward flights!

    Like you I tend to use the reward points as much as possible – last year I cashed in the lot to treat my other half to a first class return, saved us over £5,000! They will always hit you with taxes and other areas, but at least this reduces the pain – if I can travel business or first for the same price as economy I am happy that way!

    Keep up the good work!
    FiL

  12. I have to admit that I have never tried travel hacking. Since we have a little one we haven’t been traveling as much and before that I have to admit I was pretty lazy and didn’t fully comprehend all the benefits of travel hacking.

    But when our son gets older I am definitely going to learn as much as I can.

    1. I wish I would have taken advantage of it earlier on myself, before kids, but we still enjoy the benefits since we live so far from family and like to travel back a couple times a year.

      Thanks for stopping by, MSM!

  13. My wife and I both snagged a Chase Sapphire Reserve card before the 100K bonus points evaporated. This will come in handy for me this year as I already have a lot of traveling planned and it will cover some if not all of the airfare.

    I didn’t realize there was a whole travel rewards booking service out there!

    1. That’s great, Michael, we did the same with the Reserve card. We both took advantage of its offer to pay for our Global Entry / TSA Pre Check passes as well!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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