Hello folks! Hope all is well today. I have written about travel hacking to a limited extent historically. I first got into travel hacking without really knowing it had a name a few years ago, I made a few mistakes, and have since ramped it up significantly within the last two years.
I mentioned a few limited successes in travel hacking when I discussed my 2016 budget and spending results and a few months ago I wrote a post about how redeeming award travel has become increasingly difficult or complicated.
Today I will discuss my successes and failures in a bit more detail along with my plan to travel hack a free trip to Greece for my wife and I! 10th anniversary trip to Greece…you betcha!
Travel Hacking Overview
For those new to the concept of travel hacking, let me give you a brief overview. There is an extensive amount of info out there with a simple Google search, but quite simply it is signing up for credit cards that offer bonus award miles or points for spending a certain amount in the first few months.
Quite commonly, this is a $3k-$5k spending amount in the first 3-4 months of opening the card. This can be tough to hit for some folks, especially the frugal-type. Others have engineered spending during the given time window by buying gift cards that can then be used later on. I’ve never gone that far. I simply use my normal spend, put everything I can on the credit card, PAY IT OFF IN FULL EVERY MONTH, rinse and repeat.
The math behind it is fairly simple. For example if a card is offering 50,000 points for $3k of spend, this equates to roughly $500 in value as commonly 1 point is worth 1 cent. This isn’t always the case so you’ll have to double check each time, but this is a good starting point.
Plus, you’ll often receive 1 point or more for each dollar spent. So that $3k of spend may add another 3,000 in points. This would equate to 53,000 total points (or $530 worth of travel value) for $3k in spend…a 17.7% return on spending ($530 / $3,000)! Some cards may have an annual fee (occasionally waived in the first year, but not always). If so, back that out of the value received obviously, but nonetheless it can still a great deal.
You can’t beat it…so long as you can use it…that leads me to my first travel hack failure.
My First Travel Hack Failure
My first foree into travel hacking was the Southwest card. I can’t remember the specific value received, but it was good. If I recall correctly, it may have been about two round trip flights worth of travel for a few grand in spend. My wife and I both were able to sign up and get the bonus award points.
However, we lived in Charlotte and the Charlotte airport isn’t a big hub or destination point for Southwest. We were able to use the points for a flight each when we flew to Washington D.C. (one of the two cities we could fly directly to) to visit family for the holidays a few years back, but that was it. And commonly if your account doesn’t stay active for 12 months, award points are sacrificed.
We lost half the value or more of those award points because we signed up for an air carrier that we would hardly use or could use. Southwest just doesn’t offer much for Charlotte customers. Lesson Learned.
A Second Important Lesson
Another common lesson for travel hackers is to ensure to use the points and cancel the card before the next annual fee hits. Some card companies will allow you to switch the card for a no-fee card in order to keep points longer. And lastly, some cards (like the Southwest card) transfers the points to your Southwest account and so the points won’t be forfeited once you cancel the card (as long as you keep your Southwest account active…).
We’ve never run into the problem of getting charged for a second annual fee. The key has been tracking all cards we have opened and setting reminders for when the fee will be charged to ensure we cancel them in time (and use or transfer the points in time…).
A Trip to Greece
This brings me to the point of the post…travel hacking our way to Greece! Historically I have never had a specific trip in mind, I’d just stash the points and save them for later. My wife and I always fly home twice a year which have been the primary use of travel points. There is also another random flight or two we end up taking annually for weddings, bachelor parties, vacations, etc.
Besides the Southwest card, we’ve never had a problem using the points shortly after we earn them.
A trip to Greece will be the first time we’ve had a specific trip to plan for…and we’re planning about a year in advance! My wife and I just had our nine year wedding anniversary and next year will be ten! The kids will be 4 and 1 1/2 at that point; decent ages for us to be gone for a week. So why not take a big ten year wedding anniversary trip!?
Eventually, and maybe every year going forward, we’d like to take regular anniversary getaways without the kids. It’ll be a great opportunity to get some alone time and my parents are about to retire which will greatly free up their flexibility to take the kiddos.
Why Greece? No real reason. It just seems like a relaxing getaway, only a few time zones away, and will offer some site seeing and also some relaxing beach time. Our honeymoon was to Jamaica and the other big trip we’ve taken was a five year anniversary trip to Peru (Macchu Pichu).
Identifying the Use
The big expenditures are obviously the airfare and hotels. The Charlotte airport is a major hub for American Airlines. This has typically been who we’ve used to fly home, where we already have some award points stashed away, and our likely preference for flying to Greece.
Flights may cost $500 – $1,000 per person, give or take. Being this far out it is hard to know for sure, but we have no issues stashing extra points here which we could later use for other trips.
Lodging in Greece is a little of an unknown cost too. While we are not sure what cities we’ll be staying yet, or what room rates will be exactly, our preference will be to stay at some nicer-end hotels for a special trip.
Don’t judge, it is better to be safe than sorry, but I’ll guestimate an average nightly cost of $300. For 6 or 7 nights, this could be a total cost of roughly $2,100.
A quick search for properties throughout Greece shows that Hilton doesn’t have much of presence in the market. But both Marriott and Starwood (who are now one company since Marriott recently bought Starwood) have a number of options throughout the country. And since points are easily transferrable between the two partners now, this seems to be our best place to accrue some points.
So there we have it, we’ll focus our credit card attention on general point portals (Chase Ultimate Rewards, AmEx Membership Rewards, or Citi Points Plus) along with a bent toward American Airlines award cards and Marriott / Starwood cards.
Identifying the Source
The reason we have been super succesful in stashing points in the last two years has been primarily the benefit of daycare (first time you’ve heard someone praise the cost of daycare…?). Yes, it sucks spending nearly ten grand a year for daycare for one kid, but it is a huge bonus when said daycare accepts credit card payment with no extra cost or fees!!
Now with our second kiddo in daycare, our annual spend is nearly $20K. It is actually a bit less, but for the sake of round numbers, we’ll use that. On top of that $20K in annual credit card spend, we have the usual other costs we put on the card. The big categories include groceries for roughly $6K per year, gas at maybe $1K, $1k in clothes, and other miscellaneous household and personal charges for maybe $1K or so.
That’s a total of nearly $30K in the next year that we can and will put on a credit card. Assuming in average $4K in spending limits for each bonus travel award credit card, we can churn through 7-8 cards and earn roughly $4K or more in travel award points.
Daycare spend alone makes it super easy for us to accrue points…massive amounts of points in very quick order! Starting now though, we have a specific goal in mind. A free trip to Greece.
We have an idea of how to make travel hacking Greece successful and a baseline of spend to get us there. I’m sure there are readers out there in the personal finance / FIRE / travel hacking community who can provide insights to optimize it even more. Or advice on things to do in Greece… If that is the case, don’t hesitate to leave feedback in the comments below! I welcome all the help and advice you have to offer!
I will plan on giving routine updates between now and Greece. This will include more details on our starting point in award points today, the cards we pick, and our plans for Greece as we develop a more specific itinerary.
Thanks for taking a look!
The Green Swan