Travel cheaper, better, faster, longer—it sounds like a Kanye West song, but it’s the hard-fought goal of travel hackers around the world who strategically chase points, rewards, and miles to earn as much free travel as they can. On Oct. 22, aficionados and newbies alike gathered in Toronto for Canadian Points University, a conference on all things points, rewards, and miles-related.
As keynote speakers (and seasoned world travellers) Deb Corbeil and Dave Bouskill of The Planet D noted, travel hacking lets the everyday person have luxury trips and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford—it’s also way easier than you think. Here are five tips we picked up about maximizing travel points and rewards:
Be smart with rewards credit cards
To earn points, you’ll need a rewards credit card—never pay for big purchases with a debit card, says speaker Allen Chao. You can maximize your earning through sign-up bonuses, referral bonuses, strategic everyday spending, and, if it doesn’t violate your provider’s cardholder agreement, manufactured spending. Credit card “churning” is also a common practice among travel hackers: sign up for credit cards to get the welcome bonuses, meet the minimum spending requirements, redeem the rewards, and cancel the card once the welcome rate or other first-year bonuses expire. In general, applying for credit cards in a cluster (within a period of 15-30 days) won’t damage your credit score because the credit bureaus can see you’re shopping around and treat it as one inquiry. Since rewards credit card bonuses tend to be quarterly, Chao suggests apply for new cards at the end of quarters.
Know the math
As blogger Stephen Weyman of How To Save Money said in his presentation, there’s no point in collecting points if you don’t know the math. Points programs exist to make money for the creators, so it’s up to you to know the value of a point, the value of a bonus offer, and to calculate the return on spending. While strategic everyday spending is an easy way to earn points, Weyman suggests focusing on big bonuses to really boost your points balance. To get started, Weyman recommends checking out the points programs run by Aeroplan, American Express Membership Rewards, and Air Miles. To find the best rewards card for your spending needs, use Ratehub.ca’s credit cards rewards calculator. Most importantly, remember to pay your balance in full every month—otherwise you’re devaluing those points and rewards.
Loyalty is overrated
Ironically, you shouldn’t be loyal to just one loyalty program provider or rewards card, says Ari Charlestein, co-founder of points-based travel booking service Award Magic. Booking flights, hotels and outings using points is never straightforward; travel points hacking requires thinking outside the box. This means diversifying your points across cards and providers and being flexible on travel dates and times. The good news for a short stopover? Charlestein says you can see and get to know a city in about three days.
Do your homework
To immerse yourself in the travel rewards world and stay connected on updates, check out the vast network of blogs and forums dedicated to travel points and rewards tips and tricks—travel hackers love to share information and their expertise. Some mentioned at the conference include: Going Awesome Places, A Whistle & A Light, Don’t Call the Airline, The Points Guy, Award Wallet, and Rewards Canada.
Collect experiences, not things
You may need to collect points to buy a plane ticket, but the best things about travelling the world aren’t material. You might feel the urge to brag about upgrades to first-class flights and five-star hotel stays, but Corbeil and Bouskill of The Planet D say travel shouldn’t be about competition. Their motto is collect experiences, challenges and memories, not things. Rewards programs are increasingly moving toward this as well, enticing customers with “experiences” such as concert tickets or VIP lounge access.
The bottom line
Travel hacking is an art, but it’s not rocket science—you do need to put in time to gain the expertise, but it’s a skill that nearly anyone can master. If you feel intimidated, consider this: Chao shared that he only applied for his first personal credit card in 2012 and has already logged an impressive number of trips, luxury hotel stays and first-class flights. You can be travelling the world for much less than you dreamed by finding the best travel rewards credit card for your spending needs.
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Unsplash: Luis Llerena