What up $$$ lovers!
I thought we’d do something different today where we tackle a subject that everyone’s talking about, but one that yours truly SUCKS at: Travel hacking.
I.E. signing up to all kinds of credit card offers and reaping
hundreds thousands of dollars/reward points to travel the world like you’re Jay Z on a budget ;) I.E. something I don’t dare mess with myself because it hurts my brain and seems like a lot of work, even though I know it isn’t and should quit being a pansy! Haha…
What can I say though, I’m a sucker for minimalism. I literally just have one credit card for all personal use that gives me so-so rewards (the USAA World MasterCard where our household expenses go and is paid off monthly), and then only one card for my business stuff too (Blue from American Express). Nice and easy… Just not “look at me I’m traveling the world for free cuz I’m so clever!” type of nice ;)
So this post is dedicated to those who want THAT type of nice, and to learn how the card hacking game goes to grab your rewards in the most efficient way possible.
And to do that, I bring on my good friend, and blogger, Brad Barrett of RichmondSavers.com. Who’s not only racked up over a million points of his own for his family (yes – a million!), but who’s also helping normal people like you and me learn how to do it ourselves through his Rewards Coaching program. Something that he offers for free, and is customized to your own particular situation.
I asked him a bunch of questions on this stuff to better understand the rewards game, so hopefully you find this as helpful as I did. At the end I’ll include a sign-up link if you want to jump in and get personal help from him yourself. Enjoy!
Q&A With Travel Hacker (and Coach) Brad Barrett
J$: You’ve been featured on NBC, CBS, and even The New York Times for your travel hacking skills. What got you started with all this stuff?
My wife and I always used our credit cards for all our purchases and we of course paid them off in full every month; we were tired of just getting the normal 1% rewards and figured there had to be a better way.
About four years ago I came across a post by J.D. Roth on Get Rich Slowly about this amazing 100,000 mile offer on a British Airways credit card. It sounded too good to be true, so it set alarm bells off, but I trusted J.D. and his site and we decided to dip our toes in.
We were able to turn that one credit card bonus into eleven round-trip flights between Richmond, VA and New York City (we’re from Long Island) that we would have paid nearly $5,000 in cash. That’s $5,000 of free travel from one single credit card!
After that I was hooked and did a ton of research and kept opening cards; we’re up well over 1,000,000 total points/miles earned and there’s no end in sight.
J$: What was one of the best trips you and your family have taken pretty much for free?
Without a doubt it was our big three-generation family trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. My wife and I earned enough rewards points to take our two daughters to Disney and stay in the on-site luxury Disney Swan hotel, plus get airfare to Orlando and WDW park tickets all for just a few hundred dollars out of pocket. We easily saved $3,000-$4,000 just for the four of us.
My parents and Laura’s parents also followed the same rewards points plan I mapped out, so they could come with us on the trip for nearly free! It was a really special thing for our girls to have the whole family there and travel rewards points really made that happen.
I did a lot of research to put together the whole trip and I have it mapped out on my site with step-by-step instructions to a free Disney trip.
J$: One of my favorite things about your service is that you’re a total one-on-one type trainer over both email and the phone. Can you share some of the things you go over with your clients to better help them maximize their rewards?
Thanks J$, I appreciate the kind words! I love working with people one-on-one, and I think they get so much value out of interacting with a real person who has done this before and can explain it to them in terms that make sense.
I’m just a regular family guy, not some globetrotting hotshot who flies around the world in first-class every week, and I think people can relate to me and to our family.
This is an intimidating subject – I mean seriously, we’re talking about opening credit cards which goes against everything people have “learned’ over the years, finding the right card bonuses, earning enough points for the actual trip and then figuring out all the rules on how to book the award flights and nights! That is not easy and it provides a lot of reassurance for people to have me there to bounce questions off of, or jump on the phone with to discuss.
The biggest thing I preach is flexibility.
If you can be flexible with dates specifically, you can really save many thousands of dollars on your travel. If, however, you try to shoehorn your rewards points into your regular travel life, or think that this is the perfect solution to get free flights to that wedding in St. Kitts you have to attend on July 4th weekend (my go-to silly example for how not to make this work), then you’ll probably be frustrated.
Flexibility extends to travel destinations, airports to fly out of, being willing to take flights that have a connection, etc. If you can add a little flexibility in, and have some time to plan your points strategy, then you will absolutely love this travel rewards concept!
J$: What are some of the cool places your clients have been?
All over the world! That’s the amazing part about travel rewards points – those “dream vacations” can become a reality with the right planning and a little bit of flexibility.
I’ve helped people take multiple-country honeymoons in Europe, a professor on sabbatical visit Europe and Africa on one award booking, trips to Hawaii, Asia, Bermuda, the Caribbean and pretty much everywhere else you can think of. Recently I helped two groups take 6+ month trips around the world!
It is the most satisfying feeling in the world to help people save thousands of dollars on their travel that would have otherwise been deducted from their bank accounts. After being a CPA in the corporate world for all my adult life, I can’t tell you how much psychological value I get out helping people in this way – it is truly amazing.
J$: I’m a guy who likes things as simple as can be, so the idea of having dozens of cards all over the place makes my brain hurt. How do you go about organizing everything?
I crave simplicity in everything in life, so I’m right there with you. I take the lowest-stress approach to this I possibly can, and it just works for us. A lot of people who get into travel hacking would laugh at how conservative we are and how many points we’re leaving on the table, but again, we’re making this work for our regular family and that’s good enough for me.
We go one card at a time and just concentrate on that one single card. I’ll open an account in my name and add Laura as an authorized user. We’ll spend on that account until we hit the minimum spending requirement and then we’ll take those cards out of our wallet.
Then Laura opens a card in her name and adds me as an authorized user. We keep going back and forth like that so we’re constantly working on a new bonus. We’re able to earn about 500,000 miles per year like this, which I value at about $10,000, so even though this is “simple” it is still quite lucrative.
To organize I just have a simple Excel spreadsheet where I keep my card information (just dates I opened, closed, etc.) and our rewards account logins. There are probably more elegant ways to do this, but this is simple and it works for us.
J$: What happens if you screw up?
The biggest way you could screw up is financially, since we are talking credit cards. I’m a CPA and you’re J$, so I can safely speak for both of us here: Please do not get into this if you aren’t responsible with your credit cards. That means paying on time and in full every month and not spending more than you would have if you were using cash/check/debit.
In terms of the cards and travel, I’m not sure you can screw it up too badly; missing out on a credit card bonus would be one way, so only open a card if you are 100% sure you can hit the ‘minimum spending requirement’ on the card. I’d hate to see you open a card and not earn the bonus.
Even if you forgot about a card account you had open and you got a bill for a large ~$100 annual fee, you could always call up to close the account and have them waive the fee, so even that wouldn’t be a big “screw up.”
I think it just pays to be organized and consistent with your new cards. I do see people who just forget to open new cards and then have to scramble at the last moment to put together their trip. That can be frustrating, as you never want to scramble getting points all the while hoping those award seats are still available!
J$: What about credit scores? Doesn’t it jack them up?
Just like anything with your financial life, you need to assess your own unique situation and determine if this strategy makes sense for you. You need an excellent credit score to get approved for these premium travel rewards credit cards (almost always over 700).
My wife and I have consistently opened credit cards over the past 4 years and at last check my score was up 2 points over where I started and Laura’s was up 12 points. The lowest mine ever temporarily dropped was 25 points.
For our lives this was irrelevant since we weren’t making major purchases on credit, but clearly for some people (looking to get a mortgage, buy a (gasp) expensive car with credit, rebuilding credit, etc.) every point counts.
[Editor’s Note: Probably a good idea to track your credit score if you end up going down this path just to keep an eye on things…]
J$: If you could only sign up to one credit card for the rest of the year, which would it be?
My go-to credit card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred, and I think that’s the perfect starting card for just about anyone getting into this strategy.
The Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be used a variety of different ways (even for straight up cash deposited into your bank account if you were so inclined, but that’s the “worst” option), and can be transferred to 11 different partner airlines and hotels like United, Hyatt, Southwest and British Airways, for huge redemption values.
A lot of beginners like the flexibility of the Barclaycard Arrival Plus and the Capital One Venture as well, but my favorite is the Chase Sapphire Preferred for sure.
J$: Lastly, what’s sexier – budgeting or credit cards? ;)
Anyone who has ever seen people flock to J$ at the FinCon financial bloggers conference will know that the answer has to be budgets!! Haha.
In all seriousness, I think responsible credit card usage to earn these massive signup bonuses has a place in your financial life. If you can earn 1-2 trips per year just for being smart about where you direct your normal spending, then that’s about as powerful a financial tool as I can imagine.
If you want to learn more, or to tap Brad to get your own travel hacking plan started, you can sign up here: Brad’s Rewards Coaching
He definitely knows the ins and outs of this stuff, and again his services are completely free (he earns commissions by the credit card issuers if you end up signing up to any while planning your trips – which is how he’s able to do this for free for people).
It’s not for everyone – as evidence of me not going down this rabbit hole yet myself (though I am now signed up to his emails to learn) – but if you’re interested in this stuff, Brad’s a great person to start with. I’ve met him a couple of times in real life and I can vouch he’s a genuinely good guy or else there’s no way I’d be featuring him here ;) He’s got a $hit ton of testimonials too – even from financial bloggers using him, hah!
Anyways, hope this sheds more light on the travel hacking game. As Brad mentioned above, this is NOT for anyone who sucks with cards and can’t use them responsibly. If that’s you and you’re getting tempted here, just shut this page down now and move on… Not worth the risk for a free trip or two – your finances have to come first!
PS: Big thanks again to Brad for partnering up with me on this one. It’s only taken me approximately 3 years to do a Q&A on travel hacking, and now we finally have one! Haha…
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