A 2024 Travel Hacking Guide: How To Travel For (Almost) Free

Travel hacking is the secret to making travelling less of “Oh my, will I be able to afford that?” and more of “Fantastic, I got that for way less than I should!”. 

Planning to add that next Bali stop to your travel checklist, but it’s peak tourism season? Or you’re fantasising about that next Japan trip, but the flight fares nearly double your accommodation cost?

In 2024, with the right travel hacking guide, you don’t have to worry about going over budget on your next trip. In fact, it’s a bulletproof way to keep your globetrotting dream under-budget!

Here’s a step-by-step guide (+ useful tips) on how to master travel hacking for budget travel (aka How To Get Away With Free Travel?)

What’s Travel Hacking?

Travel Hacking - CabinZero

How can you travel more for less?

Travel hacking is the art of utilising travel rewards, loyalty programs, and flyer miles to get free or discounted travel. It involves careful planning, earning redeemable points, understanding the rights and benefits you receive with your credit card rewards, and taking advantage of promotions. 

A lot of people seem to misunderstand the word “hacking.” The first thing they think of is that it’s illegal or a scam. But travel hacking is just like grocery shopping with gift cards, redeemed points and coupons. The more of those you have, the less you have to pay.

Can You Travel For Free With Credit Cards?

It depends on how you define the word “free”. If you mean covering everything from A to Z (for example, transportation, accommodations, activities, and meals all at once) at zero cost, the answer is unlikely. At least, not with credit cards alone. Because here’s how credit card travel rewards work:

  • Earn as many points as possible
  • Redeem those points at the highest value you can find
  • While doing so, make use of transfer partner programs to enjoy hotels, flights, cruises, etc., at a cheaper rate.

You spend a certain amount either within the first few months of opening your card or you accumulate enough points from regular day-to-day spending up until you need to use them. 

Then, with those points, you can exchange them for rewards. These rewards can be big or small, depending on your credit card company. Some can get you a free flight, a free night at a hotel, or a free ticket to an attraction.

Travel Hacking - CabinZero

Travel hacking lets you live your globetrotting dream for free. Photo by Cup of Couple on Pexels.

Travel Hacking: How To Get It Right

So, while you can get something for free, you still, technically, have to spend some money in the first place. 

But that’s when travel hacking comes in and changes the game.

Instead of thinking you need to spend x amount to get y rewards on credit card alone, you can plan your financial management so that you’re getting points even for the smallest of things without even losing money.

Think of it like this: you are not racking up those points to spend more money on a new trip. You are making use of the rewards and points to reduce what you have to pay for a planned travel. Don’t think of travel hacking as a way to spend more, but as a means to save more on what you would have to pay otherwise.

Also, use all the other resources as well alongside credit cards. Different “tools” offer different benefits. This way, you can practically travel for free. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to hack your travel.

How To Start Travel Hacking?

Specific steps vary depending on your preferences and circumstances, but the best way to start travel hacking is by following these steps:

Evaluate Your Travel Goals Before Travel Hacking

Think about your travel desires. Do you prefer luxurious vacations in hotels and resorts, or is backpacking with lots of outdoor activities more your cup of tea? Do you prefer flying or travelling by train? This helps you plan what you need to book or arrange in advance. 

Then, consider your frequency of travel. Will you be travelling once a year or every three months? This can help you decide whether you should redeem all your points for one trip or save some for the next trip. 

Sign Up For Loyalty And Rewards Programs

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Join all the loyalty programs you can to maximise your travel hacking. Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash. 

Almost all transportation services, especially airlines, have loyalty programs. If you have a favourite brand in mind, consider signing up. These programs allow you to earn points or miles based on how much you use their services in return for exclusive rewards.

Even cheap airlines have loyalty programs. It’s not something that only big names do. So don’t be afraid to lurk around and find who is offering which.

The best thing about them is that they cost nothing to sign up for. Almost all airlines and big chain hotels have them. Before you book a flight or a room, head to their official websites and see what kind of programs they are running over there. This way, you can earn points and miles even on your first time flying or staying with them.

Many people tend to wait until they have “taste tested” the airline or hotel to sign up. But, remember that you can cancel your membership with them anytime you want. And it doesn’t hurt to just keep it that way. Who knows if you’ll need them in the future!

The second best thing about these programs is that sometimes they are linked to the airlines or hotels’ travel-related partners, such as car rental or dining services. You can earn extra points or miles using these partner services or vice versa.

Moreover, airlines and hotels also have articles on how to earn and use points effectively. You can likely find them on the main website. For example, here’s British Airway’s month-by-month guide to collecting Avios in 2024.

Research And Apply For Credit Cards

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Do you have the right card for the job? Photo by Farknot Architect - stock.adobe.com

Credit cards are a lot of people’s gateway to cheap (sometimes free) travel. There are many credit card companies out there to choose from. The few things you need to keep in mind as you’re looking for one are:

  • Generous signup bonuses
  • Rewards and benefits aligning with your travel goals
  • Minimum spending requirement
  • Low or no annual fees.

Some credit cards are made specifically for travelling purposes, such as Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Barclaycard Travel Platinum Visa, and Tandem Bank Credit Card.

For more information, you can refer to Forbes’s guide here or The Points Guy’s guide here.

What’s the Minimum Spending Requirement?

Generally, credit card providers have a minimum spending requirement. It’s the smallest amount of money you must spend in a specific time frame, typically three months after signing up, in order to earn a travel reward. The requirements vary from one provider to another.

You can choose a credit card that has the minimum spending requirement that fits your budget. Of course, even if you choose a credit card that’s in your paying range, it’s still not an easy task to meet this requirement, especially for beginners. But there are ways that can help you without placing pressure on your budget.

Make Everyday Purchases With Credit Cards

To accumulate points quickly, make a habit of paying with your credit card on a daily basis for everyday expenses. From groceries and gas to shopping, using your card regularly is one of the best ways to earn points. 

Apart from daily small things, whenever possible, you can pay bigger bills with your credit card. These can be utility bills, insurance, and phone bills.  

Another great way to earn extra points is to make purchases through shopping portals linked to your credit cards. They often offer extra points if you shop through these links. 

For instance, British Airways Executive Club eStore allow you to earn Avios points for every pound spent. There’s even a subscription which allows you to score Avios for as low as £0.0099 per point.

Travel Hacking - CabinZero

Use your credit cards whenever you can to earn rewards faster. Photo by Blake Wisz on Unsplash.

Is It Okay To Carry A Balance?

Credit cards mean you buy first - pay later, which gives people a sense of… freedom. If taken irresponsibly, it can lead to more hassles than benefits. And we absolutely do not advise that.

The golden rule of using credit cards for free travel is to manage your spending strategically so that you don’t end up paying interest instead of earning that free flight.

Don’t carry a balance, and try your best to pay your card on time. You don’t want to be travelling with a debt on your back instead of your backpack.

How To Pay With Credit Cards Without Actually Spending?

The point is to make purchases and use the card as often as you can. It doesn’t mean you have to actually bid farewell to your money or always have to carry a balance. 

To make a purchase without paying, consider paying bills for family and friends. Offer to pay for them with your credit card to earn points, then ask them to transfer the money back into your account. 

Make Use Of Social Media And Third-Party Apps

Brands frequently host giveaways or promotional events. Though they are not always for a free tour or flight, they can be travel equipment, such as backpacks and camping gear. 

Third-party apps have great bundles, from flights to attractions. Some great free apps that allow you to get the best travel deals out there are:

  • Skiplagged: not only used for flights and hotels (and skiplagging - which is a thing in its own), this app also gives you great tips and tricks to save money on exploring your destination.
  • Travelzoo: this app is good for holiday packages. It also has a lot of interesting destination-based features on how to lower the cost of your trip.
  • LoungeBuddy and PriorityPass: these apps allow users to compare, review, locate and access airport lounges around the world. They also offer generous discounts for desired airport amenities.
Travel Hacking - CabinZero

A little bit of research on travel hacking goes a long way. Photo by BullRun - stock.adobe.com

Track Your Travel Hacking Progress

This is important because you don’t want to feel disappointed when you check your points near your travel day and realise you haven’t got enough. Sometimes, you think you’ve accumulated enough, but in reality, you don’t. And it can be quite overwhelming if you sign up for many loyalty programs at once or use more than one credit card. 

One of the best ways to keep track of everything, from spending to rewards, is to use a credit card tracking app.

  • AwardWallet is a good one with over 600 partners. Apart from airlines and hotels, they also help you keep track of your points with popular retailers like Sephora.
  • MaxRewards is a good alternative, but its purpose is mainly for finance management instead of travel. Still, with its feature of finding out which merchants offer the best rewards for which cards, it’s a great alternative to AwardWallet.

Or, if you prefer the old-school method of pulling up an Excel sheet and manually inputting your spending and rewards every day, it’s okay, too, as long as you actively keep track of things. 

How To Save Even More Money - Extra Travel Hacking Tips No One Tells You

Besides tweaking your every day paying method to obtain a free flight or stay, there are other great tricks to keep your trip even cheaper. And they are not that complicated at all. Just a few changes here and there to your usual travel routine, and you’re good to go.

Carry-On Is Always Cheaper

A free flight doesn’t mean you can bring everything you want on your trip without getting charged. You can and will be charged if your baggage is oversized and overweight. You can be charged if your free ticket does not include checked bags.

And travel enthusiasts know this very well, a carry-on only trip is always cheaper (if not, free) than travelling with checked baggage. So, if you can, opt for cabin-sized bags to use as carry-on on your trips.

There are a lot of great choices out there depending on your travel goals. If you’re not going to do hardcore outdoor activities on your trip, you can try CabinZero’s cabin backpacks. From budget airlines like WizzAir to big ones such as British Airways, they fit right in the overhead compartment of the aircraft and the space underneath the seat in front. They are also spacious enough to fit all the essentials for short to moderate trips but don’t dig or put pressure on your shoulders. 

Travel Hacking - CabinZero

Accumulating points or miles is not the only way to travel hack. 

Multipurpose Things Are Your Best Friends

If you buy one thing that can only be used for one purpose, you’re going to have to spend money on other things. So, the trick here is to use things that have multiple purposes. This applies to both backpacks and travel essentials. 

Instead of purchasing a work backpack and a travel backpack separately, opt for a backpack that is good for work, play and exercise

Use multipurpose travel organisers like packing cubes or compression bags that can help maximise your packing space and keep your belongings tidy. These can double as laundry bags or even serve as a pillow when filled with soft clothing items.

The same goes for toiletries. Why bring a blush palette and eyeshadow one when you bring one single palette that has a pink shade to use as blush. Or, opt for lipsticks that can double as a cheek tint.

Focus On Bonus Categories

Many cards offer bonus points in specific categories like groceries or gas stations. Pay bills strategically using these cards to meet minimum spending requirements and rack up points faster. Just ensure you can pay the bills off immediately to avoid interest charges.

Utilise Travel Credit Card Benefits Beyond Points

Many travel credit cards offer airport lounge access, travel statement credits, and travel insurance as perks. Take advantage of these benefits to save on airport food, cover incidental travel expenses, and potentially save on travel insurance if your card offers comprehensive coverage.

For instance, the Amex Platinum Card lets you enjoy TSA Precheck or Global Entry for free. Not to mention, there are other perks of gold status at Marriott and Hilton, such as the International Airline Program.

Travel Hacking FAQs

Here are some questions about travel hacking to help clear things up for you.

1. Is Travel Hacking Illegal?

Some people believe it’s possible to sneak into first class if you hide in the bathroom of a plane until a flight attendant kicks you out and just casually go back to any seat you like. Not only would that not work, but it also makes you look like a fool and probably land you on the TSA no-fly list.

No. Travel hacking doesn’t have to be bending the rules for your own personal gain. It’s all about how well you understand and utilise your travel essentials.

The word “hacking” in travel hacking means finding shortcuts and tricks to travel for way less money than you usually do. Most of the time, it’s encouraged and operated by legitimate companies.

2. How Can You Travel Hack In The UK?

The US and Canada are famous places for travel hacking, with benefits that seem endless. That doesn’t mean the UK is not a good place to travel hack. In fact, there are some perks that are only available in the UK.

Geographically speaking, the UK is in Europe, where some of the world’s best destinations for globetrotters are. If you’re exchanging miles reward to fly, obviously it’s going to cost a lot less travelling from, for example, Manchester to Paris than from New York. Basically, you’re paying less to get to the same place.

And also Tesco. It’s known for running very generous promotional events to obtain point rewards. 

Some of the most experienced travel hackers are from the UK, and they have blogs and websites you can check out for incredible information on how to travel hack. For instance, frequentmiler is one of them.

3. Are Travel Hacks Worth It?

Travel hacks can definitely be worth it, as you can save up to thousands of pounds on travel expenses, if not more. The hard part is researching and exploring options. Yes, it’s complicated, but with the right effort, a free flight or hotel stay is not impossible.

Ready To Travel For Free With Travel Hacking?

Travel hacking is a secret weapon that allows you to travel the world without emptying your pocket. Whether scoring dirt-cheap flights, finding cosy accommodations for a steal, or enjoying incredible upgrades, it’s not a problem if you know how to make every spending count.

However, remember that travel hacking isn’t just about getting those points. If you stress yourself out with balancing between travelling and other important things in your life, you’re approaching it the wrong way. So, don’t sweat it. Follow the guide and enjoy the planning. 

If you find this article useful, don’t forget to leave a nice comment and reach out to us on social media.

Nguyen Tran Gia Khanh 

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