In 2016, travel was one of our biggest expenses. Every few months, we get a hankering to see new things and taste different cultures. For us it’s worth it because we always return from our adventures with new perspectives, recipes, and ideas. I thought our travels would be limited after I gave up my cushy salary, but thanks to travel hacking, we’ve been going on more trips than ever. Over the past year, we’ve travel hacked close to $10,000 in flights and accommodations. Just recently, we flew to Barcelona and road tripped around Catalonia – our flights and accommodations were all free.

Picture of mountains.Cruising though the Pyrenees in Catalonia, Spain

I remember having the perception that travel hacking must be too good to be true. The kids on the news must be doing some shady stuff to manufacture all this spending in order to earn millions of points. The reality is that it’s a much easier and more lucrative than I had imagined.

Travel hacking basics

At its basics, we sign up for a new credit card every 3-4 months. The cards we open have sign up bonuses worth $500-$1000 when redeemed for travel – possibly more depending on how savvy you are at redeeming them.

To earn the bonus points, there’s usually a minimum spend criteria of $3-$5k over 3 months. If it’s a card with a higher spending requirement, we time our application to coincide with larger expenses, like our yearly car insurance payment. Otherwise, we spend over $1k a month and can easily meet the usual $3k minimum spend in 3 months.

Less than a year later, we cancel the card before paying any annual fees. We keep a spreadsheet to track our cards, their monthly payments, and date they need to be cancelled by.

Finding the right cards

My favorite method has been stealing other people’s moves. Bloggers like myself are openly sharing what cards they get, and how to redeem points to get the most bang for the buck. For our road trip around Catalonia, we hacked free Airbnb accommodations using the same moves Justin at Root of Good used for his Canadian road trip.

I’ve previously shared how we got free flights to Colorado and Costa Rica and how we hacked a $6,000 all inclusive trip to Jamaica. There are also blogs like Mad Fientist that focus on card comparisons.

Picture of ocean view.Our trip to Jamaica has been the most lucrative yet

How we got free flights to Barcelona

Last year, I signed up for an Amex Gold Delta Skymiles card and got 50,000 Delta Skymiles as a bonus. I booked two tickets to Colorado using those miles.

On the return flight from Colorado, a minor issue in air traffic gave us the opportunity to volunteer for a later flight in return for $1200 in delta vouchers per person. (I share the full story here.) So using 50,000 miles, we flew to Colorado and earned $2400 in vouchers.

Even though we had free vouchers, we wanted to stretch them as far as possible. Our flights to Jamaica were $345 each, and we had out sights on Portugal. We almost had tickets to Lisbon booked when we saw even cheaper tickets to Barcelona. We got round-trip, direct flights for two with $580 of our voucher money.

Picture of flying into Barcelona.Our first glimpse of the Mediterranean – flying into Barcelona

If it wasn’t for the free vouchers, we would have used some other airline points for our flights. For example, we’ve also flown to Costa Rica for free, and will be flying to Belize this fall using American Airlines points – also acquired through credit card sign up bonuses.

How to travel hack free Airbnb stays

While we love to travel, we avoid touristy locations and hotels. These places are not only expensive, but also full of scammers, and often an insincere facade of local culture. If you really want a local experience, we recommend getting away from the tourists and the hotels.

On our travels through Catalonia, we stayed in several small towns that didn’t even have hotels. Catalan is spoken in this region of Spain, and in smaller towns, nobody speaks Spanish let alone English. Along with help from our google translator, and some creative charades, we got by with my broken Spanish and some Catalan we picked up along the way. We got an authentic experience, and picked up new words much faster than we would have if we could easily revert to speaking English.

Picture of Talarn Catalonia.View from our $50/night Airbnb terrace

Not only are there Airbnbs in places where there are no hotels, they are also cheap. The two best places we stayed in – which were also the least touristy – were $50/night and $23/night for entire apartments.

There are a few ways to get free Airbnb stays through credit card sign up bonuses, and for this trip we used the Barclay Arrival Plus Card. They have been offering 50,000 Arrival Plus points when you sign up for a new card and spend $3k in 3 months. Those 50,000 points can be exchanged for $500 in statement credits toward travel expenses – including Airbnb rentals.

Be flexible and plan ahead

The key to all of this is flexibility, whether it’s being flexible in moving flights for vouchers, or being flexible in flying to places where you can get the most value for your points.

It also takes some lead time to travel hack. For example, we are hacking cards now that we plan to use half a year or more from now. We usually need at least 3 months to meet minimum spending requirements, and after that the best deals are still usually a few months out.

A boon in early retirement

After churning through more than a dozen cards between us, my credit score is still over 800. If there was a change, I haven’t noticed it. I do feel like we’ll run out of new cards eventually, and I have been denied for some of the Chase cards because of the 5/24 rule (they turn you down for the more lucrative rewards if you opened more than 5 cards in the last 24 months). But we’re still finding plenty of offers.

With trips booked through 2017, we’re already hacking out 2018. I didn’t think travel hacking would be worth my time when I was working, but knowing what I know now, I would have started years ago. It’s been easy, highly lucrative, and I’ve yet to find any drawbacks.

I’ll be sharing more about our trip through Catalonia in an upcoming post.