We do a fair amount of traveling. Travel costs were our second highest expense last year – at over $7,000, it was 18% of our $38k spending in 2016. This year, we mean to put a serious dent in those numbers through more extensive travel hacking. So far, we’re off to a good start. We booked a 9 day all-inclusive vacation to Jamaica – and we didn’t pay a dime for it.

Picture of beach.A prior trip to Jamaica.

After reading a post about travel hacking on the Mad Fientist’s blog, we have been diligently churning through credit cards. Most of our travel rewards come from credit card sign-up bonuses. We look for cards with the largest bonus and no fees the first year, then sign up for one card at a time so we can meet the minimum spending requirements. If the card has a fee after the first year, we usually cancel the card before then.

How to get a free all inclusive vacation

One of the cards with the best sign up bonuses right now is the Chase Hyatt card – you get 2 free nights at any Hyatt. That’s an incredible deal considering you can stay at their most expensive hotels for free. For example, you can use your two nights at the Park Hyatt in New York, where rooms go for $700 or more a night. That’s $1400 in hotel stays just for spending $1000 on a Chase Hyatt card.

We thought about using our free nights in NYC, but then I saw a post by Fervent Finance, where he used his nights to stay at the all-inclusive Hyatt Ziva in Cancun. Lately we’ve been forgoing lazy all-inclusive vacations for more adventurous trips like our excursions to Costa Rica. But I decided to ask Mrs. CK what she thought, “We could use our free nights to stay at a Hyatt in Cancun or Montego Bay, but that would be a pretty lazy vacation. I’m not sure what we would do aside from drinking beers on the beach for a week.” Mrs. CK looked at me like I had lost my mind. “Umm… what’s the problem?”

After she explained the benefits of unlimited free food and beer and snorkeling and sailing and windsurfing, I came to my senses.

Picture of windsurfing.I’d like to windsurf again.

Since we both signed up for the cards, we got 4 free nights – enough for a short vacation. We wanted to stay longer, but didn’t want to pay since the Hyatt Zilara normally goes for $628/night. Additional nights can also be booked using 25,000 Hyatt points per night. We had each accumulated 6,000 Hyatt points from adding each other as authorized users and meeting the minimum spending requirements. This wasn’t enough points for additional nights, but that’s where the beauty of another reward program comes in – Chase Ultimate Rewards.

How to get the most value out of Chase Ultimate Rewards

By signing up for Chase Sapphire cards, we each got 50,000 points. These points can be worth over $600 of travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal. But to really juice up the returns, you can transfer these points 1:1 to many other programs – including Hyatt Gold Passport. Transferring 25,000 points to Hyatt can get you over $600 in hotel stays – double what you’d get through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

We called up the Hyatt reservation line to book our nights. We got our 4 free nights, then while on the line with the representative, we were able to instantly transfer 19,000 Ultimate Rewards points to each of our accounts. This gave us 25,000 Hyatt points each, and we booked two more nights. We ended the hassle-free call with 6 nights at one of the fanciest hotels in Jamaica for free.

Free flights

To pay for our airfare, we used the Delta vouchers we travel hacked while flying back from Colorado – we each got a $1200 voucher. While they hadn’t cost us anything, we didn’t want to waste them on expensive airfare. By timing our stay at the Hyatt to coincide with the best rates, we were able to get direct flights from JFK to Montego Bay for $345.

But that’s only 6 nights

That night, we were feeling pretty awesome about our free vacation. We were having some beers – which is when I do my best thinking – when it hit me. “I still have more Ultimate Rewards points, why don’t we go for even more days?” We checked and saw that we could move our flights out a couple of days for no charge. So we got back on the phone with the kind people at Hyatt, instantly transferred another 50k Ultimate Rewards points, and booked another 2 nights for a total of 8 free nights.

Picture of sailing.We did a lot of sailing on our last trip to Jamaica.

I never did much travel hacking when I was working. I thought it would be too complicated and take too much time. But it’s not very difficult once you get started, and the returns on time invested are incredible. Just by putting our regular spending on new cards, we were able to book $5,714 of flights and hotels for free. Yes, we signed up for 4 credit cards to get the sign-up bonuses for this trip, but even after churning through half a dozen cards, my credit score is still over 800.

You might have to keep track of few more payments, use points before they expire, and cancel cards before fees kick in. But by signing up for a few new cards, anyone can book their own $6,000 vacation for free.