When you’re just starting to learn about free travel or travel hacking, it’s easy to get overwhelmed in a deluge of information and recommendations.
Fear not! Here’s a current and highly practical list of things you can do right now to kickstart your way to the trip of your dreams.
Bonus: most of these actions are very simple to complete, and almost all of them are FREE.
1. Never fly without earning miles.
This is simple: don’t get on a flight without making sure that your boarding pass has a Frequent Flyer number on it. It’s completely free to join just about every mileage program, and most airlines have many different partners.
You may think, “Well, I’m never going to fly this airline again”—but you never know. Flight miles are free miles, so be sure you get them every time. Always sign up!
2. Register for Rocketmiles to earn extra hotel points at no additional cost.
Hotels don’t like it when you book with an online travel agency (Orbitz, Expedia, etc.). They pay a commission to that agency for your booking, and they don’t control the booking process. If you’re trying to earn elite status, you’ll need to do your bookings directly on the hotel chain’s website.
But there’s one good resource to consider for those stays you don’t need elite credit for, and that’s Rocketmiles. By booking through the Rocketmiles portal, you’ll earn at least 1,000 points or miles for every booking. All of this happens without you needing to do anything special, and at the same price you’d pay when booking elsewhere. Nice!
Oh, and you can also earn 1,000 points for every friend you refer—and your friend will earn 1,000 points too.
Here’s a referral link from Stephanie Zito, my travel hacking colleague. If you use her link, each of you will get an additional 1,000 points. If you know someone else who’s already a member, feel free to ask them for theirs!
3. When shopping, check to see if you can earn more points from a portal.
You shouldn’t go out of your way to buy more stuff just to earn points. But for all the stuff you already buy, you should be earning points.
Most major airlines have at least one “shopping portal,” where vendors pay for access to their members. You’ll get rewarded for buying through that portal.
A few examples:
- American Airlines AAdvantage eShopping
- Delta SkyMiles Shopping
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Shopping
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Shopping
There are shopping portals for international airlines, too. Just search for “[airline] shopping portal]” and you should be able to find them.
4. Learn how partner airlines work.
The best airline redemptions are often found on partner airlines, not the airline in which you earn the miles. Here’s a very quick, three-point tutorial:
- With some exceptions, most major airlines belong to one of three alliances. You can earn miles in any alliance member airline and redeem them for flights on any other alliance member airline.
- In addition to the alliance partners, many airlines have other partners as well.
- You can go all over the world with your miles, even if the airline from which you earned the miles doesn’t fly all over the world.
EXAMPLE: I earn more American Airlines miles than any other mileage currency. When I want to use them for travel somewhere, though, I tend to book flights on Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, or Etihad—three global carriers that I like flying on much more than AA.
Cathay Pacific is based in Hong Kong, Qatar Airways is based in Doha, and Etihad is based in Abu Dhabi. Most flights transit their their home cities, so the redemptions with AA miles allow me to visit lots of other places from or via these hub cities.
To learn which airline partners your miles give you access to, simply search for “[airline] award partners” and in most cases you’ll find a dedicated page (or pages) with the info.
5. Spend 15 minutes learning about award charts. Along with partner airlines, award charts are the keys to the kingdom.
Okay, so now you have a basic understanding of airline partners. Next up is to understand a bit about award charts, because this is how you know exactly what you can use your miles for and how many you’ll need to spend.
Once again, to see any particular award chart, search for “[airline] award chart.” There may be more than one, since some airlines have different charts for different partners.
EXAMPLE: Let’s look at Alaska Airlines. Here’s their airline partner page.
See all those partners? You can redeem Alaska Airlines miles for travel on any of them. Now let’s look at the award charts. In this case, there’s more than one, and you’ll search by region for your preferred destination.
Let’s say you want to go from the continental U.S. to Asia. When you search for that, you’ll see a bunch of different options based on award levels for different airlines. You’ll also notice that the award levels can vary a great deal.
A round-trip award on Cathay Pacific in Business Class is 100,000 miles. A round-trip award on Delta in Business Class is 140,000 miles. Guess which one is better to book??
As with partner airlines, there are a lot of other points to master with award charts, but if you understand these fundamentals, you’re off to a good start.
6. Get the Chase Sapphire Card.
For more than two years now, the single best way to earn points for valuable rewards hasn’t changed. If you’re eligible and can only get one card, this is the best one.
Chase Sapphire Preferred is the no-brainer of rewards cards. Why? Well, in short:
- You’ll earn 40,000 currently 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months
- You can also earn an extra 5,000 points when you add an authorized user within the first 3 months and they make a purchase of any amount (there’s no charge to add an authorized user, and no minimum spend to earn the additional bonus)
- Ultimate Rewards points transfer (usually on a 1:1 basis) to nearly a dozen travel partners, including United, Hyatt, Marriott, British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, and Southwest Airlines
- You’ll earn 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & one point per dollar spent on all other purchases (very helpful the next time you visit 12 restaurants in one day)
- There are no foreign transaction fees (that’s why this is my primary card for travel)
- The annual fee of $95 is waived for the first year (and if you want, you can cancel before it shows up in year two—though for many of us the card is well worth keeping)
You’ll essentially earn at least $750 in value just for getting this card. I use mine every day.
—> Apply Here
7. Learn how credit cards can work for you.
If you can only get one card, Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great choice. But if you start to learn more about this hobby and want more points (who doesn’t want more points?), then it pays to branch out to other cards.
- Some cards you’ll get just for the signup bonus. After that, you put them in a drawer and cancel them before the annual fee comes due next year
- Some cards you’ll get for ongoing spending. They may not have the highest signup bonus, but they’re great for ongoing use
- Some cards you’ll get for specific benefits. They’ll probably go in the drawer most of the time, but they’ll help you with airline and hotel perks
Example: The Starwood Preferred Guest card. Points earned from this card can transfer to your choice of more than 25 airlines, along with a 20% bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer.
Example: The IHG Rewards Club Select Mastercard gives you a certificate for a free stay every year at your choice of properties. There’s an annual fee of $49, and some of their nicer hotels in bigger cities (especially the upscale Intercontinental brand) normally cost $400 a night or more. Use your free night certificate for one of those! You’ll also get complimentary Platinum status for as long as you keep the card.
8. Get free elite status whenever an opportunity comes up.
From time to time, a brand will offer free elite status just for signing up through a special link. In fact, pretty much anytime you look, you can find at least one opportunity to get status without doing much for it. Since the time cost in registering is usually very low, you should register for these offers when you find them.
You may wonder why you’d want status in an airline or hotel chain that you don’t use. Just like the first point—never fly without earning miles—if it’s not too difficult to get status, you should do so. Because elite status can often be “matched” by competing companies, once you have one status you’ll often have the opportunity to get “bigger and better” status with an airline or hotel chain you do care about.
Sure, There’s More You Could Do—But This Is a Great Start
If you complete every item on this list, you’ll have:
- 52,000 Ultimate Rewards points from your new Chase Sapphire Preferred card
- A knowledge of how best to use your points, especially with partner airlines
- Extra points whenever you book any hotel, courtesy of Rocketmiles
- Extra points whenever you shop through a portal, without spending any additional money
It should take you less than one hour to complete every one of these tasks, and then you’ll be well positioned to learn more if you want, or just use your points and new knowledge to be way ahead of most people.