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Travel is never a rational thing.

We don’t travel because it makes sense.  We travel because we love the adventure. We love exploring new places, meeting new people, tasting new foods, and experiencing the world the way others live it.

And if you’re like me, traveling without paying for it sounds even better.

On the house meals, free boat rides, complimentary spa treatments, sailing… diving… and exploring another city without charge is icing on the cake.

That’s why travel writing is so great– someone else foots the bill.

But let’s face it…

Sometimes it’s just not possible to travel as a travel writer.  Maybe you don’t have time to line up assignments or (as is often the case with me when I’m traveling with kids) your schedule is too tight and there’s not enough time to both relax AND research and write a travel story for a magazine, newspaper or website.

It’s these times that savvy travelers like me and you need other methods to travel without charge.

Methods like travel reward programs that offer free hotel rooms and airline tickets.  And credit cards that have big bonus mile incentives and other perks like priority boarding and waived checked bag fees.

If you’re smart, you can even double and trip dip in these programs and pile on extra nights and airline miles to travel free quite often.

One service I know, the Travel Hacking Cartel, promises one free flight every three months using the deals and promotions they send your way by email.

So here’s my quick Travel Hacking Cartel review: it’s worth the membership fee not to have to search for these things on your own.  I know.  It took me a full week to sift through all the reward card programs and elite status building strategies online.  And every day brings something new – a new promotion… a new way to beat the system.

This research in this video below is up to date as of last week.  Please watch and use the tips at the end for deciding which travel rewards program is best for you.  Then, sign up for the Travel Hacking Cartel, here.  You can’t beat their offer for a free flight every three months using what you learn…

Video Transcript

Hi.  I’m Lori Allen.  The Director of Great Escape Publishing.

A few years ago I was the travel hacking queen.  I rarely flew in coach class.  And I stayed on top of all the best deals.

These days, though, I have two small kids and my options to fly are limited.  I can’t rack up points by flying like I used to.

I need to get my elite status and free flight upgrades another way.

So I spent the week looking back into it… starting with the tricks I used in the past to gain elite status and travel free.

Here’s what I found…

If you’re simply after free flights and vacations and you don’t care much about elite status, priority boarding and you know you’re not going to fly any one airline often enough to qualify for seat upgrades they reserve for their most loyal customers, it’s best to use a variety of different reward programs and credit cards to get the points you need.  Here are a few of my favorites…

But note: You should never sign up for a travel reward card you intend to carry a balance on.  The interest rates are way too high to make it worth the points you earn.  You’re better off looking for a card with a lower interest rate and apply the money you’re saving to your travel fund if you don’t think you can pay off the balance every month.

The Chase Ink Plus Business Card

Chase Ink Bold Business Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card.

Consider this…

The average family of four spends $800 a month on groceries alone in the U.S.  And if you live in more expensive areas like New York, San Francisco, D.C. or San Jose (or you eat mostly organic foods), you probably spend more.  Some families push the $2,000 a month mark. 

After using one of these cards to purchase just $5,000 worth of goods in three months (only $3,000 on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card), you get 50,000 bonus points in addition to those earned on what you spend.  That’s $625 in free travel rewards ($500 on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card) just for purchasing things you typically buy anyway.

After that, it’s 5 points at office supply stores… 5 points on your phone, internet and cable services… 2 points on all your qualifying travel and dining purchases… and 1 point for every dollar you charge after that. 

The points then transfer (at a one to one ratio) to all their participating loyalty club programs like United, Southwest, Marriott and more.  Check their website at the links I’ve included below for a full list.

And here’s a little trick I picked up from my friend Chris Guillebeau.

Remember those 5 points you get from office supply stores?  If you’re like me, you probably don’t shop there much but Chris suggests going there anyway to purchase things you might not think.

Starbucks gift cards, for example.  Right now you would probably buy a Starbucks coffee using your credit card and it would earn you one point.  Buy a gift card at an office supply store, however and use IT instead of your credit card and you’ll earn 5 points instead of 1.

Pretty cool, right?  And the same goes for your purchases at Home Depot, local restaurants and more.  If their gift cards are sold at Staples or any other office store, you can buy a card there first and use it to purchase whatever it is you want from these retailers.

And here’s something else…

Note: You don’t always have to have a business to open a business credit card.  Just put your social security number in the tax ID field. 

And note: All of these cards I’ve mentioned so far carry a $95 annual fee after your first year.  It’s waived your first year.  And even at $95 it’s a good deal if you can cash in those bonus points for $625 worth of free travel.  But if you don’t want to carry a card with that kind of annual fee, you’ll need to remind yourself to cancel it before your second  year.

Now again, stockpiling points is our goal and if you want free vacations that means free hotel nights too so here’s how you can double dip on these credit card reward points…

Hotels.com – Welcome Rewards

I like Hotels.com’s Welcome Reward program because you don’t have to be loyal to a particular brand or chain of hotels to earn your free hotel stays.  Hotels.com Welcome Reward points aren’t attached to how much you spend either. 

Simply book 10 nights through their website and you’ll get a reward credit for one night free. As long as you spend more than $40/night on your first 10 hotel stays, and you don’t use any kind of coupon or vacation discount package to build up to those 10 nights, your 11th stay is free anywhere you choose (up to a $400/night). Again, you’ll find a link to their website in the transcription of this video below.

So you can essentially book your hotel nights here and double dip – 2 x Chase Ultimate Rewards points for every dollar spent and 1 Hotels.com Welcome Reward Point for each night slept.

And here’s how you can TRIPLE dip on these credit card reward points…

…with Marriott, Starwood, Hilton and Hyatt Rewards

Right now, for instance, Hyatt’s Endless Possibilities Promotion offers one free night for every five nights booked when you register your Hyatt Gold Passport number on their website by March 31 and book your stays before the end of April.

To triple dip, simply sign up for Hotels.com Welcome Rewards club and book your Hyatt stay on their website.  Then, attach your Hyatt Gold Passport number to your registration and use your Chase card to pay.  After 10 nights, you’ll get one free night credit from Hotels.com, two free nights from Hyatt in a category 1-4 room and 2 Chase Ultimate Reward points for every dollar spent.

This is really the best way I found to get FREE stuff.  There are other ways if you want elite status.  But if you just want a free vacation it’s about triple dipping and using a credit card with big reward bonuses.

Not crazy about opening another credit card?

I understand.

But honestly, I didn’t find any deals as great as the Chase cards.

The only offer that even comes close is one from Fidelity and it requires you have at least $25,000 worth of money to move into one of their bank accounts.

I’ll include the link to the Fideltity deal below.  They offer 15,000… 25,000 and 50,000 miles for deposits of $25,000… $50,000 and $100,000 respectively.

Not bad if you have extra cash to move around.  But if you don’t, your only real option at this point for 50,000 or more points is through a credit card.

Now, let’s look at the other side of the spectrum…

The Traveler Who Wants Elite Status

This is me.

Once you get used to a lifestyle of free first-class upgrades, it’s hard to go back to coach. 

Free drinks, more legroom, on demand movies… even boarding early and using priority lanes to get through airport security is nice.

Unfortunately, the days of stockpiling points for elite status without flying are nearly over.  Not all points are created equal anymore.  Some points are just points.  While others, “qualifying points” they call them, work toward building your elite status with an airline.

The 50,000 points you get from the Chase credit cards I told you about, for example, aren’t elite status qualifying points.  So they don’t count toward your climb up the ladder from Silver, Gold to Platinum status.

What’s worse, some airlines like Delta and United just announced this year that in addition to qualifying points, you also need to spend a minimum amount of money with their airline to qualify for elite status (though you might qualify for a waiver if you own their brand-specific credit card).

If you don’t rack up enough miles flying, then your options are limited.  You can buy elite qualifying miles from your airline for $.03 – $.10 a piece (10,000 qualifying miles might cost $300 to $1,075).  Or you can sign up for one of these cards and meet their minimum spend requirement to get the qualifying miles…

** The Citi Executive AAdvantage MasterCard gives 10,000 American Airlines qualifying miles when you reach $40,000 in purchases each calendar year.

** The Delta Reserve card gives 10,000 Delta qualifying miles with the first purchase, and 15,000 more when you reach $30,000 in purchases within the calendar year plus an additional 15,000 if you can make it to $60,000 in purchases in a single year.

** The Delta Platinum Amex offers 10,000 Delta qualifying miles for $25,000 in annual purchases and another 10,000 for $50,000 in annual spending. The annual fee is $150 but the card also comes with an annual companion ticket so you might find it worth it.

** The US Airways Mastercard offers 10,000 US Airways Preferred qualifying miles after $25,000 in spending each year.

The best way to start is to look at where you want to go this year and decide what it is you want when you travel. 

If you know you’re going to Florida, Los Angeles and Nebraska, use a low-cost flight comparison website like Kayak.com to see who flies there and offers the best deals.  If the best flight prices come from a single airline, you might consider a loyalty club program with that airline and their brand-specific credit card.  (Brand-specific cards might not offer 50,000 points like the Chase cards do.  But they do offer other benefits like priority boarding and waived checked bag fees that could make them worth it.)

If, however, flights are all over the place and loyalty doesn’t make sense, stockpiling points from credit card and other offers might make more sense.  Later, you can cash them in for free flights to Hawaii, Europe and Fiji. 

And know this – reward point offers come and go throughout the year and a lot of them are worth tracking.  If you have some time, you’d do well to stay on top of these deals.  If you don’t, you could also consider paying someone to do it for you.

The Travel Cartel is a service I’ve just recently started using, charges just $25/month to stay on top of these deals for you and they promise you’ll earn at least one free flight every three months with what they find.

Not a bad deal if you ask me.  And remember, none of this is worth it if you’re going to carry a balance on the cards you choose.  Play wisely.  And have fun!!

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