Travel hacking is a popular personal finance strategy that involves collecting credit card points, airline miles, and other rewards to travel the world for free or at a considerable discount.
In its most complicated form, travel hacking involves earning, transferring, and strategically using points to ensure you are extracting the most value out of them.
In its purest form, travel hacking merely involves using your credit card points to snag a discounted (or even free) one-way flight.
The problem right now is that travel hackers have saved up points, ready to deploy them, and then – the COVID-19 Pandemic hits.
Travel comes to a halt – either out of necessity, fear, or some justified combination of both.
And while those who proudly claim “travel” as a hobby are struggling right now, we all know one day that travel will resume. So in this article, you will find five ways to keep travel hacking during the COVID-19 pandemic so that you can be ready to go once traveling starts to become more “normal.”
1. Organize Your Credit Cards
According to Gallup, the average American carries just over 2.5 credit cards. Naturally, if you are an avid travel hacker, you end up opening a lot more credit cards than only two or three.
Whether you have a handful of credit cards or an entire drawer of them, it’s good to take stock of what cards you have open and ask yourself:
- Does the card have an annual fee?
- Do I still use the card?
- Do I still get a benefit from the card?
- Could I cancel the card without impacting my credit score?
You should not rush to “Marie Kondo” all of your unused cards, as canceling long-standing credit cards with no annual fee could negatively impact your credit score. Instead, you should prioritize organizing any cards with an annual fee and determining which ones you can cancel to save you money without hurting your credit score.
One easy way to minimize the negative impact of canceling a credit card is to have a no annual fee card open that you never cancel. This way, your length of credit history never changes, even if your average credit length per card does.
2. Research and Find Your Next Credit Card
Just because you can’t use your points doesn’t mean you can’t find and apply for your next credit card.
Most of us are stuck at home quarantining in some fashion and have more time on our hands. One good use of that time would be to create a list of the best premium credit cards that you want to sign up for next.
On your list, you should take note of:
- The sign-up bonus
- The sign-up bonus spending requirements
- Everyday rewards or cashback
- Other perks and benefits (like no foreign transactions fees)
- The typical credit score needed to be approved
There is an opportunity cost to signing up for a credit card with a $500 bonus if you missed out on one that was offering a $1,000 bonus!
A little research can help you avoid this opportunity cost.
3. Build Up Your Credit Score
Like a professional athlete working on their game in the offseason, building your credit score will allow you to come back next year more prepared than ever.
When you improve your credit score, you increase your chances of getting approved for better credit cards. That will be the most beneficial for someone who has fair or average credit today and can build their credit score to good or excellent – which is what most of the best credit cards require.
Here are two tips for building your credit score the right way:
- Build Credit History: Continue to make your payments on time and in full every month.
- Improve Your Utilization: Spend slightly less money every month to improve your credit utilization. Alternatively, you could open a new credit card to increase your credit limit, but there are other drawbacks to take into account before opening a new card.
Remember, a credit score is a lot like a reputation. It takes a lot of time to build, and only a few bad decisions to wreck. So be patient as you build your credit score to where you want it to be.
4. Stay in an Accumulation Phase
Travel hacking has two practices:
- Generating Points
- Redeeming Points
While the “redeeming points” part of travel hacking is harder to do right now, nothing is stopping you from continuing to generate points.
If you can continue to hit spending limits, qualify for miles, and earn rewards in general, now is an excellent time to accumulate points to redeem for your dream trip later on.
Most credit card points don’t expire as long as you keep the card open. You do have to be conscious of paying the annual fee multiple times if you open a premium card. But that is one of the benefits of no annual fee credit cards – there is a low risk of keeping the card open for extended periods (if not forever).
That also means you can hoard points for as long as you need them!
And remember to keep your eye on airline miles and deals too. Airlines are desperate for cash right now, so depending on your situation and the probability of traveling soon, you could find some great deals.
5. Hack Your Travel in Different Ways
When most people think of travel hacking, they think of flying around the world for free in first-class. There are many other ways to travel, as well.
If you don’t feel comfortable flying yet, but still want to use your points to travel, you could cash in your hard-earned points for:
- A rental car for a classic American road trip (according to CNBC, 46 million American are planning a road trip in 2020, up from 25 million just last year)
- Grabbing dinner at a nice restaurant in town (you still have to travel to dinner)
- Booking a local hotel room for a stay-cation (as long as the hotel gets appropriately cleaned!)
- Snagging a good deal on a flight or trip in 2021
Summary: 5 Ways to Keep Travel Hacking Despite COVID-19
Travel has come to a screeching halt in 2020, but that doesn’t mean travel hacking has to as well.
By organizing your credit cards, building your credit score, and accumulating points, you can continue to prepare yourself for an even better (and cheaper) year of travel to come. Plus, there are still ways to take advantage of your hard-earned points if you still want to travel in 2020!
Just remember the one golden rule of credit cards: use them responsibly. Pay them off on time and in full every month, and don’t jeopardy your long term credit score at the expense of a few bucks in the short term.
Kevin runs the personal finance website Just Start Investing, where he focuses on making investing easy. Just Start Investing has been featured on Business Insider, Forbes, and US News & World Report, among other major publications for his easy-to-follow writing. Check out Just Start Investing to learn the simple strategies to start investing today, as well as ways to optimize your credit cards, banking, and budget.