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Posted: 1:59 p.m. Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Travel Hacking: Your Key To Cheap International Flights

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By Geoff Whitmore, Contributor

ClarkHoward.com


"Travel Hacking" sounds like an uber-secretive technique used to work the system. But on a basic level, it's simple tips that most people can use to travel the world like they never thought they could, for a price they can afford. Sound good? Well, it is. I teach people how it works over on my blog, Noobtraveler.com.

My wife and I have been able to travel like we never thought possible with miles and points earned mostly from rewards credit cards. And get this—there's nothing special about us! Believe that. We have just learned to leverage our credit responsibly, maximize our everyday spending, and get the most value out of our miles and points. And you can too!

Here are the tools travel hackers use to score cheap international flights

Rewards Credit Cards

Rewards credit cards play a HUGE role in traveling like a boss, for many reasons. But before I continue with why rewards credit cards are the most amazing thing ever, I need to say who they aren't for. If your credit score is in bad condition, if you can't manage your spending or bill paying, or if you're looking to apply for a home mortgage in the next few months, this isn't for you. At least not yet!

But, if you have a good to excellent credit score and can responsibly manage your payments, rewards credit cards can be your best friend. Here's how:

Sign-up bonuses 

Many rewards cards offer a sign-up bonus once you are approved for the card and meet a minimum spending requirement (usually within 3 months). And since the banks are competing for your business, the bonuses can be very, very lucrative. We're talking sign-up bonuses of 40,000, 50,000, and even 100,000 miles!

To give you an idea of what this would net you, it takes approximately 60,000 miles to fly to Europe and back in economy class. That's a flight that would easily cost $1,200, so you're basically getting this value for applying for one rewards credit card! This is where earning airline miles is way more valuable than cash back points. With cash back rewards, 60,000 points would net you $600. So, you're getting twice as much value by redeeming your rewards for an international flight. I pick Europe!

There are a lot of rewards credit cards to choose from, but you can see my two favorite personal cards here.

Many who understand the value in rewards credit cards and loyalty programs will apply for numerous credit cards in a year. Since you can do this and still keep your credit score in great condition, why not reap the benefits? My wife and I have applied for multiple credit cards throughout the years, and our credit scores are still excellent.

Some tips to protect your score while applying for multiple cards:

1. Keep your credit utilization under 30%. Simply put, what you owe should not exceed 30% of your available credit.

2. Pay your bills in full at the end of every month. If the goal is to earn rewards, why pay interest?

3. Never cancel your oldest card, since that will have a negative effect on your 'average age of account.' Newer cards that are canceled won't have a negative impact on your score. Tip: Sometimes, the banks will give you a retention bonus when you try to cancel your card.

Check out Card Watchdog if you want help managing your multiple rewards credit cards. It makes it so easy.

Category bonuses

Many cards will reward you with more points for certain categories. Earning multiple points per dollar is how I live my life! It's easy to find cards that offer bonuses of up to 5 points per $1 for categories like grocery stores, office supply stores, dining, travel, gas, etc. Maximizing these categories helps you rack up the points faster and it's a sweet, sweet thing to watch that balance go up.

Shopping online

I shop online, like most people. Not only is it convenient, but it's easy to rack up mega miles by going through online shopping portals. Most loyalty programs have a shopping portal that will reward you from 2-15 points per $1 just for shopping through their portal. You still shop at your favorite stores, you just get there by going through their portal. It's so easy. You can go to Evreward to compare the top online shopping portal bonuses.

Earning miles for every purchase

I work hard for my money, and I know you do, too. So, I want to earn something back for every dollar I spend—even on my mortgage and car loan. And I do. There are several services that allow you to make your mortgage payment with a credit card, but they will charge a fee. I wouldn't pay the fee just to earn 1 mile per $1.

Instead, I recommend signing up for Bluebird—an online checking account from Walmart and American Express. You can use Bluebird's online site to pay any bill you have, whether it be your mortgage, auto loan, credit card, etc. But it's how you load your Bluebird account that earns miles and points. You can load Bluebird by buying Visa gift cards with a rewards credit card (just make sure the gift cards have a PIN). Once you buy the Visa gift cards, you can load them to Bluebird at your local Walmart at their Money Center or any register. Yeah, it's a couple of extra steps, but it's worth it when you see the rewards stack up!

 

Here's how you can maximize those miles and points  

As you can see, earning miles and points can actually be pretty easy. But the real value comes from knowing how to use them. Here are a few tips that will help you maximize your miles and points for insane travel.

Fly premium cabins

It's not for everyone, but flying business or first class is what I'm all about. I could never pay for a first class flight on Singapore Airlines, because it's $10,000 for one-way, but I can fork out 70,000 Ultimate Rewards points (Singapore Airlines is a transfer partner) for a one-way flight in their suites class. Yeah, that's a class above first.

Fly non-peak season 

Many airlines have higher prices for their award flights during peak travel seasons. But they will offer reduced award rates during non-peak season. For example, you can fly to Europe in economy round-trip for 40,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles. Killer value.

Understand airline alliances

Many people don't understand that once you have a mile in a certain loyalty program, you can fly ANY airline in that airline's specific alliance! Talk about options. There are 3 main airline alliances: OneWorldSkyteam, and Star Alliance. Knowing the alliances helps you decide which cards are best for your travel goals.

Know about stop-overs and open jaws 

Each airline has different rules for their award routings, but most airlines will allow you to have an open jaw or stop over on your flights. An open jaw is when you fly into one city and out of another city. A stop-over is when you stop in one city before continuing your trip. On one of our last trips to Europe, we stopped in Paris for a week before we continued on to our final destination, Venice. Stop overs and open jaws are a great way to see more of the world for the same price as a regular award ticket.

Conclusion

I hope this helps you understand the crazy value in rewards credit cards and loyalty programs. These tips are really just scratching the surface when it comes to traveling the world for a price you can afford, but hopefully they help you see how sweet it can be. You can find my list of rewards card recommendations here, or comment below if you have any questions!

Geoff Whitmore is lead traveler/writer at NoobTraveler.com, a blog dedicated to educating its readers on reward travel, travel tips, and cost-saving travel techniques. The blog particularly focuses on new travelers (or as they like to call them, “Noobs”), and it teaches its readers how to save BIG. All the while, the site maintains a humorous writing style that is both fun and informative.

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