The easiest locations to get to with travel hacking

With travel hacking, traveling to your favorite destination for free just got a lot easier. 

Sure, there are tons of online forums dedicated to using credit cards to earn free travel — many worth thousands of dollars –including fancy flow charts and sections on limited-time offers. The thing is, while you can go to great lengths to nab free first-class flights and weeks at five-star hotels, the basics of travel hacking itself can be quite easy.

In fact, you can book flights to places within weeks. That is, once you’ve figured out the easiest locations you can get to.

What is travel hacking?

In a nutshell, travel hacking is strategically collecting travel rewards points and miles, and redeeming them for free travel. Amass enough points — using airline credit cards, rewards credit cards, hotel loyalty programs and more — and score both free flights and hotels on your next trip.

The good news is you don’t have to earn points and miles solely through frequent flier or hotel programs. In fact, you might not even have to get on a plane at all. Many travel hackers are able to earn points and miles — think hundreds and thousands of them — by signing up for rewards credit cards and using them strategically to earn free travel and lodging. 

The key is to sign up for the right rewards credit cards — especially those offering huge sign-up bonuses — and hotel loyalty programs, and then take advantage of your everyday purchases so you can fly for free (and stay for free) on your next trip.

What are the easiest locations to travel hack?

Although travel hacking may sound complicated at first, the reality is travel hacking is easy — once you learn the ropes. And the easiest locations to get to with travel hacking are those that are served by the airlines and hotels with the best rewards programs, or destinations that are less expensive to travel to, and therefore require fewer points to get there. 

It makes sense that where you live will affect how many points or miles it’ll take to get to a particular destination. It’s safe to assume the closer the destination is to you, the fewer points it’ll cost you. For most travelers, destinations within the continental U.S. are the easiest to get to with travel hacking — Alaska may be one exception. But in some cases, it can also depend on factors like the time of the year and what airline you want to fly with.

As for hotels, the easiest locations to travel hack are those served by the major U.S. hotel chains with easy-to-use loyalty programs. 

Pro tip: Opt to accrue rewards points with hotels that offer more properties worldwide to give you more options when planning your next travel hacking trip. For example, Wyndham has 9,157 properties worldwide, Marriott has 6,900 and Hilton comes in third at 570.

What kind of credit card you have

Rewards programs aren’t created equal, so define your travel hacking goals before you sign up for a rewards credit card.

Some rewards credit cards are linked to the issuer’s reward program (like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards), which offer more flexible redemption options, such as the ability to transfer points to partner airlines. Compare this to co-branded airline and hotel credit cards, like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless credit card or the United Explorer Card, where your points are more limited by airline or hotel chain. 

What does this mean? For one, you might have more travel hacking options if you focus on amassing points with more flexible credit card rewards programs, like Chase Ultimate Rewards, making it easier to book a desired destination. However, if you choose a co-branded credit card, such as the United Explorer Card, and you live near a popular airport or airport hub for United, it might be better to pool your points that way. 

For example, Newark Liberty International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport are some of the busiest in the world, serving dozens of airlines, so travel hacking into or out of these airports instantly becomes much easier, since your flight options and redemption opportunities are expanded.

What airlines fly out of your nearest airport?

Take a look at where you live and see if it’s an airport hub. Or, take a look at what flights you want and plan an itinerary that will cost the least, even if it means a layover or two. Even if you don’t live near an airport hub, you can find destinations that are served by major U.S. airlines or by partner airlines, like OneWorld Alliance, SkyTeam Alliance and Star Alliance.

Is there anything I should watch out for?

It goes without saying that while the best credit cards come with a bunch of major benefits like free travel, there are some pitfalls to signing up for any credit card.

Manage your spending habits

Yup, your spending habits can make or break your travel hacking efforts. If you’re not careful, you could be paying more than you bargained for. If you don’t pay the balance on your rewards credit cards on time, you’ll end up paying interest, late fees, and negatively affecting your credit score (which could prevent you from signing up for more rewards credit cards). 

In other words, the points you earn will no longer be free, and you’re not really travel hacking anymore. Besides, if you go crazy trying to meet any minimum spending requirements (more on this later) you could end up in debt.

When you’re travel hacking, the key is to put all possible expenses on your credit card, make sure you’re responsible with your spending, and pay your credit card statement on time.

Not all points are equal

This is where travel hacking can get complicated, since the points and miles you earn aren’t all equal. It depends on the type of credit card you signed up for, and the redemption values available in their linked rewards programs. 

Different credit cards also offer different ways of earning points, including signup bonuses and different earnings categories. 

Pro tip: Expert travel hackers open up a wide variety of travel rewards credit cards — like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card and the Discover it® Miles credit card — to maximize their earnings. 

Of course, the real perk to travel hacking is redeeming rewards.

Redemption value(s)

Not all points are valued the same — it depends on which airline you redeem it with. It also depends on the time of the year and the type of flights you want to redeem. In other words, you may have enough points for Europe during the shoulder season, but when it comes to the holiday season, you may find you’re short thousands of points. 

For example, airline miles are typically worth one to two cents each, depending on how you spend them. During busy seasons or for higher-class fares, your points could be worth the lower end, meaning you’ll need more points to nab that flight. 

Co-branded credit cards and cards with more flexible redemption options can differ in terms of the number of points you earn, and how many are needed to redeem rewards. If you stick with one airline, for example, you may be able to earn rewards faster when signing up for a co-branded credit card versus using one that doesn’t offer a great transfer ratio. 

Redeeming points for hotels is similar. Values may differ when you redeem your points through a rewards portal like Chase Ultimate Rewards or through the hotel loyalty program itself. 

For example, if you redeem points through the World of Hyatt program, the amount of points you need depends on the property and the type of room. If you stay in a Category 2 hotel, like Hyatt Regency Atlanta, it’s less than what you’d pay for at Hyatt Place Atlanta / Centennial Park, a Category 3 hotel. Marriott properties even have redemption charts available to help you decide where to stay.

That being said, don’t get too stuck on redemption value if you’re just starting out, since it can be overwhelming. Instead, try focusing on earning and redeeming points on only one airline or with one hotel chain, so you can learn the points system before moving onto another one.

How to start travel hacking

Now that you’re convinced getting free flights and hotel stays is for you, here’s what to do to start travel hacking.

Start with a goal in mind

Sounds simple, but if you don’t figure out this step, then your travel hacking efforts may be in vain. Once you’ve picked a destination, you can start searching for the best travel credit cards to get. Next, identify which airlines fly to your destination. That could mean going with a co-branded credit card, like the Hilton Honors from American Express or the United Explorer Card, assuming there’s a huge signup bonus, or sticking with a rewards credit card with more flexible redemption options, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (a popular card among travel hackers).

Take advantage of sign-up bonuses

Yes, find sign-up bonuses. The point is to maximize the number of points you earn with your daily purchases. Head to the credit card issuer’s website to see what’s on offer, or visit a third-party website, which may be offering an even bigger bonus.

Sign up for rewards credit cards

Now that you’ve picked your card, it’s time to sign up! Many of the top-tier rewards credit cards require an excellent credit score, so check yours before applying — there are plenty of free places to do so. 

Here are some of the most popular credit cards among travel rewards enthusiasts:

  • Capital One VentureOne® Rewards –  Receive 20,000 miles once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. $0 annual fee. 
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – Receive 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. $95 annual fee.
  • The Platinum Card® from American Express – Receive 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after making $5,000 in purchases within the first three months. Comes with a whole host of travel credits and access to airport lounges. $550 annual fee.
  • United Explorer Card – Receive 40,000 bonus miles once you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. $0 annual fee in the first year, then $95.

Once you receive the credit card, make sure you know when the deadline is for meeting the minimum spending requirements to earn your bonus. It bears repeating that to help you meet those requirements, put all your expenses on your card and pay it off every month.

Sign up for airline and hotel rewards programs

Before you can use points for flights and hotels, you need to sign up for their rewards programs. 

Here are a few airline rewards programs that typically offer better redemption value and have hubs in major cities in the U.S.:

  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan – Earn tier qualifying miles to qualify towards Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare
  • American Airlines AAdvantage – No blackout dates and members could receive a complimentary Admirals Club membership
  • Delta SkyMiles – No blackout dates for redeeming rewards
  • JetBlue TrueBlue – receive bonus points when you fly a certain amount of flights within a calendar year
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards – earn qualifying points towards A-List status, which offers priority boardings, discounts on in-fight purchases and the Southwest Companion pass
  • United MileagePlus – when using miles to book a trip that has a minimum of three one-way flights, you can receive a free one-way flight between two of the cities.

To give yourself the most options when travel hacking for free hotel stays, it’s recommended that you sign up for all of the hotel loyalty programs you can. Here are some of the biggest U.S. hotel loyalty programs:

Look for the best deals on flights

When flying using points, the best deals are those offering the best redemption value — meaning they cost fewer points. Places like Google Flights or Skyscanner are great resources for starting your search. You can even try looking at route maps on specific airlines. There are also times when it may be cheaper to book your flight through your travel credit card’s travel portal. Do your homework, look at all available flights and redemption options, and strike when you find the best deal.

What will be your first travel hacking destination?

That’s it! Travel hacking to find the easiest locations from where you live isn’t that difficult, right? Now the next step is to sign up for the best travel credit cards and hotel loyalty programs, start collecting points, and reap the benefits by booking your next vacation for free. Where will you go first?

Sarah Li Cain

Sarah Li Cain is an experienced content marketing writer specializing in FinTech, credit, loans, personal finance,and banking. Her work has appeared in Fortune 500 companies, publications and startups such as Transferwise, Discover, Bankrate, Quicken Loans and KeyBank.