Ten years ago, if you would have asked me what travel hacking was, I would have given you a blank stare. Say what now? I even distinctly remember when a patient told me about Travel Zoo for deals. I signed up for emails, would look every week to see what cheap travel was available, and never book anything. You see, we aren’t spontaneous. We can’t leave tomorrow to go to Aruba, even if it is $57 for a round trip flight. And that’s how I thought you had to get good deals on traveling.
Enter My First Airlines Card
I’ve proclaimed my love for the Rapid Rewards program far and wide. When I signed up for my first Southwest card, my eyes were opened to using points for flights. It was AMAZING! And I still love it! I realized that if I could use points to book a flight, then I had a little more flexibility with other travel plans. I could still be my cheap but adventure-seeking self. (PS, being cheap and loving to travel is sometimes a hard marriage. Actually, being cheap with most things can be difficult. 😂) Did I travel the world or even the US with my first bunch of points? Nope, I think we went to San Francisco. SO far and SO fancy. But you know what? We flew there for free.
What People Think Rewards Travel Is…
I think that most times when people think of rewards travel, or travel hacking, a combination of things come to mind. Things like, you fly first class. You go to Japan for a 48-hour trip, just because. You travel ALL THE TIME. Your stays are always in swanky hotels. Those swanky hotels provide you with butlers! But, you can never travel for holidays or days you want because those days are blocked out. You have to have a super flexible schedule to be able to pull this off. You can sell your house and live in Thailand at hotels for a year for just 5,000 points! Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Honestly, for some people that might be the case. For us, not at all. There are approximately 854 million other blogs that will help you travel the world with points. We have chosen to do it at a comfortable speed for us, and make it work with our lives.
What Rewards Travel Looks Like for Us
We love love love to travel. We took a trip every 3-4 months before we had kids (and before we ever traveled with points, think of all the money we could have saved!), and still try to take between 2-3 trips a year. But over time, things have changed. We have found the Financial Independence community and are trying to increase our savings rate. In addition to that, we’ve had kids. At first, it didn’t change things a lot, we still took a decent number of big and fun vacations. But now as a family of seven, we will have to rethink how we travel.
For us, we now try to have one portion of each of our trips paid for by points. Perhaps that is our flights. Maybe the hotels. And soon we are hoping to have enough miles through Capital One to erase things such as amusement parks, museums and aquariums. Since our family trips are now a little more low key where we often drive and stay in a vacation rental, we haven’t used as many points on those trips. Instead, we have been able to exclusively use points for the past several couples trips that we’ve taken. We’ve booked our flights and hotels with points, making it easier and more justifiable for us to spend more on childcare for while we are gone.
We aren’t taking tons of trips, flying to China on a Tuesday, or staying in super extravagant hotels. Our travel hacking habits are just helping us do all of our normal things, but better. I broke it down into the three main reasons that we have wholeheartedly implemented this into our lives.
1. Saving Money
Now obviously, who doesn’t want to save money? I think that everyone loves getting a good deal on a flight or hotel, we are not an exception. But as we have started focusing on achieving financial independence, we realized that this was a huge area in which we could optimize. We could still try to increase our annual savings rate without sacrificing our vacations that we look forward to so much!
Just think, if you were able to save $1500 on flights and $1000 on hotels in a year, that is $2500 saved. You could instead put it towards savings, investing, debt or everyday needs. And saving that much on flights is not hard to do! When we visited family in Louisiana for Mardi Gras last year, we used rewards points to book flights that are easily around $300 round trip if you were to pay cash. So just for our family of five, that is $1500 that we saved for just one vacation.
We are lucky enough to live near most of our family, but for so many people that do not, traveling for holidays, weddings, funerals, reunions, or just to visit can get super expensive! My brother who lives in Indiana has used rewards points on more than one occasion when he or his wife were needing to get to Arizona. It’s not the sexiest way to take advantage of travel hacking, but dang it, it comes in handy.
It has also allowed us to help others and be generous. We have been able to book hotel rooms for nieces and nephews for wedding nights and flights for siblings to travel, with our without us. When a friend’s dad was in the hospital, my immediate thought was that I could fly them home in a hurry. It isn’t much, but it helps me feel like I’m contributing in a helpful way.
2. Reward Ourselves
Remember when we talked about Dave Ramsey a few months ago? When I brought it up on Instagram stories, I heard over and over, that people didn’t want to wait to spend any money until debt was paid off. And boy do I get it! When we were paying off student loans, that is the exact reason we did travel so much, because otherwise you burn out super quickly. And this is where rewards travel comes in clutch again! We never recommend going into debt for a vacation, especially if you’re trying to dig out of it. So if you have travel points to use, you can have the best of both worlds. Making financial progress but still getting a well-deserved break.
So what if you could keep making progress on financial goals, but take a vacation every once in a while that doesn’t break the bank? It seems like the best of both worlds, right? Whether it is paying off a specific debt or loan, or once you get your Roth IRA funded, you should celebrate the wins! And sometimes that win is just getting through a rough week of parenting and booking yourself a room at a local hotel where you can sit in silence for 18 hours and not think about what to feed everyone for two meals in a row. Whatever your accomplishment, you need that mental reward.
3. Make Memories
This one is pretty obvious. Like we talked about with the Dave Ramsey stuff, you don’t want to wait to have any fun and make any memories. As I’ve been digging up old vacation photos for this post and our last one, I’ve been in heaven. To see three-year-old Maren on the beach with her cousins made me smile. And then barely-talking Cohen at Disneyland yelling, “Ho Ho!” when he saw the train…be still my heart! Jadey licking the salty water off her hands was something I never want to forget. Going to my brother’s wedding in Utah and being with all of my siblings is a treasured memory. And a favorite is the windy pictures from the Statue of Liberty with friends, it was the best. We are so so lucky to have had these amazing experiences.
And points have allowed us to extend making those memories with our family members also. When we went to Disneyland the last time, Philip’s sister came with us to help out. It was amazingly helpful for us and fun for both her and my kids. And now my kids have memories and pictures with their aunt too. We also recently planned a trip (which has been postponed) to Monterey to go to the aquarium. For the sake of having extra hands, we invited my parents to come too. The fact that we have plenty of airline and hotel points made it a win/win/win to have their help, easily book their flights and hotel, and give my kids the gift of time and memories with their grandparents. If we were on a strict budget, I don’t know that I would have thought to use those points to everyone’s advantage.
You’ll Never Regret Having Travel Rewards
This basically sums it all up. Whether it be to book flights to Europe for an anniversary trip or to take one of your kids to visit a cousin in Utah, travel rewards points will always come in handy. We had initially thought we would go to England and Scotland last year for our 15 year wedding anniversary and were working towards accruing points for those flights and hotels. Well, that surely didn’t happen, but now we have extra points that we can use for getting our whole family to Northern California. Or perhaps to Indiana or Destin or Salt Lake.
If you’d like to travel at all, now is the time to start making those plans and accumulating points. Our three favorite cards are the Chase Sapphire, the Capital One Venture, and the Southwest Airlines cards. Between those three you can have a lot of flexibility for a lot of travel in the future!