What better way to learn than a practical example. I’ll actually walk you through what the whole travel hacking process looks like. For this example, my goal will be to travel from Seattle, Washington to Frankfurt, Germany and cover my flights and hotel stay on miles/points. Hopefully this will help you get an idea of what travel hacking looks like from start to finish.
First half of the equation is earning points. So I am going to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred ($4,000 minimum spend, annual fee waived) card and the Chase Freedom card ($500 minimum spend, no annual fee). After meeting the minimum spend on both of these cards, I’ll have roughly 70,000 Ultimate Rewards. About a month later (due to bank rules), I’m going to apply for the United MileagePlus Explorer ($2,000 minimum spend, annual fee waived), which provides me with 57,000 United miles. I also apply for Citi AAdvantage Platinum card ($3,000 minimum spend, annual fee waived), which gives me 53,000 AAdvantage miles. Last, but not least, I’ll apply for the American Express SPG Card ($3,000 minimum spend, annual fee waived), which will give me roughly 28,000 SPG points.
Alright so for simplicity’s sake, let’s fast forward 3 months and say I’ve met all my minimum spending requirements. I now have 70,000 UR, 57,000 United miles, 53,000 AAdvantage miles, and 28,000 SPG points for $12,000 of minimum spending over the past 5-6 months. That seems like a lot of money, but remember you’re paying for things that you used to pay for with cash. If all else fails, you’re paying the 3% transaction fee to send money to a relative on Venmo or Paypal. Since all these cards have the annual fee waived for the first year, I can either cancel them once the year is up or better yet downgrade them to a no annual fee card.
Now step two of the equation, figuring out how to efficiently use the points that I’ve earned.
Let’s first look at flights. I have 57,000 United miles so let’s see how far that will get me. I’m going to use the travel dates November 4 – November 12.
After clicking search, I was presented with several options. For simplicity’s sake I chose direct, non-stop flights to and from Frankfurt.
Looks like it will cost 60,000 United miles + $115.66 in taxes/fees. I currently have 52,000 United miles. How am I going to get another 2,000 miles? I could spend $2,000 on my United card OR I could use my Chase Sapphire Preferred transfer 2,000 of my 80,000 Ultimate Rewards to my United account. Now I have the 60,000 United miles that I need.
Okay so this is one option… remember I also have 53,000 AAdvantage miles. I’ll do a search for the same dates.
Here is the end result:
So on American Airlines it only costs me 45,000 miles RT + $121 in taxes and fees. This is because American Airlines has an “off-peak” season. My flight dates fall into this window of “off-peak” travel. Now you’ll probably notice that none of these are direct flights. Each flight has 2 layovers. Yuck.
The reason why the results are so different between my searches is that United and American Airlines are part of different alliances. United is part of the Star Alliance and American is part of the OneWorld Alliance. Each alliance is composed of several airlines, which partner with each other. You’ll notice the United flights are actually on Lufthansa airlines and a portion of the American flights are on Alaska Airlines.
So because I don’t really like switching planes… I’m going to pick the United flights. One other perk to booking on United is their free stopover policy. TravelisFree has a great blog post about the United’s routing rules. So to book my award flight, I transfer over 2,000 UR to my United account and book the flight for 60,000 miles + $116.
Booking an Award Hotel Stay
Now I need to figure out where I’m going to sleep once I get to Frankfurt, Germany. Here are my remaining points: 68,000 UR, 53,000 AAdvantage miles, and 28,000 SPG points. Obviously AAdvantage miles aren’t going to help me get a hotel so I’ll just bank those for a later trip.
What I would do next is use a tool called: HotelHustle. This tool searches across a variety of different hotel chains and shows you the cash vs. points cost per night.
These are the results that I received for the Hotel Hustle search for Frankfurt for the travel dates of travel dates November 5 – November 12 (the incoming flight leaves on November 4th, but arrives on the 5th).
As you can see on the left sidebar where it says “Hotel Chains”, I’ve only selected certain hotels. This is because Chase Ultimate Rewards only transfer to Choice, Hyatt, IHG, and Marriott. Of course I also included Starwood Preferred Guest hotels as well since I have points there.
On the right side of the Hotel Hustle tool, it states the hotels that are in the area. At the top, you’ll notice stars based on the cpp number. As a reminder, CPP stands for cent per point.
You’ll notice that all of the hotels on this list are IHG and Marriott hotels. Turns out there are no Hyatt hotels in Frankfurt, Germany. Furthermore, you’ll notice that with most of these hotels you’re only getting 0.669 cent per point. Since you don’t have any IHG and Marriott points, you’d have to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR). Now remember, UR can be redeemed for statement credits at 1 cent per point. Therefore, you would be better off paying for hotel and redeeming UR for a statement credit. Better yet, just keep your UR to transfer to a different travel partner for a better redemption.
If that last paragraph doesn’t make sense, think of it this way. For one night at the Frankfurt – Alte Oper Holiday Inn, I can pay 20,000 points or I can use my Chase Sapphire Preferred card and pay $133.86. I’ll earn 268 UR and then I can just redeem 13,000 points for a statement credit of $130. I would basically save 7,000 UR using this method. Not to mention I’ll earn points and a loyalty credits on the cash booking.
Now if you may have also noticed that there were several SPG hotels in the Frankfurt area as well.
Note that the rates in the SPG Free Nights do not account for the fact that I’ll get the fifth night free. In total, there are six different SPG hotels in Frankfurt. I only have 28,000 SPG points so the hotels that cost 10,000/night are a little out of my price range. For this example, I am going to pick the Sheraton Frankfurt Congress Hotel.
The Sheraton Frankfurt Congress Hotel costs 7,000 points/night or 114 euro (which is $129). That’s roughly 1.8 cents per point. Not great, but it will do. Now because of SPG’s awesome fifth night free benefit. For 28,000 points I’ll be able to afford to stay 5 nights at this hotel. Since my overall stay in Frankfurt, Germany is 7 nights. I’ll book the first 5 nights on points and then for the last two nights I’ll book with cash.
Because I’m trying to pay for this whole trip on points, I actually decided to look and see if the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal will let me book the last two nights at the Sheraton Frankfurt Congress Hotel.
Turns out they are currently have a sale and I can book the final two nights of my stay for 6,931 UR per night. Not bad. When I arrive at the hotel, I’ll just let them know that I’d like to combine the reservations, which means you can stay in the same room throughout your stay. Just make sure you book the same kind of room (i.e. King Bed vs. 2 Queen Beds) otherwise they won’t be able to combine the reservation.
So overall what did this trip cost me?
- Lufthansa Flight: SEA > FRA (RT)
- 60,000 United miles (3,000 transferred from UR)
- $116 in taxes/fees
- 7 Night Stay at the Sheraton Frankfurt Congress Hotel
- 28,000 SPG Points for five nights
- 13,862 UR for two nights
Overall, this trip would have cost me around $2,000 if I didn’t have points.
Not to mention I still have some points to spare for another trip to Europe or some other international destination. It might also be helpful to work backwards sometimes since that can dictate, which credit cards you apply for. I hope this example from start to finish shows you how much value you can get from travel hacking.