How to get started travel hacking (hint: don't apply for any credit cards!)

A lot of people seem to treat my site as a space for "advanced" travel hackers, but I've never felt that way myself; in fact, I don't think of myself as an "advanced" travel hacker at all!

  • I don't know the first thing about fuel dumps (although I took advantage of one for my January trip to Italy).
  • I don't game voluntary denied boarding vouchers (although I was pleased as punch to take one last Sunday).
  • I don't pore over portal bonuses, buying and reselling gift cards and merchandise in order to manufacture spend (although I'll always use portals and bonus categories to buy the things I need at the steepest discount possible).

I consider myself a working travel hacker. This is my job: I love it, I have a lot of fun, and my readers are the greatest, but I'm no expert.

I wrote my (now quite outdated) ebook, and launched this site, not because I had any special insight into travel hacking, but because all the major existing blogs were so obviously taking advantage of their readers' ignorance.

In other words, I've always thought of this site as a resource to save beginners from experts, not to pile more expert advice on them. With that in mind, here is the best beginner advice I can muster from my experience in the travel hacking game.

Don't apply for credit cards (until you're ready)

Manufacturing spend with the right co-branded and proprietary credit cards is a fantastic way to generate miles and points that you can redeem for travel.

Manufacturing spend with the wrong co-branded and proprietary credits cards is a fantastic way to generate profits for the issuing banks.

There is a whole industry committed to convincing you that what's good for the banks' bottom lines is good for you. It isn't. The only way you'll ever be able to make the right decision about what credit cards should be in your travel hacking portfolio is taking deep dives into the earning and redeeming structure of each card.

A lot of that information is here. A lot of that information is on Google. And if it's not in either place, ask!

Your credit score is not even among your most valuable assets

Bloggers who are paid based on the number of successful credit card applications you complete are naturally game to figure out how to "goose" your credit score as much as possible.

If you're interested in applying for new credit cards, it's worth learning how to improve your credit score in order to ensure those applications are successful.

For example, once you figure out when your credit cards report their balances to the credit bureaux, you can pay off those balances ahead of time: that will ensure that however much you spend each month, other credit card companies will treat you as debt-free.

But unless you're applying for new credit, you should basically not care about your credit score month-to-month. Your credit score does not hover above your head while you go about your daily business.

Plan around (your!) actual travel

One particularly pernicious feature of affiliate blogging is picking random "aspirational" destinations and explaining how the credit cards the blogger is selling will get you there.

But if you weren't interested in traveling to Bali before you discovered travel hacking, why would some random credit card bonus encourage you to go there?

Once you've examined your actual travel plans, you'll likely find that a 2% cash back card serves your needs best.

And when you've come to terms with that, you'll finally be able to calculate how other signup bonuses and earning rates will allow you to save money by leveraging hotel, airline, and proprietary bank points.


My animosity towards the "Big 5" affiliate travel blogs is no secret. But there's no straightforward way to keep folks who are newly interested in the hobby from falling into the same expensive mistakes over, and over, and over again. There may never be.

And as long as that's the case, I'll keep writing.