Travel hacking without spend

While I write a lot about strategies for using manufactured spend to get pay for travel at deep discounts, I know that many of my readers find manufacturing spend to be distasteful, time-consuming, or impossible (I know because you never hesitate to tell me in the comments section).

So at a reader's suggestion, I want to share some thoughts on travel hacking without manufacturing spend, and indeed without the requirement to spend any money on credit cards at all (besides annual membership fees).

Annual benefits

There is a not-unreasonable intuition that in the absence of manufactured spend, which properly focuses on high earning rates, bonus categories, and valuable points, annual recurring benefits of credit cards would become more important in developing a travel hacking strategy.

For airlines, those benefits include things like American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve companion tickets, the Chase Southwest Airlines 3,000 (Plus) or 6,000 (Premier) annual bonus points, the Bank of America Alaska Airlines annual $99 companion ticket and, for those grandfathered in, the 10,000 bonus anniversary miles offered by the Barclaycard American Airlines Aviator card.

Many hotel co-branded credit cards offer anniversary nights: the Chase IHG credit card gives a free night worldwide, Chase's Hyatt credit card gives a Category 1-4 night annually, and US Bank's Club Carlson credit cards give 40,000 (Premier Rewards and Business Rewards) or 25,000 (Rewards) bonus Gold Points on each account anniversary.

If our intuition that recurring benefits are more valuable without manufactured spend is true, then one credit card strategy might be to carry:

  • both a personal and small business version of both the Platinum and Reserve cards ($1290 in annual fees);
  • a Chase Southwest Premier card ($99 annual fee);
  • a Chase IHG credit card ($49 annual fee);
  • a Chase Hyatt credit card ($75 annual fee);
  • and one or more US Bank Club Carlson Premier Rewards and Business Rewards credit cards ($75 and $60 annual fee, respectively). Note that US Bank doesn't impose a hard cap on the number of its products you're allowed to have.

For $1,648 in annual fees per year, you could thus buy 4 domestic companion tickets on Delta (subject to fare bucket constraints), 6,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points (worth perhaps $100), a free night at any IHG Rewards property, a free night at a Category 1-4 Hyatt property, and 80,000 Club Carlson Gold Points (good for at least one free night at any Club Carlson property).

I'm deliberately leaving out the Citi Hilton Reserve free weekend night benefit and the Club Carlson free domestic night benefit, since they each require $10,000 in annual spend.

Without price compression, free nights are an expensive trap

In a world with plentiful manufactured spend, travelers experience a phenomenon I've dubbed "price compression:" nights and flights that have large differences in retail price have much smaller or nonexistent out-of-pocket differences in cost to the travel hacker.

For example, a free Category 4 Hyatt night from the Hyatt credit card can be combined with Hyatt Gold Passport points transferred from a Chase Ink Plus, where you've manufactured cheap Ultimate Rewards points.

Without manufactured spend, and the price compression it produces, you'll be paying the retail price of your stays out of pocket, less any rebates earned by booking through shopping portals and online travel agencies. Unless you typically spend only a single night in each city you visit, travel solo, or have a very understanding travel companion, this can become very expensive very quickly.

To see why, take a stylized example of a city with a Category 4 Hyatt that costs $125 per night and a nearby Holiday Inn that costs $100 per night. On a four-night stay, you'll pay $375 out of pocket for the Hyatt, and $400 out of pocket for the Holiday Inn: a savings of $25.

So far, so good. But remember you paid a $75 annual fee for your Hyatt credit card! If you only compared the value of your night to your annual fee, you'd mistakenly believe you saved $50. By taking into account how the "free" night benefit affects your behavior, you'll realize the truth: the Hyatt credit card in fact cost you $50.

Of course if you are a solo traveler or have an understanding travel companion, moving hotels in the middle of your stay may not be a big deal. If you have a lot of one-night stays, you may also save real money. But that's an individual assessment you should take seriously before paying hundreds, let alone thousands, of dollars in annual fees.

You'll find a similar principle applies to the airline credit cards: if Delta flights are consistently more expensive, or less convenient, than competitor flights you may find yourself over-paying just to take advantage of your companion ticket. Southwest Rapid Rewards points, likewise, are only valuable if you're able to earn enough of them to redeem them for the flights you want.

None of which is to say these are bad credit cards or bad benefits. They just need to approached critically if you're to have any hope of using them to save money on travel.

Everyday spend

My standard response when asked which credit card people should use for their actual purchases is that actual purchases should represent a rounding error in your miles and points balances. Without manufactured spend, of course, that rounding error may turn into the bulk of your balances!

In my view, there are only a few credit cards that have any measurable advantage over paying for your purchases with cash.

  • Discover it Miles. If you can sign up for a Discover it Miles card that doubles your cash back after your first year, you'll earn 3% cash back on all purchases and pay no annual fee or foreign transaction fees. You can boost your earning even more by redeeming your cash back for certain gift cards — you can currently redeem $90 in cash back for $100 in Hyatt gift cards, turning a Discover it Miles card into a 3.33% cash back card. Canceling and applying for a new card each year may let you continue on an ongoing basis.
  • BankAmericard Travel Rewards. If you have $100,000 on deposit with Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, or MerrillEdge, you'll earn 2.625% cash back on all purchases, and pay no annual fee or foreign transaction fee.
  • American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred. If you make 30 purchases per month, this card earns 1.5 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent everywhere, 3 points at gas stations and 4.5 points at grocery stores. Because of its $95 annual fee, you should only consider this card if you spend a lot of money each year. If you do, you might find the ability to transfer points to Delta, Air Canada, British Airways, or American Express's other partners more valuable than cash back.

Travel hacks that don't require spend

Of course, credit cards are just one tiny corner of the travel hacking universe. It's just a corner that's become unusually prominent because there's so much money to be made selling credit cards to the unwitting.

So here's a brief list of other travel hacking techniques, no credit card required:

  • Mistake fares and attack fares. Among the original travel hacks are simply waiting for an airline to slip up and forget to add a zero to an airfare, or to "attack" a rival's hub by cutting fares far below normal. By following Twitter accounts like @TheFlightDeal and @EscapeATX, and bookmarking sites like Flyertalk's mileage run forum, you can handily see whenever those hard workers find a new error fare or attack fare. Julian the Devil's Advocate wrote up a terrific guide to getting text alerts for a particular city or airline that interests you.
  • Stacking portal and online travel agency rewards. In the bleak world without manufactured spend, you've got to make every dollar count. By clicking through shopping portals to online travel agencies before making hotel reservations, you can earn portal rewards plus the rewards offered by whichever travel agency you select.
  • Best rate guarantees. I've written before that I find best rate guarantees to typically be a waste of time, and I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense to make booking decisions around best rate guarantees. But once you've identified a hotel and rate, it's common sense to check if there's a lower rate elsewhere that's eligible for a best rate guarantee claim.
  • Hidden city ticketing. It's not for everyone, and it won't work for every itinerary, but it's possible to save a lot of money searching for flights using Skiplagged, a service that takes care of the hard work of finding cheaper "hidden city" tickets. Note that you usually will not be able to check bags when flying domestically on such tickets.
  • Corporate rates and other discounts. There are a number of lists circulating of corporate rate codes, which can bring down the cost of chain hotel stays significantly. Likewise, if you find out there's a convention, conference, or athletic event in a city being held during your visit, you may be able to piggyback on their lower negotiated rates.
  • Aggressively book and rebook. Autoslash makes it easy to monitor rental car rates so you can rebook your car if and when the price goes down. By booking cancellable hotel reservations early on, periodically checking for price changes lets you lock in any price declines while being protected from any price increases.

None of those techniques will save you as much as manufacturing spend will, which is why I write a lot about the benefits of manufacturing spend. But the universe of travel hacking, like the universe itself, is vast and growing, so it pays to keep an open mind and to keep exploring!