Playing defense and avoiding unforced errors

When in comes to travel hacking, I personally believe that defense offers more consistent opportunities for gains than offense. If offense is making bold speculative plays that you know might not pan out, due to clawbacks, accounts closures, or rejected applications, defense means, above all, avoiding unforced errors. If you don't have the discipline to pick low-hanging fruit and avoid unforced errors, it's vanishingly unlikely you'll have the discipline to maximize the value of more speculative plays.

With that in mind, here are the most common unforced errors that travel hackers of all experience levels are prone to, and how to avoid them.

Register for hotel promotions

Most hotel chains run periodic promotions, whether they call them quarterly or seasonal promotions, which invariably require you to actively register in order to receive the benefits of the promotion. Registering for these promotions isn't just a matter of going on "offense," although I've done that in the past in order to trigger particularly high payouts from hotel chains that work with my existing plans.

It's also a matter of defense: if you find yourself stranded at an airport overnight trying to book a paid reservation before all the airport hotels have sold out, you're not likely to also remember to register for that particular chain's current promotion. Registering in advance is a way of protecting yourself against that kind of unforced error.

There are a few sites that track such promotions, although none of them are perfect. I maintain a list of mostly-up-to-date hotel promotions, and try to periodically remind readers to register for current promotions. Loyalty Lobby maintains a more comprehensive list, but since he includes every single "buy 3 nights get the 4th night 20% off in the Middle East from Thursday to Saturday" promotion it's wickedly difficult to navigate and find the actual promotions you're both eligible for and interested in.

Activate bonus cash back

This is another low-hanging fruit that shouldn't pose much of a difficulty, but I've confessed to forgetting to activate the bonus cash back on my Discover it card before spending $1,500 at the beginning of a quarter.

Be smarter than me: before each quarter starts, be sure to activate the cash back bonus on each one of your Chase Freedom, US Bank Cash+, Discover it, and Citi Dividend cards.

Charge purchases to the right card

As a general rule, the credit card you use to pay for actual purchases is of next to no interest. Sure, there are banks that offer "price rewind" or extended warranties, but you, in fact, will likely never take advantage of those benefits.

There are a few situations, however, where it becomes essential to charge your purchases to a particular card.

  • If you're renting a car, and have a credit card that offers primary rental car insurance (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve, or the Chase United MileagePlus card), you should be sure to pay for your rental car with that credit card. Primary rental car insurance doesn't matter as much as affiliate bloggers want you to believe, but it's also not nothing. If you have the benefit, use it.
  • If you're redeeming a Delta Platinum or Reserve American Express companion ticket, you're forced to pay with an American Express card. According to Frequent Miler, if you pay with an American Express Platinum Business credit card (and Delta is your selected carrier), you're able to redeem Membership Rewards points against the cost of the ticket at your Platinum bonus rate. If you're in that situation, be sure to pay with the right credit card!
  • Pay award booking fees with a card that offers trip delay insurance. I've written before about taking advantage of the Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance benefit to score a free Hyatt elite-qualifying stay, and about the recent addition of a (somewhat less generous) trip delay insurance benefit to the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard. If you're talking about $10 or $20 in award booking fees, and you have the option of charging them to a card with trip delay insurance, you'd be crazy not to; it's all upside.

Trigger all credits

Folks always pile on when I say that a statement credit is worth much less than cash, so please trust me when I say I understand both sides of the argument.

But where we can all agree is that a statement credit that you never trigger is worth much less than cash: it's not worth anything at all.

So when you sign up for your second, or third, or fourth, or tenth credit card within the same year that offers a $100 Global Entry application fee credit, make sure you use it! Is there anybody in your family that doesn't have Global Entry yet? Anybody at work? Anybody at the gym?

Likewise, your premium credit cards might offer hundreds of dollars of airline fee credits that you're confident you can redeem for cash with refundable seat upgrades, gift cards, or some other wizardry. And it's true: you can. But only if you actually do it!

So be sure to trigger those credits — and the sooner the better.

Avoid point and mile expiration

Since I advocate earning the miles you redeem and redeeming the miles you earn, I never run into the problem of points and miles expiring from my primary rewards accounts. But my secondary accounts, like United MileagePlus and British Airways Avios, certainly can go for a year or more without any natural earning or redemption activity. Avoiding expiration is normally as simple as ordering a newspaper subscription or transferring in 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points, but it's not something you want to put off, in case you forget.

If you have account balances that are going to expire anytime soon, either make a small redemption or activity through a flexible transfer or shopping portal.

Don't pay annual fees

Finally, there's no fruit lower-hanging than cancelling credit cards with annual fees. Bloggers sometimes turn this into some advanced calculation that is designed to leave you so confused you keep worthless cards year after year.

But there's no secret, and you should know the answer to these two questions within seconds: did you get more excess value from the credit card last year than you paid in annual fees? Do you expect to get more excess value from the credit card in the next year than you will pay in annual fees?

If the answer to one or both questions is "no," cancel the card and don't give it another thought.


At the end of the day, I love making big speculative plays for big points hauls, like the IHG Priceless Surprises promotion of late 2015. They're fun and exciting, and sometimes you hit the jackpot (or at least win an expensive sound system). But your travel hacking practice will net you much more travel, at much lower cost, if you can maintain the discipline to avoid the kinds of unforced errors I've described here: the ones that are entirely within your control.