How We Traveled the Past 2 Years for Free, and You Can Too

I recently wrote a motivational post on our family travel blog about how we travelled to France for under $500, two times.  We’ve been telling this story, along with the fact that the past two years we’ve been traveling for free, to friends and family and it’s definitely been an interesting conversation piece each time. Friends have started asking how we do it, exactly. So, I start giving the rundown, and it quickly gets interesting.

In this post, I’m going to give you the high level of how we travel now. This is now our lifestyle. This is how we do things, and honestly, we’d never be able to afford to travel like this without this method.  Yes, it takes some effort. But, I’ve found a few tricks along the way that make things easier than you’d think.  Be warned, there is also a little math in this post, but if you slog through it with me, you’ll find a rainbow at the end of that tunnel – freedom.

Points and Miles

We all know about credit cards that give you points and miles for each dollar you spend.  Although this sounds nice, the time it takes to earn the number of miles you need to travel is pretty daunting.

The Baseline

Before we go further, there’s a few things you need to keep in mind.  If you’re not mathematically inclined here, just breeze past and take my word for it. Otherwise, check my math and comment if I get something wrong.  I’m going to try to be generous with estimations, and not give too many ranges which complicate things.

Point value: I give a very generous $0.02 per mile/point to almost everything. This means for an $800 flight or hotel stay, it’ll take roughly 40,000 miles/points to get it for free.  There are only a few programs that actually are valued this high, and they are being devalued all the time, but I’m optimistic, and I like easy math.  So, we’ll start with the premise that every point program is worth $0.02 per mile. Feel free to be even more conservative and redo the math at $0.01 per mile if you’re a pessimist. Back to our example of earning points using credit card spend….


Let’s say there’s a generous card out there giving you 5 points for every dollar you spend.  And since I like Southwest Airlines, let’s say we want a flight for two to a generic part of the country that’s not crazy.  That Southwest flight might cost 15,000 miles per way per person. So, if it’s you and your significant other, that’s going to cost you 60,000 points. If Chase Bank gives you 5 points for every dollar (unrealistically high, by the way), you’ll have to spend $12,000 before you get that generic flight for two.  For some people, that might mean it takes 6 months to 2 years to get that free flight. There’s a faster way.

The Game: Credit Card Bonuses

Ok, before you leave this page thinking “Credit cards? No way!”, let’s talk about some of the possible down sides to using credit cards, and let me share how I deal with them. Hear me out.

Doesn’t your credit take a hit doing this?

Yes, it does, but only temporarily, and not as much as you think.

There are a few rules to live by too, that you never break. Each credit check (done when you apply for a credit card) takes 3-4 points off your credit score.  In our scenario, I apply for 3-4 credit cards per quarter, so that’s a 12-16 point hit on my credit each quarter.  That said, I pay off our cards each and every month, not leaving a balance, and thus my history is great, and I don’t pay interest.  So, by not breaking that rule, my credit is back to where it was within 3 months, sometimes even better than it was previously.  So, put that myth aside immediately.

Doesn’t it look bad on your credit to take out so many cards?

If you’re going for a home (or big car) loan, and you have a ton of credit you’re not using, yes.  So, if you’re going to do that within the next year, don’t use this technique for traveling. Otherwise, you’re safe, and if you have halfway decent credit to start with, the credit card companies won’t bat an eye at how many cards you have using this method.

Is this scamming the credit card companies, airlines, or hotels?

First, no, it’s not scamming them. These are programs they all put in place to entice you to become card holders. That said, they aren’t banking on millions of Americans using their programs in this fashion. We are outliers, but they don’t necessarily care that much about us because of that, and they know this goes on. It’s very public, and they have a history of letting us do this if we play by their rules (which I’ll explain how to do).  Sometimes, they even pay people like us to tell others about their cards!  So, no, this isn’t something they are unaware of or trying to stop.

The Rules of the Game

There are a few rules I’m going to set in place for you to abide by.  Break these rules at your own risk, and don’t come crying to me when something bad happens because of it. Just wanted to put this disclaimer out there. If you’re financially irresponsible, don’t do this. If you have self control and are organized, listen up.

  1. Always, always, always pay off your credit card bills at the end of the month. Never ever leave a balance.  Balances are evil.
  2. Don’t use the card just to get the points and then cancel. This is against “the rules”, and you’ll get blacklisted for it.  Use the card in situations when it’ll be an advantage to you, but also, to play nice with the card companies and banks, and they’ll play nice with you.
  3. Don’t get so many cards with so much spend that you can’t actually get the bonus (explained later). This is pointless, and you just wasted a credit hit and time, among other things.

Resources You’ll Need

You’re going to want a few things to keep organized during this process. Here’s a list of my suggestions:

  • Award Wallet – (Free, but you can pay a donation yearly to get a few nice features if you feel inclined) Use this site to keep track of all your points and miles accounts. They will auto-update for most programs, and even email you when your points increase or decrease.
  • Card Watchdog – (Free) Use this site to help remind you about the details of each card and when to call in and cancel them, pay a bill, or other custom reminders.
  • Credit Karma – (Free, no need to pay for anything they try to upsell you with) Use this to keep track of your credit score. Check this perhaps quarterly. Not too much, as each check is a small hit on your score.
  • A credit card binder – (I paid about $20 for mine) This would look like a book, with sleeves to hold cards.
  • A set of blank (back, front, whatever) business cards, or cut out paper about the same size as the credit cards This will be used to record pertinent things about the card so you can flip through the book and know at a glance things like expiration dates, annual fees, expected bonus points, spend requirements, login locations, etc.  You’ll put these in the same sleeves as the cards in the binder.

You’ll also want to set aside this time:

Monthly (1 hour at most)

  1. Review which cards need to be cancelled and cancel them (if you get off your quarterly schedule sometimes, like I do)
  2. Review where you are at in your spending requirements for the cards that you’re trying to earn bonuses on and switch cards if needed
  3. Pay your bills!!!

Quarterly (1-2 hours)

  1. Review which cards need to be cancelled and cancel them
  2. Figure out which cards are best for your goals and apply for them
  3. Check your credit score

How the Game is Played Properly

Here’s the step by step rules.

Plan Your Trips

The first step to any good event is proper planning. Not boring planning - proper planning. Other than actually going on your trip, this is the fun part! Enjoy this. Sit down with your friends or family and plan out where you want to go and how you can get there.  Lately, I’ve been using a Google Docs spreadsheet for this, so I can collaborate with Tilly on when and where we want to go. That way if we come up with a brilliant idea, either of us can go edit the doc and then talk about it later.

Dream. Think international, domestic, weekend trips, month long trips, whatever! Let your heart roam the world and see what it picks up along the way – what’s inspiring, relaxing, invigorating, and curious? Go there. See those places. Meet those people. Dream, and then write those places down.

We usually plan one international big trip, and a couple (2 or 3) little domestic ones.  Even just random weekend trips to cities we’ve never been to. It’s almost as fun as walking up to the airport counter and buying the first ticket out to wherever it goes.

Once you’ve prioritized your locations and times for the year, you’ll want to figure out who flies there. You can start with the big airlines, but you should also consider smaller ones too.  For instance, we didn’t plan this, but we ended up flying Air Tahiti Nui to Paris from Los Angeles. Weird right? But, it worked.  I would just recommend at least starting to understand who flies to the locations you want to go to because you’ll want to get cards and points or miles for those airlines.

Then, take the airlines’ websites for spin and try to figure out how many points would be required to book the flights  you want.  For instance, we went to American Air and acted like we were going to book a flight on points for our family. We figured out during the off-peak season, it was going to take about 150k points for us to make it work.  And remember, there’s a big difference between on-peak and off-peak point values.  American Air currently doubles the point cost per person, which is a huge jump for a family like ours.  So, needless to say, we plan our trips for off-peak seasons, when there are less tourists and lower costs where we go anyway.  We just plan on going right before or right after the peak season, to get good rates and good weather.

Also, figure out how you want to stay there – hotels, home swaps, couch surfing, camping, boating, etc. This may impact other cards and programs you will want to get along the way, especially if you go the hotel route.

Now you’ve got your locations, who flies there, and how many points at the airline you’ll need for your tickets.

Plan Your Credit Card Applications for Points and Miles

Once your vacation plan is decently figured out, you’ll want to plan out your card applications.  First, though, go register at all the airlines and hotels point/loyalty programs you’re going to be collecting points for. And, register for Award Wallet and Card Watch Dog, and plug in your program details into Award Wallet, so you’re ready to go.

Here are some important tips for your credit card application process:

  • Spread the wealth.  Try not to apply for cards from the same bank or the same merchant (Visa, MC, AMEX) at the same time.
  • If you found two cards from the same bank that you really want or need to get your points, see if you can wait for the next “app party” (explained below) in about 3 months if it’s a pretty stable offer.  If it’s not possible, follow the “two-browser trick” explained below.
  • Do all your applications in one day, during normal banking hours.  There are a few reasons for doing it this way. First, each bank chooses one (or sometimes more) credit bureaus to pull your credit history. If we hit one bureau for a credit check, and then the same one a few minutes later, they’ll likely respond that you’ve had too many checks in too short of time and not accept your application up front. We want quick acceptance, so we get around that by trying to hit different bureaus (via different banks). Second, this makes it easy to get your credit history back up in 3 months. You don’t have to worry about that small credit hit being there for more than that, which means you can do an “app party” each quarter.  Third, it’s easier to remember when cards are expiring and reduces the amount of time spent canceling cards or talking to the credit card companies.
  • Watch out for the spend requirements! There are some that give points upon activation or first purchase (buy a newspaper or app on the app store), but most which have big point values will have a good size spending requirement.  Don’t push it.  Spend everything you can on the cards to meet the requirements, but don’t be fiscally irresponsible. Spend only the money you have so you can pay off your bills at the end of the month.  It’s not worth going into debt or leaving a balance on the card for. Doing that means you’re paying interest, and that just dropped your point value for what you’re earning to zero.  So, make sure the total spend requirements are within your normal budgetary means and processes.
  • Yes, you can get a business card as an individual (having a sole proprietorship business just means you’re getting paid as a contractor under your personal name, and there’s no filing requirements other than for tax purposes – see your CPA about this as it’s outside the scope of this post).  So, that’s great news! That means you can apply for both Southwest cards – one business, one personal – and potentially get 110k points after meeting spend requirements including the spend and bonus (plus Southwest gives you a companion pass!).  Pretty sweet.

The App Party

Yes, the name “app party” is kinda lame, but it’s better than others I’ve seen that are used. Anyway, the point is, this is where you actually fill out your credit card applications.

Tip: The Two-Browser Trick

The “two-browser trick” is done during an app party when you want to get multiple cards from the same bank. I have done this once or twice, but generally try to avoid it because it doesn’t always work.  There’s an appropriate term to define for you now – “YMMV” – Your Milage May Vary – meaning it might or might not work for you depending on a lot of things. That said, here’s how it works.

Open two browsers, like Google Chrome and Firefox, or Internet Explorer (yuck) or Safari. You need two different ones though, not two tabs or two windows on the same browser.  Two different browsers.

In each browser, go to the link for the applications (perhaps one for the business card and one for the personal card).  Fill out the form on both, but don’t press submit on either.

Once both forms are filled out, setup the browser windows so you can do this quickly – like perhaps side by side or something.  Then, press the submit button on one application, and quickly move to the other browser and push the submit button on that one.

The theory here is that both applications will be submitted, and similar to the race condition with bureaus, we are trying to hit the bank and ask for acceptance at the same time. We want the second application to get submitted before the bank has time to respond to the first application.  This increases the possibility you’ll get both applications to go through and get an immediate response.

If it doesn’t work, they’ll tell you they’ll review your application and get back to you in a few days.  But wait, there’s more …..

The Reconsideration Line

If you’re told to wait for a response a few days later, don’t. Just call whatever number they may have given you along the way and ask for reconsideration of your application.  This is why we do these applications during banking days/hours.  If you do this on the weekend or at night, they might not be available to talk to, so you’ll have to wait longer.  Just call right away if you get this kind of response, and you may be able to get it approved immediately anyway.

Receiving Your Cards

Once you get the cards in the mail, you’ll want to document a few things and put a couple in your book that you’re not using immediately so you can quickly flip through and find cards about to expire or see what cards are missing or in use.  I write a few things on the back of the business cards and slip them into slots dedicated for the card.  Then just slip the card in that slot when you’re not using it along with the card facing the back, so you can see the card front, and the stats on the back.

Here’s what I document:

Name of card, Bank, Processor, and last 4 digits of card #
Spend requirement in timeline
Date started
Annual fee
URL to make payments and some hint as to what my login might be (not the full username/password, that’s dangerous)
Any other bonus info like # points per category, etc.
Any other offers/conditions I might get later to keep card active

Here’s a typical example (without the annual fee documented):

Example Credit Card Points/Miles documentation

Example Credit Card Points/Miles documentation

Fulfill Spend Requirements

The spend requirements are usually the biggest limiting factor for points if you have good credit history.  I recommend thinking out your strategy a little before applying, to make sure you know how much you spend on credit cards monthly, and then create a plan to stagger your card usage.

For instance, if I got two cards, each with a $3,000 spend requirement within 3 months, and I normally spend $3,000 per month on a card, it’s easy to see that I’d spend $3k in the first month on the first card, and then transition to using the other card for the second month, and voila. Done.

Just remember that some card types aren’t taken everywhere – looking at you AMEX and Discover. So, be sure you can meet the requirements with that card type within your typical spending patterns/habits.

Once your spend requirements are fulfilled, it can take up to 30-60 days to see the points in your account. I usually see them faster than that, but that’s what they say, so plan your trips accordingly.

Daily Credit Card Use Tips

A few daily credit card usage tips for you:

  • Pay off your bills! I can’t say this enough. Don’t do this unless you can pay your bills off each month.
  • Rotate cards to get your spend requirement within the time frame
  • Once you’ve gotten your spend requirements taken care of, choose a few cards to use regularly (based on points per category, like 5 points for groceries, etc) and keep doing so.
  • If you put a card away for a while after getting the points, bring it back out after about 6 months and use it for a week. This keeps your account active so you don’t look like you’re only going for the bonus points and that’s it – which will get you blacklisted.
  • Keep track of which cards are used for automatic recurring purchases. You don’t want to cancel a card at some point and have it come back active with a charge, or worse, lose the service because of a cancelled card.  It’s too easy to forget this stuff.

Book Your Trip(s)

This part is fun too. Hopefully  you can keep it simple and just book the trip with the points you have.  Sometimes, it’s not that easy, though, and I’m working on putting together more details about how to get flights most people wouldn’t be able to get.

Simply put, if you can’t find a flight using the points you have on the airline you wanted at the time of booking, there are probably other airlines which can get you there.  It can get somewhat complex, but don’t worry about this for now. That’s an advanced topic you hopefully won’t have to worry about until you do this a few times and want to start getting more and more flexibility and value.

One caveat to booking you’ll want to know right now is you will usually have to pay taxes on your flight, but they are usually insignificant if you’re flying domestic.  Flying outside the U.S. has some things you want to be aware of.  For instance, British Air, a partner to American Air, has obscene taxes and fuel surcharges that you have to pay for, even if you’re booking with points – which is why we don’t fly with them.  So, avoid those kinds of airlines as much as you can.

Look for more details on advanced booking tips and tricks later, and sign up for my email list where I’ll probably give that info away there.

Enjoy Your New Freedom!

Go fly, explore, enjoy and experience. Travel, for free!

More Ways to Save While Traveling

Most of what we talked about above was having to do with airline miles.  I did interchange points and miles because you can do the same thing with hotels. Without going into details, the best hotel card to get is the SPG card, because of it’s flexibility and value per point.  But if you like Marriott and Hilton, or even Best Westerns or Holiday Inns (IHG properties), go for those programs and cards instead.  We have all of them because I spread the wealth too early, so I’d suggest concentrating your efforts on two or so.  Personally, although it’s not the nicest stays ever, I like IHG for the ability to get lots of points and stay in tons of properties.  But when we want to relax, we prefer going the Marriott route for middle-class luxury.  We’ve done a lot of Hiltons, and some properties are very nice (especially here in San Diego), but it’s not a consistent experience unfortunately.  Regardless, the point is credit cards with bonus points exist for lodging as well, so get those too.

That all said, we prefer the alternatives – especially the home swap route I’ll talk about below…

Home Swapping

Our last adventure was facilitated by Love Home Swap, our favorite home swapping service.  At the time of this writing, they have a deal going on where if you put your home up on their site, and pay for one of their upgraded accounts, you get 1400 points for free.  You don’t have to let anyone stay at your place even.  Just put your home up, that’s all.  And 1400 points is 2 weeks of off-peak lodging in a house (not a hotel)!  Or, you can use it all for 1 week’s stay during on-peak season.

If you aren’t into letting people stay at your house at all, you can buy points instead.  It equates to about $50/night, which is still way cheaper and way better than a hotel in our opinion, especially with kids.

Update (2014-07-11): Thanks to my friend Matt’s email, I wanted to make a mention that using home swapping services is not fast. It takes a lot of work, but can be very rewarding, as we experienced when we spent almost a month in Paris for free. To book this trip, though, I ended up sending probably 100 messages to people hoping to swap.  We probably had 5 positive responses as options, and 20-30 denials.

I do blame some of those denials on the fact I was initially trying to do a simultaneous swap with super nice places, which was unrealistic.  I should have focused on using points only, and probably would have had a better success rate.  Regardless, it is a lot of work, and can be disheartening at times if you’re not getting positive responses. Just keep at it. It was very worth it for our family, and we will be doing it again.

Love Home Swap does try to make the process easier by pre-filling the messaging form so you don’t have to copy/paste, but it’s still a lot of people to touch base with, and a lot of time spent doing so.

In short, it does work, but it takes a TON of effort.

That said, LoveHomeSwap seems to be, by far, the most active home swap site I’ve used.  I tried tons of others and most people simply don’t respond at all, or aren’t active on the site at all.

I think I planned our trip within about 2 months prior to leaving, so it was a short window too, which could explain some more of the denials.  But since then, we’ve had a number of people message us to swap, and that’s exciting.

Alternative: Air B&B for paid stays in homes. There’s no program for points/miles though. But, it’s an alternative to hotels if that’s what you’re after.

Couch Surfing

If you’re single or a couple, with a backpack, have a lot of flexibility on where you stay, and love meeting new people, we recommend Couch Surfing.  You do have to do some validation of who you are before you leave, so do that prior to your trip.  But, Tilly and I met and still have some great friends by using this service when we didn’t have kids.  Oh, and it’s FREE!  No payment required or expected. In fact, it’s explicitly stated that hosts are not going to ask for money for your stay. It’s all a community that just loves to give back to travelers.


Phew, this was one long post.  I hope you find a ton of value in it.

I know I skipped over a few pieces, but this is enough to get you started.

But wait, there’s more! …..

I’ve been encouraged to start an email list of people interested in this topic.  I plan on giving more (and less crazy-long) tips and tricks on how to get the most value out of your credit card miles and points and travel experiences.  So, here it is.

Get more tips and tricks from me in the future by signing up below …

Otherwise, feel free to add questions and comments below. Thank you!

Nate Ritter lives in Austin, Texas (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

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