Ah, wedding season. You’ve probably had a year or two when your fridge is so covered in save the dates and invitations that you had to go buy more magnets to hold them all up.
As much as you enjoy witnessing your good friends get married, you can’t not think about how much attending all those weddings will cost you. The plane tickets! The hotel rooms! The clothes! The manicures and blow-outs! The gifts!
And that’s just for the average guest — if you’re in the wedding party, be prepared to pay up for bachelorette parties and showers, too.
Obviously, being there for the people you love on one of the most important days of their lives is a very special thing. And if you can save money on the cost of attending, even better! That’s where travel hacking comes in.
It requires a bit of organization and some patience, so now is time to start saving up toward all those 2016 weddings your friends just began planning. The expenses associated with the weddings you attend to this year can build rewards points toward next year’s parties.
Hold Up. What Is Travel Hacking?
When you travel on an airline or stay in a chain hotel, you can sign up for free rewards programs that earn you miles and points to can use toward future travel. But since what you earn is based on how many miles you fly or nights you stay, it will take years to earn enough to get a free trip.
This is where travel hacking comes in. Airlines, hotels, and Amtrak all offer rewards credit cards that will rapidly earn you points. There are also a few more general credit cards where you can redeem points for travel, either by booking through the credit card’s site or reimbursing yourself with points for travel charges on your statement.
These cards come with huge sign-up bonuses, which require you spend a certain minimum within a certain amount of time. (For example: a minimum spend to earn a sign-up bonus might be putting $3,000 on your new card in the first three months.) The bonus alone is often enough to get you a free flight or a free hotel stay. Travel hacking is when you strategically apply for rewards cards to maximize those introductory bonuses.
A Word to the Wise
If you have credit card debt, paying that off should be your first priority. If you routinely carry a balance, travel hacking is not for you. Rewards cards tend to have annual fees and a higher interest rate, so travel hacking is for credit card pros who have no debt, a good credit score, and are disciplined about paying their bill in full each month.
Also, spending money you ordinarily wouldn’t just to get the point bonus won’t save you any money! The key is to use your everyday spending to earn points.
Ready to Get Started?
Map out the weddings you want to attend in the next year or two. They will fall into two categories:
- Weddings with expenses you’ll pay in full in order to earn points.
- Weddings you attend at a discount by cashing in previously-earned points.
A good way to dip your toe in the travel hacking pool is with a card that isn’t specific to an airline or hotel chain. Some popular ones include Chase Sapphire Preferred, CapitalOne Venture, and Barclays Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard.
You earn points whenever you use these cards, and sometimes you can earn multiple points per dollar for certain categories of spending (like travel or restaurants). They have generous sign-on bonuses if you meet a spending minimum, and you can either book travel through their site with points (Chase) or reimburse yourself with points after you spend on travel (CapitalOne and Barclays).
A Case Study
Let’s say you pick the Chase Sapphire Preferred. I recommend you combine this card with the no-fee Chase Freedom card because you can pool points from both cards into one account.
Currently, Chase Sapphire offers 40,000 points of you spend $4,000 in three months. That seems like a lot, but the money you’re about to spend on the next few weddings, plus your usual spending, can get you there. After you reach that bonus, switch your strategic spending to the Chase Freedom card. Spending $500 in the first three months will get you 10,000 more points.
The combined points are good for $625 worth of travel if you book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards center for your next flight or hotel stay — and you earned that just by spending as you usually would! This is because you can redeem these points for 1.25 cents per point when you use them for travel. Compared to earning no points for spending the same amount, you’ve just scored yourself two domestic flights for free.
You can amplify your point earning in other ways, too. Rewards cards have online shopping portals that you access from the card’s website. If you need a new dress from Nordstrom, or you buy a couple a gift off of their Macy’s registry, you can earn multiple points per dollar spent. That $150 little black dress or $100 food processor (which you planned to buy as a wedding guest) will earn you additional points.
As you get more adept at travel hacking, you can branch out to airline- and hotel-specific cards. Those points can be used on partner airlines and hotels, too. (United points can get you a free Lufthansa flight, American Airlines points can get you on British Airways, and Delta partners with Air France/KLM.) This gives you even more flexibility in booking travel!
These cards tend to have annual fees around $75-$100, but they often waive the fee for the first year. The key is to earn and use the points within the first year, and then many people cancel the card so that they don’t end up paying the annual fee.
But won’t that ding your credit score? Any credit inquiries (like applying for a new credit card, mortgage, or student loan) will show up on your credit report and may affect your score. But usually any change is minimal and temporary. A history of on-time payment has a greater affect on your score than opening a new line of credit.
Also, it’s a myth that having multiple credit cards is bad for your credit. As long as you pay your bills completely and on time, your score is safe. In fact, having multiple lines of credit can improve your credit utilization ratio. Basically, if you routinely spend a high percentage of your total credit limit, it can negatively affect your score over time. Lenders prefer to see someone spend a lower percentage of their credit line. So, if you have more credit and your overall spending doesn’t change, you’re spending a lower percentage.
And, once again, this only works if you don’t carry a balance. For the love of god, don’t try to travel hack if you have credit card debt! Am I repeating myself? Good!
Travel hacking, once you get the hang of it, will make it much more affordable to attend all those weddings. A good rewards credit card won’t get you out of wearing an ugly bridesmaid’s dress, but it can take the sting out of an expensive wedding season.
*Please note, I am not an affiliate for any of these cards. I am a fee only financial planner so I don’t make any money off of recommending credit cards. They are just the ones that I like and that I often times recommend for my clients. I personally use Chase cards for my business and personal spending because I like the ability to combine all my points and cash them in for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards.