Edit on 200519: so this trip…obviously didn’t end up happening haha SOB. I ended up getting all of the points and cash back (100%!) and made my first IGTV about my tips for hotel and airline refunds. I’m going to try again for Korea in 2021!
I can’t hold it in any longer: I’m going to Korea in 2020! I’ve just booked the last piece of my flight and hotel puzzle after about 11 months of learning, accumulating, and planning. It’s going to happen, and a sorta normal, sorta luxury trip that would have cost at least $10,000 for two people has cost us less than $1,500 due to credit card points and airline miles. I’m sharing everything I’ve learned about the points and miles game to get to Korea from the US in this post.
I’ve wanted to visit South Korea for ages, but it always seemed out of reach due to the cost of travel and the fact that other budget lines (uhh two PhDs worth of student loans!) needed attention first.
In the past, various kbeauty entities inquired if I’d be interested in going to Korea on a sponsored trip, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to work. The biggest problem is that those trips are often funded, in part, by the Korea government — accepting a gift from a foreign state, even a close ally like South Korea, couldn’t happen for work-related reasons. My day job involves planning giant conferences, so I’m used to being in control in a big way — the idea of IG posts, factory tours, brand education…it left me soft, it definitely wasn’t how I envisioned my first trip to Korea.
I especially didn’t want to enter into some sort of forced and awkward friend relationship with anyone in the cutthroat kbeauty scene. I have actual friends, I’m good.
So I needed to find a way to do this on my own. The problem was that my spending was all over place. Remember when I spent more than $6,000 in a year on beauty? Yeah. I had a sense that if I just paid attention to money, I could eventually figure out how to make a trip happen while paying all of our bills.
A rundown of the trip basics
For our flights, we paid $92.06 for two round-trip non-stop Asiana Airlines tickets, economy there, lie-flat business class back. If we were to pay cash for those flights, it would have cost at least $8,261.06 .
Three nights at Signiel Seoul, a luxury hotel in the Lotte World Tower, the tallest building in Korea, for $176.86, including all taxes and fees.
After that, we will head to the Orakai Insadong Suites for ten days, which is an apart-hotel with rooms that include their own kitchens and in-unit washer/dryers (the biggest reason I booked with them lol). We paid $1,189.96 for that reservation.
Total we paid: $1,458.88
Retail price for our flights and hotels: $10,594.89
The secret: I accumulated and used credit card points to chop our bill down and upgrade the way we’re traveling. I thought that you had to be a road warrior traveling all the time to accumulate a ton of free travel, but it turns out that most people do it by opening credit cards, spending a certain amount, and using the points they’ve earned to book travel.
The easiest way to travel to Korea
Book everything the usual way, without using points.
Seriously. The points and miles game is TOUGH to understand. On IG, people asked me how much time per day/week/month I spend on points and miles research and tbh it’s hard to say because it’s kind of an enjoyable hobby by now, so I research and read for fun. Last night, when I realized that I’d write this post, I stayed up outlining it because I was so excited. Life is stressful, researching the places I could go is fun.
There’s something about rubbing two rocks together and being able to create blood that makes my heart leap. It’s the same reason I enjoy rolling coins we have sitting in a jar or checking before each online purchase to make sure I’m getting the best cash back rate. Found money is magical and I get to do wonderful things with it like travel.
If reading through this post makes you want to cry and bail, first off: sorry! But that’s a very normal reaction and it suggests that maybe this isn’t something that will add joy to your life, and that’s absolutely ok. Most people don’t go this deep on points. I have my limits, too; I’d never sit through a timeshare presentation for free points or a free vacation. If your gut is telling you that this isn’t your thing, don’t force it.
There’s a midpoint between “paying cash for all travel” and “obsessed with only using points,” and it’s what most people do: get one or two good, easy-to-use credit cards that earn points and use them periodically on easy mode, mostly on economy flights and normal hotels. That seems more doable for most people.
One thing to note before you get too deep: my knowledge of points and miles is limited to the US, where legitimate banks essentially give you money for spending money, not even kidding a little. It’s my sense that outside of the US, rewards are much more modest.
Where to start
No consumer debt
This is essential. What I mean by no consumer debt is no short-term debt like credit cards or payoff plans that beauty sites are now offering so you can make four easy payments on a fucking eyeshadow palette (I’m mad because I find this predatory). Things like a mortgage, car loan, and student loans aren’t considered quite the same kind of debt, so in the eyes of lenders, it’s ok to have them as long as you’re making at least the minimum payments on time.
I obviously have a fair number of credit cards, so how do I make sure that I’m not accidentally in debt and living on what’s known as credit card float? I use budget software that I reconcile daily. When I make a credit card transaction, there’s already cash in my checking account that could pay off that balance immediately. I pay off my credit card balances about twice per month, but could zero them out any day of the week.
If you have debt and you’d like to get a clear picture of what you’re dealing with, I use a web application called undebt.it to track our student loans. It’s a bit fiddly to set up, but it’s free for the totally useful standard version and it’s something I interact with for less than 10 minutes per month now that it’s set up. It’s like a getting-out-of-debt control panel.
A working budget
Back when I was spending $6,000 per year on beauty products and whatnot, I had only the most rudimentary budget. I’d transfer money into savings accounts labeled “taxes” and “rent” and just hope that my landlady would cash the rent check on the 5th or 6th of the month rather than the 1st. I had this constant sense that we had enough, but I was always stressed about money, and I was concerned that we weren’t really making a dent in our student loans or saving enough for retirement.
Everything changed when I found a budgeting theory and software called You Need a Budget (YNAB). Not going to lie: it’s intense. It’s basically a web application that helps you divide your incoming checks between budget lines you’ve set up, and then assign each purchase you make to those funded categories. What I like is that it requires work, actually! There’s no sitting back with it, you have to learn and LIFT. After jaw surgery, I think I took 5 days off from reconciling my accounts (in part because being put under twice made me feel hopeless around numbers), but then I was back in it.
YNAB doesn’t dictate how you divide your money; if you wanted to allocate $500 from each check to Sephora, it really doesn’t care, there’s no annoying paperclip animation that’s going to shame you. I still spend a good deal on beauty products and treatments and order delivery a lot — that’s not a big deal because I’ve made the decision that I enjoy those things and the money is there. Whereas the personal finance subreddit stresses me out to no end, the YNAB philosophy that your spending should align with what you value has increased the amount of enjoyment I’m getting out of life.
I don’t have a referral for YNAB because I signed up with iTunes, but you can get visit the YNAB subreddit to get sign-up referrals from users there for a free month trial. If you need more time with your trial to get up to speed and learn how it works, just message YNAB customer service. There’s a YNAB book that I found helpful, but you can honestly learn everything you need from the blog posts and videos.
A budget of some sort is useful because you’ll need to know how much of your spending can reasonably be put on credit cards over the course of three months — that’s how you’ll know if you can meet the minimum spend on new cards in order to earn the massive credit card sign-up bonuses that get people to wonderful places like Korea.
A good credit score
It makes sense to check in on your credit score along with a list of accounts and any strikes against you to verify that everything looks correct. I use Credit Karma, which is a free web application. Credit Karma is legit; they don’t do hard pulls on your credit report, which would bring your score down, and I’ve never had a problem with their security. They make money by recommending credit cards and loans, which is why it’s free. I ignore the suggestions and check my score maybe once per month.
I haven’t really done anything special to try to build my credit, but carrying no consumer debt and paying everything on time means that my credit hasn’t dipped below 815, even when I’ve opened new cards. Given that we rent and don’t have a mortgage, I’m not even sure why it’s so high — I suspect it’s because I’ve been paying my bills for ages and not closing old cards. I mention this because there’s a common misconception that having many credit cards or opening new cards will sink your credit — it’s not true, at least not longterm. People who really know about credit (I don’t!) say that a score over 780 or so is just bragging rights, so I don’t think much about the number. Yeah, I have good credit, but my net worth is in the negative due to student loans, so I keep my head down and grind more rocks.
An education from points and miles experts
Confession: I’m a points and miles baby! I’ve studied hard and I’m doing my best, but there are god-level people who are a million miles beyond me. I can’t really give a full education in points and miles because I’m so new and there’s so much to go over — I’m going to focus on how I made my Korea trip possible and share my favorite resources and cards.
I feel comfortable sending you to the people at 10xTravel for a points and miles education. I’ve read a lot of sites, and they’re my favorite. We have no relationship and they have no idea who I am, but I’ve observed that they run a clean, well-disclosed ship over the course of the past 11 months.
Just a bit down on their homepage is a place you can sign up for their free course on points and miles — it’s essential information, and based on an eBook they released earlier that was over 100 pages. Additionally, their Facebook group goes DEEP and newbies are mainly asked to use the search function, watch and learn, or ask questions once per week on a newb post, but the things I’ve learned just from watching the advanced travelers are astounding. Like, I found the Arctic expedition of our dreams just by using the group search function, so it’s not just points and miles info that’s being shared.
The secret is versatile points
When I asked people following my stories what they wanted to know, lots of people (including @pixelpunchout, @eranthisrose, @skinfullofseoul) asked if I’m using a specific airline’s or hotel’s loyalty program to the max or if there’s some way I’m earning more versatile points.
The two biggest players in the points game — Chase and American Express — offer versatile points that can be transferred to airline and hotel partners OR used to book via their in-house portals that function like Expedia (in the case of Chase, their portal runs on Expedia’s software). This means that my bank of Chase Ultimate Reward points can become lots of different types of points depending on where I move them. Some moves are more rewarding than others, and that’s where research pays off.
I want to travel to lots of different places around the world, so I didn’t want to be too tied to any one airline or hotel brand. More recently, I branched out and opened an IHG-specific hotel card that had a big sign-up bonus at the time, but I’m mostly focused on earning Chase points and I certainly started my journey there (in part due to Chase’s rules about denying applications to people who have opened more than five personal credit cards from any lender in the last 24 months). I’m able to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned from my cards and my husband’s Chase cards to the best card I hold, the Sapphire Reserve, and get 1.5x the value of the points when booking using the in-house Chase portal and I get trip cancellation insurance included at no additional charge. This is why a lot of the cards I use say “Chase” — it’s easier to pool points that way.
When I wanted to book airfare, I transferred our Chase points to United, where I was able to book economy and business class seats on a flight operated by partner airline Asiana. When I wanted to book a fancy hotel without paying fancy prices, I used the Chase travel portal to multiply my points by 1.5 thanks to my Sapphire Reserve card and booked the Signiel Seoul.
For a longer, clearer explanation of how Chase Ultimate Rewards points work, check out the 10xTravel course (sign up for it on their homepage).
Opening rewarding credit cards and earning points
Once I had our finances in good shape, paid off all of our consumer debt, and verified that my credit score was good, I opened my first travel rewards card in February 2019. I’ve opened up a lot of cards in the past year, mainly because I had a lot of fairly depressing expenses such as my jaw surgery co-pay, but I could pay those bills with credit cards to earn a ton of points. @camishangrila asked on IG if I’d have been able to collect so many points without all of my exceptional expenses last year, and the answer is probably not. At least not easily. I’d still have been able to earn enough points for economy flights and a stay at a good hotel like the Orakai, but the business class flight and the fancy Signiel hotel would have been out. One thing that I don’t do that could have helped me earn even more points last year is paying bills like rent and student loans via a service such as Plastiq that allows you to pay for bills that can only be paid with check via your credit card — for a fee. They do have some specials where you can try the service without incurring a fee, but the whole thing is more than I want to deal with at this point. Even I have limits!
(Keep in mind that card terms change constantly and you should read up about any new cards independently before applying, paying special attention to the terms and conditions.)
My personal credit cards, ranked
- Capital One Venture: the annual fee of $95 is waived in the first year and you earn 2x points on all purchases. When purchases code as travel, you can use those points to erase all or part of the charge. This is my “lazy card,” it’s not going to offer maximum value, but it doesn’t require an Master’s degree in points theory to use it. It’s useful for erasing things like trains, subways, and Lyft rides that are hard or impossible to book with points.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: massive annual fee (now up to $550!), but it gives you a $300 statement credit per year for expenses that code as travel, earns 3x points on travel and restaurants, offers free Priority Pass lounge access, trip cancellation and delay insurance, and one free TSA Precheck or Global Entry application fee waiver every four years. Plus some other stuff I’m less enthused about. Chase only lets you have one Sapphire-type card at a time, so think about which one is best for you before applying. Chase announced in January 2020 that the annual fee is jumping from $450 to $550, which makes this card probably way too expensive for most budgets versus the benefits offered. I’m keeping it because I’m loving the travel insurance, but $550 per year HURTS.
- Chase Freedom: ehh, I’d skip this one. It has no annual fee and it offers 5x in points on whatever spending categories are selected for the quarter, but I think the Freedom Unlimited is a better no-fee card. This is a cash back credit card, but you can pair this card with a travel card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ink Business Preferred, or Chase Sapphire Preferred to seamlessly convert those cash back points to travel points.
- IHG Rewards Premier Card: also a skip. I grabbed this while the welcome bonus was super high, but it’s gone. This card earns only IHG points that can be spent at hotels like Kimpton, InterContinental, and Holiday Inn. I think it makes way more sense to pile up non-brand-specific Chase cards.
My business credit cards, ranked
Since I run a blog and freelance, I have been able to apply for business credit cards. In the case of someone like me who doesn’t own a registered business, I’ve had no problem applying as a sole proprietor (using my social security number in the EIN on the application form, it’s fine) and honestly reporting my very modest writing income. If you, say, resell deluxe beauty samples on eBay, you’re a business, congrats, consider opening a business credit card lol. Business cards don’t count towards Chase’s 5/24 rule (can’t open more than 5 personal credit cards of any sort with any lender in the last 24 months), so they’re pretty great.
- Chase Ink Business Preferred: this card has a $95 annual fee, but the welcome bonus of 80,000 Ultimate Reward points after spending $5,000 in the first three months is wild. It also offers cell phone insurance (up to $600) if you pay your bill with the card, which is a mega benefit imo.
- Chase Ink Business Unlimited: this card has no annual fee, offers a good welcome bonus, and offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases. This is a cash back credit card, but you can pair this card with a travel card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ink Business Preferred, or Chase Sapphire Preferred to convert those cash back points to travel points.
- Chase Ink Business Cash: this card has no annual fee, offers a good welcome bonus, and offers 5x cash back on purchases at office supply stores like Staples. This is a cash back credit card, but you can pair this card with a travel card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ink Business Preferred, or Chase Sapphire Preferred to convert those cash back points to travel points.
My husband’s credit cards, ranked
My husband does not want a lot of nonsense in his life. His feeling is that he works hard enough at work, so he doesn’t want to work in his off-hours. As a result, I keep his card line-up simple so he doesn’t need to think much about what to pull out when he needs to pay for coffee. That said, I think he kinda has the perfect mix of cards for someone who wants to travel, but isn’t looking to make points and miles an intense hobby. I manage everything for us (he suspects he has a math disability and meanwhile I’m good at money, so it works), but I can see someone very happily working with just these two cards.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: this card offers a nice welcome bonus of 60,000 points, has a more modest annual fee ($95) than big sister Sapphire Reserve, and offers more modest trip delay and baggage insurance along with 2x points on restaurants and travel. Chase only lets you have one Sapphire-type card at a time, so think about which one is best for you before applying.
- Chase Freedom Unlimited: this no-fee card offers a modest welcome bonus of 15,000 points and 1.5% points on all spending, regardless of category. This is a cash back credit card, but you can pair this card with a travel card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ink Business Preferred, or Chase Sapphire Preferred to convert those cash back points to travel points.
What we earned in 2019
To give you a sense of how much blood can be drawn from stones, I whipped up a spreadsheet to give a rough sense of how many points we were able to earn and what those would be valued at, if used in a fairly normal way. I’ve used The Points Guy’s points valuations as a benchmark for value, but this is all very theoretical.
There may have been some fees that I forgot to take into account, such as the fee to pay income taxes with our credit cards earlier this year, but creating $8,000 in value from spending money I was going to spend anway is pretty good imo. I also somehow got the Sapphire Reserve fee wrong in my spreadsheet; clearly I saw the fee hike coming! In reality, our points were able to buy us travel worth a whole lot more than that.
Booking the flight
Ok, so I did not set out to book business class, like, I just wanted two very basic plane tickets — ideally nonstop from NYC — to Seoul. But we happened to have so many points by the time I was ready to book and I love nice things so much…
Two paths diverged in my flight planning woods: transferring points to a partner airline or booking via Chase’s travel portal (which is basically Expedia with any card-specific bonuses like the Sapphire Reserve’s 1.5x boost on any points factored in.)
I knew I could probably get the best bang for my points by transferring them to one of Chase’s partner airlines, but the main Korean carriers, Asiana Airlines and Korean Air, aren’t currently partners with Chase. I was temporarily gutted.
Then I checked Award Hacker, a tool that gives some signals as to how many points a flight might cost. It’s not actually a place to book travel and it doesn’t guarantee access to the seats at those rates, but it’s a starting point for calculating how much airfare might cost in points.
At that time, the best rate for a round-trip, nonstop flight from NYC to Seoul using Chase Ultimate Rewards was United’s 70,000 points. I was confused. I didn’t even realize United flew that route.
I opened up the accordion to see more info and it slowly dawned on me: I could book a flight on “OZ,” which means Asiana Airlines, using United miles, on the United website. I didn’t need Asiana Airlines points, and I didn’t even need Asiana to be a Chase partner: I needed to book a ticket with one of their Star Alliance partners like United or Air Canada — I’d give the points and money to United based on whatever they were charging, but I’d ultimately fly on a plane operated by Asiana.
Have you ever thought about the fact that the people sitting on a plane might have booked their tickets through, like, 8 different airlines, maybe each paying different prices, but you’re ultimately there, sitting on the same plane? I hadn’t, to be honest. In the travel community, sometimes people let you know which airline is actually operating the flight by saying “flying [airline] metal.” This can be pretty important for international flights operated by carriers with tons of partners. If you blow a ton of money or points for a particular airlines’s first class experience, you need to make sure that airline will actually be operating the flight!
I’m an earn and burn kind of person: I don’t like to let points or money just sit around, I want them working for me FAST. Once I saw how many points I’d stacked in my account, I got greedy and looked at the cost of business class seats booked on United for an Asiana flight. I knew that Asiana would be discontinuing their ho-hum first class, so business would be the top dog by the time I flew, making the prospect even more appealing.
Oof, 160,000 points per person times TWO people when I was a starter points and miles person, yowza. But I began to wonder if maybe I could somehow spend 35,000 points to fly economy on the way to Korea and then spend 80,000 points to fly business class on the way back, making the whole cost 115,000 points per person. Ultimately, I was able to get that to work.
I created a United MileagePlus account (it’s free and you don’t need to be flying with them yet) and started poking around to see if these “award seats” that I could book with miles were even available. I navigated around until I found the part on the United site where I could book with miles: that would give me clues about whether this could even work.
I quickly learned that there’s booking a seat with miles and then there’s booking what’s called a “saver” seat with miles. The Award Hacker predictions are usually based on saver award seats. As you can guess, the saver seat costs fewer miles lol. The problem is that those seats get gobbled up way in advance, especially during peak travel months. For premium seats like first and business class, the airline might only offer two or four seats at that level for a whole flight. This realization was what ultimately got me to book about ten months in advance.
Here’s a look at the award space offered by United Airlines for the Asiana nonstop flight well into 2020: I needed to look months in advance to see some economy (solid line) and business class (dotted line) availability.
The United booking system is clunky and frustrating and there’s no way to really get around the painful task of just running lots of searches without using a points and miles booking agent (a paid service offered by 10xTravel btw). Ultimately I saw two seats in economy to Seoul and then two seats in business class to NYC separated by two weeks that I’d be able to spend in Korea, and I decided that this was my moment. Sweating commenced.
I needed to transfer a ton of miles from Chase to my new United account. I started by doing a test transfer. Then I transferred like…a FUCKLOAD of miles at once. For some reason, the transfer didn’t happen instantly and I was sweating even more; I think I set off a fraud review. After a few days and some polite but anxious secure messages to both United and Chase, the points were released to my United account, I slammed the order button, and I paid for the $92.06 in taxes and fees with my Chase Sapphire Reserve in order to activate the trip insurance benefit.
I was curious about what it would cost to book our flights today, and this is as close to our booking as I could get. What’s wild to me is that this was about the sticker price I was able to get when I priced out our flights via United in June, when I booked our tickets.
If I was trying to book our trip now, there would be no way I’d pay a rate like that, or even United’s $5,000-something for two economy seats round-trip. Remember that United is charging $22K and $5K, but you’re going to be fighting for armrest space with people who booked with Asiana itself or even Air Canada for a fraction of that ridiculous price.
If I hasn’t booked our saver award seats last June, I’d be looking for flights now using the Chase Travel Portal.
Using the Chase portal, I was able to find economy seats for two people for either 162,640 Chase points (thanks to my 1.5x boost from the Sapphire Reserve card) or $2,439.60. That means no lie-flat business class on the way back, but we would have happily made it to Korea without planning months and months in advance or blowing through quite so many points.
That said! I could have booked the same economy seats for 140,000 points by transferring to United if there were saver economy seats available, so the Chase portal is really not usually the way to go with airfare purchases via points unless there’s a sale going on that bring the sticker price below the economy saver award price (it happens sometimes, airfares to Europe are dead cheap right now).
When I replicated our weird economy/business mix, I was able to find the same seats on our flights for either 550,737 points or $8,261.06. Given that we paid 230,000 points plus $92.06 in taxes and fees, I think we did well!
Booking the hotels
Hotels were comparatively easy!
Let’s start with the Orakai Insadong Suites. I found this property in the South Korea Travel Planning Facebook group by searching for the word “laundry” lol. I found some good options for doing laundry in Seoul, but when I heard that this reasonably priced apartment-hotel offers kitchens and washer/dryers along with the normal hotel comforts like housecleaning, I was sold. I’ve never been an Airbnb person for a lot of reasons, and this Vice report sealed the deal for me, but the idea of a hotel that offers the good side of Airbnb? HELLO, YES.
@xoxoxik asked if I book with the hotels directly or use a travel agency. I’m open to whatever gets the job done for the best rate, with the best terms.
I price out every option and record the answers in a spreadsheet along with notes about their cancellation policies and any perks I can receive by booking with a particular site. Here’s an example of my research on the Orakai Insadong (in this case, I wasn’t concerned about cancellation policies because I booked with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which offers trip cancellation insurance for legit reasons):
I used Kayak to quickly rule out a ton of sites that wanted to charge the same thing as hotels.com without the free night perk. I verified that the Orakai’s own booking portal was charging the hotels.com rate without the free night perk, so they were out. I saw that I wasn’t going to get any sort of discount by booking with points on the Chase portal and I didn’t want to spend valuable Chase points on this. That left booking.com, which coincidentally hooked me up with a great rate on a super luxurious spa tub room in Philadelphia a few years ago over a long weekend. I had forgotten about that, but booking.com might just have a stan.
I typically wouldn’t use a travel agency because the Chase Ultimate Rewards booking portal functions as a travel agency (it runs on the Expedia system) — the only exception is for cruises when I want to book with points, but cruises are kind of a weird case where agents are still very much in business.
The main reason I’d use a hotel’s own website is when I want to book a hotel stay with points, and I want to use hotel points I’ve earned with that brand directly, not Chase Ultimate Reward points. Example: I got an IHG credit card because they were offering a wild signup bonus and I like Kimpton hotels. If I book on their site, I can use the pile of points I earned for their brand AND I can take advantage of the platinum status I earned by having the card (if you book on a third-party site like Expedia or booking.com, most hotels won’t honor your loyalty status and give you perks like room upgrades and free breakfast that you’d otherwise be entitled to).
I did the same spreadsheet research with the Signiel Seoul, and ultimately booked via the Chase portal because my soul screams at the idea of paying $300+ per night with actual cash money. To cover a three-night stay valued at $1,143.87, I dropped 64,467 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and $176.86 to cover the taxes and fees (paid for by my Sapphire Reserve card to get the trip insurance benefit).
In this case, I didn’t maximize the value of the points I was spending like I did with our flights, but not having to spend cash is a valid reason for using points; some people only use their points then the deals are wild, other people (like me!) are ok with less grand redemptions if it means cash is available for other things like paying down the student loans or paying for all the skincare I’ll buy.
My favorite cards
- Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred: a person can only hold one at a time, so decide between a staggeringly high annual fee ($550) with mega benefits or a lower annual fee ($95) with good benefits.
- Chase Ink Business Preferred: if you can spend $5,000 with a credit card in three months, this card will earn you a monster welcome bonus of 80,000 points and it offers cell phone insurance (up to $600) if you pay your bill with the card. The annual fee of $95 is fair considering the benefits imo. In the case of someone like me who doesn’t own a registered business, I’ve had no problem applying as a sole proprietor (using my social security number in the EIN field on the application form, it’s fine) and honestly reporting my very modest writing income. If you, say, resell deluxe beauty samples on eBay, you’re a business, congrats, consider opening a business credit card lol.
- Chase Freedom Unlimited: a good cashback credit card that offers 1.5% back on everything; pair it with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ink Business Preferred, or Chase Sapphire Preferred to convert those cash back points to travel points. If you’re building your credit, this might be a card to look into.
- Capital One Venture: if you need to keep things very simple and don’t want to make travel hacking a hobby, this card earns 2x points on all purchases, which you can then use to “erase” all or parts of travel purchases from your bill. It’s not the best travel card of the bunch imo, but fans love it because it keeps things so simple and quick. I’ve used it to erase spa passes on a cruise; I appreciate this one even if it’s not the foundation of my travel hacking plan.
Budgeting and debt elimination
All resources are free unless there’s a ($) after them.
- YNAB: You Need a Budget software ($, but free trial)
- Undebt.it: debt tracking control panel
- Credit Karma: watch your credit score like a hawk
Travel hacking info
- 10xTravel.com course (sign up on their homepage), monthly credit card rankings, and Facebook group: clear, advanced points and miles educators
- The Points Guy’s Point Valuations: Chase points do not equal Hilton points do not equal Delta points! Don’t fall for scammy credit card offers that only look good: get a quick picture of what a pile of points is worth.
- Award Hacker: get a quick snapshot of how many airline points it might take to get somewhere
- Google Sheets: to compare possible rates
- TripIt: easily organize travel info.
- Allianz annual insurance ($): I use the Sapphire Reserve’s trip insurance, but the card’s medical and evacuation insurance isn’t enough for people traveling abroad. I bought a 12-month plan with major coverage for two people for $250. A medical flight can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so this seemed like an important investment.
- booking.com: one of the sites that offers very competitive rates for cash stays.
- hotels.com: can offer good rates on cash stays and many bookings qualify for their “stay 10 nights, earn 1 night free” promotion.
- Seat Guru: see how your plane’s seats are laid out before selecting where you’d like to sit.
- South Korea Travel Planning Facebook group: a friendly group of people around the world who have visited or are planning to visit South Korea. The group’s search function is really helpful for leads on experiences and hotels.
- Kayak: quickly compare the prices offered by booking sites.
Making the most of every purchase
- Cashbackmonitor: I check in here before shopping online to make sure I’m getting the best cash back rate (and sometimes the best rate is via the Chase shopping portal, which is a whole other happy thing that I’ll let you discover.)
- TopCashBack: consistently offers the best rates. At first I thought they seemed kinda meh, but once I read the terms for each store, I realized that they do pay out when your purchases are in the accepted categories.
- Rakuten (formerly Ebates): a longtime favorite for cash back when shopping online (and in person).
- Raise: buy slightly discounted gift cards (guaranteed by Raise).
Mistakes people make
- Hearing that credit cards can do good things and opening whatever card they come across next. That toaster your credit union is offering for opening a credit card is not going to get you to Korea! Not all travel cards are the same!
- Trying to open too many cards too quickly. Banks don’t like it, even if you have great credit.
- Accidentally using super valuable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards to shop on Amazon or cash out on gift cards. Those! Could! Get! You! Flying!!! With champagne!
- Trying to get into point and miles when it’s just not your thing or you don’t have the bandwidth for it right now. It’s ok, it’s a lot of work.
- Ruling out card with annual fees. I don’t love paying annual fees, but I’m willing to do it (and I budget for it by saving ahead, month by month in YNAB) if the benefits will make my life better or easier.
Questions from readers that I haven’t answered elsewhere or just want to go over again
How does one start from scratch?@darkhandle, @elissaha, @epik_highness
I’d take the 10x e-course and see if travel hacking matches with your strengths and interests. Get a sense of whether the whole thing sounds like a fun game or a burden, and let that gut feeling tell you if you want to invest the energy in this direction.
True story: I only learned about the wonders of travel hacking about a year ago when someone in the YNAB budgeting group said “I just don’t see the point of travel hacking, I’m not getting a lot out of it” and then like…a million people chimed in and said what travel hacking had done for their lives. Up until then, I wouldn’t even bother signing up for any sort of airline or hotel loyalty program because I felt like it would be a pain to keep track of and just one more thing for scammers to hack into.
Get your finances right
- get yourself a budget that works and feels livable
- get out of consumer debt, if applicable
- check your credit score, make sure all the accounts are ones you’ve opened and look into any marks against you
- take the 10xTravel e-course, maybe join their fb group
- calculate how much of your spending could be done on a credit card each month
- think about how you feel about credit card annual fees
- think about dream trips
Apply for a card you want in your portfolio long-term
- breathe deep
- don’t race to apply for another
- hit the minimum spend
- roll around in the points
- think about what you’d like to book first
- review the 10x course again to go over how bookings are made
- practice booking to see what sort of award seats are available in both the Chase portal and on the airlines sites
- confirm your dates, transfer any points needed to partner companies, and BOOK!
Are you using a travel credit card?@elizabethpamp892
Yes. The big misconception I had about points and miles was that I’d never be able to earn enough for a free flight or stay because I don’t travel much for work at all. What I’ve learned is that most people are using points earned from credit cards to make it happen.
Real expectations in the planning process. Those fb groups you shared had people with 5-6 cards!@helen0rz
I’m definitely on the more aggressive side with my travel hacking, but my husband has managed to earn somewhere around 100,000 points in the past year just from two cards. That’s a flight to Korea and some money towards a hotel. For a realistic picture of what you can do with two really good cards, check out the 10xTravel Two Card Trip series.
What cards would you recommend for points when you’re newly establishing your credit?@paola_guerini
After making sure that your budget is rock solid and you won’t be charging spending that’s not already covered by money in the bank, I’d take a look at the Chase Freedom Unlimited. There’s no annual fee and you’d earn 1.5% in points for every $1 in purchases. It’s marketed as a cash back card and you won’t be able to use the points to book hotels and flights in the way I’m discussing here (I understand that there is some sort of booking portal, but it’s awful and the deals aren’t good), but you’d be able to build your credit score and relationship with the bank, and amass valuable Chase Ultimate Rewards points without a bunch of stress or fees.
Once you’ve built your credit and you’re ready to book travel, you could then apply for and transfer the points to one of the travel cards in the Chase family (Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ink Business Preferred, or Chase Sapphire Preferred). The key when opening a first card is to pick something you want to keep for good. I had a random old Chase Slate card that I’ve had for a million years — I lowered the credit limit to $500 and I just pay a $3 subscription on it each month to keep it open. Since the card was opened well over a decade ago, it looks great on my credit report.
How much time did this take you per week?@catcla25
I spend a fair bit of time thinking about travel and general budget stuff or points accumulation — maybe a few hours per week? But actually putting together the trip could have been so speedy if I needed to move faster. I do price and hotel research for fun, just to see what the options are. We just went on a Christmas cruise, so I didn’t even touch my Korea planning stuff for months because I was wrapped up in that. I suspect that the people who stick with points invest quite a bit of time in it because they view it as a hobby. For me, the planning is almost as fun as the trip.
How did you get your plane tickets? Did you buy with coach and upgrade with points?@halszka85
This is a really good question, and it’s something I wondered too before getting into travel hacking. Experts tell you that you should buy the seat you want or the book the hotel room you want — upgrades and upgrade offers are so variable. If Asiana decided to send an upgrade offer, I wouldn’t have a viable way of getting my hands on Asiana points to even put in a bid, so that would be problem 1. Next problem: I suspect that these “saver” award seats that I booked with points are “cheaper” than the cost of upgrading an economy seat. I very rarely see the option to upgrade a seat these days — but maybe I’m just flying the wrong airlines! lol
How to decide what to book in advance vs once there?@kuhaytay
As an obsessive planner, I like to get my flight and hotel locked in way in advance. In part due to work demands and in part so I can relax and enjoy the lead-up. As for the other things I want to book like scalp treatments and a wifi egg and cooking classes…I’m going to see how it goes. Historically, what has worked best is if I create a budget line like “Korea cooking class: $60” in YNAB, I eventually fund it with money I don’t need elsewhere, and then I book the activity immediately so I get a boost of excitement.
This trip feels special, so I’ve been more careful about planning because I started to get this vision of how I wanted it to go way in advance. I sort of saw myself arriving at this spectacular new hotel and collapsing for a bit and then gradually engaging with the city in a more normal hotel, followed by flying back comfortably so I could deal with the time change. I got attached to that and decided to make it happen. I might be less hardcore about trips that haven’t driven a whole lifestyle change.
What are some key things to look for in cards and what should you firstname.lastname@example.org
I start by reviewing the 10x card ranking list and then think about my travel goals. I look for a big introductory bonus for spending a reasonable amount in three months, but the ranking list really takes care of that thinking for me. When I’ve deviated from the rankings, I’ve pretty much always regretted it tbh. Credit line isn’t a concern because I have an ungodly amount of credit and APR isn’t a factor because I don’t carry a balance. Annual fee is a big one: if a card has a big annual fee like the Chase Sapphire Reserve (which I love and will never ditch), does the new card replicate that card’s benefits or does it offer something new and super valuable to me?
At this point, I have a lot of cards and I don’t close them (churning — opening and quickly closing cards — just gets you banned by lenders these days), so I’m thinking about how a new card might bring something new to the table for my portfolio. In some cases, I have a specific trip in mind — I have a bunch of IHG points stashed away for a trip I’ll take to Edinburgh sometime in the future that should include a free room upgrade at a gorgeous hotel. So at this point, I’m thinking about how a new card will help me round out my options to take a trip I’m dying to do…and make it more luxurious.
Can you take me to Korea in your checked bags?@fiddysnails
LOL, for you, anything! True story: there are credit cards offered by Southwest that give you buy-one-get-one-free privileges for nearly two years if you work your cards right (har har). There are some terms and conditions, but people who otherwise would be measuring kids to see if they’d fit in a checked bag are going on super cool family trips now lol.
Do you churn?@j3ss_hillam
Churning — opening credit cards to earn big introductory bonuses and then quickly closing them to move on and avoid annual fees is a practice that is now flagged by banks and credit agencies, so I don’t do it. People call pursuing points via credit card bonuses “travel hacking,” which is better, I guess.
How do you keep track of the best ways to collect points aside from signup bonuses?@christinacwang
For most of last year, I was always working on hitting the minimum spend on a particular card, so that made things easy: just use the newest card. Otherwise, I use all the free space in my brain from not writing to memorize which cards offer the best return on various spending categories, lol I wish I were kidding.
How far ahead should we plan such a trip?@aubergine30
I think that a lot depends on your personal comfort level with uncertainty and need for a trip to go as you’ve envisioned it. I’ve seen people take the most wonderful trips because they’re able to be flexible and take off at the last moment. I just…can’t, both for job-related reasons and due to the fact that I like to build the base (book flight and hotel with points) and then fill in the details (book experiences like tours and cooking classes bit by bit as I fund those wish list items). If you need to travel in the peak season, advance planning seems really necessary or else the costs are going to be wild. Award saver airline seats also require some planning because they’re often grabbed fast (although some airlines release more x days or weeks before the flight, if they haven’t sold them).
How do you set a budget aside for travel?@geethakardahally
I used to have a line in YNAB called “travel” and guess what: it got $0 because it was competing for money with other, more compelling budget lines! I have a “one-time expenses” category now and I price out the pieces of my trip that I need to fund, and then put the money there, line by line. For example, here were budget lines for a trip that we ultimately decided not to take:
I’ve found that by breaking down each component, I’m way more inspired to fund those category lines. Pieces of the trip that are hanging around and not getting funded: that’s a signal that maybe those things aren’t that important to me. In the case of something like a spa pass, I’ve decided to pack my lunch for a month and move my per diem money to cover the spa so I could book well in advance and lock up my spot. I do the same thing with all sorts of one-time things that aren’t necessities. Tossing them into the ring and seeing what wins funding is a good way of sorting out what I really want and want to do.
Part of this is doing some research and getting real data on what each part of a trip might cost. Even if something is a reach, you can put it into the wish list and see if it keeps demanding your attention or if it fades over time. I’ve put household things like an air fryer on my one-time expenses wish list, and over time, it kinda fell off and I hid the line because it just wasn’t something I truly wanted after six months of gathering $0. I’m not sad about not having an air fryer because I let myself think about it and I could have gotten one, but I ultimately prioritized something I wanted much more, many times over.
What credit card is the best for points and miles? Which ones do you actually use?@chinster81, @kategustafson, @blond_brownie
I think it varies, depending on the person, but in my opinion, it’s the Chase Sapphire Reserve (50,000 point sign-up bonus for hitting the minimum spend of $3,000 in three months). The big roadblock for most people is the annual fee of $550. It’s enormous. It just went up $100. But what you get is correspondingly enormous. Right off the bat, you get $300 back on purchases that code as travel, so that knocks the cost down to $250. Then you get one application fee for either Global Entry or TSA Precheck waived every four years; that’s up to $100 in benefits. Trip cancellation insurance, if you book even just taxes and fees with the card. Trip delay and baggage insurance. Access to lounges. I earn 3x points on restaurants and travel. Any Chase points become worth 1.5x more when used to book with this card in the Chase Travel Portal. This is my card. Many people who have it would fight bodily to keep it, but the fee increase is turning a lot of people off.
When I needed to get my husband a card that earns a good number of points, but doesn’t have such a big annual fee, I got him the Chase Sapphire Preferred (60,000 point sign-up bonus for hitting the minimum spend of $4,000 in three months) . It currently offers an even bigger signup bonus than the Sapphire Reserve and the annual fee is only $95. It doesn’t have the big perks like lounge access or travel insurance (it does offer trip delay and baggage insurance, just at a lower rate or after a longer delay). He earns 2x on dining and travel, and if he for some reason had to book his own travel, he could do it with a 1.25x bonus on his points in the Chase Travel Portal.
You can only hold one of these cards at a time and they both require good to very good credit, so it makes sense to meditate on which one is going to be the right pick for your long-term portfolio.
Tell me everything!@ainacakes, @chronicallyerica
Phew, I feel like I’ve simplified things too much and made some things too complicated and I suspect that I’ll need to clarify some stuff, but let’s see how this goes. Let me know in the comments where I’m a mess!
Sorry if I’ve missed your question or fumbled any info. This post is over 9,000 words and I think I just need to hit publish.
I haven’t even mentioned how I used points to pay for 1/3 of a cruise over the holidays, where I soaked up some much-needed sun, lazed in the divine thermal suite for a week, and ate so much delicious food. I’ll be back to talk ship spa soon, I hope!
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