How to Travel Hack a $6,000 Vacation for Free

We do a fair amount of traveling. Travel costs were our second highest expense last year – at over $7,000, it was 18% of our $38k spending in 2016. This year, we mean to put a serious dent in those numbers through more extensive travel hacking. So far, we’re off to a good start. We booked a 9 day all-inclusive vacation to Jamaica – and we didn’t pay a dime for it.

A prior trip to Jamaica.

After reading a post about travel hacking on the Mad Fientist’s blog, we have been diligently churning through credit cards. Most of our travel rewards come from credit card sign-up bonuses. We look for cards with the largest bonus and no fees the first year, then sign up for one card at a time so we can meet the minimum spending requirements. If the card has a fee after the first year, we usually cancel the card before then.

How to get a free all inclusive vacation

One of the cards with the best sign up bonuses right now is the Chase Hyatt card – you get 2 free nights at any Hyatt. That’s an incredible deal considering you can stay at their most expensive hotels for free. For example, you can use your two nights at the Park Hyatt in New York, where rooms go for $700 or more a night. That’s $1400 in hotel stays just for spending $1000 on a Chase Hyatt card.

We thought about using our free nights in NYC, but then I saw a post by Fervent Finance, where he used his nights to stay at the all-inclusive Hyatt Ziva in Cancun. Lately we’ve been forgoing lazy all-inclusive vacations for more adventurous trips like our excursions to Costa Rica. But I decided to ask Mrs. CK what she thought, “We could use our free nights to stay at a Hyatt in Cancun or Montego Bay, but that would be a pretty lazy vacation. I’m not sure what we would do aside from drinking beers on the beach for a week.” Mrs. CK looked at me like I had lost my mind. “Umm… what’s the problem?”

After she explained the benefits of unlimited free food and beer and snorkeling and sailing and windsurfing, I came to my senses.

I’d like to windsurf again.

Since we both signed up for the cards, we got 4 free nights – enough for a short vacation. We wanted to stay longer, but didn’t want to pay since the Hyatt Zilara normally goes for $628/night. Additional nights can also be booked using 25,000 Hyatt points per night. We had each accumulated 6,000 Hyatt points from adding each other as authorized users and meeting the minimum spending requirements. This wasn’t enough points for additional nights, but that’s where the beauty of another reward program comes in – Chase Ultimate Rewards.

How to get the most value out of Chase Ultimate Rewards

By signing up for Chase Sapphire cards, we each got 50,000 points. These points can be worth over $600 of travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal. But to really juice up the returns, you can transfer these points 1:1 to many other programs – including Hyatt Gold Passport. Transferring 25,000 points to Hyatt can get you over $600 in hotel stays – double what you’d get through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

We called up the Hyatt reservation line to book our nights. We got our 4 free nights, then while on the line with the representative, we were able to instantly transfer 19,000 Ultimate Rewards points to each of our accounts. This gave us 25,000 Hyatt points each, and we booked two more nights. We ended the hassle-free call with 6 nights at one of the fanciest hotels in Jamaica for free.

Free flights

To pay for our airfare, we used the Delta vouchers we travel hacked while flying back from Colorado – we each got a $1200 voucher. While they hadn’t cost us anything, we didn’t want to waste them on expensive airfare. By timing our stay at the Hyatt to coincide with the best rates, we were able to get direct flights from JFK to Montego Bay for $345.

If we didn’t have the vouchers, we would’ve used other travel rewards to book the flights. An easy way would’ve been to use Ultimate Rewards points through the travel portal. One Chase Sapphire sign-up bonus would’ve covered our flights.

But that’s only 6 nights

That night, we were feeling pretty awesome about our free vacation. We were having some beers – which is when I do my best thinking – when it hit me. “I still have more Ultimate Rewards points, why don’t we go for even more days?” We checked and saw that we could move our flights out a couple of days for no charge. So we got back on the phone with the kind people at Hyatt, instantly transferred another 50k Ultimate Rewards points, and booked another 2 nights. We celebrated our genius with another round.

We did a lot of sailing on our last trip to Jamaica.

I never did much travel hacking when I was working. I thought it would be too complicated and take too much time. But it’s not very difficult once you get started, and the returns on time invested are incredible. Just by putting our regular spending on new cards, we were able to book $5,714 of flights and hotels for free. Yes, we signed up for 4 credit cards to get the sign-up bonuses for this trip, but even after churning through half a dozen cards, my credit score is still over 800.

You might have to keep track of few more payments, use points before they expire, and cancel cards before fees kick in. But by signing up for a few new cards, anyone can book their own $6,000 vacation for free.

33 thoughts on “How to Travel Hack a $6,000 Vacation for Free

  1. Awesome! We had a blast at the Hyatt Ziva in Cancun. Since I’m still working full-time, I kind of like the lazy vacations right now. So the most exercise I got that trip was some stand up paddle boarding (and countless bicep curls at the pool bar). Couldn’t beat a free 5 nights and free flights (had to pay for some international fees). Since the trip was free we sprung for a couples’ massage at the resort. I had never had a massage, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I thought it was great and worth it to try. Let us know how the trip is!

  2. Do you find that the time spent planning the vacation and the hacks is worth it? I see a lot of people doing travel hacks and sometimes it seems like it requires a lot of work! Of course, $6,000 is nothing to sniff at. 😉

    I’ve been thinking about a nice vacation lately, so hopefully we can set aside some time to check out Mexico once the student loans are paid off. Ahhhh.

    • I do think it’s worth the time, and would probably have done it while working if I knew how easy and lucrative it was. I recommend setting up a spreadsheet to keep track of your cards. As you said $6,000 is nothing to sneeze at 🙂

  3. So travel hacking is something I want to do, but that I’m just so clueless about. My buddy has been annoying me for a long time that I need to get into the travel hacking game, but I just get so nervous about it.

    A few questions I have:

    (1) How do you meet the minimum spend requirements? Sometimes, the spend seems way more than I can do without actively trying to meet the spend. I read a lot about doing manufactured spending (such as opening up a bank account, funding it with a card, then pulling that money right back out to pay the card back). Did you meet the min. spend requirements just using your own normal spending?

    (2) What the impact on your credit score? Sounds like it didn’t have a lot of impact on your credit score. My big concern is opening up a card with a fee, then closing it down a year later. I’m not exactly sure how it impacts your credit score (if at all) to have a card that’s been opened up and then closed for such a short time.

    (3) Do you ever keep the cards that do have an annual fee? I hate, hate, hate annual fees on cards and my preference is to only keep cards with no fee. It just makes it easier for me.

    • Good questions.
      (1) We meet the minimum spending requirements with our usual spending. For most cards its $3k of spending in 3 months. We usually put everything on cards and spend more than $1k a month anyway. If we needed to manufacture spending (which we haven’t yet) we would just buy some gift cards for stuff we use anyway.

      (2) I haven’t tracked my score, but last time I checked it was still over 800. That’s after having opened over half a dozen cards and cancelling at least two of them. I’m not sure if it the score went down as a result, but if it did, it wasn’t enough for me to notice.

      (3) I have not kept any cards open long enough to pay an annual fee. Most of the ones we get have the fee waived the first year.

  4. Travel hacking like this sounds cool in principal, but I have no idea how you guys manage to manufacture so much spending to meet those minimums.

    A lot of times stuff like this looks too good to be true — it feels like an ad to get people to sign up for credit cards.

    A little more detail about the minimum spends on each card and how you met them would be a helpful addition to the post.

    • The minimum spend is usually between $1K and $4K over 3 months. We only get one card at a time, and its not very difficult to meet the minimum with just our usual spending.

      Sign up bonuses are an ad to get people to sign up, credit cards can make a lot of money off of frequent travelers using their cards. I’m not making money off any cards right now, but I wouldn’t have a problem recommending them for the sign up bonus.

  5. Awesome work on the travel hacking, Mr. CK! Can’t wait to read about your trip. I love your vacation posts! I didn’t know about the Hyatt card – sounds like a great one.

    We’re on travel hacking hiatus right now – we applied for a mortgage for buying a rental property and I don’t want to deal with underwriting. But, as soon as we get through that, I plan to start again. We saved $2100 on our trip to FL last summer.

  6. Wow, great job with travel hacking! I’ll have to check out the Chase Hyatt card. Sounds like a good deal. We don’t really like churning credit cards, but I guess we’d better get on board while the rewards are good. I got the Chase Sapphire card last year and picked up the bonus. Now, I just have to convince the missus to sign up for another one.

  7. First off great job on travel hacking. Our problem is with the new chase 5 cards in 24 months rule it’s becoming harder to find hotel cards. Chase has most of the market and we’re shut down with them for a while.

  8. Wowza, Mr. CK! That’s awesome – congrats on the hacks!

    I got a laugh at Mrs. CK’s response to chilling on the beach for a week sipping brews: “Um…what’s the problem?”

    After all travel hacking y’all deserve a great vacay… Nice pics, too – that water’s gorgeous! Enjoy when you get back there, mon!

  9. It seems the more often one person travels, the more points he gets. Resigning full time is the first step? For most people, when they have time to travel, they do not have money. When they have money to book air tickets, they do not have time. It is a dilemma.

  10. Nice work! Chase has some great cards for travel hacking. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t sign up for Chase’s new Reserve card last year when they were offering 100,000 points on signup wich get treated as 150,000 points when redeeming for travel. The card also provides a $300 travel voucher yearly. Now the card only offers 50,000 sign up points. Not bad, but not nearly as enticing as it was before since it carries a steep $450 annual fee.

    I just booked an 8 day trip to Hawaii, all using points from our main capital one card and our chase sapphire card which I signed up for last year to get the bonus. My next travel hacking goal is to earn the companion pass on Southwest.

  11. Nicely done Mr. C.K.!

    We started churning in August last year and we are sitting on over 250k UR points (thanks mostly to two Chase Sapphire Reserve cards). I need to put them to good use now and I am terribly nervous about messing up and not getting enough value out of them.

    • Sweet! If you’re too nervous about it, you could just transfer them to me… You wrote a really good article about how easy it is to transfer those ultimate reward points, and I could have a heck of a time with 250k of them 🙂

      • Ha! I would, but you would have to adopt me, or I you. The terms state that the combining that I wrote about is only allowed between members of the same family/household. They probably wouldn’t catch you, but if they did, they would clawback those sweet, sweet points.

        I just need to get over myself and spend them!

  12. Good job MR CK! I can appreciate what it takes to put together a good deal like that. I dont have any travel cards yet but I do have quite a few regular cards since they offered me some good signup bonuses. ($200 bonus after spending $500, probably due to my good credit) One noteable offer was 50,000 pts after spending $1000 on my Amex Gold card. That got me a $500 Home Depot gift card! I usually only sign up for cards if I can meet the spending which normally isnt a problem. Plenty of bills I can charge like cable, cell phone, insurances, heating oil etc. Good deals are hard to pass up.

  13. Hello Mr CK.
    I enjoy reading your blog, and congrats on your super early retirement! My wife and I just retired also, though a bit later than you all did! 🙂
    Question, do you anticipate being able to do this travel hacking on a consistent basis going forward? It seems after a while you’d run out of new accounts to open, or maybe not?

    • Thanks, and congrats to you as well!

      I am not sure how long we will be able to keep travel hacking. Some programs only offer the bonus if it’s the first time you are getting the card, and some you might be able to re-apply for every couple of years. There are a good bit of cards out there, but I do expect we will have less opportunities the longer we do it.

  14. Great idea! I started getting rewards cards with oodles of points just to supplement a fixed income. Maybe I can get my kids to transfer travel points to me so I can visits the grands?

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