How to travel hack your way to a FREE family vacation

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Money is always tight. Whether you’re working to pay off debt, are living off of one income, or are just trying to hit that next savings milestone, it’s tough. Most of us don’t have thousands of dollars to casually plunk down on a family vacation. The good news is that you can travel hack your way to a free, or at least very cheap vacation for your family.


I’m betting some of your fondest childhood memories are of family trips. Or that you WISH you had more financial flexibility to take a vacation every year. I’m here to tell you a secret. You CAN take a family vacation, and it will cost you almost nothing. With no hard timeshare sales pitch required.


This post probably contains affiliate links. That means if you buy something using one of my links I may receive a small commission – at no additional cost to you! How cool is that? It’s kind of boring, but feel free to read my full disclosure if you want more info.


Travel hacking is an awesome way to save money and go on a family vacation for FREE! If you're budgeting, trying to save money or don't have a lot to spend but still love to travel, travel rewards, credit card points, and travel hacking are the best way to go on a free (or nearly free) vacation every year.

How can I travel hack my way to a free vacation?


Ok, stay with me. For some of you, this is going to be a little uncomfortable. Especially if you’re credit card averse. But this strategy is NOT to push you into debt. So hang with me.


Credit card bonuses are an AMAZING way to travel the world for free, or at the very least for quite cheap. By opening multiple credit cards and going about with your normal everyday spending, you can receive thousands of dollars in point value. You can redeem these point bonuses for hotels, airfare, and even travel/entertainment tickets. This is the entire genesis of travel hacking. 


Yes, it requires planning and a little discipline, but opening the cards doesn’t put you in debt. You just extract value out of the welcome bonuses to go on vacation for FREE! If you don’t get it yet, don’t worry, I’ll explain.


Travel Rewards

travel hacking 101, how to go on a free family vacation

Credit card companies typically offer bonuses when you sign up for their card. I.e. 50,000 miles for opening an American Airlines card, or 100,000 Marriot points for a Marriot card. All you need to do is spend the minimum threshold over a certain amount of time to get the bonus.


For example, the card I first opened required me to spend $4,000 in three months, and I got 50,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points. I then translated those points into three nights at a Hyatt in Key West.


I also had Delta airline miles from years of travel, so we booked our flights to Florida that way. We were able to go to a wedding in Key West for only the cost of a rental car and one night at an airport hotel. And I did this by just putting my normal everyday spending on a credit card.


I guarantee you’re already using some kind of card currently. Why shouldn’t you get something for it?


I’m not going to go into the nuances of travel hacking, which is the process of using all these rewards to travel for free, but I will give you a pretty good overview in this post. If you want to know more, you should sign up for Travel Miles 101. It’s a FREE online course that dives deep into travel rewards and how you can use them. There are a lot of tricks and hacks to get the most value out of your points.


The Fine Print of Free Vacationing & Travel Hacking


Ok, of course, this isn’t some voodoo magic. It’s not for everyone. The key to making a travel hacking strategy work is that you are NOT incurring debt. This is your normal everyday spending but on credit cards.


If you don’t spend enough to hit the threshold and receive the bonuses, this won’t work for you. If you spend way more than you normally would when you get a shiny new credit card and may end up with $5k worth of debt, this isn’t for you either. In order to get real value out of this, you pay off your cards EVERY month. You only put your normal spending on the cards. Period.


There is also less flexibility in the timing of your travel when you’re traveling on award points and tickets. Sometimes award seats are unavailable, your hotels or flights are sold out, or you want to go in the high season and you lose a lot of value on your miles.


If you have very strict times of year when you can travel and have no flexibility, this will be harder for you.


A key challenge of opening multiple credit cards you’ll need to have discipline and be able to keep track of all your information. You need to know dates when you should close accounts to avoid annual fees, and ensure you’re paying on time and in full every month. If details aren’t your thing, this could get complicated.


Finally, I haven’t seen any real negative impact on my credit score. But, if you’re looking to make a huge purchase in the next year, you may also want to delay opening all these cards. It’s not worth getting denied for a mortgage over.


Where to start for your free vacation

annual vacation budget planning and travel hacking

If you take the Travel Miles 101 course or google travel rewards you’ll probably hear the term “Chase gauntlet.” I am by no means an expert at travel hacking, but based on the recommendation of multiple people who really know the game, I started with a Chase Sapphire card.


Chase Ultimate Reward points are widely regarded as some of the best travel points out there. And Chase has this pesky little rule known as 5/24. This means if you’ve opened five cards within the last 24 months, you’re not eligible for their cards and bonuses. Even if you’re added as an authorized user on your spouse’s card, it counts as one of the five cards you’ve “opened.”


Knowing this, many people run the “Chase gauntlet” and open Chase cards first at the beginning of their travel hacking strategy. You can then move on to other cards, airline cards, etc. after you snag all the great Chase benefits.


Southwest Companion Pass 


An important thing to note. Southwest cards ARE Chase cards. If you’re planning to run at the companion pass, you’ll need to have room in your 5/24 to get the bonuses.


One of the best deals I’ve seen in travel rewards is the Southwest companion pass. Southwest companion passes essentially allow you to bring a friend on any Southwest flight. You do have to assign the pass to someone, but you can change the person three times during the year. If you live near an airport that flies Southwest, you’re essentially going BOGO on all your flights.


The most awesome thing about the companion pass is that you can get it for almost two years. You have to accrue 110,000 points/miles in one year, and you get the pass for the remainder of that year and then the following year.


If you get the pass in Feb/March of the first year, you get 22 months of a companion pass! We’re working on the pass now and hope to have it completed by mid-year!


Finally – you can open hotel credit cards and get status and free nights each year. I haven’t made it to this phase yet, but getting a specific airline or hotel credit card will be part of the next phase of your strategy.


Choose your Destination & Create Your Card Strategy

Ok, now that you have the “general” awesome travel bonuses with the companion pass and a stock of Chase UR points, it’s time to plan out where you really want to go.


Travel hack with a plan. Understanding where you’re going will help you plan out the best card opening strategy to get you on your way. For instance, if you’re going to Disney and want to stay on property, you’ll 100% need to get a Marriott/Starwood card. {I’m pretty sure they’re called Marriott points now since the merger.}


If you want to go to Europe, I’d grab an airline card that has a lot of good flights from a local airport. For Hawaii, check out who flies there near you and get that card. There are also a lot of “sweet spot” deals that allow you to maximize your point redemptions. Do a lot of research looking at people who have done your route first and create your plan of attack.


For most trips, you’ll likely need airfare and hotels at the very least. If you don’t have a companion pass and aren’t using Southwest, this means an airline card, hotel card, and/or Chase UR point redemptions.


Plan out your card schedule based on spending habits

Now that you know where you want to go, we dive into the details. If flights and award seats are plentiful, but hotel stays are your bottleneck, start with your hotel card first.


If flights are really hard to come by or you’re pigeonholed into a certain date/airline carrier, start there. Plan out an estimate of how long it will take you to get your bonuses by card based on your prior spending levels.


Once you know how many cards you’ll need and how long you’ll need to spend on each card you have a better idea of when you can actually take this trip.


You can’t actually book the trip with theoretical future points. They’ll need to actually be in your account, so plan accordingly. As a final note on this, Disney requires reservations for some restaurants and experiences up to six months in advance. If you’re trying to hack Disney you’ll need to start REALLY early to ensure you get all the points you need to book on time.


Since you’re not going into debt over this, be patient. You’ll get to go on an awesome vacation and it takes as long as it takes to get the points. Just be sure you’re not paying 10 credit card annual fees each year that you aren’t getting value from. Take a deep breath, and dream big.


Dream big


You can use this strategy to take a nice vacation and save some of your hard earned cash, or you can use it to totally upgrade your experiences. Miles can be used for business class tickets, luxury hotels, and on bonuses you’d never be able to afford on your own.


You’re earning these points with money you would have spent anyway. You might as well get something awesome out of it!


Let me know what’s on your family vacation bucket list! We did Disney this spring, and while it wasn’t free, I was able to get free park tickets and airfare. If I’d begun planning far enough in advance, we could have done the hotels too!


Hope this helps you get somewhere great.


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