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If you dream about spending your life traveling the world, you’re not alone. Plenty of people use credit card travel hacking to fund vacations, honeymoons and round-the-world tours — and some people even use credit cards to finance a full-time travel lifestyle.
“We’re always traveling,” explains Veronica Hanson, a 35-year-old travel hacker with a husband and two young children. “We are nomads.”
“Our latest trip started the first week of December and will include five countries. Without the credit cards, it would have cost around $45,000. Instead, we paid $1,600 for four people. All first class or Delta One, all with points.”
Travel hacking takes a little work, but once you start earning free flights, free nights and free airport lounge access, it might end up being well worth it. Here’s how Hanson gets it done, and what she’s learned along the way.
How Hanson got started with credit
“I opened my first credit card when I turned 18,” says Hanson. “I started getting credit card offers in the mail, and I accepted every single one of them. Then I maxed them all out!”
“I had 24 credit cards, $17,000 in credit card debt and a tanked credit score,” Hanson explains. “I picked up extra jobs, side hustles. I was even running a business in order to snowball my debt payments.”
Hanson is currently debt-free — and doesn’t plan on getting into credit card debt ever again.
“The power of credit cards is not the fact that they will loan you money,” says Hanson. “The power of credit cards comes when you accumulate points and pay off the balance every single month.”
How Hanson got into travel hacking
Hanson’s travel hacking journey didn’t start with credit cards. Instead, it started when she became interested in airline and hotel loyalty programs.
“Every time we would go on vacation, there were these loyalty programs,” says Hanson. “Every brand has one, Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt.” She and her husband decided to sign up for Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan and World of Hyatt. “We were always going to cities where we could stay at Hyatt hotels.”
After Hanson and her husband became loyalty program members, Hanson realized that she could save even more money if she signed up for each program’s co-branded credit card. “The front desk agents kept telling us how much we could save if we got a Hyatt credit card,” she says. “I was building good credit, so I thought it was a good plan.”
Using airline and hotel credit cards helped Hanson learn how to earn and redeem points and perks like free flights and free nights. Then Hanson learned she could earn even more by switching to one of today’s top travel credit cards.
“Instead of choosing a credit card for a specific hotel, airline or brand, pick a credit card by a major issuer that lets you transfer rewards to a multitude of travel partners,” Hanson explains. “You won’t be limited to where a particular airline flies, for example. You’ll have many more options.”
How to use travel cards to fund a nomad life
“We started Airbnb-ing our house in 2018 and got really serious about travel,” Hanson told us. “When the kids were three and five, we took them to England, Spain and Russia, fully funded on points.” After the success of that trip, the family decided to become full-time travelers.
Which travel cards does Hanson use to fund her family’s adventures? “We have eight or 10 travel cards,” Hanson explains. “For our luxury travel cards, we chose The Business Platinum Card® from American Express because it offers the same airport lounge access that the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card gets you. On the personal side, we got the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.”
Both these top travel cards come with annual fees, as do a few of the other cards in Hanson’s wallet. “I probably spend about $1,000 in annual fees per year,” she told us. “But consider taking four people to an airport with a six-hour layover.” Her travel credit cards give her family access to airport lounges that offer free snacks. “In 10 trips, we’ve already demolished the annual fees just by saving money on airport food.”
Even though Hanson gets the majority of her travel benefits from just a few of her travel cards, she makes sure to keep her old credit accounts open — both to aid her credit history and keep her available credit high. “I have a few retail cards. We still have our Hyatt card. We have cards from Discover and Capital One, just a variety of cards that we will never close. For credit scores, you want to keep those old accounts active, especially if they don’t have annual fees.”
How you can get started with travel credit cards
If you want to use travel credit cards to save money on family vacations, Hanson has one piece of advice: “Don’t get into debt in order to get into travel hacking. Make sure you can pay off every card, every month.”
Once you start exploring travel credit cards, you’ll probably want to take advantage of each card’s valuable sign-up bonus. Hanson suggests taking your time with travel bonuses — first, because each bonus often comes with a minimum spending requirement, and second, because many credit card issuers penalize travel hackers who try to claim too many bonuses at once. “Get into it slowly. Don’t apply for five cards in a month. Earn one bonus at a time, and then plan how you’re going to earn your next one.”
While you’re waiting to earn your next sign-up bonus, you can take advantage of lesser-known credit card benefits, such as referral bonuses. “My husband and I refer each other to get referral bonuses,” Hanson says.
You can also make strategic spending decisions to maximize the rewards you earn on every purchase. “We spend a lot of money on food, so we are very specific about which credit card we use for restaurant purchases,” says Hanson. “The American Express® Gold Card has a points multiplier on international restaurants, compared to a lot of cards that only offer the points multiplier on U.S. restaurants. It’s very important to know which card to put your charges on, so you can take advantage of every potential reward.”
The bottom line
If you’re thinking about traveling full-time or becoming a nomadic family, start by applying for a travel credit card that allows you to transfer rewards to a variety of brand-specific loyalty programs. Once you earn your first travel sign-up bonus, apply for your next travel credit card. Make sure you can afford to pay off any charges you make on your cards, and know which card offers the best rewards on every purchase. That way, you’ll be able to maximize your points and miles, save money and book your next big adventure.