There are smart ways to rack up free flights and hotel stays, like finding credit cards that pay for themselves and using a website that lets you pay rent on credit.
But for the truly motivated -- the so-called “travel hackers” -- there’s another level: “manufactured spending,” or loopholes to generate an inordinate amount of rewards points.
Take the Chase Ink Business Card, which earns five times extra points when you buy office supplies. Rachel Cohen, a Wharton MBA, uses the credit card to buy other companies’ gift cards at Staples, purchases that count toward the points-multiplier, even though the Amazon and Uber gift cards she grabs are hardly office supplies.
“You can also buy Visa gift cards, and if you’re really an advanced travel hacker, you can turn those Visa gift cards into money orders and put them back into your bank account,” Cohen said Thursday.
Cohen’s gift card trick was among tips Wharton MBAs provided Thursday during a crash course on maximizing credit card rewards. Wharton Common Cents, a student club that promotes personal finance literacy among MBAs and the Philadelphia community, hosted the event with the school’s Travel & Hospitality Club. The event was geared toward Wharton MBAs preparing to crisscross the globe during their careers.
“Probably a third of our class are going to be traveling management consultants when they graduate,” said Namir Shah, a Wharton MBA and one of the presenters. “People will soon realize they have as many assets in points as they do in cash, so similar to how you’d manage your own bank accounts, it’s helpful to manage your travel accounts.”
Even if you’re not a traveling consultant, the speakers’ credit card advice could still be useful. Here are some of their travel hacking tips to get the most out of your credit card rewards.
Choosing a card
Is the top tier credit card with the $550 annual fee worth it? It depends, the speakers said.
You need to dig into the details and see what the benefits are, as well as the restrictions that are placed on those perks, said Sam Sargent, a Wharton MBA and member of the school’s Travel & Hospitality Club. You must assess your likelihood of using those benefits, too.
For example, the American Express Platinum card imposes a $550 annual fee and includes an airline fee credit of up to $200 per year, which covers multiple checked bags and in-flight refreshment costs. But you can only use that benefit at one airline per year, Sargent said.
“If you’re a person who never checks a bag, never changes a flight, never has a couple cocktails on the aircraft, it might not be as valuable of a benefit for you,” Sargent said.
Hotel-branded cards typically come with an annual fee between $75 and $100 per year, said Michael Hamilton, a Wharton student in the school’s Common Cents club. Most, like the Hyatt Credit Card, come with a free night per year, so the cards essentially pay for themselves, he noted.
Cards with no annual fees are easy credit lines to keep but come with modest benefits, Hamilton said. Among those, the best are variations of the Chase Freedom card, including one that gives one percent cash back on all purchases, he said.
“These can be very valuable for people who want ultra-simplicity, who want the rewards back right away, and don’t necessarily want to put in the effort and time into doing some of the other optimization stuff,” Hamilton said.
Those who do want to optimize their spending need to stay up to date on rewards policies, Cohen said. For example, some cards have revolving categories of purchases -- say groceries -- that will generate extra points or cash back during a given month or quarter.
One tool that can help quickly rack up points is Plastiq, a website that lets you use a credit card to pay for expenses like rent, bills, or college tuition that typically don’t accept credit. Plastiq charges the consumer a 2.5 percent processing fee to cut a check to the intended recipient. While it comes with a cost, it allows you to greatly inflate your points if you need them.
“If you’re trying to hit a sign-up bonus that you wouldn’t be able to hit because you don’t normally spend $50,000 in January, this is an option,” Cohen said.
Some business cards earn more rewards than personal cards, Cohen said, and many people have businesses without realizing it.
“You have various forms of side income, you have a sole proprietorship, and you are more than welcome to use your own name and Social Security number on these applications,” she said.
She suggested finding Facebook groups about travel hacking to learn the latest strategies. Start slow, though, and never carry a balance or pay interest. That will erase all the benefits, Cohen said.
There are three main ways to redeem points, the speakers said.
The first -- cash back -- is not the best strategy, Cohen said. Chase Ultimate Rewards points, for example, are worth $0.01 per point, or 100,000 points for $1,000 in cash. But the points are worth more if you use them to book trips through Chase or American Express’ online travel portals, Cohen said. Those Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth $0.015 per point when redeemed this way.
The third option to redeem and get great value is to transfer points to travel partners, said Shah. Points have a fixed value when redeemed through the credit cards’ travel portals, but airline partners offer different mile costs. So a flight from Philadelphia to Toronto may cost fewer points through British Airways than American Airlines.
The programs also have different costs in terms of actual cash, too. An American Airlines flight may charge $10 in taxes and fees, whereas British Airways may cost $300, Shah said.
“You might be paying less points, but you’ll be paying a lot more in fees,” he said.
And don’t forget to look at cash alternatives. If there is a cheap flight or room available from a smaller airline or hotel, you might be better off saving your miles for another trip and paying cash.
“Look at the boutique hotels, look at Airbnb and see whether it still makes sense to stay at those larger hotels or fly with the main airline,” Shah said.