If you are serious about traveling, one of the absolute best things you can do for yourself is to look into travel rewards credit cards. We have had entire round-trip flights completely paid for by doing absolutely nothing except applying for and using cards wisely.
Do some research on what the best travel rewards cards are. I mentioned a couple good resources at the top of this page, but a simple Google search can be a lot of help as well. Look for cards that have great sign-up bonuses, but make sure you won’t need to spend more money than you would have otherwise. Check that the card has a good points-to-miles ratio. If you will be traveling overseas a lot, the ideal card would not have foreign transaction fees.
The frequency you apply for cards should depend on how frequently you travel. Since we typically go on a trip about every 9 months, that’s about how often we get a new card. The general idea is we will get the rewards from the card– primarily the sign-up bonus– and then we will cancel it right before it needs renewed. The reason we do this is most of the cards are free for the first year and then start charging you an annual fee after that. If you know the benefits you get from the card will be higher than the annual fee, then go ahead and keep it.
While I would still consider myself an amateur at this whole travel hacking thing, here’s an example of how we have played this game recently (written as of March 2015):
Before our trip to Iceland, we got the Barclaycard Arrival Plus. At the time, it had a 40,000 sign-up bonus if you spent $3,000 in the first three months. That’s $400 off a flight for spending an amount we would be spending anyway (especially since we were about to head to Iceland). That was the best sign-up bonus I could find then, the card was free for the first year, and it had no foreign transaction fees. Win! We could redeem our Barclay points for any travel-related expense- flights, hotels, shuttles, museums, tours- you name it, and then you also get 10% miles back on it. For every single purchase, you get 2x the miles.
We used this card for nearly everything. The only things we didn’t buy with it were groceries and gas because we had a different card that gave us quite a bit of cash back for those. We are a very frugal couple when it comes to everything but traveling, but even so, we had enough miles racked up by the time we bought our tickets to Guatemala 7 months later to pay for one round-trip plane ticket and part of the other, equaling over $900 in savings.
Around the time we bought the tickets to Guatemala, I got an offer for the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card. I jumped on it because it had a 50,000 point sign up bonus for me, translating to $500 off a future flight, if we spent only $1,000 in three months. Piece of cake. Another great thing about it is it offers 3x miles for booking flights directly with an airline. Other than that, I like my Barclaycard better, so we spent the $1,000 necessary on this card, switched back to using our Barclay, and booked our airfare to Asheville, NC with the AMEX to use our bonus. We paid a total of $74 for two roundtrip flights from Kansas City directly to Asheville because of that bonus.
The Barclay is only $89 a year, and the amount of money it takes off our travel expenses (even without that starting bonus) far surpasses that amount, so we did end up renewing it. They also allow you to redeem miles for the annual fee, so that’s pretty cool. The AMEX Premier Rewards Gold will be $195 next year, and since we don’t use it regularly anyway, we will be cancelling it before then.
If you really want to get into travel hacking, there are all sorts of tricks like transferring points that you can read up on, and there are cards that will take care of your hotels on trips as well. Since one of my favorite things to do when traveling is to rent a house or apartment and try to live more like a local, this doesn’t appeal to me as much, but to each their own!