Travel hacking is the increasingly popular method of using credit card points and miles to get free flights and hotels. At even a modest annual spend, you can pretty easily get free flights and hotels for an international getaway every year.
People have a lot of systems for travel hacking, and the most complex ones use a mix of different cards. It can get quite serious, and the people who really dedicate themselves to it can get pretty big returns.
If you’re new to travel hacking though, or if you don’t want to be juggling multiple credit cards, I have a really simple system that gets you 90% of what even the most advanced travel hackers get.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve
The single best all-around credit card for people who travel but aren’t luxury travelers is the Sapphire Reserve from Chase. This card offers a ton of benefits that easily justify the annual fee for most frequent travelers.
Using this card, and not even spending all that much money, I:
- Fly to and from Thailand twice a year for free
- Visit airport lounges dozens of times per year, often bringing in friends
- Eat and drink hundreds of dollars worth of free food, coffees, beer, wine, and cocktails, and would be thousands of dollars at standard airport terminal prices
- Occassionaly “splurge” on a fancy hotel, but don’t actually pay anything
- Get TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry making clearing US airport security and immigration checks much easier
- Get a ton of different insurance coverage for myself and my things when I travel
Importantly, this card has no foreign transaction fees, and you earn points the same way when using the card abroad as in the US.
The card is not so easy to get. You generally need a credit score of at least 720 to get the card. It’s possible to get approved lower than that, but to be safe you should actually be higher.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve annual fee
This is a premium credit card and it has an annual fee of $550. However, there is an automatically applied credit reimbursing your first $300 spent on travel, so the effective annual fee is actually just $250.
When you sign up you receive 50,000 bonus points after meeting the minimum spend. When you redeem this for travel in the easy way I describe below, this is effectively $750 toward flights, hotels, cruises etc.
This $750 alone covers the $250 effective annual fee for three years. Even without this, as a frequent traveler, I find the card pays for itself every year, many times over.
Why use a credit card?
Besides all the value you can get from earning points, paying with a credit card gets you valuable protections. When unsavory merchants try to deny you a refund that you deserve, if you paid with a credit card you can dispute the charge online in just a few minutes, get the money instantly credited to your account while the bank investigates, and then if you’re in the right, the charge should be permanently reversed.
I had some flights booked to Nepal on a Southeast Asian regional airline. The airline cancelled the flight due to Covid-19, but tried giving me the runaround on a refund. I gave them one chance, and when they didn’t give it to me, I simply disputed the charge and won. No long painful phone calls needed.
Free flights and hotels using points
The single biggest benefit is the points. You earn three points per dollar spent on travel and at restaurants, anywhere in the world. For everything else you get one point per dollar.
You can transfer these points into different airline points and if you spend enough time you can find some good value, but I never even bother with that.
Instead I book through the Chase Travel Portal, which is really just a white-labeled version of Expedia. You can book flights and hotels there, as well as things like cruises and some experiences. Your points in the portal are worth 1.5X.
Doing this effectively gets you 4.5% back on your spend. Here’s the math on $1,000 of spend.
|$1,000 spend on travel & dining…||earns you 3,000 points||which is worth $45 dollars in the travel portal.|
Getting free airport lounge access
The next big perk of the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the free membership in the Priority Pass airport lounge program. This gets you unlimited visits to over 1300 lounges in airports around the world. You can bring in two guests for free with every visit.
I should note that this is a benefit that comes with a lot of premium cards. The lounges are often the lowest tier of all the lounges in any airport and most seasoned business travelers turn up their noses at these.
One big drawback is that when the lounges are crowded (or expected to be), Priority Pass members are often denied entry. The lounges typically aren’t owned by Priority Pass, and they often have to save space for business class travelers and others who paid more for access than just signing up for a credit card.
It’s true that most of the Priority Pass lounges in US airports are not that nice, but they are indisputably better than not being in a lounge. They generally all have free food (which usually sucks) and free booze (often with premium liquor options). I usually buy food in the terminal to bring into the lounge, and tap the lounge for free coffees, beer, wine, cocktails, and for a place to sit and work that’s quieter and more comfortable than the public spaces in the terminal.
Priority Pass Lounges in Thailand
Thailand’s airports are pretty well-served by Priority Pass.
- Bangkok Don Mueang (DMK) has three pretty nice lounges in the international terminal, and two in domestic
- Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK) has one in the domestic terminal and a whopping 13 in international, including the very nice Oman Air lounge.
- Phuket (HKT) has one lounge in domestic and two in international
- Chiang Mai (CNX) has a lounge in the international terminal but no domestic lounge
- Koh Samui (USM) has one each in domestic and international
- There are also a handful of others in small airports in Hat Yai, Ubon Ratchathani, and Chiang Rai.
Unlike in the US, these lounges never seem to get full and in dozens of visits, I’ve never been denied entry. Not all the lounges here have liquor, but I believe they all at least have beer.
Priority Pass lounges around Asia
Most of the major Asian hub airports that you will transit through on your flights to and from Thailand have Priority Pass lounges. These tend to be the best ones in the entire program, offering good food, clean showers, comfortable seating, and some even have free massage service and lounge chairs made to be more comfortable for sleeping in.
I feel like I get my money’s worth from the Chase Sapphire Reserve just visiting these lounges four times per year. Getting a hot shower and a few drinks during transit makes the long journey between the US and Asia so much more bearable.
Free travel insurance
When you book travel on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you generally get a bunch of travel insurance coverage included. There is some health insurance and emergency evacuation cover provided, but it’s not enough. You should get separate medical cover, but if you have this card you can get a medical-only policy as you will already have pretty good travel insurance.
Some things the insurance covers:
- Trip cancellation insurance which covers you up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip for non-refundable expenses when your trip is cancelled due to illness, weather, and a fair amount of other factors
- Baggage delay reimbursement pays up to $100 per day for up to five days for things like toiletries and new clothes when your bag doesn’t arrive with you
- Lost or damaged baggage (by the airline) is covered up to $3000
- Delayed flight coverage reimburses you for meals and a hotel room up to $500 if your flight is delayed more than six hours
- Primary collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance on car rentals. A few countries are excluded from this but Thailand is covered
Note that this card doesn’t really provide very good travel medical insurance, which is probably the most important type you’ll need. Right now with the coronavirus pandemic, you must have travel medical insurance with a minimum coverage of $100,000 USD and no COVID exclusion to enter Thailand.
For more information on this, see our post on travel health insurance for Thailand. Also, check out our post on Thailand’s COVID-19 travel requirements to learn more about all the different travel restrictions.
Another favorite perk of mine is getting TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry. With Global Entry you skip the line at US immigration and can get through the checks and into the baggage claim area usually in a matter of minutes.
With Pre-Check you get an expedited security line at US airports. Even when they don’t have the dedicated line setup, you can usually still keep your shoes on, which is nice.
You also get a bunch of random credits. Currently, you can get $60 in free Door Dash food delivery per year. You can also earn 10 points per dollar spent on Lyft through March 2022 which is huge if you use Lyft regularly, though it’s unfortunately not available in Thailand. When redeemed for travel in the Portal, you are effectively getting 15% of your Lyft spend back in free travel.
Four times per year you can be reimbursed for roadside assistance (flat tire, jump start, locksmith, gas etc.), up to $50 per incident.
You also get Executive Emerald Club status with National Car Rental. Sadly this doesn’t do you any good renting from National in Thailand, but in the US and some other countries, you can book the cheapest car available and often get upgraded into whatever you want.
Scaling the Chase travel hacking system
A lot of people only want to deal with having one credit card, and this system is far and away the best one for those people. But it’s also quite easy to start scaling for people who want to dip their toes deeper into travel hacking using credit cards.
Once you have this card, you can transfer any other Chase credit card points you earn from personal or business cards into this account, and earn the 50% bonus when you redeem them in the travel portal.
The two other cards to look at first are the two Chase Freedom cards. You will use these in everything besides travel and dining which of course you want to put on the Sapphire Reserve card. Note that both these cards have foreign transaction fees so you should only use them in the US.
- Chase Freedom Unlimited, which earns 1.5% back on all purchases. This is 0.5% more than what you’d earn with the Sapphire getting 1%.
- Chase Freedom, which earns 5% back in rotating quarterly categories like grocery stores, home improvement stores, wholesale clubs like Costco, etc. These can earn a big return if you’re home in the US for the right quarter and spending a lot of things like groceries.
Getting into Chase business credit cards
The next step would be diving into the business cards, which you can get even if you don’t have a business as long as you do some freelance type work. In the Chase Ink card family, there are three cards, two with no annual fee and one with. Even the two without fees get whopping 50,000 point bonuses which you can transfer into your Sapphire points to redeem with the 50% bonus for $750 in free travel.
That’s all further down the road though. For now, the Sapphire Reserve is enough to get most of the benefits of travel hacking, without leaving too many potential points on the table.