If you grew up on a tight budget — or, like many of us, are still on one — you probably think travel is unattainable.
That’s what Emily Jablon thought. She always dreamed of traveling, but growing up with a single mother who worked hard just to make ends meet, she assumed it would never be possible.
Until she met Daraius Dubash. And it wasn’t that her now-husband was rich — it was that he had mastered the intricate game of travel hacking.
Since then, she and Dubash have traveled around the country and the world, often flying in first class and staying at luxury hotels. They’ve even treated their parents to extravagant vacations — all on frequent flyer miles and points.
Over the past eight years, they’ve paid $16,654 for trips worth $236,382 — a savings of $219,728. On their blog Million Mile Secrets, they share their travel stories and strategies.
We wanted to learn how regular people can start earning travel rewards, so we sat down with them to talk miles, points and money.
How They Got Started
As a tax accountant for a Fortune 500 company, Dubash traveled all around the world to perform audits, racking up frequent flyer miles and attaining airline elite status.
When he quit his job and went back to school, he didn’t travel as often anymore — and therefore didn’t collect as many miles and points.
“So he Googled something like, ‘how to travel cheap without flying’ or ‘how to travel on miles’,” explains Jablon. “He came across [a frequent flyer blog] and really just ran with it.”
Early into their relationship, he encouraged Jablon to join him.
“I remember six months after we met, he had asked me if he could apply for a credit card in my name,” she says. “I declined… but then he ended up taking me on my first flight.”
When he told her he’d gotten the first class flight essentially for free, she was in. It “was what really solidified my faith in the whole credit card rewards hobby,” she says.
And it hasn’t just been credit card rewards; they’ve done lots of crazy things to earn miles and points.
“I went for a balding consultation once when I was in my 20s, because they were giving 25,000 miles just for the consultation,” says Dubash. “I still get mail from them eight years later.”
He also drove round-trip to Illinois in one day (seven hours each way!), because there were no Chase banks where they lived. On that trip, he opened four different checking accounts and earned 100,000 miles.
“I’d say it was worth it,” says Jablon.
Their $27,000 Dream Trip
With these miles and points, Dubash and Jablon have traveled all over the world on next to nothing.
Dubash has been to more than 40 countries, and Jablon has been to 32 — though she’s quick to add, “It’s not so much about the number of countries; it’s about the depth of experience.”
In general, they travel from their home in Austin, Texas twice a month, to both domestic and international destinations.
One of their favorite trips? The Maldives, a series of exotic islands off the coast of India.
“This vacation was really amazing for many reasons,” explains Jablon. “One was that we brought both of our parents along with us, so it was a really nice family vacation. And then also just the sheer beauty of the Maldives; it’s got crystal clear beaches and the snorkeling was the best I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
If they’d paid in cash, their luxurious trip would’ve cost them a whopping $27,000. Instead, they redeemed miles and points and spent only $4,300. Though that’s not chump change, Jablon explains that the trip was “once-in-a-lifetime” — even for them. (You can read their full trip report here.)
Since they’re always “earning and burning” points and miles, Dubash wasn’t sure how long it took them to earn the points necessary for their Maldives trip.
If you’re just starting out, he estimates it would take a year to earn enough miles and points to book the trip, and then another year or so from booking to travel.
In other words, if you start now, you could be on your dream vacation in 18-24 months. For a less ambitious trip, he estimates it’d take 6-12 months from start to travel.
And the easiest way to quickly earn points? Through credit card sign-ups. “Banks issue more airline miles than the airlines themselves,” explains Dubash.
How to Start Collecting Miles and Points
If you’re new to the world of credit card rewards, you probably have a lot of questions. With Dubash and Jablon’s expert help, we’ve answered some common ones below.
Should I Get a Travel Rewards Credit Card?
Only if you can be responsible with it.
The number one warning Dubash and Jablon give — and I wholeheartedly second — is: Don’t sign up for credit cards if you’re not going to pay your balance in full each month.
If you can’t think of your credit card like a debit card, don’t get one. As I’ve said before, points and miles are never worth going into debt over. (Not to mention that interest charges negate the benefits of any rewards you might earn.)
How Many Cards Should I Apply for?
“Start with one credit card and then just gauge how that goes,” recommends Jablon.
“Are there any challenges completing the minimum spend requirement? Paying the balance in full every month?… If that goes well, then you can start applying for maybe two or three more,” she explains.
Though you may see other travel hackers going to extremes to earn miles, you don’t need to start out like that.
“Just do whatever’s comfortable for you,” urges Dubash. “You read a lot of crazy things happening online — perhaps folks signing up for 10 or 15 cards at a time or trying to manufacture spend… There’s no need to go overboard.”
Which Card Do I Apply for?
“Have a goal in mind,” says Dubash. “For example, if you want to travel to Europe, collecting Southwest miles won’t help — because Southwest doesn’t fly to Europe… Figure out which miles will get you there the most efficiently, and then start earning [them].”
To figure out who flies where, Dubash recommends reading their beginner’s guide and checking out some of the other miles and points blogs.
If you don’t know where you want to go — but still want to start — Dubash recommends a transferable point card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
“Something that you can transfer to a few different airlines or hotels can be a good start as you dip your toes in the water,” he says.
But… What About My Credit?
Concern about credit score is probably the biggest reason people avoid rewards credit cards. It is also one of the biggest misconceptions, according to Jablon and Dubash.
“When I first started this, I believe my credit score was around 660 or something like that,” says Jablon. “And eight years later, it’s gotten all the way up to around 760/780 — and that’s with applying for, on average, maybe 10 credit cards per year.”
That doesn’t mean you have to apply for 10 cards, though; just sign up for one and watch how it affects your credit.
“Monitor your credit score so you can see the impact to your credit score yourself,” Dubash says. “Initially you’ll see your score drop a little bit because you’ll have another credit inquiry, and then after a few months your score will usually increase.”
The crazy reason your credit score will actually increase after you get a new credit card? Credit utilization ratio, which is a big factor in your credit score.
It’s based on the percentage of available credit you’re actually using — so if you get more credit but keep your spending the same, this number will decrease, resulting in a better score.
What Do I Do With My Miles?
Don’t give in to the temptation to hoard your points and miles — follow Jablon and Dubash’ lead and strive to “earn and burn” them.
“There’s no point in holding them, because airlines keep devaluing their award charts,” explains Dubash. “For example, a flight today is almost certainly going to require fewer miles than a flight five years down the road.”
Isn’t It a Lot of Work?
In short, yes.
“It’s a puzzle,” says Dubash. “And if you don’t like the details and if you don’t like being overly involved and you don’t have a lot of flexibility about traveling, this is definitely not the game for you.”
Though you can find some amazing redemptions if you’re patient and detail-oriented, Jablon and Dubash are aware it’s not for everyone — and that’s okay. You can still get involved on a casual basis.
“I’m a little more relaxed about miles and points, but I still definitely use them,” says Jablon. “I really like the Chase cards because all I have to do is spend on my credit cards, and I earn miles… So I don’t even have to apply for a lot of cards and I’m still getting a good amount of miles.”
One of her favorite ways to redeem those miles is through Southwest Airlines, which is a transfer partner through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program. Using their program, she’s saved thousands of dollars on flights to visit family and friends all over the United States.
When asked for her best of piece of advice for newbies, she says: “Start slow, have fun and never underestimate the power of research.”
Yes, You Can Travel on a Budget
Travel — whether out of your hometown or out the country — is an incredible experience, and with the power of miles and points, is not as inaccessible as you may think.
“My parents divorced when I was eight,” says Jablon. “My dad couldn’t really support us financially after the divorce, so my mom worked very hard for the both of us. We didn’t have extra money to travel. I always wanted to, but I never thought it was going to possible.”
“Travel with credit card rewards opened up a whole world to me… so I’m very passionate about sharing that possibility with others: Even though they might not earn a whole lot of money, they too can travel and see the world.”
“If you’ve always thought that you wanted to travel but you’ve been waiting to do it for retirement or because you didn’t have money, there’s a way to do it that doesn’t involve a lot of money,” adds Dubash. “It just involves a little bit of time and attention to details.”
For Jablon and Dubash, who now work on their blog full time, their miles and points lifestyle is a “dream come true.”
“I’m lucky,” Jablon acknowledges, with a giggle. She is — and with some hard work and savvy travel hacking, many of you could be, too.
Your Turn: What do you think of the miles and points hobby? Would you like to give it a shot?
Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.