How I Fly for Free (and other Travel Tips)

 
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It’s no mystery that I love to travel. The love of travel has been etched in to me since I was young, when my family roamed the country every summer.

I recently wrote a post about how I got out of debt, and I mentioned that one of the contributing factors to my debt was the amount of money I spent on travel. 

Obviously, I was able to climb out of the debt, and I learned a lot about money and how to manage it. But I still haven’t given up traveling. For me, it’s less of a want and more of need. I’m a free spirit with a wild soul, and I feel so alive when I’m exploring new places. 

I knew that in order to stay out of debt and travel, I was going to have learn a few tricks to be able to do it affordably. 

The first thing I did has absolutely changed the game for me.

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1. Open a Southwest credit card

Okay, I know this is the second time I’ve suggested opening a credit card, but hear me out!

First of all, Southwest Airlines is my absolute favorite way to fly. Your first two checked bags are free and they have an open seating plan. They never charge to change a flight, and if you need to cancel, you receive the value of the flight in credit to be used toward future travel.

Because I will always choose to fly Southwest, I knew I could benefit from the rewards program with the credit card. Once you sign up and pay the $99 yearly fee, you can: 

  • Earn 40,000 bonus points by spending $1,000 on purchases within the first three months

  • Earn 2 points per dollar on Southwest purchases and 1 point per dollar on other purchases

  • Receive 6,000 bonus points on your anniversary date

This basically became my debit card. I was lucky to have learned a lot about budgeting in my journey to becoming debt-free so I knew how to use and not misuse a credit card. I essentially use this card for all of my expenses: gas, groceries, eating out — I even have bills that can be paid with a credit card. Then, at the end of the month, I pay it off, completely, because I know what I’ve spent (budgeting for the win).

It wasn’t hard to acquire the $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months because I was using it for everything. I received the bonus points, and honestly, it’s easy to stretch 40,000 points! I’ve seen round-trip flights for 15,000 points or lower.

Obviously, when using points to book travel, they don’t transfer over 1 point to 1 dollar. But that’s why I get creative with Southwest in other ways.

(You can sign up for a Southwest card here!)

 

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2. Book hotels on Southwest

When you are a Rapid Rewards member, you can book other travel on Southwest as well, things like rental cars and hotels. Obviously, you already receive double points on anything booked with Southwest, which is a plus. However, some hotel bookings offer several thousand bonus points.

Anytime I travel, I always check southwest.com for hotel options, and I look for any that offer extra points. Hey, I’m already going to spend the money. Might as well make it work for me, right? I’ve booked hotels and received 8,000 bonus points (equivalent to some one-way airline tickets).

Obviously, as you can see below, the more you spend, the more potential for bonus points. But there’s usually quite a range of price points that will offer the bonus points.

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Also, let me pause here to say: don’t spend more to receive more bonus points. When that happens, you lose in the end. I’ve been tempted to spend more on a hotel than I would have because it offered an insane amount of bonus points. 

Don't do that. That’s how they get you. Know how much you can spend. And hopefully you’ll find an option within your budget that will offer you some extra points! They really do add up in the end!

 

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3. If you have a partner, open a second card

When Chris and I got engaged, he opened a Southwest card and started using it in the same way I was. We decided we should both be racking up as many points as possible to use for our honeymoon.

I’ve heard of couples doing this for family trips, too. If you open them strategically, far enough apart so you can both have $1,000 in transactions in your respective first three months, you can both receive the 40,000 bonus points. That's enough points for an entire family to get round-trip flights!

Also, with double points, you can use it for more things, which brings me to…

 

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4. Use your points for other travel

Like I said, Chris opened his card and was able to receive the bonus points. When it was time for our honeymoon, he’d acquired quite a few more. I booked our flights to California with my points and he booked a rental car with his. Even with doing this, we both actually had points leftover! 

For our honeymoon, we only had to pay out of pocket for our lodging and food. How crazy is that? And it was so nice, because flights to California aren’t cheap. (And who knew that rental cars could get so pricey?)

We used points for the rental car but you can use them for other things — hotels, gift cards for all kinds of things, like restaurants, shopping, and even hotels chains and car rental companies. You may get a better deal using the points strictly for travel, but when you’re trying to save money, anything helps.

 

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5. Budget, budget, budget

The one thing I learned when I became debt-free was the importance of budgeting. Before, I would recklessly buy a conference ticket on credit and then have to pay for everything else that goes with it. A $300 conference ticket can turn into a $1000+ trip. 

Now, if I know I have a trip coming up, I’ll try to figure out approximately how much I’ll need and how many months I have to save. Then, I save a set amount every month into the travel fund. 

Chris and I just went on a trip in July and we’d been saving since January. We didn’t even have to use all we’d saved. Now, we are always contributing to the travel fund because it seems like there will always be travel on our horizons. 

One last thing: in the year and half we’ve been married, we haven’t bought a single airline ticket. That’s 6 round-trip flights. And four of them were to California (read: expensive). 

We are so thankful for the Southwest card. It’s been the major reason we’ve been able to travel as much as we have!

Where are you planning on traveling next? If you have any travel questions for us, we’d love to help! And if you're interested, go sign up for a Southwest card!