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Our travel schedule has looked pretty much the same every year for a while now. Generally, Tom’s work (he’s in sales) earns us a trip or sometimes two somewhere in the U.S. or Canada (a great perk!), and we also occasionally schedule a getaway on our own or with friends. Then a few years back my parents moved to Florida, so that means a trip or so down there every year, and now we have a son living in New York City, so that will be on the schedule a time or two per year too.
That’s about plenty of travel for us. Neither one of us are enthusiastic travelers, and I, in particular, am an anxious traveler. As I like to say, I don’t so much like traveling as I do having traveled.
Still, we fly and stay in hotels enough that I think it’s worth it for us to have a strategy to get the most of our travel dollars, and I think I’ve come up with one that will work well for us: brand loyalty.
Before I get to that, though, let me tell you about a strategy embraced by a lot of personal finance bloggers, and that I briefly tried, but ultimately decided wasn’t right for us.
Simply put, travel hacking means applying for travel-branded credit cards exclusively for the signup points they offer. With hacking, you don’t do this just once, but over and over again, depending on what the best offers are and where you want to travel. When you’ve satisfied the requirements for an offer and earned the points, you (usually) cancel the credit card.
There’s a real art to travel hacking, and there are entire blogs, books. and websites devoted to it. People who are committed to it can travel for greatly reduced prices, sometimes even for free. It’s no wonder the idea has great appeal.
I did a little travel hacking when our family went to London in 2016. We did save an airfare or two, but I didn’t get started early enough with applying for cards and meeting the spending requirements on each to take full advantage. A good travel hack takes a certain amount of research and planning.
I found that, despite the prospect of saving big, travel hacking was not for me for several reasons:
• There are too many details to keep track of. Researching offers, applying for cards, meeting the spending requirements in the time period required, etc. I really like simplicity so I found this to be stressful.
• I like to have maximum flexibility when booking travel (flight times, airlines, hotel choices, etc.) and travel hacking doesn’t always allow for that.
• Finally, I was generally uncomfortable with opening and closing credit card accounts just for the points and worried about the effect on our credit scores (although I can report that with the hacking I did for our London trip, the effect on our credit scores was both negligible and short-lived).
While travel hacking is not for me, many people have great luck with it. If you’re interested in it, check out my friends Greg and Holly at Club Thrifty. They’ve got it mastered.
So what’s the next best travel rewards option for someone who values simplicity and flexibility when it comes to most things, including travel? I’ve found that brand loyalty – that is, sticking as much as possible to one preferred airline and one hotel chain – can have many benefits.
• Being brand loyal allows us to build up rewards faster than if we were using a different airline or hotel chain each time we traveled.
• Focusing on my preferred brands allows me to really get to know and take advantage of the different benefits in each rewards program, much more so than if I were trying to stay on top of several programs at once.
• Being brand loyal simplifies my life. As the one who books the travel in our family (and as a certified overthinker), I can get overwhelmed with all the different flight schedules, travel booking portals, and hotel reviews. Being brand loyal narrows things way down for me. If Southwest and Hilton aren’t coming through for me in terms of price or convenience, I can (and do) look elsewhere, but I always start with them and stick with them whenever possible.
We signed up for the Hilton Honors Program back in 2004, largely because Embassy Suites is one of Hilton’s brands. Our kids were young then and we loved Embassy Suites hotels for the extra space they offered without having to book an extra room. We took advantage of their free breakfasts and happy hours too.
Now that our kids are grown, we’ve stayed with Hilton because we know it so well and I find the rewards program easy to use. Lately, we’ve swapped Embassy Suites for Hampton Inns, which we always find to be clean, well-run, and generally in our price range. (Hampton Inns also often have free breakfasts, although they’re not as extensive as the Embassy Suites breakfasts.)
Hilton has a variety of hotel options in almost any place you’d want to travel to. There are fourteen total Hilton brands including Doubletree, Hilton Garden Inn, and even Waldorf Astoria, so I almost always have plenty to choose from. I like having those choices.
Why Southwest Airlines?
I often say that the only way I’ll travel somewhere is if Southwest flies there direct from Kansas City. That’s a joke, of course, but we are big Southwest fans, because of the generally competitive prices, the bags fly free policy, and Southwest’s flexibility if you have to change or cancel your reservation (even up to ten minutes before your flight leaves).
We’ve been burned a couple of times with other airlines when we’ve had to change flights due to circumstances beyond our control. The penalties were steep and the credit was hard to use. We’ve sometimes ended up eating entire airfares. When we’ve had to cancel a flight with Southwest, the credit for the canceled flight remains in our account for up to a year and it’s easy to rebook using the credit.
So that’s why Hilton and Southwest are brands that work well for us, but being brand loyal can work with any airline or hotel chain. Also, if you ever decide you want to switch brands, you can. It’s actually more about being loyal to one airline or one hotel chain at a time, not necessarily forever.
Our Simple Brand Loyalty Strategy
There are only two steps to maximizing travel rewards using this brand loyalty strategy.
1) Use the free hotel and airline loyalty programs of your chosen brands. Just by being members of the Hilton and Southwest loyalty programs we earn 10 Hilton Honors points and 2 Southwest Rapid Reward points for every $1 we spend with them.
2) Pay for hotel stays and flights with reward credit cards associated with your chosen brands. This is a departure from our usual credit card strategy, which is to use a cash back credit card (ours is the Costco Anywhere Visa) for all of our everyday spending and treat the cash back we earn as found money.
By using the Hilton Honors American Express Card for each stay in a Hilton-branded hotel we earn an extra 7 Hilton Honors points for every dollar we spend, for a total of 17 including the free loyalty program points. Plus, we earned a lot of points just for applying for the card the first time. (The current offer is 75,000 Hilton Honors points when you put $1000 on the card in the first 3 months. I don’t remember what it was back in 2004. :))
I plan to start doing the same thing with Southwest by using a Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card when we pay for Southwest tickets. Doing that will earn us an extra 2 Southwest Rapid Rewards points for every dollar we spend, for a total of 4 points per dollar including the free loyalty program.
We don’t currently have a Southwest card, and I would apply for one today except I’m waiting for Southwest to raise their offer from 40,000 points to 50,000, which they do occasionally. When that happens we will actually apply for two Southwest cards (one for me, one for Tom) because there’s a great Southwest companion pass you can earn…but that’s for another post.
So that’s the brand loyalty travel rewards plan. Have I made something that was supposed to be simple seem complicated? I hope not. Again, the goal for me is to make the most of our travel dollars while keeping travel planning fairly simple.
What’s your travel rewards strategy? I’d love to hear about it.