Today I’m super excited to bring you an interview with Brad Barrett. Brad runs Richmond Savers, a personal finance blog with an emphasis on travel hacking. He’s currently running a challenge to help 500 families make it to Disney World for virtually free. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Brad, first of all thank you for being here!
Thank you! I’m very excited to be here.
For those readers who aren’t overly familiar, can you explain a little bit about what travel hacking is?
Absolutely. I think people hear the word “hacking” and it sounds kind of nefarious and a little bit scary, so I usually use the phrase “maximizing travel rewards.” Most people generally refer to it as travel hacking, so we’ll go with that for now.
Essentially, it’s opening up various, targeted credit cards to get these massive signup bonuses that the banks offer, and then turning those signup bonuses into free travel, or close-to-free travel, across the globe. Obviously, this is credit card related, so it’s not for everybody. Clearly, millions of people get into credit card debt. This is not for those people at all.
This is for people who pay their credit card on time and in full every single month and have a strong credit rating. Many of these people have a rewards card that might get 1% or maybe 1.5%. That’s kind of a normal thing; at the end of the year you get a couple hundred bucks in cash, and you’re happy about that, right? Just like me: I didn’t know any better. So I was thrilled with my $300 check at the end of the year.
What travel hacking does is it targets these very specific credit cards. For instance, a card everybody’s heard of: the Capital One Venture card. I’m sure you’ve seen Jennifer Garner and Samuel L. Jackson on TV hundreds of times. That’s a nice card. It has a signup bonus that you can really turn into about $460 worth of free travel.
By using that card for a couple months with just your normal spending and paying it off on time and in full every month, you can turn $3,000 of just your regular spending that you probably would have gotten maybe a $30 check for at the end of the year, into $460 of travel.
People who are into travel hacking go from card to card like that and rack up these enormous bonuses. That way you can put together trips that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do. It’s a pretty fun hobby.
Our family loves free travel. We’ve only done it on a smaller scale. I wouldn’t call us travel hacking “experts.” We’ve gone to the beach for almost free, we had a family emergency one time where we were able to go and have free accommodations, but when we find ourselves doing this, we also find ourselves putting a lot of thought and planning into every single move we make. Opening the right card, strategizing the minimum spend…. Are we making this way too hard on ourselves?
It can be overwhelming. There’s no doubt about that. When I started this 4+ years ago, I was overwhelmed, and I’m a CPA who loves getting into the nerdiness of numbers.
Luckily, I kept with it. I knew some other personal finance bloggers who I trusted and respected who did this, so at least I knew it was real. I had that going in the background.
I did a ton of research and figured it out. You kind of overthink every move. There are probably 10-15 cards that you could open that are just fantastic cards that are applicable to just about anyone. There a lot of these cards that offer very flexible points like the Chase Ultimate Rewards Points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Those are very flexible because they transfer to a bunch of different airlines and hotels.
Instead of closing your eyes and saying, “I’m going to go for…American Airlines!” That’s very restrictive to just have miles in one program. If you instead went for a more flexible set of points, like with Chase, you have points that are applicable to ten different airlines and hotels.
That would be my recommendation: start more general, and then drill down into it as you know what your trips might be. If you were going to Hawaii, you would look into particular hotel cards that would be good for Hawaii as opposed to just closing your eyes and picking, “Oh, I don’t know…Hilton!”
Get those really broadly general points first and build up a base of these points where you can get airline points, which are the hardest part generally. Then dive deeper into specifics as you know your exact trip.
We started a site called Travel Miles 101 for people like us. This isn’t travel hacking advanced or PhD level. This is, “How can I get up to speed quickly?” You can be part of community where you feel safe and comfortable asking all those newbie questions.
I remember feeling overwhelmed when I was getting started with this, being overwhelmed, but knowing it could be so cool. That’s why we created that site. We have a free course. There’s no reason not to sign up for it. It doesn’t cost anything. It takes a couple of minutes to read an article every day, and you’ll be up to speed. That’s my pay-it-forward contribution to the travel hacking world.
So we know that there’s the minimum spend, and some cards will have annual fees, but are there any other unexpected costs you should look out for?
Honestly, not really. Like you said, the annual fee is really the big one. The vast majority of these cards waive the annual fee for the first year. You can use the card, get the bonus, and then make the decision at the end of that year to close it instead of paying the annual fee. So annual fees aren’t really an issue.
As I mentioned before, and I want to reiterate this because it’s so important, pay your credit card. Pay your credit card on-time and in full every month. You won’t have any interest expense. There really are no hidden expenses that I’ve encountered and I’ve earned millions of miles doing this.
The one caveat is that people use the term “free travel.” I hate that being a stickler. This is not free. It’s pretty darn close to free.
You’ll take a round trip in the US for instance. You have to pay $11.20 worth of totally unavoidable taxes and fees to the government. To get a $400 round trip from my house in Richmond to California for $11.20 is pretty amazing. Nobody’s going to complain about that, but is that free by a technical definition? No, it’s not. But it’s $11.20.
If you go on international flights, each country has their own different fee schedule. Sometimes you’ll pay about $100. But to get a roundtrip to Europe or Asia for $100 is not too shabby.
You could still open a card like the Venture card. You could pay for the fees with that card, and then still knock it down to zero. So there are ways to do it entirely free if you were so inclined.
That’s actually what we’re working towards right now: a trip to Asia. I know you have a family, and I think that’s one of the biggest obstacles we’ve come across: airline tickets for x amount of people.
Oh, I hear you. Not only the cash requirement or point requirement, but finding availability for a family of four. We have two young daughters. It can be somewhat challenging. This is a really important side bar conversation. “Oh, these are frequent flier miles! Aren’t there blackout dates?” There is some validity to that. There are limitations on these award seats.
I’ve found that if you can be just a little bit flexible it makes a big difference. Plus or minus a day or two even helps. We have young kids. We can travel in the summer. The summer is the highest season for travel, but that’s still a huge period of time to be flexible with. I’m pretty confident that we can find four seats to Europe or Asia in that time frame.
My brother just moved to Santiago, Chile and we’re going to go visit him next year. I don’t think I’m going to find tickets every single day, but I’m positive I can find tickets for our family of four if I’m a little bit flexible.
While we’re on family travel, I’ve been reading up on your Keys to the Magic Kingdom Challenge. You’re helping 500 families get to Disney, saving them a cumulative $2M. It’s free, and participants will only have to spend about 30 minutes strategizing. Can you tell us a little more about that?
It’s exciting! It’s definitely the most exciting thing we’ve done on Richmond Savers. Our little personal finance blog turned into a travel hacking site with this trip that our family took to Disney World. We have two young daughters, most American families are going to end up in Disney World someday, but it’s expensive. It was going to cost us like $5,000 to go on this trip and that just wasn’t doable.
But our girls were dying to go. I did a ton of research and tried to figure out if I could take this love of travel hacking and find a way to turn it into a trip a Disney World. I found a way to get the airfare, the hotels onsite at Disney and the Disney World park tickets, which was a cool little trick I found. We got some press attention for that article. Big time, like New York Times and things like that.
At that point I realized I could help other families like ours who have either never heard of travel hacking or don’t have the time to research it. I started helping people of the past couple of years, and then I started this challenge very recently just to formalize it. To get people who are serious, really.
It’s a free group to join, but I have an application on there. It’s a real application process, but I’m not turning away people if they’re serious. I’m looking for people who can pay their credit cards on time and in full, and have a credit score significant enough that they’ll be able to open these cards, which is usually above a 700. I’m just looking for people who I can help. People who are excited and going to follow through on this.
I’m willing to invest as much of my time as possible to help another family save $4,000 each. The hope is to get 500 people in this group to save $4,000 each which would be $2 million across the whole group. I think it’s a lofty goal, but I think it’s something we can hit. I’m definitely excited to embark on it.
Honestly, the Disney trip, of all of the travel hacking trips, is one of the easiest. So for people who are looking to get started, it sounds like a lofty goal, but it really is pretty straightforward. It takes some planning time. You have to open the specific credit cards and hit those minimum spending requirements, so this is not “Hey, it’s May right now, let’s go in July.”
But if you wanted to go next May, or maybe even this Fall, you could put together a good bit of savings. That’s kind of the cool thing. It’s not an all or nothing thing. If you want to go for five nights, you could open up two credit cards and get five nights at a hotel. So $1,500 worth of hotels for really, very little work.
I think one of the biggest questions out there is, “How will this affect my credit?” So how will travel hacking affect your credit, and do you have any tips to keep your score on an upward trajectory?
That’s a great question. It’s another one of these things where I would say, let’s take a step back and ask, “Am I the right type of person to get into travel hacking?” Somebody without a great score? Don’t even think about it. This is the CPA side of me. Get that one credit card for life that has no annual fee, use it a couple times a month, and pay it off in full every single month. Your credit score over time is going to go up. Somebody who can’t pay their credit card on time and in full should run screaming from travel hacking. This isn’t for you.
Somebody that’s probably going to get a mortgage in the next year or so—I don’t think there is going to be much of an impact on your actual score, but you’re introducing another element for your underwriter to look at and say, “Oh, that’s a risk. Let’s ask some questions.” It’s one of those things you probably just don’t want to get into. That’s the conservative, accountant side of me. I usually caution people who are going to get a mortgage, or a car loan to a lesser extent, that this probably isn’t the right time to do this.
It’s also a matter of where you are in your life. My wife and I were in our mid-30s, we had a house, a mortgage and really good credit scores. I had a 797 when we started. I remember that number precisely. I read hundreds of hours on this stuff. It seemed legitimate. There was no one online saying, “Oh, my credit score go decimated! I wish I never got into this!” Still, it sounds great, but you need to see it in action.
My wife and I literally sat down and said, “Okay, what if our credit score does go down? What if our scores drop 50 points? Even to a 750? Will that matter to us?” And the answer was no. It didn’t matter at all. We’d still be in the excellent range. We don’t need it, per se, because we won’t be getting a mortgage anytime soon. That was our mental approach to it. We had this risk tolerance where even if it does drop, it’s okay.
That was how we approached it. I don’t work for the bank. I don’t work for the crediting agencies. So take this for what it’s worth as my anecdotal experience. My score started as 797, and the lowest it ever dropped was 25 points. It could’ve been a variety of factors. It could have been that I opened a couple cards recently, or it could have been that I had a balance that I hadn’t paid yet that month because the due date hadn’t come. Things do fluctuate a little.
Right now, and I just checked yesterday, my score is at 809. I’m up 12 points. I’ve earned over 2 million miles and points that I estimate are worth about $40,000 if I play my cards right, and my score has gone up by 12 points. I’ll take that.
We’ve put 4,500 people through our Travel Miles 101 course, and I have yet to hear somebody come back and say, “Hey, Brad, you destroyed my life. My credit rating went down and everything’s crumbling around me.” I just haven’t heard it. I’ve yet to hear of anybody whose score really dropped dramatically.
Of course, the caveat is you have to just wait and see what happens, which is why I usually advise people to dip their toes in. You’ll see a lot of these crazy expert travel experts open all these cards at once and for a regular family, that’s just not realistic. I go one card at a time, we take it easy, put all of our life spending on there, and when we’re done with that minimum spend, we go to the next card. It’s nice and easy and measured. That works for my family. For other families, they want to do it more aggressively, and that’s fine.
The moral of the story is just do what you’re comfortable with. That’s how I approach it.
If someone wants to sign up for the challenge, is it open on a rolling basis or is there a deadline?
For The Keys to the Magic Kingdom Challenge, I’m limiting it to 500 families because that’s pretty much the max that I think I can handle. It is rolling. It’s not for a certain time period. We’ve had people roll in for about the last month or so since it’s been open.
So far it’s gone great. We have a private Facebook group where people can ask questions…this is really 1:1. I’ll jump on the phone with people, I email with them. I’m here to help, really. Once I get to that 500, I plan to close it down.
The Travel Miles 101 course is completely free, completely open to anybody. Just go to the site and type in your email address and we’ll send you out an email every day for two weeks. At the end of it, you’ll be pretty much up to speed on travel hacking. I think that’s a good way for people to get started regardless of whether they want to do the Disney thing or not.
I think it’s so cool that you not only do this on such a big scale, but also bring it to others. I mean, a free trip to Disney World? You’re literally making people’s dreams come true.
That’s really kind. Like I’ve said ad nauseam here, I’m an accountant. I sat at a desk my entire career and filled in tax returns, which is not that psychologically satisfying. This has just been the most amazing experience..really helping people save a ton of money. I just can’t tell you how great it makes me feel. It’s definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life professionally. It’s a fun thing for sure, and I appreciate the kind words.
Thanks so much to Brad for taking the time to educate us today! If you want to join The Keys to the Magic Kingdom Challenge, you can sign up here.
Brad receives no compensation for those participating in the challenge; he really is just that passionate about helping others!
If you want to travel hack, but don’t necessarily want to go to Disney, be sure to sign up for Travel Miles 101.
If you’re one of those people that shouldn’t be travel hacking, but still want to save money on Disney, start a conversation with my affiliate Laura. She’s a Disney travel agent that finds you the biggest money-saving methods on your booking at zero cost to you. Let her stress for you so you can save more without lifting a finger.