I’m not going to lie. When I first heard about travel hacking (getting miles through credit card sign-up bonuses), I gave it one big eye roll and a hefty sigh.

Yeah, right!

I just didn’t believe it was possible. Or I did, and I thought that you had to spend too much money.

You see, I live on a pretty bare bones budget. I don’t even spend $1,000 per month on basic expenses, and I can’t pay my student loans with credit cards, so I thought that the spending requirements were out of reach. Also, let’s not forget that I got my first credit card a little over a year ago.

But I kept reading post after post about people going on vacation for what seemed like an absurdly cheap amount.

You guys know that my number one priority is getting out of debt. But a close second priority is traveling. My initial goal was to travel abroad once a year, but then life happened and it’s been about every other year. Something to note, is that I’m a frugal traveler and don’t travel unless I find sweet deals. I also always stay in hostels. My trips have usually cost around $1,500. Even so, that’s still a chunk of change — roughly two months of debt repayment. So I’ve tried to quell my thirst for travel, but if I’m honest, I think about traveling every day. I have an insatiable wanderlust and if I die tomorrow, I would regret not traveling more.

But I am trying to manage my debt and become debt free asap, while also still enjoying life. At $35,000 left to go, I still have several years of debt repayment, unless I can double or triple my income, which I hope to do at some point 🙂

So after realizing that I don’t want to compromise my debt repayment (too much) and that I still want to travel, I had to figure out how to do both, creatively. So I reluctantly applied for another (rewards) credit card. I knew my spending was low, so I took the slow and steady route.

I applied for the American Airlines card that required spending $1,000 in 3 months, to get 30,000 bonus miles. I was able to do that, and then after flying to New Orleans for FinCon on AA, and spending a little bit more, I had 40,000 miles.

A mere 40,000 miles was enough for me to go abroad off-season! It took me a while to find a flight as Portland is not a hub (ahh, sometimes I really miss living in LA or NYC!), but I finally found one. It’s not the best, but hey, I’m going to Spain for peanuts.

I’m flying from Portland to Seattle, then to Dallas, then to Madrid! Yikes. But for the price of some airport taxes at a mere $63!

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I’ll be going for 2 whole weeks in late April to early May! I’ll be flying into Madrid, which is where my love of travel first hit. When I was 21, I saved up for a year to study abroad in Spain for the summer. It was amazing. So I’m happy to get back and visit it 9 years later!

The real reason I’m going to Spain though is because one of my best friends in Portland is teaching English there until June, which means I have a limited time to visit her.

Her teaching placement is crazy. She is in a ridiculously cute location in Nerja. Every time I see her pictures on Facebook, I get excited about seeing this place in person!

Also, because I’ll be in Spain, I’ve decided to check something off my bucket list and go to Lisbon, Portugal! If you listened to the very end of my podcast interview with Shannon, you know that this was on the top of my list!

I’ll be traveling solo as my partner just got a better paying job at a music nonprofit (yay!), which is a step up from a music store. We want to grow his career a bit, and travel together again at some point.

I plan to keep it as frugal as possible and will side hustle my way there through brand ambassador work and any work that is not related to writing or editing.

So there you have it! A newbie travel hacker booking her first flight abroad. But I would like to share this post, with one big caveat.

Travel hacking isn’t for everyone. I repeat, it’s not for everyone. Some people write about travel hacking like everyone should be doing it, and that you’re an idiot if you don’t.

But the thing is, not everyone is good with credit cards. Even though I’ve paid off my balances in full every month, I’ve seen some credit card creep in my own life that I had to manage. It’s a slippery slope and I can totally see how rewards cards can encourage more spending. What works for other people, may not work for you. And if you are in credit card debt now, then definitely don’t try this at home, folks.

I think it’s important to be honest that yes, travel hacking is possible, but it’s still not a great idea for everyone. If you’re bad with credit cards, why would you put yourself through that? If you knew someone was an alcoholic, you wouldn’t recommend they get a drink, right? So I don’t want to recommend things to people that might just be a bad idea, but rather share my own experience with travel hacking.

The slow and steady route…I don’t ever see myself having a dozen cards, but I do want to be smart with my credit card spending, and try to pay off debt and reap the “rewards”.

What are your thoughts on travel hacking? Know anyone in Madrid or Lisbon I can stay with? 🙂

p.s. Michelle so eloquently stated why I prioritize travel.


Melanie is a freelance writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy, and empowering people to take control of their finances. She writes about breaking up with debt, freelancing, and side hustle adventures at DearDebt.com.

Currently she puts more than 50% of her income towards debt, while living a frugal, fun life. In addition to her love of personal finance, art and music, she is also a karaoke master. Follow the adventure @DearDebtBlog.

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47 responses to “My First Travel Hack: I’m Going to Spain for $63”

  1. Kirsten says:

    Wow!!! That is so exciting and awesome!

    I love to travel… But not with small kiddos. I’m hoping we are out of debt in a few years and able to put together some really great and nearly free family vacations!
    Kirsten recently posted…It Came Without Ribbons: Balsam Hill Charity Drive (and Raffle)My Profile

  2. Way to go! Looks like it’ll be a fun trip! My husband and I have a rewards card. We have only built up about $248 worth of travel expenses at this point, but that would still easily get me round trip tickets to visit my family in the summer.
    Kasey @ Debt Perception recently posted…One-Third Life CrisisMy Profile

  3. How fun Melanie! Glad you found such a great deal!
    Tonya@Budget and the Beach recently posted…November Review/December GoalsMy Profile

  4. We want to travel more, so we are looking into the best ways to save money on travel costs. How are you going to cover the other cost associated with the 2 week trip?
    Brian @ Debt Discipline recently posted…Holiday TraditionsMy Profile

    • Melanie says:

      I plan to cover the costs by side hustling as a brand ambassador. I just booked a gig for $500, which will go straight into my Spain fund. I will either stay with friends or in hostels and eat light for two meals a day (I like to have a nice dinner). I generally walk everywhere when I’m in town to explore so don’t take taxis or the bus. I also will be working some while I am there as well!

  5. Ha! As soon as I saw your blog title I wondered “is she going to hit Portugal while she is there as well?” Yay!!!! I am so psyched for you that you are going to do this!! I was just talking to a client about travel hacking her way to Europe next summer. It’s a great alternative when you don’t have the extra cash or would rather use it to pay down debt. I am so excited for you!!
    Shannon @ Financially Blonde recently posted…Status Quo Should Not Be a GoalMy Profile

  6. Michelle says:

    Love this post! Sounds like a fun trip. I hope you have a great time!

    We have been travel hacking for a few years now, but we do want to get more into it eventually. We are no Club Thrifty when it comes to travel hacking, but maybe one day 🙂
    Michelle recently posted…What I Would Change About My College ExperienceMy Profile

    • Melanie says:

      That’s awesome! Haha I’m not at her level either. It’s so inspiring though. But for now, slow and steady is for me. It will help me be able to still travel sometimes and focus on debt.

  7. How awesome!! Looks beautiful there. I really love this, too, because our spending often doesn’t meet the requirements of the better cards. I think we might be able to pull off $1,000 in 3 months if we plan major expenses around it. This gives me hope. =) Our student loan debt is still a priority, but if we can earn points through regular purchases, we might as well.
    Erin @ Journey to Saving recently posted…November Budget ReviewMy Profile

    • Melanie says:

      I paid for our groceries and my health insurance, so was able to make it work! There is hope as long as you take the slow and steady route like me. I’m excited to try to maximize rewards, while still keeping spending in check.

  8. Nice! That sounds like an exciting trip!
    Kayla @ Shoeaholicnomore recently posted…November 2014 ResultsMy Profile

  9. Kassandra says:

    Congrats on getting away to Spain next year! My DH traveled to Spain last month for a week for work and he really liked the cities he visited. It’s all about the planned spending in order to reap the travel hacking rewards; great job!
    Kassandra recently posted…Are You Keeping A Secret?My Profile

  10. Oh can I come…just kidding. This is great please take lots of pictures and share all the details when you get back. I have never tried this, but I realize it really does work.
    Petrish @ Debt Free Martini recently posted…4 Tips To Finding Your Voice While BloggingMy Profile

  11. Ben Luthi says:

    Awesommmmmmee! 🙂 I love it! Europe is the way to go. I lived in Germany for a couple of years and haven’t been back for 7 years now. I’m dying to go!
    Ben Luthi recently posted…The Foolish Things We DoMy Profile

    • Melanie says:

      Wow, that’s so cool you lived in Germany for a few years. I’d love to live abroad for a few years at some point. You should travel hack your way back!

  12. Emma Lincoln says:

    Congrats on your first travel hack! I’ll be posting mine pretty soon too 🙂
    Emma Lincoln recently posted…I’m in The HolidazeMy Profile

  13. Bailey says:

    As soon as I get my credit card paid off and my credit score up, I’m going to travel hack! Now that I use YNAB, it really helps me to use my (debit) card and still stay on budget.

  14. How fun, I’m thrilled for you! 🙂 Spain/Portugal is on our list too for next year. It’s just a hop and a skip for us from England fortunately. Can’t wait to see your pictures and read about your adventures! 🙂
    Nichole @Budget Loving Military Wife recently posted…Groupon Promo Code: 15% OFF Any Local DealMy Profile

  15. N says:

    Sounds wonderful!!

    That’s so nice that you will get to visit your friend while she is working there- also a dream of mine! Which company did she go through? I’ve heard horror stories about many of them and want to avoid getting with one of them!

  16. Let me know if you’d like some tips for Lisbon 🙂 I was there last year and stayed at a great apartment via Airbnb. Can give you more deets if you’d like!
    Christine @ The Wallet Diet recently posted…20 Holiday Gifts Under $20 That People Actually WantMy Profile

  17. That’s awesome! I would love to go to Spain and Portugal one day. I travel hack but in moderation. It can be overwhelming trying to keep track of all those credit cards.

  18. Michelle says:

    This is fantastic!!! I can’t wait to see the pictures of your trip. I love Spain but I’ve never been to Portugal.
    Michelle recently posted…Setting My 2015 Gift Giving Boundaries (and Budget) NOW!My Profile

  19. Robin says:

    I haven’t tried the travel hacking thing yet. I’ve been skeptical like you are, though I am pretty good with credit cards. It just seems like a lot to keep up with and I always worry that I wouldn’t be able to redeem it for anything I want.
    Robin recently posted…Thankful Thursday # 4 : 3 Frugal HobbiesMy Profile

  20. Lisa says:

    How exciting! Spain is definitely on my bucket list!

    I love how you also mention that travel hacking isn’t for everyone – myself included! I refuse to travel hack until I am credit card debt free! Until then, I need to focus on debt repayment.
    Lisa recently posted…Totally Awesome Amazon Giveaway – DecemberMy Profile

  21. If you are good with credit cards, I think travel hacking is really awesome. I wish I caught on earlier before the little one came…I don’t think we’ll be traveling too much nowadays.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…Living Rich Cheaply: Have Your Cake And Eat It Too!My Profile

  22. Athena says:

    How exciting! I’ve always wanted to go to Spain and Italy, I will be living vicariously through you!
    Athena recently posted…2015 Books- A Year In ReviewMy Profile

  23. amanda says:

    Yay for travel hacking! I was skeptical at first too my friend basically had to twist my arm. Proud to say I haven’t paid for a flight in three years lol.

  24. Joymarie says:

    This is great! I love learning about different hacks and cost-effective ways to travel. I booked my first glitch fare deal recently to Abu Dhabi for $187 as well and now I’m hooked! Can’t wait to explore more of the world.
    Joymarie recently posted…How I Snagged a Round Trip Flight Deal to Abu Dhabi for $187 (..and How You Can Too!)My Profile

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