Set Travel Goals
It’s easy to get carried away and start applying for a bunch of random credit cards that seem like good offers, but I’d highly recommend setting a specific travel goal when you are first starting out. Do you want to take your family of four to Disneyland, or are you trying to fly first class to Europe to stay in luxury hotels? The types of points you need will vary greatly based on your travel needs. For example, Southwest primarily flies domestically, so you wouldn’t want to sign up for their card if your goal was to visit Australia. It’s a good idea to pick a few possible destinations, and look at the airline and hotel charts to determine how many points or miles your dream vacation will cost you.
When I first stumbled onto credit card churning, I immediately made Caleb pull a credit report, and when it came back all clear, I signed him up for four different airline credit cards: Delta, United, US Airways and American. I’m pretty sure his parents were appalled about the number of new cards showing up in the mail (we were abroad at the time, eagerly learning all
we I could about travel hacking from our Thai hostel cafe), but besides making them a little nervous about the financial responsibility of the woman he was about to marry, signing up for the first four cards that sounded good wasn’t the most brilliant idea. We still haven’t managed to use any of his Delta points, as Delta doesn’t seem to operate too many flights out of Denver, and their availability never works for us. Now we track every point and every upcoming trip and make sure that any card we sign up for lines up with our travel strategy.
Check Your Credit
While signing up for credit cards isn’t the only way to obtain miles and points, it’s certainly the most lucrative. But if your credit is shaky at best, this may not be the thing for you…at least not yet. There are certainly ways to improve your credit, which we’ll touch on later. Before you apply for any credit, figure out where you stand. It’s recommended that your score be over 700 before you consider churning. You are entitled to a free credit report from each of the three bureaus annually from annualcreditreport.com. This will not tell you your FICO score though, so I recommend getting an estimate by checking Credit Karma or Credit Sesame. There are other services you can pay a fee to utilize, but many of them offer a free trial period.
Sign Up for Rewards Programs
Before you take any trip, make sure that you are earning valuable points and miles for your spend! Sign up for various frequent flyer programs, hotel reward programs, rental car loyalty programs, even airport parking rewards (we use The Parking Spot). Be sure to sign each individual member of your family up for rewards accounts, especially for airlines. Many times loyalty programs will run promotions for new members, so do a quick search before signing up. This is especially important if you are a business traveler! Even if your company is paying the bill, the points earned for the hotel, flight, rental car, etc., go the the individual.
Manage Your Miles and Credit Cards
The trickiest part of all of this is keeping everything straight. I personally prefer to use Excel to track every little detail, but it can be time consuming. A great online option is Award Wallet. It tracks your rewards across various programs and will alert you when points are about to expire. We also rely heavily on Mint to track our spending on all of our different credit cards.
Sign Up for a Rewards Earning Credit Card (or two or three)
Once you’ve determined your credit is good to go and you have set a travel goal, you’re ready for your first churn! Start with one to two credit card applications (we personally never apply for more than three to four in one churn) that come up with a hefty sign up bonus. Offers are constantly changing, but I’d recommend starting with cards that earn flexible points (can be transferred to multiple programs), such as the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Card or the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Shift Your Everyday Spend to Credit Cards
This may be my best piece of advice on this page: stop using your debit card! For every dollar that you spend, you should be earning something. I know that many of you are still check writers, or always carry cash, but this small lifestyle change of transitioning to putting all your spend on your credit cards (again, provided you can pay them off every month) will help to quickly accumulate points. Of course, if this will cause you to overspend, then it may not be worth it. But by putting your daily spending such as gas, groceries, bills, etc. on your rewards earning card you can meet your minimum spend requirements quickly and earn rewards for everything you purchase. Pretty much everyone takes credit these days, but beware of companies who charge a fee to use your card (such as your mortgage or rent payments), and determine whether or not it’s worth it for you.
Meet the Minimum Spending Requirements
The majority of rewards cards require you to put a certain amount of spend on the card before you will receive the points bonus. Typically you have three months to hit the minimum spend level, which ranges from $500 up to $10,000. Don’t sign up for any card that you are not comfortable hitting the spend on, but keep in mind that there are lots of ways to hit spend, or even “manufacture spend.” We recommend you check out this article by Million Mile Secrets for 40 ways to complete minimum spend.
Maximize Bonuses and Promotions
One of our favorite ways to earn miles is by paying attention to category bonuses on certain cards. For instance, our Chase Sapphire provides 2x points on gas, restaurants, flights, and pretty much anything travel related. My Chase Ink card offers 5x points on our cell phone, Internet and TV bills, as well as anything from office supply stores. The Chase Freedom has rotating categories that vary from quarter to quarter. On anything else we tend to use a card that earns 2x points on all purchases, such as the Barclay Arrival card or the Capital One Venture card.
In addition to category bonuses, both credit card companies and major hotel and airlines will offer period promotions with opportunities to easily multiply your point balances. For example, here’s my strategy for earning bonus points on hotel stays this fall.
By now you know there’s plenty of ways to earn miles without actual butt-in-seat flying or head-on-pillow hotel staying. You can also earn points on regular activities such as dining out and shopping! If you shop online, you can significantly increase the amount of miles earned by clicking through a shopping portal. Start by checking evreward.com to compare portal payouts. I like to use Ebates and TopCashBack because the payouts are typically comparable and I know they are reliable–I’ve received checks from them before.
There’s a slew of other ways to earn points and cash back, including Inbox Dollars, e-miles and e-surveys.
Redeem Points and Miles for Free Travel
Now for the fun part-use your miles to take that trip you’ve been waiting for! It’s not a good idea to hoard your miles, as typically they tend to go down in value as loyalty programs make changes. Earn them and burn them! Be advised that it may take some time and planning to get the route that you want. So start early, (most hotels and airlines let you book 11 months in advance), be patient, and be flexible, whenever possible.
My biggest miles collecting fail so far was convincing my in-laws to sign up for two US Airways Mastercards so they could use the miles to go see Caleb when he was living in China. I had done it myself and had no problem booking an award ticket for 60,000 miles. But as I learned (freezing my rear end off in January on the Great Wall of China), summer is apparently a much more popular time to visit North Asia. Even though they had the miles in their accounts and pretty good flexibility with their schedule, I couldn’t find any availability a few months out and we couldn’t make it work. Lesson being: plan as far ahead as possible.