Since beginning full-time work four years ago, I’ve successfully leveraged the opening and closing of seven credit cards for remarkably cheap travel. I’ve been over the oceans and across the nation, all for a fraction of the cost. And four years later, I’m still going strong. Some refer to this art as travel hacking or credit card churning, for the legal and clever exploitation of airline-branded credit cards.
My only regret: not starting sooner.
Nearly four years since opening my first airline credit card, I sit in the world’s busiest airport reflecting on my past journeys. It’s time to provide an update and recap of the past few years. Additionally, I’ll address the most common concerns, similar to my previous post about credit card hacking.
Where I’ve Flown
Traditional airline mile accumulation is done through routine spending, completing surveys, and flying on various airlines. But it’s a slow process. the churning method takes advantage of all those elements, along with securing the sign-up bonuses in which many credit card companies use to entice consumers. This is the key distinction.
Over the past four years, I’ve tallied up nearly 500,000 miles with an airline partner of every major alliance, at the cost of $850 in annual fees. Through the traditional methods mentioned above, earning 500,000 miles would require 25 years of my annual credit card spending ($20k/year X 25 years = 500,000 miles).
I’ve spent half of those miles to fly nearly $5,000 worth of domestic and international flights for little more than $151. I still maintain another 250,000 miles across Hawaiian, American, Delta, Southwest, and jetBlue Airlines. All things said and done, the half-million miles should total up to ~$10,000 worth of travel, at a 90% discount.
How’s that for a travel incentive?
I was introduced to this travel hacking lifestyle by a friend many years ago, and I’m so thankful I took his advice. With a little bit of planning and organization, I viewed it as a perfect opportunity to take advantage of something I was already doing — spending via credit cards.
Remember: there are a few big criteria to consider before diving in: 1) Do you pay off your statement every month? 2) Do you have a credit score of 700+? 3) Do you have self-control to spend only what you can afford? You can read more about that in my related articles.
Since then, I’ve shared my lifestyle with many people. It’s gotten plenty of strange looks, but those that embrace the hacking, fare quite well. Some of my friends even make me look like a homebody; they are in Beijing, Honolulu, Europe, and South America, all for little more than taxes and fees.
Why This Exists?
Airline and credit card companies form a mutually beneficial relationship. Profit margins for airline companies are razor-thin and much of their business model surrounds meeting the population’s main demand: cheaper travel.
Because of this, companies partner with Chase, Barclays, American Express, etc. to offer a variety of cash back and reward cards for airline miles to build brand loyalty. They provide many strategic benefits: car rental insurance, no foreign transaction fees, mile accrual, anniversary bonuses, and the like. These have become standard elements to most travel cards.
However, what really draws people in, is the promise of a few free flights simply for signing up. These are called sign-up bonuses. They generally require a minimum spend (say $3,000), in a given time period (3 months). This ensures the credit card companies earn a sufficient amount (3% on all transactions), while enticing you to continue using the card after receiving the bonus. Visa and MasterCard win, the banks win, and the airlines develop a relationship.
As long as this landscape remains competitive, the bonuses of 40k miles, 50k miles, and sometimes more, will continue to flow. The opening and closing of these cards is necessary as all major bonuses are up-front, and never again during the life of the card.
I quickly discovered that’s where the big miles are made, it’s not in my usual spending–unless I’m spending many hundreds of thousands per year on a business.
Consider for a moment opening three cards a year at 50k miles each, for a total of 150k airline miles in one year. To achieve the same results on a single card would require spending approximately $150k, or at best $100k if you receive a sign-up bonus. This would take considerably longer (years!) for someone with my credit card expense rate.
Using the Miles
For those who wish to travel more, I’ve identified the two largest inhibitors as time and money. This is a proven solution to the latter. Trips back home that once seemed a nuisance, are made possible. Less than a month until your friend’s bachelor party? No worries. Traveling overseas gonna break the bank? Not a problem! I’ve created far more flexibility in my travels, allowing trips much further down on my value scale to come to life.
This is not to say it solves all travel constraints. Many airlines have limited award seating on their flights. And flights fluctuate in points just as they do in dollars. Less desirable times are cheaper. Although I haven’t experienced it myself, I’ve read it’s easier to get bumped flights, since airlines value paying, priority members over people like me.
Just like dollars, I do my best to spend them wisely. And conserve when appropriate.
Therefore, the first complication, or consideration, is to intelligently pick airline cards in which will be highly valuable to your travels. Identify your nearest airport(s) and its major carriers. Also consider where you travel most often, or where you’d like to travel more. These will guide you in choosing a high utility card.
My Ever-Rising Credit Score
The next comment is almost always: “but doesn’t that hurt your credit??”
Yes and no. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, any hard pull on your credit results in a temporary credit score reduction, which recovers in a few months. This discourages rapid (and potentially desperate) access to large sums of credit. Despite this temporary ding, the long-game is much more encouraging.
Since beginning this credit card hacking journey, my credit score has sky-rocketed as I continue to display financial intelligence with large credit limits and repeated on-time payments. Others who participate in this venture experience similar rises in credit scores.
When I finally decide to leverage my score for a mortgage or personal line of credit, I’ll lay off the churning game for at least a year prior (per the recommendations of many bloggers). But by then, I’ll have established a near-800 point credit score, with free travel along the way. Check out my credit scores article for more information on how it’s calculated.
This is another common complaint: “but then I have to manage all those cards and airline miles”. Well yes, this isn’t a free lunch. No one is handing you comped fares. Every three or four months, I’ll open a new card, which requires some research, evaluation of future travels, and card activation. I also spend more time searching for creative ways to travel (flying a mixed itinerary, researching nearby airports, etc), whereas many dollar-spenders will pick the cheapest fare on Google flights, and call it a day.
As with all things in life, you must evaluate if the return is worth the investment. I don’t think I spend more than 20-25 hours per year managing these cards. I have automatic bill pay, calendar reminders, and spreadsheets to keep it organized. To me, that investment is worth a 90% discount on all flights.
As I reflect on these past four years, it’s hard to imagine going as many places, for as little money. And that’s all the evidence I need for continuing the hacking lifestyle.
Credit Score Tracking: Credit Sesame