April 7, 2016 - Austin Grandt
Ever wondered how your favorite travel bloggers are able to constantly be traveling around the world? Many of them are travel hacking masters that sign up for credit cards to travel for free. Getting started isn't difficult and most people can get approved for a couple cards immediately. Use our guide below to get started and get your next flight for free!
Credit card churning has been a hobby of mine that I got into after years of reading travel hacking blogs about people who travel around the world for nearly free. I was always fascinated by racking up miles and figuring out ways to travel to new places without the large budget international travel can sometimes require. My plans to become a travel hacker were put on hold once I began working for the airlines and traveling as an employee. After I left the airline industry I quickly realized that in order to fulfill my need to travel I was going to have to begin executing on all of the tips and tricks I had learned over the years. Since I am still pretty new to it (about 6 months in) I wanted to write a post about how to begin credit card churning, which is the most common way that people hack their travel expenses.
Before I start, I should give credit where credit is due and link to some of my most read blogs that are great resources for all things travel and credit cards. I will mention these later in the post so I’ll leave them at the top for you to check out either before or after reading my post. They will have links to the best cards out there and you will find specific information on great redemptions, success stories, etc. Here are the links:
Before you start you are going to need a few things:
A credit score of 730+ and never carry a balance
You aren’t wanting to buy a house in the next 2 years
At least a vague idea of what travel you want to do
You are going to need healthy credit score to get approved for most of these cards and if you carry a balance often, you are negating all of the benefits of racking up miles. I wouldn’t suggest this hobby for anyone who isn’t organized, has a score lower than 730, and carries other credit card debt. Managing a bunch of cards takes some level of preparation and organization and it can quickly spiral out of control if you don’t manage it well. It doesn’t take a lot of time, mostly just making sure all payments are in on time, having enough money to completely pay off balances, etc.
I don’t have as much experience with applying for a house loan, but the rule of thumb I’ve seen is if you want to get a house loan, don’t churn.
Knowing what type of travel you want to do is key because it will influence what type of cards that you want to go after. If you want to hoard a bunch of points for one luxurious flight a year, try to stick with one airline as much as possible. Want to head to Asia 3x a year in coach? Most american carriers can get you there, but you will need around 60-70K roundtrip so keep that in mind that one card might not get you your roundtrip.
Churning is when you apply for a bunch of credit cards to receive bonus miles and then either close them to get the bonus again or make room for other cards. Some cards are churnable, meaning the bonuses can be had multiple times, and some are not. It depends on which bank issues the cards on whether they can be churned or not. Doctor of credit has a great resource on what cards can and can’t be churned.
Keep in mind that applying for credit cards can affect your credit score. Normally every time you do an app-o-rama (we’ll get into that later) you will be dinged 5-20 points on your credit score. This quickly comes back but it’s something to be aware of.
It should also be noted that in order to receive many of the bonuses you see you need to spend a minimum amount (normally $1-3K within 3 months) to get the bonus miles. If your spending habits aren’t large enough to meet the minimum spends there are ways to still reach the bonuses, called manufactured spending, but that deserves it’s own post and is on another level for complexity. If you search around Google you can begin to get a pretty good idea of how manufactured spending works and choose if it’s the right path for you.
When I first started I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go in the next 12-18 months (1x Europe, 1x Asia, 1 South America). I didn’t know how to maximize the redemption of my miles yet other than that I needed a lot to get to these locations. After some researching, I chose to start with one card that had flexible points and then I could hone in on my strategy from there. I suggest that most people start with just one card at the beginning to figure out what one whole
The Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) is what I suggest for anyone starting out to get a feel for credit card churning. It was the first travel only card I got and it helped me learn the ropes of making minimum spends and researching the different programs. The CSP earns Ultimate Rewards Points (often shortened to UR points) that can be redeemed for many different carriers depending on where you need to go.
Most bloggers value these points highly because of their flexibility so you can maximize your redemption for most trips you’d like to do. The points normally transfer at a 1:1 ratio and Chase has both personal and business cards that you can receive to gain these points.
I don’t think everyone has to do this card first, it was merely what I did to learn about how points work. You can replace the CSP with any good offer that you see, but I would still say stick with one card for your first time.
Once you have completed the spend for your first card and received the bonus, it’s time for your first app-o-rama. An app-o-rama is when you apply for multiple cards (normally 3-4) within a short time window, normally a few minutes. Find the cards to meet your future travel plans and apply to them. It used to be said that applying to multiple cards in a short time period helps negate the number of hard credit pulls (puts your score down) and improves chances of approval. I don’t know if this is still true, but most pros will say to open up new browsers and apply to your cards quickly. Here is one potential scenario for a newbie who wants to travel internationally:
CSP: 43K points (40K bonus + 3K minimum spend)
Barclays US Airways Card: 50K Miles
Citi AAdvantage Platinum: 53K Miles (50K bonus + 3K minimum spend)
CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select: 50K Miles (50K bonus + 3K minimum spend)
Chase United Card: 31K Miles (30K bonus + 1K minimum spend)
Total Miles so far:
American Airlines: 106K
US Airways: 50K
United: 74K (this scenario redeemed CSP Ultimate Rewards for United Miles)
That’s a lot of miles! Just to give you an idea of what you can do with those…
American Airlines 106K – Round trip to Japan in coach anytime plus a Round Trip to South America in the Fall in coach. Or, roundtrip to Japan or Europe in First Class.
US Airways 50K – Round trip to Europe in the winter/early spring in coach or 2 roundtrips to the Caribbean in coach.
United 74K – Roundtrip to Fiji in coach.
The examples above are by no means the best way to maximize your miles. There are much more creative routes for redemption (like open jaws or stopovers) that should be covered at length in a different post. Many travel blogs and resources should be able to help figure out how to maximize your miles. I just wanted to give an example of what you could conceivably do with your miles.
Getting Denied or Reconsidered
Sometimes you apply and you don’t get approved instantly online. The screen will say something to the effect of “we’re still processing your approval and will let you know by mail”. Instead of waiting, you can wait one day and call the reconsideration lines for the bank to see if the person on the reconsideration line can approve you. Your mileage may vary on this, but most people have pretty good luck being approved if they call.
Spending out of control
I’ve read some horror stories of people spending out of their budget to make minimum spends. Please do not do this! It can be very tempting to make the minimum spend, but it is by no means worth it you are going into debt!
There are many different tactics for credit card churning and the ideas I mentioned above are mostly geared towards international travel. If you are a domestic traveler the Southwest Companion Pass might be more of up your alley. There are also other cards for hotels, rewards, etc. that can all be found very easily with a little research. I wanted to outline some tactics for a beginner in this post to get their feet wet into churning and from there they can choose their path.