Travel Hacking for Fun and Profit

Sunset from up in the air

We’ve posted travel reports about trips where we used used airline and hotel loyalty points to keep the cost down; each time, people seemed curious how we earned enough point and miles to travel as much as we do. This post addresses that question in more detail than you may care to know. The end of the year seemed a good time to summarize miles and points we accumulated in 2015, how we obtained them, and what we used them for.

I’m excited to write about our experiences playing the airline miles and points “game” (a.k.a, credit card churning, travel hacking, etc.). Whatever you want to call it, the idea is simple:

  1. Take advantage of credit card sign up bonuses to accumulate loyalty points
  2. Cancel the card before the annual fee hits, if possible
  3. Use the points to travel, hopefully close to free (or cash them out)
  4. Rinse and repeat.

We’ve done our best to keep track of how much the various credit card and manufactured spending fees costs us, so that we are not deceiving ourselves or anyone else about what is and isn’t “free“. (Those of you who read our monthly spending reports may have noticed we sometimes have a line item for credit card annual fees or fees associated with meeting minimum spending requirements to get a signup bonus.)

Our main source of points and miles these days is credit card signup bonuses. Our infrequent business travel adds to the pot, but isn’t a main source. We engaged heavily in manufactured spending in the past but aren’t currently. We will take advantage of any one off promotions that come by that are too good to pass up.

Does this sound weird to you? All I can say is I like to travel, and we all need our hobbies.

WARNING: If this idea is new to you and sounds interesting, that’s great, but make sure you ask your self these questions first before doing anything and make sure you have the right personality and credit situation. As in most things in life, it helps to be a bit of a nerd (except in high school), and to approach the situation from a position of strength. You may just ignore this warning, it doesn’t matter to us either way, but I really hope you seriously read this link first!

Our experience with credit card churning

We started aggressively churning travel reward credit cards in 2012 after getting the Southwest Companion Pass for the first time. We’ve taken advantage of this perk often, and have been hooked since!

We were hobbled by having short credit histories  and started relatively slowly by only applying for 6 to 8 cards a year. As we built up our credit histories and got more comfortable with the churning process, we slowly increased the number of applications to our current rate of 4 or 5 cards a quarter.

It’s mainly me who participates in this activity. I don’t churn as aggressively as others, nor do I plan my churning as well as I’d like (yet). I’ve gotten better over the years and now when I see a good signup bonus I’ll definitely go for it. I can be a bit of a points and miles hoarder, but I’m trying to change this. Airlines and hotels frequently devalue their points, requiring more miles and points for the same rewards. We feel it’s better to use the points and miles now for the sure thing, instead of banking them for an uncertain future; a point in the hand is worth two in the bush, so to speak.

What to do with all those points and miles?

When it comes to redeeming the miles and points, we’re not particularly motivated by flying first/business class (we may consider this on very long flights), nor do we care about hotel elite statuses (unless there’s free breakfast involved). Our approach is to make our accumulated points and miles go as far as possible in terms of number of flights and and hotel stays while minimizing out of pocket costs. Our trip reports go into detail on how we redeem our points and miles to make travel more affordable.

Summary of 2015 in Points, Miles, and Dollars

Last year we did three App-O-Rama’s each, applying for 30 credit cards between the two of us (26 approvals and 4 denials),  accumulating 895,000 points/miles (various hotels and airlines), 6 free hotel night certificates, and $550 in statement credits. We redeemed points and miles to cover 12 round trip airfares and 22 nights at hotels & resorts. We incurred $1500 in net out of pocket costs related to earning and redeeming rewards.

Cards Churned

Approvals:

  • Chase Hyatt Rewards x 2  – 4 Free Night Certificates + $100 statement credit
  • Chase IHG Rewards x 2 – 160K + $100 statement credit
  • Chase British Airways – 50K + potential for another 50K
  • BoA Alaska Airlines x 3 – 75K + $300 in statement credits
  • Barclays US Airways – 50K
  • Discover IT – $50 bonus
  • Citi AAdvantage x 5 – 200K
  • Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve  – 2 Free Weekend Night Certificates
  • Citi Hilton HHonors x 3 – 150K
  • TD Aeroplan x 2– 50K
  • Amex Delta Gold – 50K + $50 statement credit
  • Amex Hilton HHonors Surpass – 85K
  • Amex Business Gold – 75K Membership Rewards
  • Amex Platinum for Ameriprise  – No bonus (airline credit + lounge access)
  • Amex Fidelity Rewards 2% – $50 bonus (discontinued)

Denials:

  • Citi Business American Airlines
  • Barclays US Airways (discontinued)
  • Bank of America Alaska Airlines
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred

Costs incurred

Some cards had annual fees that could not be waived but that we felt provided sufficient reward value for us to swallow the cost grudgingly. We also incurred some costs related to manufacturing spending in order to be able to meet the various minimum spending requirements (e.g. gift card purchase fees). Our out-of-pocket costs for 2015 churning and manufactured spending was approximately $500. For expense tracking purposes, we include these costs as part our travel spending as they pop up.

Rewards Redeemed & Trips Taken

Bora-Bora-Atoll-French-Polynesia-In 2015, we redeemed ~700,000 points & miles and 7 free hotel night certificates to cover several trips including

  1. Two road trips along California’s Central Coast with hotel points covering our lodging
  2. Visiting Austin TX
  3. Having a week of Fun in the Pacific Northwest
  4. Taking in Tahoe‘s beauty
  5. Travelling home to visit family
  6. Flying three family members to visit us (and provide free babysitting)
  7. Visiting a Tropical Paradise for almost Free
  8. A luxurious international vacation planned for 2016 to an extra special location

Costs related to redeeming these rewards was $1,500 in taxes and fees (fuel surcharges, lap-child & pet fees). Ostensibly, booking the equivalent travel (10 domestic flights, 2 international flights, 22 nights at hotels & resorts) would cost around $14,000! Now that number is sucker sticker price; we wouldn’t pay that much and assume nobody else would. Valuation is subjective, but listed prices are the easiest numbers to gather for comparison purpose (this is all neglecting the fun topic of opportunity cost).

Current Miles & Points Stash

You can find an up-to-date summary of our current stash of miles and points in each loyalty program here.

Summary

We’re still learning the intricacies of optimizing credit card churning and travel hacking. This offbeat hobby has allowed us to explore places we may not have seen otherwise, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it!

Are we missing anything in our descriptions, could we be doing a better job of being honest with the real costs of these “free trips”? Please let us know.

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2 Responses

  1. Whoa — I knew you guys were pros at travel hacking, but this is some next level stuff you’re doing. 🙂 I do not have the temperament for credit card churning, so I’m going to stick to accruing points mostly through work travel. But one change that you’ll like: we’re actually going to spend some of our points in 2016! We’ve mostly been in accrual/hoarding mode, so that we can travel cheaply when we retire, but have decided to start dipping into the reserves to accelerate our savings this year. 🙂

    • The DJ says:

      Not working for six months and having a baby that slept a lot during that time helped a great deal. I realized that when I went back to work after my maternity leave, keeping track of all the churning got a lot harder. I don’t foresee being as aggressive this year. I am no longer doing app-o-ramas and only going to apply when I think it’s a sign-up bonus that we will use in the near future. We have accumulated quite a bit of points and miles and now it’s time to enjoy them 🙂

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