Flashback to February 2020, COVID-19 is just hitting the news in the US, and I’m going to the gym every day getting ready for the spring/summer of my life. My wife and I have trips booked to Chicago, Austin, an all-inclusive week vacation in Aruba with our best friends for a wedding, and a ten-day trip throughout Italy culminating with a wedding on Lake Como for one of my favorite people (plus in talks for possible trips to Disney, San Diego, and Montana!). The future was looking bright and best of all, I did not pay $1 for any of these trips. I booked them all using credit card rewards.
How I Used to View Credit Cards (And You Might Still)
You’ve probably heard of travel hacking in the news (people using credit card rewards to travel the world) and thought the same way I did: there must be a catch. Either these people are destroying their credit for life or somehow, they are going to get screwed in the end; there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially with credit card companies.
And although I am no disciple of Dave Ramsey (he preaches credit cards are the devil), I have always been wary of credit cards. I remember hearing horror stories from people that had ruined their financial lives by racking up a huge debt on credit cards with high-interest rates. I vividly remember one of my brother’s frat brothers at UMass laughing about how he owed a fortune on credit card debts from bar tabs and buying cd’s.
I vowed to myself I would never put myself in that situation (although I kind of did with student loans) and have only had a few 0 annual fee credit cards that I paid off every month.
But like anything in life, circumstances change, a need arises, and you open your mind to new possibilities.
Enter Two Destination Weddings & Credit Card Churning
It’s October 2019 and we’ve been invited to two destination weddings: Aruba in May and Italy in June. Both are going to be badass.
All our friends are invited to the Aruba wedding for an all-inclusive week of fun in the sun, fruity drinks, and all you can eat fancy buffets. It doesn’t hurt the wedding is for two of our favorite people. Plus, everyone in our friend group is about to/or is in the process of having kids, so this is the last friend trip before we all have to be responsible for more than our jobs/hangovers in the morning.
Then there’s Italy. All I’ve ever heard is how amazing the Amalfi Coast and Lake Como are and this wedding is for one of my oldest/coolest friends, who we celebrated our engagement with the year prior.
We want to go to both. But we just got married in June, bought our first house in September, and still are working on paying off Ranna’s student loans.
There’s no way we can responsibly afford both, possibly even either. I can already see myself calling either friend, thanking them for the invitation but giving them my lame excuse on why we just can’t afford it.
But I always believe, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and maybe, just maybe, there’s a way we can pull off both if I can learn credit card churning.
Credit Card Churning & Sober October
Ever since I got debt-free, I’ve been dabbling in the world of FIRE (Financial Independence Retirement Early). FIRE often overlaps with the travel hacking/credit card churning community where people traveled the world for free and stay at swanky hotels only using points, gained primarily from credit card sign-up bonuses.
I had been aware of credit card churning but have never done much research. First, because I didn’t want to screw with my credit score before getting a house. Second, it just seemed so god darn complicated and their Reddit community wasn’t that welcoming.
However, now I had a house and a need to travel, I decided to dive in. It also helped that I was doing a Sober October, so I had plenty of free time to invest into researching. And research I did. I spent hours and hours reading everything I could on blogs and Reddit about credit card churning.
One of the first things you will learn about the credit card churning community is they like to be secretive and aren’t forthcoming for answers. They think that if everyone knew about credit card churning, it would ruin it for everyone, so they speak in code and yell at people for asking questions or exposing their society. You have to pick up the lingo and read through endless comments to find the answer to your questions.
Some people in the community are very cool & giving and create very useful things like the credit card flowchart. (But many are jerks, especially in the manufactured spending groups, that give off the I think I’m better than you/live in my parents’ basement vibe that’s also prevalent in gaming communities).
I slowly got a grasp on credit card churning and developed a plan on how we could do both trips using only points. I organized everything into detailed spreadsheets and unveiled our game of attack that would run from October-February. If everything went according to plan, we could pay for both vacations with points.
Here is how I did it.
Chase is King for Credit Card Traveling
One of the first things you will learn early in your credit card churning journey is Chase is #1 for credit card sign-up bonuses related to travel. Or more simply, if you want to go cool places, Chase credit card points will help you get there.
The most basic thing to remember about credit card churning is it’s all about the signup bonus and for Chase, those sign-up bonuses revolve around their big three cards:
- The Chase Ink Business Preferred (80,000 sign-up point)
- The Chase Sapphire Preferred (60,000 sign-up points)
- And the #1 Stunner The Chase Chase Sapphire Reserve (50,000 sign-up points)
Now you may be thinking, O-Man, why did you call the Reserve the #1 stunner if it gives the smallest amount of points for the sign-up bonus? Because it is the key to everything.
With the other cards each point is = .01 cents when redeemed for travel. So 80,000 points would be $800 for travel. However, with the Chase Reserve each point is worth .015 cents when redeemed for travel, so those same 80,000 points are now worth $1,200 for travel.
Bada Bing! You can transfer points from all your Chase cards to your Reserve and redeem them for the higher value. You can then also transfer to travel reward partners like Marriott and Jetblue where you can sometimes get .2 cents for every point, making those 80,000 points now worth $1,600 for travel.
If you simply just sign-up for all 3 Chase cards and hit their sign-up bonuses, that’s 190,000 points and when redeemed through the Chase travel portal, that’s $2,850 worth of travel.
What’s the Catch? Bonus Spend and Annual Fees
No, you can’t just sign-up for these credit cards and get the points. First, you need to be approved and to get both the Chase Preferred and Reserved Bonuses at the same time you have to work some magic (I can walk you through it). Also, most importantly you have to have a plan to meet the minimum spend to be awarded the bonus.
The bonus spend is the amount you have to spend in a certain amount of time to be awarded the sign-up bonus. For example for the Chase Preferred, that’s $4,0000 you need to spend in 3 months.
Now you have to be careful to hit the bonus. If you go 1 day over, boom no bonus, and since it’s significant money, you should have a plan on how you will hit it. You should plan it either around big purchases (washers, dryers, home improvements), normal household spend, buy gift cards for places you would normally shop or if you are so inclined you can do manufactured spending (a grey area that involves the practice of circular spending. One popular way is you buy credit card gift cards to hit the bonus and then do several steps to pay off the credit card using those gift cards. **Important, no you can’t just buy gift cards and pay off the credit card with them, this won’t work. Also, most manufactured spending methods should be put on hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic).
The other catch is the annual fee. For many Chase cards they don’t wave the fee for the first year. So you have to pay a $95 annual fee for both the Chase Ink Preferred & Sapphire Preferred.
For the Sapphire Reserve you have to pay a whopping $550 annual fee (was $450 when I got it). However, in addition to the .015 bonus with the Reserve you also get:
- $300 worth of free travel credit (can be used for air-bnb, flight, hotel) a year
- Free Priority Pass membership to gain entry to airport lounges and get credit at restaurants at airports (For example at Logan you can get $28 for up to two people, $56 total, towards a meal at Stephanies or Jerry Remy’s with a Priority Pass. My wife and I both have the priority pass so we have used both our cards before a flight, getting $112 in free meal costs, obviously still tipping well on the total. We have been able to redeem $336 of meal credits since getting the cards.)
- $100 towards global entry or TSA precheck application fees
- $60 in Door Dash Credits
- Free Lyft Pink Membership
- Insane travel and car rental insurance
So as you can see you get a lot of benefits with the Reserve but you still need to determine if the $550 is worth it for you. It certainly is the first year, when you get the sign-up bonus, but you may want to downgrade the card to a $0 annual fee if you feel you will not get your bang for the buck moving forward (yes, you can downgrade all annual fee chase cards to no-fee cards).
Putting the Plan into Action
Now back to my story. I learned everything I could about credit card rewards and put a detailed plan together on our plan of attack. I figured out how many points we needed for each trip and how we could get them with chase cards and how we would hit the bonus spend. I also decided on what cards we would keep after the first year and which ones we would downgrade. I organized everything into a spreadsheet.
(*Dates, names, and plans have been changed)
This plan took place from October-February and was a marathon, not a sprint. Since I was playing in two-player mode with my wife, we were able to refer each other and get 20,000 point referrals each time for certain cards.
You may also notice that I recommend applying for the Chase Ink Business Preferred. If you sell things on eBay, drive Uber, sit for Rover, have a blog, boom you own a business. You can apply for the CIP (Chase Ink Business Preferred) by using your social security # instead of your EDIN or can apply for two, onetime with your social and another with your company’s EDIN (just make sure you self-refer yourself to get the bonus).
We started following the plan and I started to see things like this in my chase account:
When I first started out on the journey my goal was to pay for maybe just the flights to Aruba or Italy. However, by careful planning and stacking points, we were able to pay for both trips entirely using points.
And we were going to be traveling in style. For Italy, we booked direct flights, then we were starting off with a few nights in Rome at a 4-star hotel, followed by 3 nights in Positano right on the water, a few nights in Florence, and then two nights right on Lake Como. You can also book experiences through Chase with points. I also booked tours of Rome, a cliff diving experience off Positano and the Amalfi Coast, wine tours and more, all with points. It was going to be a trip of a lifetime.
(The Chase Travel Portal is powered by Expedia and looks like this).
We booked both trips and had plenty of points left over. We did a little trip to Chicago and also planned a trip to Austin, TX.
Chicago was great, we stayed at a 4 Star Hotel and also got to use our Priority Pass for free meals and drinks (Also got to use it for traveling to OBX for my sister’s wedding).
In one particular baller move, we got off our flight coming home from Chicago and saw that the Uber surge was crazy. So we waited it out by having a nice relaxing brunch at Stephanies all paid for by the Priority Pass (again we did tip well and encourage everyone to tip. One jerk eating next to us at Stephanie’s used his priority pass and ordered up to the free limit and didn’t leave a tip #scumbag).
Grounded for Now, But Points Stacked for the Future!
Little did we know that our travel highlight of 2020 would be a little getaway to Chicago. All of our big plans would-be-put-on hiatus due to COVID-19, but a lot more people are dealing with worse things than having multiple vacations delayed, so I don’t feel bad for us, but it still sucks. Cliff diving in Positano was going to be awesome.
However, one bright light is we were able to get refunds and flight credits for our trips, so we have tons of points stacked up for when things get back to normal. I plan on traveling around the country to see Tom play with his new team and taking our aforementioned trips at a later date.
I know this blog is very long (I think it was part therapy for me to work through everything coming to a crashing halt) so here are the steps broken down:
Do Your Research! Read all you can on travel hacking/credit card churning and come up with a travel plan for the points
Hit the bonus spends
Book your trips using points through the Chase Travel Portal or by transferring them to travel partners
Don’t ever carry a balance on your credit cards and make a plan to either keep the cards or downgrade them after the first year. Credit card companies bet on people not paying off their balance every month and paying huge interest. DO NOT GET INTO CREDIT CARD CHURNING if you don’t trust yourself to pay off the amount every month and to stay diligent. This is about gaining a fortune in travel credit, not giving them a fortune.
Also, if you are interested in what I wrote about, but still feel sketchy about it. Here is a popular podcast that also covers what I talked about:
If you have any questions, let me know, and if you use my referral code, I will let you in on the secret tips and tricks I picked up along the way.