Using Credit Cards For Travel and Hotel Rewards

Using Credit Cards For Travel and Hotel Rewards

Want to travel the world for free?

Want to travel the world for free?

As I alluded to in an earlier post, I am diving head first into the wide world of credit card rewards! I stumbled upon some travel blogs and forums a while back and was intrigued by these people who just seemed to travel ALL THE TIME but didn’t spend any money on it. “iiiiiinnnnteresting”, I thought, as I sipped my hot mocha Frappuccino latte Americano double-dipped vanilla coffee and twirled my handle-bar mustache. “So I can travel for freeeee AND stay somewhere nice, also for freeee…” I exclaimed with a twinge of delight. “But where shall I go?!”, I said as I dropped my monocle and tobacco pipe to the ground. My heart leapt to the far reaches of the globe. I see London, I see France, I see…hmmm…..or maybe just a nice trip to Hawaii would do. The possibilities were endless, I didn’t know where I should choose to go. But I did know one thing; I needed to get started now!

There are 3 financial parts to any good trip: Travel Costs. Hotels Costs. Food Costs. For my first credit card churn, I am going to focus on traveling and staying in a hotel for free. And here’s my simple goal:

ONE FREE VACATION EVERY YEAR.

And that’s it. I like simple, clear goals, and I think this one is totally doable. Also, it’s something that I believe anyone who has a handle on their finances can do as well. If you want to look into gathering rewards as well, I’d encourage you to do so. I’ll try to break down my plan in a way that you can see the benefits and analyze whether or not you can churn for rewards. So, let’s get started!

The Basics

First thing’s first. I do NOT recommend those that struggle with or have struggled with credit card debt to attempt playing the credit card rewards game. It’s just not worth the risk of overspending and possibly digging yourself back into a hole. Now, there are some great debit cards that give you rewards, so you’re not completely out of the game. But don’t tempt fate with credit cards.

That being said, Here’s how I plan on which cards I will sign up for.

First, I walk the talk and track my income and expenses to see how much money is coming in and going out. This is important, because a lot of cards require you to spend a minimum amount on the card in a set amount of time to earn the bonus rewards. I then figure out how much I can put on a credit card per month. Currently, we can throw most of our bills and spending on a VISA or Mastercard. (Note: You CANNOT pay your mortgage or student loans with a credit card. There are some tricks to make this happen, but I will not detail them here, nor do I practice them at this time).

You will also need a decent credit score to qualify for most of these cards. Decent = about 730 or better. If for some reason you don’t qualify for the premium rewards card, always call customer service and ask them to upgrade you or cancel the card.

Once I know how much we can spend on credit cards per month, I see how many cards I can sign up for at a time under my name. I don’t recommend singing up for more than 4 cards at a time, we personally do 2. I pick one travel card and one hotel card, and then wait 6 months before signing up for another. My wife will do that same, depending on whether or not we can hit the minimum spending requirements. Some of the rewards cards don’t have an annual fee, some do. But here’s the kicker:

Once you have earned your rewards, you keep the card open until just before the annual fee is due, and then cancel it. Yes, I know, I just committed personal finance blasphemy by saying that. But if you just opened another card before this, your credit score won’t suffer too badly. I’ve had a few cards closed on me, and haven’t seen any more than a 5 point hit on my score. And this article on bankrate.com talks about how closing account affects your score. In general, as long as your debt to credit ratio stays close to the same (AKA, no debt and lots of available credit), you should be good to go.

Note: Make sure you do not cancel until your rewards are all used up, or at least transferred to the airline or hotel. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points will disappear if you cancel before transferring the points to a partner airline or hotel.

Update: Sean over at One Smart Dollar had some GREAT advice in the comments. Instead of cancelling straight away, just call your card customer service and tell them how much you enjoy the card, but will need to cancel because of the fee. Most likely, they’ll waive the fee, and possibly send you some bonus points as incentive. Great call, Sean.

You should never carry a balance on your credit card. Ever. I’m sure someone somewhere says it’s great for your score, but I don’t care. You should not make a purchase on a credit card unless you have the money in the bank already to back up that purchase. Spending money you don’t have is stupid. Always. But if you can play the game, not change your spending habits one bit (and I know CC’s can tempt you to do so, so be on the lookout), then there’s no reason not to earn thousands in travel rewards every year.

Phew! With that out of the way, let’s check out some of the cards I’ve got and ones I’m looking at.

Travel Rewards Cards
If you want to go on a trip, the first thing you need to figure out is how to actually get there. These days, if you’re traveling over 400 miles, your money and time are probably best spent finding a cheap round-trip ticket on a reputable airline. Unfortunately, you’re probably stuck forking out a few hundred dollars for even a short trip, and over $500 for a longer one. But luckily, there are credit cards that can fit almost any of your travel needs.

Here’s what we’re doing for free travel:

  • Alaska Airlines Credit Card: With a 25,000 mile sign-up bonus, this card gives you one free round-trip flight in the U.S. It does come with a $75 fee, but when you can pay upwards of $300 for a round-trip ticket, it’s a steal of a deal. We got this card a few years back as our only rewards card, and have flown for free, as well as used their $99 (now $110) companion tickets for deeply discounted flights. For Hawaii, I bought a $600 ticket (OUCH!) on a late booking, but my wife flew for $99 plus taxes. Not bad at all.

Currently, we have 70,000 Alaska Miles that we can use, and the best part is, we can fly on other carriers as well. British Airways, Delta, and American airlines are just a few of the partners that we can use our Alaska miles on, so if we find a sweet deal, or a route that Alaska doesn’t fly, we can book using our accumulated miles and get free flights all over the world. Pretty flippin’ sweet, huh?

Requirements: $75 annual fee, not waived.

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card: This card is a hybrid of sorts. The sign-up bonus is 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points, which can be used for cash back ($400), travel or even hotel booking. Having read around a bit, it’s best use seems to be travel, as you can redeem your points through Chase’s “Ultimate Rewards” site and get more flight for your points. We just hit our minimum spend on this card, so I should see the 40,000 points shortly. I will most likely book my flights for this year through the Chase UR tool and make the most of my points.

Requirements: Spend $3,000 in first 3 months. $95 annual fee, waived first year.

Hotel Rewards Cards

The next step for booking your glorious vacation is finding a place to stay when you get there. Sure, you probably have a half-brother-in-law’s 3rd cousin (twice removed) who has a sweet 1 bedroom rambler about 40 miles out of town that you can stay at, but who wants to sleep on the floor next to bags of Cheetos and empty Mt. Dew cans? Wouldn’t you rather stay in a plush hotel, with room service and no snoring relatives?? (unless you invite them, of course). Enter, hotel rewards credit cards.

  • AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card: This card has a 25,000 point sign-up bonus. This is another hybrid card, whereas you can redeem the points for travel or hotel rewards. But since this card is specifically linked to Starwood hotels, the rewards are pretty great when redeeming nights. If you’re not familiar with Starwood hotels (I know I wasn’t), they include places like Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, and Four Points hotels. You can find them all over the world, so wherever your dreaming heart would like to go, you can probably rest your head in a Starwood hotel.

Here’s why I like the card: You can stay in a category 2 hotel (out of 7) for only 4,000 points a night (3,000 on weekends), and the 5th night is always free. So your 25,000 sign-up bonus gives you at least 8 free nights, more if you stay in a category 1 hotel (but…ummm…I’ve never tested one of those out…). You can’t really beat a free week just for using their credit card.

Requirements: Spend $5,000 in first 6 months. $65 annual fee, waived first year.

  • Chase Hyatt Credit Card: This card gives you 2 free nights at any Hyatt hotel, worldwide. Which means you could book yourself in Park Hyatt Paris for two free nights, instead of forking out the regular $970 a night! Heck, have both you AND your spouse/friend/relative/dog signup and get 4 nights in any 5-star Hyatt in the world. For those of us down in the trenches, this kind of escape could be just the motivation we need to keep on truckin’. Well, either that, or it’ll spoil us rotten. Either way, it’s a sweet deal. We don’t have this card yet, but are looking at getting it for international travel. Paris, you ask? Heck, why not?!

Requirements: Spend $1,000 in first 3 months. $75 annual fee, not waived first year.

Our Credit Card Churn Plan For 2013

Since I’m new to the game, I don’t claim to be the most amazing credit card churner on the face of the planet. But I’ve figured out what works for my family and I, and how we can hit our goal of at least ONE FREE VACATION PER YEAR (you like how I threw in “at least” there?). So here’s what we’ve got going on:

  1. December 2012 – Signed up for one Chase Sapphire and one AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest card. Will earn 40,000 travel reward points and 25,000 in hotel reward points.  We started by putting EVERYTHING on the Chase Sapphire card to hit the $3,000 minimum spend. We have just hit the minimum on that card, so now we’re directing all of our funds to the Starwood card. It’s an AMEX card, so we can’t use it everywhere, but a majority of our bills and spending is happening on that card. I’m hoping to hit that one by May, but we may hit it earlier.
  2. April 2013 – Michelle signs up for the exact same combo, as well as the Alaska Airlines card. I will cancel my card in April before the fee comes due, Michelle will promptly sign up for hers to get the rewards and we’ll pay the fee (well worth it, IMO). We’ll do the same routine as the last Churn.
  3. October 2013 – This one’s going to be fun. And I might put it off until next year. But check it out:
  • Both Michelle and I sign up for Bank of America AND Bank of Hawaii Hawaiian Airlines cards. 35,000 Hawaiian Air miles each. With $1,000 minimum spend in 120 days for each card, that’s $4,000 in 3 months.
  • We’d then have 140,000 Hawaiian Airline Miles. Pretty sweet, eh? But it’s gets better.
  • Transfer points at a 2:1 ratio to Hilton Hhonors rewards, for a grand total of 280,000 Hilton points!!!
  • Book 5 nights in Sorrento, Italy at the Hilton Sorrento Palace with a “Sea View” room at 57,000 Points per night
  • #WINNING

Get On A Budget, Then Get Rewards

As I’ve always stated, people who are on budgets get to have SO MUCH MORE FUN! And this is just one of those reasons. Without a budget, you won’t know how much you are able to spend, what cards you can sign up for, and let’s face it, you’d probably lose track of all the cards and rewards. But you know what, if you can track your money, you can track credit card rewards, and really reap the benefits. I never carry a balance on my cards. I track my spending closely, and most importantly, I never make a purchase just to “earn rewards”.   But we’re going to have some epic free vacations coming up!

So, where are we going? Well, to be honest, I totally jumped in the rewards game without a destination in mind. But now that we’re well on our way, the possibilities truly are endless. Michelle wants to check out Nashville. I’d love to go to a Red Sox game. At some point, we’ll probably do a big Disney trip. But no matter what, we’re going to travel and stay for free on vacation at least once a year :)

Disclosure: The banner image links in the post are affiliate links and I do get paid a commission if you sign up and join me in credit cards churning fun! I appreciate your support, and hope you enjoy free travel as much as I do!

Comments: So, what do you think? Have I violated every rule in the financial book by jumping into the rewards game? I know a few of you out there churn, what’s your current lineup? Also, did my story at the beginning creep anyone else out besides my wife?

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Comments

  1. Karen Moffatt says:

    If you are canceling the card before the fee are they still letting you keep the rewards you earned?

    • I updated the post to explain, but yes, you will lose rewards that are tied to that card. but if the rewards are tied to an airline or hotel, then no, you won’t lose them. For example, the Chase card is credit card rewards, so if you cancel before transferring them to an airline or hotel, you lose them. But the Alaska and SPG cards are tied to airline and hotel programs, so you keep your points. But, even for those, I’d say wait until 2 months of no-usage on that card minimum before cancelling to ensure you keep your earned rewards.

  2. We’ve not yet gone head first into the churn game, but…reading all the posts I am does make it enticing. Both my wife and I just got an AMEX travel rewards card recently. If we spend $500 in the first 3 months we get $400 in travel rewards good anywhere. The best part is there are no fees. We’re using the rewards for a trip next year. I see the possibilities and just may jump in head first. :)
    John S @ Frugal Rules recently posted..How to Take the Emotion Out of InvestingMy Profile

  3. This is something that we definitely want to do, but we want to wait until after we buy our next house. I am excited to start eventually though!
    Michelle recently posted..What Does a Virtual Assistant Do?My Profile

  4. Excellent write up about churning. I am doing the same thing this year but mostly with cash rewards and some airline vouchers we got over the holidays because of a cancelled flight. One positive of my business sale not going through is that I am still getting some big reward points as all of our lab bills are on a credit card and I just got an INK card. I have a few other tricks. We get to play because we paid off all our credit card debt and got very smart along the way. It’s time credit cards paid me. I’ll post about it down the road as we get closer, but I expect an almost two week vacation pretty much free. I like the idea of that Starwood card too. I’ll have to look into it.
    Kim@Eyesonthedollar recently posted..How to Retire in Ten Years, Regardless of Your AgeMy Profile

    • INK cards are the BEST. I don’t spend enough on business, so I don’t have one yet, but those get GREAT rewards, 5x at office supply stores. There are some neat trick you can do to earn points on those cards.

  5. I currently do this as well. Don;t just flat out cancel the cards. Call up the issuer and tell them that you are not really see the value and tell them that you are going to need to cancel if there isn;t anything they can do for you. Most will give you a statement credit to cover the fee and give you miles as well. If they don;t do it on the first try just hang up and call back in a week.
    Sean @ One Smart Dollar recently posted..The Psychological Effects of Being in DebtMy Profile

  6. Before you book that Hilton, you should look at getting a Hilton Amex so you can access the AXON and GLON awards, which add even more value (also the Hilton Surpass is pretty good for the Gold Status at Hilton which gets you free breakfast and internet).

    Good luck! I have been doing this for a little while and it really makes traveling affordable!

  7. I am all for using credit cards for Max rewards… looks like I need to start planning my own churn!
    Lance at Money Life and More recently posted..Four Ways to Split Expenses at HomeMy Profile

  8. The credit card monster strikes again…don’t believe the hype..the borrower is the slave to the lender..run..fast.

    • I’ve been there, man. I didn’t use cards for a few years, and was on a cash-only Dave Ramsey plan. That tought me how to handle my money, and now I’m using the same principles by just treating the cards as cash. Like I said a few times in the post, DO NOT spend money on a card if you don’t have the cash currently in the bank to back it up. The rewards are there for the taking, and if you’re on a sweet budget and stick to your spending plans, you can earn thousands a year.

      Heck, if you hate credit card companies so much, you should try to take them for all their worth by getting as many rewards as possible and never paying a dime of interest ;)

  9. I think I am going to do the Starwood Preferred per your suggestion. Thanks, Jacob!

  10. We earn points through our Royal Bank credit card that can be used on any airline in the world. 30,000 points will get us one flight anywhere in North America. As well we have Aeroplan Air Canada points that we accumulate when we fly within, as well as from some gas stations and retailers. They charge 25,000 points anywhere in North America and are affiliated with other major airlines as well.

    We once used our credit card air points to book a hotel and it was a rip off. They charged us way too many points per a nights stay.
    Tackling Our Debt recently posted..How Do You Define Success?My Profile

  11. Whoa, details much, Jacob?
    This is an awesome post. There was a guy I met at FINCON who did this ALL THE TIME, and could tell you everything that you needed to know.
    Marissa @ Thirtysixmonths recently posted..How to Ask for a DiscountMy Profile

  12. I’m in awe of those, like you and my wife, who not only have the patience for but seem actually to enjoy gaming various reward systems. We’ve spent many, many free nights in hotels–some of them really, really nice–for free and notched many amenities too, like access to a concierge room. We even enjoyed free lodging in the Florida Keys on points for our honeymoon! So my hat’s off to you!
    Kurt @ Money Counselor recently posted..Free Money Check-UpMy Profile

    • Nice! Yes, I’m excited for some sweet rooms and enjoying the best travel has to offer. I don’t have the cash to stay on my own dime, might as well have someone else pay for it ;)

  13. We don’t currently do this with multiple cards, but I do charge everything on my amex then “buy” gift cards with my points to use as gifts etc. Like you said in the post, as long as you can keep track of everything and don’t carry balances, it’s a great idea.
    KK @ Student Debt Survivor recently posted..Honoring Dr. King’s Birthday With a Day Off?My Profile

  14. I’ve never had the guts to open a card just for the points, but the next time I want to take a big trip, I will seriously consider it. I am very responsible with my credit and won’t need it much for the next several years, so why not put it to good use?
    Daniel recently posted..How Did You Get Over The Hump In Your First Job?My Profile

  15. Sounds like a pretty cool idea and I think it can save you some big dollars but I can also see how something like this could get out of hand really quick and like you mentioned it takes someone with a strong ability to manage their finances. Great article, I may have to add this one to my weekly mentions.
    Chris @ Stumble Forward recently posted..How to Control Your Debt to Income Ratio – A Guide For BeginnersMy Profile

    • Yup, if you can’t tell every dollar in your budget where to go, and you overspend at all, this ain’t for you. I’d even say this wasn’t for me 5 years ago. But now, I’m going to reap the benefits and enjoy the crap outta the rewards!

  16. As long as the user of such credit cards can handle the card without going into huge amounts of consumer debt, then I think it’s a great plan. Rewards cards are awesome because you can get free things (or cash) back for your daily spending. Almost everywhere takes credit, and it’s nice that you can go and enjoy yourself on a vacation just based on the spending you’d normally do anyway.
    Daisy @ Money Smart Guides recently posted..3 Tips to Finding a Reputable Bankruptcy AttorneyMy Profile

    • Yup, I don’t consider it debt, because I don’t spend a dime on a card that I don’t have the cash in the bank to back up. And like you said, I’m spending the money regardless, might as well be ballin’ on a budget!

  17. I’m always looking for ways to earn more CC rewards! It’s a great change to get something from them instead of send interest their way…haha.

    I’ve also used Sean’s tip about the potential cancellation–works every time! :)
    The Happy Homeowner recently posted..Personal Finance and Lance Armstrong: What You Can Learn from Lance’s Fall from GraceMy Profile

  18. Good post, but the churn game is one not for me. I have a good credit score and don’t feel like opening and closing cards just for rewards. I do have two cash back cards that I use for all of my bills, except mortgage and car payment, and they work for me. In the industry I am in, churn is a bad word….
    Grayson @ Debt Roundup recently posted..Are You In Debt? Stop The Expensive Vacations!My Profile

  19. Great write up. It is interesting to see what credit card companies are doing nowadays to get new clients on their list. It really takes some discipline, and wherewithal, to sign up for these and stay on top of where the money is going and the bill dates.

    While it would be nice to have all those points and free trips, I like to keep it simple and have just one card where I know and can track all my expenses.

    Thanks for the information and in-depth analysis!
    Brian recently posted..30 Frugal Tips to Try for Saving MoneyMy Profile

  20. This is completely amazing! Hilarious intro (as always.) I can’t wait to hear about your trip. I feel like I can’t do this in full force because of the international living + foreign fees + not enough groceries to buy etc. However, I did just get an offer for 40,000 American Airlines miles which I was approved for. I think that + all the miles from here to Grenada on AA over 3 years will get the hubs & me some tickets somewhere next year!
    Cat Alford recently posted..The Truth About Side HustlingMy Profile

  21. Great information! Definitely worth looking into! Saving money, isn’t that what it’s all about?

  22. We have just started this endeavor and are loving every bit of it. Our main advantage is that our daughter is very young but in 2-3 years we will be able to start traveling as a family. We picked the credit cards that don’t let points expire if you stay active and plan to accrue massive points until we take our first free family excursion!

  23. Blah, we are seriously shortchanged with credit card options in NZ! Good luck with your travel hacking – it’s amazing what some bloggers have managed to achieve with smart use. I do use credit cards to build up rewards points generally, though, if I have to spend money I may as well get something for it.
    eemusings recently posted..Link love (Powered by bare naturals and email drama)My Profile

  24. Bichon Frise says:

    Why don’t you and your other both sign up for 2 x 50k mile AA Credit cards? You would each have slightly over 100k and gets you business class tix to Europe. You could then transfer your starpoints to AA and you could get F tix.

    You should also encourage your other to apply for a Ink Bold or Plus CC. The world of inking is amazing once you figure it out. The one card I won’t give up!

    Once you get into it, you’ll have more pts than you know what to do with! Sort of…we’re always planning and booking and never seem to be short.

    • I was going to do the two-broswer trick next year to travel abroad, and then use the Hilton points for the hotels. As far as the INK Bold, I don’t have enough business expenses to hit the minimum spend, though I do own a small business, it has VERY low overhead. I know there are ways around this, but there are limits to what I am allowing myself to do for points. Someday, though, INK is going to be my money-maker, that’s for sure.

      • Bichon Frise says:

        Do what you’re comfortable with, but using a business card for personal expenses will not harm anyone – you, IRS auditors, cute fuzzy bunnies, children etc. In fact, we have a “real” business CC and then business CC(s) we use for points. I find the 5pts/just about every $ I spend to be worth it. Once you’re in the world of abundant UR pts, the star pts will be better used for airlines, especially since most Hyatt’s are usually nicer (but the network isn’t as extensive) than anything Starwood has to offer, and their top tier is 22k pts.

        Don’t forget about AXON awards with hhonors and 2 browser trick with the Citi hhonors card for 100k pts. And pickup Hhonors gold status since they seem to just give it away, which is free breakfast and internet. Plus, I always get upgrades (Harbor view in Hongkong!, suites in Tokyo!) then put yourself on the Hyatt Diamond challenge before you apply for the Hyatt card to get 2 nights in a suite, not just a room.

        Good luck!

        • I’m with you. As a tax guy, it does piss me off to sort through personal expenses on a biz account, but if you keep ‘em seperate (like you do), one for biz, one for points, it makes sense, and is not a problem. I just can’t hit the minimum spends, and things like Amazon payments, vanilla reloads (even though they’re dead) and the like I’m still on the fence about using. Maybe once I’m more of a veteran and feel more comfortable with all the tricks of the trade, I’ll dive in.

          And thanks for the heads up on the AXON and Gold membership. Brian (in the comments) mentioned it as well, seems like the only way to go when staying Hilton. Once I get my 280,000 Hilton, with BOA and BOH cards, I’ll look at the City cards as well.

          Thanks again, sounds like you’ve been rockin’ the rewards for a while now. I might shoot you an email for tips once I get more “advanced” :)

  25. Would you ever use the Starwood Points for miles? That card does a 20,000 to 25,000 exchange when you exchange them for miles at a lot of major airlines. While nice hotels are good if you already have the miles, the 5,000 free airline miles may be a better deal if you’re flying somewhere without any Starwood hotels in the area. This site has more info on that: http://www.freefrequentflyermiles.com/index.htm

    • That’s a sweet option, but I like my fancy hotels. There are plenty of miles cards out there, and Starwood points are worth MUCH more as hotel points, so I’d probably not transfer them to miles unless I HAD to.

Trackbacks

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  23. […] The $89 annual fee is waived the first year. Make sure to read this post on what to do before your annual fee is due. Happy […]

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  25. […] this is nothing new. You’ve already read through the biggest post ever on this blog, my credit card churning plan for 2013. Well, we finally took our first trip using some of our easy-earned credit card […]

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