Avoiding big expenses and unnecessary upgrades, like fancy cars and large homes, is key for gaining the freedom to choose your field of work or even retire early.
But sometimes big expenses are hard to avoid. What if there was a way to travel free with credit card hacking?
One of our big expenses comes from our annual travel habits. We enjoy travel a lot and look forward to getting out of the cold at least once every Minnesota winter. Can credit card hacking make the luxury of roundtrip flights affordable for our family of four?
Reward Points: The Ticket to Free Travel
One of the best tactics I’ve employed to minimize our travel costs is to make use of credit card sign-up bonus points. If you’ve got a good credit history (700+ FICO) and a decent household income, you can generally get approved for multiple credit cards on an ongoing basis.
I have a stack of plastic as thick as a deck of playing cards to prove it.
Just this past year, we were able to avoid roughly $3,000 in airfare, rental car, and hotels. This was made possible by using the bonus miles from new credit card sign-ups. There isn’t all that much to it. You simply look for cards that offer a lot of points up-front, be sure you can meet the 3-month spending minimum to achieve the bonus, then cancel the card before the annual payment comes due.
I refer often to travelsort.com, a blog run by Hilary Stockton. She offers fantastic in-depth advice on which cards provide the best rewards and strategies for maximizing points. I also keep The Points Guy bookmarked.
It’s important to keep track of all your cards in a spreadsheet, including those you’ve canceled/closed. Generally, you can reapply for the same card and be eligible for another bonus 24 months after closing the initial card.
Keeping Track of Your Cards
The first bit of advice I can offer up is to keep a detailed spreadsheet. This will help you to manage both your credit card bonus programs and frequent flier mile programs in the same space.
Here is a snapshot of the credit card / frequent flier log that I maintain to keep track of my minimum spend, annual fees, and points:
The second and most important piece of advice is to avoid using credit card bonus points as an excuse to get around like a rock-star. Travel is costly, and just because you can get “free airfare” from time to time with points, doesn’t mean you won’t pay for meals, transportation, park passes, and hotels, etc.
We visit two sets of grandparents who live in opposite time zones, once a year, and it adds up. Build up, bank, and use points judiciously.
The optimal use of credit card bonus points is to transfer them to air miles programs. Points get optimal value for international travel. There are options with many cards to directly book flights or take cash, but turning points-into-miles is much more lucrative.
Points help us keep our travel costs super low, year in, year out. If you get super-sophisticated with credit card bonus points, you could certainly travel in style all over the world.
Hilary at Travel Sort combines points with her husband to accumulate over 1,000,000 points… per year! If I can accrue a quarter of that, I’m a happy camper.
Growing Your Credit Card Reward Points
To get your bonus points, you need to put a minimum amount of spend on the new card within 90 days. That clock starts ticking the day your new card is approved. We try to put as many of our expenses as possible on our cards to meet the minimum, on-time.
My spreadsheet is really handy for tracking where we’re at within the minimum-spend 90-day window. Larger expenses like taxes (income and property) can be paid with credit cards.
If you have a business, like rental properties, maintenance costs can be paid by a business credit card.
I recommend first getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred (or even better, the Chase Ink Business Preferred card.) Then, transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to domestic frequent flier programs like United or Southwest.
You can also save a good coin by picking up a travel rewards card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus. You get $400 worth of travel credit bonus after spending $3,000 on airfare or hotel within the first 90 days.
Not a bad deal, just for following the rules, paying your statement in full each month, and keeping track of your credit card bonus programs.
One other key thing to note is you can combine Chase Ultimate Rewards points among multiple business and personal lines. We pool a lot of points between me and my wife’s businesses as well as our card.
By making effective use of available credit card bonus programs, we save nearly $3,000 per year on travel costs. That same amount invested year over year 20 times is about $130,000.
Managing Cards With Annual Fees
For several years, we kept our Chase Sapphire Preferred card active and continued paying the annual fee of $95. Why? Because this card is the “hub” of our Ultimate Rewards point “system”. Mrs. Cubert and I have separate Chase Ink Business cards that generate significant Ultimate Rewards points, thanks to our Airbnb vacation rental business expenses.
We recently decided to cancel the Sapphire, but first looked into whether a suitable downgrade was available. Sure enough, there is a solid Chase card that can be used to aggregate all of your Chase Ink Ultimate Rewards points, the Chase Freedom Unlimited.
You’ll find with most credit card companies, there’s a willingness to allow a downgrade to a no-annual-fee card. They’d rather not lose a client, so there’s an incentive to keep you on the rolls.
Besides, closing too many cards will affect your credit score – not dramatically, but enough to potentially impact loan terms on a new rental property. Better to keep your “utilizable credit” as high as possible and just tuck those open cards away.
Credit Card Churning
I generally keep credit cards open into perpetuity, if they don’t have an annual fee. If they do, which most bonus point cards will, I’ll generally cancel the card just before the next annual fee is due.
Some cards require the annual fee upfront when you first sign-up, while others offer the first year free. The bonus points are almost always worth it, even if those fees are incurred right away.
There are some cards with annual fees that I hang onto. They include our Costco Visa, Chase Business Ink, and Chase Sapphire cards. As mentioned already, we’re able to pool those Chase Ultimate Rewards points from each of our businesses and the personal card to build up solid travel miles.
Part of my strategy is to reapply for cards after about two years since closing the original account. After this much time has passed, you’re generally eligible for the same sign-up bonus, all over again.
I don’t go crazy with this strategy since it does require you to meet a minimum spend within a set time frame. However, with typical household and business expenses, it’s easy to drum up the spend on groceries, childcare, utilities, charities, you name it.
Remember, these are the same credit card companies that charge interest and make millions of dollars from customers who don’t pay their balances in full each month. If you churn credit cards but keep up with monthly payments, you’re in the minority.
Interestingly, my credit score hasn’t suffered as you’d expect it would by churning. I open maybe three or four cards a year and close about as many too. I still manage to hover in the high 700s.
The key is to be a good customer. Use the cards, and pay the statements in full. Credit companies still make a ton of money off of transaction fees. It’s not just the interest payments they’re after!
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Daniel Palmer says
I love credit card bonuses and rewards, but it’s out worth the hassle to juggle 20 different cards? I’ve got three and think I’ve got too many!
abandoned cubicle says
It is worth the hassle. Use a spreadsheet to track everything. For over $3,000 per year in savings, the half hour monthly tracking work amounts to a $500/hour “wage”.
Full Time Finance says
Honestly I haven’t found it to be much hustle. I carry no more then 2 cards at a time and cycle on to the latest bonus card. The rest sit in a drawer. I wouldn’t advise juggling 20 card bills each month. I make about 3k a year on credit card cycling like the author. We use the money for paying our planned trips to various vacation spots and sometimes for gifts for others.
abandoned cubicle says
This sounds like my strategy, FTF. Just make sure those extra cards are in a secure drawer. Thanks for stopping by!
Dennis @ NestEggRx says
Free stuff from credit cards can be awesome, but be careful. Discipline is incredibly important as those who use credit cards tend to spend more than those who pay cash.
abandoned cubicle says
Great point, Dennis. There certainly is a little bit of that “ease of use” factor involved. And to your point, you can easily be swept up into “what do we -need- to buy to hit our bonus spend limit?” Caution is well-advised.
Adam @ Crispy Cabbage says
I’ve always been intrigued by the credit card hacking game, but never really had the guts to dive deep into it. I guess I’m with some of the others, that it looks challenging to juggle more than 3 cards.
I notice a lot of the cards have an annual fee. Clearly they offer the best rewards… do you just cancel before the fee comes due. Or do the rewards typically far outweigh the fee that you just eat that cost.
Also, are there any cash rewards cards you recommend, or are the travel miles cards far and away the best choice?
P.S. Looks like a sweet spreadsheet. Are you sharing?
abandoned cubicle says
Hi Adam! I have a few cards with annual fees I hang onto – Chase Sapphire and Chase Ink Business. Other cards get cancelled before the fee is due. For cash reward cards, I’m a big fan of the Costco Citi and Amex Blue Everyday. Those two are our common use for us. For travel miles, go with Chase – the synergies that allow you to combine Ultimate Reward points, even with business cards, is highly useful. Let me know if you’re still interested in the spreadsheet!