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My New Obsession, Credit Card Rewards

Hawaiian BeachFor almost two years, one of my obsessions was paying off consumer and student loan debt. While that goal seemed practically impossible back then, once we got rolling, it was like an avalanche after a three foot snow storm. Nothing was getting in the way of paying off those debts. While I never tracked anything while we were racking up the bills, I was obsessed with tracking the payoff balance and finding new ways to come up with more money to get out of debt. Now that the last of our student loans were paid off in April, I have nothing left to track. You’d think I would channel that energy into something like studying a new language or leaning how to use code on this blog, but nope, I’ve found a new obsession: credit card reward points and bonus offers.

This isn’t a totally new area for me. My business has always had at least one credit card for some of our lab vendors who require one. By default, I earned points every year, which I usually traded for cash back or gift cards. I’ve tended not to apply for new credit cards in the past. For our personal finances, we were usually looking for balance transfer offers so we could keep recycling our debt. You can’t earn points when  you are trying to get huge balances paid off. While paying off debt, we barely used personal credit cards for almost two years.  

Now that the credit card debt is gone forever, it’s a new ball game. After reading about some other bloggers who are using credit cards to get free or really cheap trips, I thought I would try my hand. Holy crap, it really works. I’ve gotten more than enough points for our upcoming summer trip to the Pacific Northwest. My next stop is Hawaii in 2014. How did I go from up to eyeballs in debt to getting free trips?

Applying for Multiple Cards

After studying ways to raise your credit score and taking out lots of loans in my life, I know that it hurts your chances of getting credit if you apply too much. We refinanced our house and purchased a rental property last year.  We know we will not be getting any more loans for a while, if ever. After reading so much about the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, I decided to try and get one. With that card, you get 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points if you spend $3000 in the first three months. I put one month of contact lens inventory at work on the card, and made $400 in cash back or $500 in travel. Since the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year, and this was a purchase my office would have made anyway, it cost me nothing.  OK, that’s pretty sweet.

I decided to apply for a Chase Ink Bold for the office to replace the old card we’d been using for years. Ink Bold has been awesome, and I got 50,000 points after putting $5000 of normal business expenses on the card. Since then I have accumulated over 180,000 Untimate Reward points from Chase cards, including both signing bonuses, bonus points for certain categories of spending, and in regular purchases.

Along the way, I applied for and received instant approval for a Hilton Honors American Express card, which gave me a bonus of 40,000 points for spending $750 in the first three months. We generally try to stay at Homewood or Embassy Suites when traveling with our daughter. They are consistent, have free breakfast, full kitchens, and a nice pool. You get huge bonus points when using their card to stay on their properties.

From those three cards, we pretty much have our summer trip covered. I was almost disappointed that my quest for free travel was coming to an end. Then it hit me that this doesn’t have to be a one trick pony. Why can’t I continue to earn rewards?

What Happens with Multiple Credit Card Applications?

We decided that 2014 would be a great year to go to Hawaii. My husband and I went about 10 years ago, financed by credit cards. This time the credit cards will be paying for us. I was a bit hesitant to apply for more cards. It was only a few months ago that I got two Chase cards and one American Express. Would the credit companies think I was planning an escape to Mexico?

Jim and I both decided to apply for Bank of America Hawaiian Airlines cards. You have to spend $1000 in the first four months to get 35,000 bonus points. I also applied for a Hawaiian Airlines business card for the same bonus. Bank of America sends out a letter when you apply for credit, lising your current credit score. I was a bit nervous to see if we’d taken a hit, but my score was 777, and Jim’s was 824!  Apparently, applying for credit doesn’t hurt your score very much. I figure we need to rack up 180,000 miles to get three tickets.  You can book for less in certain seasons, but this should cover us regardless. These three cards will net us 105,000 bonus miles plus 3000 for purchases. We can also apply for Bank of Hawaii cards with the same bonus for another 70,000 + 2000 miles. Each personal card has a fee of $79 per year, and the business card fee is $59. Each ticket has a $5 booking fee, so for $390, we will have three air fares to Hawaii! If we end up having too many points, Hawaiin airlines lets us transfer to United, which flies out of our area.

After this, we will either apply for the Starwood Preferred American Express or the Chase Hyatt.    Both have resorts in Hawaii, so when we decide where we want to stay, I will start working on accommodations.

If you read frequent flyer blogs, you’ll find lots of people who apply for 10 or more cards at once. Some will get denied, and then approved after calling a reconsideration line. It’s always important to look for the best credit card offer for your needs. Sometimes you have to shift credit from one card to another or close a card from the same bank, but it seems that generally, if you have good credit, you can get approved. 

Stick to the Rules

I don’t think credit card churning is for anyone who is not good with finances or who doesn’t track spending. Brian had a good post about spending more with credit cards that you do with cash, and I agree that if you are getting all these cards and spending money just to meet a bonus requirement, it’s not worth it at all. Likewise, if you don’t pay the balance in full every month, the interest will negate any rewards you get.  Also, if you are planning on applying for a mortgage or other loan within two years, I would not open new credit accounts . Even with an 800 credit score, banks don’t like to see that many new credit inquiries.

How Long Will I Churn?

I will never be someone who opens a dozen credit cards every three months to try and get a million miles. If I have to spend money to earn a reward that I wasn’t already planning on spending, it isn’t worth it to me. I also won’t buy prepaid gift cards from one store to try and load a Bluebird account to pay my bills that don’t accept credit cards. To me, that would be a counter productive use of my time and money.

I can see us opening a few cards every 6 months or so if there is a great sign up bonus.  After the Hawaii trip, we’d like to go to Europe in about two years, so that might be my next challenge. As long as we have to pay bills and buy groceries and gas anyway, why not earn money by paying with a credit card? I know I was irresponsible for years, so am I worried that I might fall back into old habits? Not at all. To me credit card debt is like eating something that made you really sick. I can’t stand to think about it. I know I will never carry another balance on a credit card.

Am I nuts with my new obsession? What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten with a credit card bonus?

I was not compensated in any way for this post and have not included links for the cards I’ve used. If you are interested in signing up for one of the above credit cards, you can contact me if you can’t find a link. 

Image: Freedigitalphotos.net/Noffsinger

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.

44 comments

  1. Thanks for the great tips on getting (nearly) free flights with bonus points.

    I’ve never used bonus points for a trip yet, but I do use my Ink Card bonus points to purchase books and other products at Amazon. Amazon makes it easy for you to transfer your points directly to their website.
    Terry recently posted..Roof Maintenance for the Home that will Turn Into a Rental HouseMy Profile

    • I love my Ink card and will probably keep it after the promo year is up and I have to pay a fee. The bonuses will make up for it.

  2. I have never used bonus or travel points. I maybe be missing out but I really don’t want to have access to more then 2 credit cards. 6-12 is a little too much for me. Getting a lot of cards for rewards and churning seems to be a big thing now. Not sure I will ever join that party.

    • I think it’s certainly a choice you have to weigh and decide if it works for you. It would not have been a good thing for me to try years ago. I’m finally in a place where I can keep up with it and not get caught up in the spending.

  3. I definitely want to start churning credit cards. I have to wait until after we buy the next house though!
    Michelle recently posted..Emergency Fund or Pay off Debt?My Profile

  4. You definitely aren’t a “nut” for capitalizing on these rewards cards. I definitely plan on doing the same thing down the road. That’s awesome you are going to Hawaii! I went a couple years ago for my sister-in-law’s wedding and it is as close to paradise as I’ve seen so far. I also would like to go to Europe and I will certainly consider churning credit cards to get there.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted..Friday Giveaway Roundup – 162 GiveawaysMy Profile

    • Until they start denying me or we need some sort of a loan, I think I’ll keep gathering sign up rewards for as long as they are available.

  5. I need to look into rewards a bit more closely. At the moment my wife and I very infrequently use our credit cards so we don’t get many points.
    Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank recently posted..Top Personal Finance Articles #18My Profile

  6. Sounds like you’ve got a pretty awesome thing going. I’m like Michelle. I think churning can be a great strategy, but I want to wait until we purchase a house before getting into it. For now we earn 2% cash back on everything with a Fidelity Amex, and 1.5% with a Fidelity Visa when Amex isn’t accepted.
    Matt Becker recently posted..Should Short-Term Cash Be Part of Your Asset Allocation?My Profile

  7. Theres some great deals out at the moment with all the credit card companies vying for our business, which can only be a good thing. I got a flight to Turkey purely on my airmiles a few months back which was awesome.
    Finance Romance recently posted..Man Flu hits the markets…My Profile

    • That would be an amazing trip. I’ve heard so many good things about Turkey. Maybe we’ll work our way up to there.

  8. As you know Kim, I have joined in on the party too. It made me (well my wife) a little nervous at first, but we’re going to be fully funding our trip to Vegas in January for my birthday. We’ll be making the hotel reservations this weekend and it feels so good to know that it’s all paid for and by someone else. :)
    John S @ Frugal Rules recently posted..Frugal Friday: Should the Government Get Its Hands Off My Big Gulp?My Profile

  9. I was hoping to start churning this yet since we are done refinancing and stuff like that, but tr lockdown on my counts from ID theft had definitely put the kibosh on that for a while. Better to lose out on the churning than to make it easier for ID thieves to slip through the cracks.
    Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted..Kitty PoP and The Thin Line Between Love and HateMy Profile

  10. No you are not nuts! Free travel is great. I was able to get 2 free roundtrip tickets and 2 nights free at a very nice hotel with credit card sign up bonuses. As long as you pay your balance fully each month and don’t spend more than you normally would…then you should take advantage of the perks.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted..The Tipping ConundrumMy Profile

  11. This sounds like an awesome idea. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of the offers as long as you make sure it doesn’t come back to bite you in the end.
    Jake @ Common Cents Wealth recently posted..Weekly Recap – June 14th, 2013My Profile

  12. Obsessions are dangerous! I have had an airline card for 20+ years. I have traveled overseas every other year flying business or first class. Last year, I added a hotel card to help with the hotels too.
    krantcents recently posted..Xanatos Gambit!My Profile

  13. We love Hawaii! It was one of our first real vacations with the girls. I absolutely love getting reward points and I think as long as you can be responsible and buy only the things you would have with cash and pay them off every month, then you might as well enjoy the rewards. Great point for those looking to finance a mortgage or other big loan to wait to churn until afterwards. A nice rewards vacation is great but it’s probably a high price to pay if it means getting a home loan turned down. :) Have a great weekend, Kim!
    Shannon @ The Heavy Purse recently posted..Blog Round-Up: Week of June 10, 2013My Profile

  14. That is awesome, since you do make the purchases anyway, better earn something, and even better if it is a Hawaiian holiday! I just got a few rewards with an airline for my trip to France, enough to buy a couple nights of hotel but the points+cash offers are not worth it since they have high prices for the nights. With their system the miles have a different value depending on where you use them, flights, hotels, car rentals…
    Pauline recently posted..Friday recap, hunger and internet cleanseMy Profile

    • I am kind of amazed at how different hotel chains require vastly different numbers of points. Hilton takes about 40K points for a nice room, while Hyatt takes much less. We do like the free breakfast and other things at Hiltons, though.

  15. I say go for it as long as you pay the credit card at the end of the month then why not take advantage of free money and rewards. We pretty much put everything we can on our credit cards to get rewards points. There’s nothing better than seeing your rewards grow just by using plastic. Although many people fancy using cash that’s just one more reason why we don’t.
    Canadian Budget Binder recently posted..PF Weekly, Grab A Brew #24: Who Has The $23,000 BoxMy Profile

    • I keep a small amount of cash for personal spending, but the rest goes on the card. I can’t imagine trying to carry around $100 or more to go grocery shopping.

  16. Thanks for the heads up! It comes down to a question of time commitment, I think.

  17. I started doing this with my southwest card a couple years ago. First I had 50,000 bonus miles just for signing up and then spending some (I forget how much but it wasn’t too bad), and since then I charge large purchases and it’s so far paid for all three of my domestic trips this year, and last year’s NY trip. I wish they did fly to hawaii but they don’t. I haven’t thought about signing up for more because I feel like things might get out of control, but maybe it’s something I should consider.
    Budget and the Beach recently posted..Link Love/Greetings from DetroitMy Profile

    • I can see how you could get caught up in trying to meet the minimum spend. When I don’t own a business, it will be much harder. I’ll have to stick to the cards that are lower, like $1000 in three months.

  18. I have three credit cards, all for different rewards. I use them all at different times for different things so I can maximize each card’s benefit. It’s crazy but it works! I’m glad you’ve joined the party :)
    Daisy @ Young Finances recently posted..Do You Really Need a Credit Card?My Profile

  19. In the past year, I’ve signed up for 2 cards. One gave me $500 cashback for spending $2,000 in 3 months. The other gave me over $820 in flights (I used half the credit and sold the other half for cash), so I think those are totally worth it for the temporary credit hit.
    Daniel recently posted..Is It Worth $99 To Be The Coolest Kid In The Room For 4 Months?My Profile

  20. I am beyond obsessed now with credit card rewards and travel hacking! It’s the greatest thing going, and as long as the credit card companies are going to give me thousands upon thousands of dollars of free travel each year just for using their cards I’m going to take advantage of it!

    Like you, I’ve been studying up on this, and I’ve committed to opening at least four new cards each year. We can reach the minimum spend requirements every 3 months so I think that’s a reasonable goal.

    We just planned a free trip to disney for the four of us (5 year old and 1.5 year old daughters) using Southwest rewards points and Starwood points to stay at the Swan hotel on site.

    We’re also planning a trip to Hawaii! I figure with 3 cards I can easily get 7 nights free at a top-tier Hyatt. 60k bonus + normal spend from Chase gets us to the 66k points for 3 nights plus my wife and I will each get a Hyatt Visa for 4 more free nights!

    If you ever want to compare notes, shoot me an email

    Brad
    Brad @ RichmondSavers.com recently posted..The Impact of Prepaying your Mortgage Principal Each MonthMy Profile

    • Thanks, I might just do that. We are planning for Hawaii next summer, and I’m not sure where the best place to stay with points is yet.

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