Miles & Points 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Free World Travel

Disclaimer: This guide was written in September 2013. Some of the information is now out of date.

1. What You Will Learn

It’s possible to earn vast quantities of travel reward points without any paid travel!

If you are time-starved, don’t currently travel much, and want to start traveling the world for free, please follow along. You are in the some position I was just one short year ago. I had the desire to travel but didn’t think I had the time or money. I’ve figured out how to change all of that and I can show you how to do the same thing.

I’m going to start at the beginning and give you simple, actionable advice on the best and easiest ways to accumulate miles and points without traveling. As you accumulate hundreds-of-thousands of points (or more) I will show you the best way to redeem and maximize these points for life-changing travel.

I’m grinning right now thinking about the people who think I’m overstating what is possible. You’ll see! Bookmark this site, add it to feedly, or do whatever you have to do to make sure you come back everyday.

In the past year I have:

  • accumulated over 1,000,000 airline miles / hotel points without any paid travel

  • redeemed these points for numerous flights and international family vacations, for free

To be honest, at this point I am having trouble deciding exactly how I want to use all the points I’ve accumulated. This is an incredible problem to have that I never thought possible even one short year ago.

2. Year In Review

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to travel. Fortunately, my parents took me on fantastic vacations as a kid which just added fuel to this fire. During college I was always seeking the next adventure. Whether it was canoeing through the everglades with my best friend or working a summer at a Salmon Cannery and then backpacking through Alaska (I used the money to buy my wife’s engagement ring!). I loved experiencing new places.

Mt. McKinley from Denali National Park
Mt. McKinley from Denali National Park
Canoe trip through Everglades National Park
Canoe trip through Everglades National Park

As my wife and I started our family and money became tighter, travel went by the wayside. It just didn’t seem practical to spend the money when there were so many other needs for our family. I needed to figure out a way to give my two boys similar experiences I had as a child.

As I mentioned earlier, a blog post by Chris Guillebeau in August of 2012 opened my eyes to the world of travel reward points.

It’s possible to use credit card sign up bonuses to earn trips all over the world.

Chris Recently completed a life-long goal of traveling to all 192 UN recognized countries so I would say he is an authority on travel. Many of his adventures were paid for using the techniques I’m going to teach you.

Using travel reward points and miles from credit cards is not some fringe activity that’s only reserved for big spenders. Families with ordinary jobs and ordinary income can get into this game. It takes a little bit of research and a lot of organization but I will show you exactly how to accomplish both of those things.

To get you excited about what is possible I’d like you to think for a moment about your dream vacation. Is it 2 weeks exploring Australia and New Zealand? Maybe a week on the beaches of Maui? Maybe it’s you and your spouse on an over-water bungalow in Bora Bora or the Seychelles. With a little planning and a lot of action you can make that trip a reality in less than a year. Get excited, this is amazing stuff!

Periodically it’s helpful for me to review where I’m at with travel reward points. It’s been a year since I started collection points and miles so now is a good time to review.

Here are the points I’ve acquired in the past year:

  • 141,000 Chase Ultimate Reward Points

  • 86,000 American Express Membership Rewards

  • 172,000 Starwood Preferred Guest Points

  • 273,000 Hilton Hhonors Points + 3 free nights at Hilton property in the world

  • 60,000 Priority Club Points

  • 1,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points + 2 free nights at any Hyatt property in the world

  • 50,000 Marriott Reward Points

  • 110,000 Southwest Rapid Reward Points

  • 63,000 American Airlines Miles

  • 31,000 US Airways Dividend Miles

  • 26,000 United Mileage Plus Miles

  • 31,000 Delta Miles

  • 112,000 Hawaiian Airline Miles

This comes to a total of 1,156,000 points/miles earned in the past 12 months. And don’t forget the 4 free nights at any Hyatt/Hilton property in the world.

We’ll get into this more in future days but the million plus points were earned during just 2 credit card application sprees (in case you’re wondering, my credit score went up and in the midst of this I easily qualified for a home mortgage refinance). As I plan the next twelve months I’m going to make a concerted effort to be even more aggressive with point and mile accumulation.

How did I put these points to use over the past year? Abby and I spend a weekend in Orlando for a conference, we stayed in a beautiful 2 bedroom suite in the Blue Mountains of Ontario Canada for 5 nights, spent a weekend with Abby in Chicago staying at the $450/night Waldorf Astoria. I also just booked a trip to Cancun for not only my family but my wife’s parents and sister as well.

Westin Trillium House Blue Mountains
Westin Trillium House Blue Mountains
Chicago River
Chicago River

Abby and I also use hotel points for convenience stays. Whether it’s for a funeral or a stay-cation in Pittsburgh, it’s a wonderful feeling to have all these points at our disposal.

Despite some great vacations over the past year, I’ve only used about one-quarter of my point reserve!

Over the past 12 months I’ve made some strategy mistakes. I wish I would’ve focused on acquiring more points in just a few different programs instead of a small number of points spread out over thirteen different programs. In the coming days I’ll show you how to avoid that same mistake.

Today I want to leave you with two things:

  1. Over the next twelve months you can earn a million (or more) miles and points

  2. You can do this even if you have a busy schedule, inflexible work schedule, and a family with young kids

In the next post I’m going to show you how you can leverage a good credit score to earn free trips around the world. This is an important topic so make sure you check back.

Also, I want to say thank you to all the visitors to this site over the past few days. At just a few days old, I’m surprised how much attention this blog is getting. I want to say thank you for following along. We’re just getting started!

3. Leverage Good Credit For Free Travel

What’s the best way to earn travel reward points and miles?

Far and away the best way to jump start earning points and miles is through credit card sign up bonuses. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card currently offers 40,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 within the first three months of account opening. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year.

First, don’t worry about the minimum spend number. I will show you how to overcome large minimum spend requirements regardless of your budget in a later post.

Second, under ordinary circumstances 40,000 points would be very difficult to acquire. You could either spend $40,000 on everyday spending or $20,000 on travel. That’s a lot of spending. No thank you! I’ll take a 40,000 point sign up bonus.

40,000 points is significant and this is just for 1 card! The 40,000 Ultimate Reward Points can instantly be transferred to airlines like Southwest and United or hotels like Hyatt or Marriott.

Will this wreck my credit score?

The first objection I hear is, “Yea but won’t signing up for numerous credit cards destroy my credit score?” It’s important to understand how your credit score is determined.

Before we continue I need to give a disclaimer. If at any point in your life you have struggled with credit card debt or fail to pay off credit card balances in full every month, you should stop here. If you have any credit card debt at all you have no business applying for more cards. Go here, get this book, and fix your finances.

Additionally, If you are planning on applying for a mortgage or another large and important loan in the next couple years I cannot recommend that you apply for any new credit. It’s difficult to predict how mortgage underwriters will view mass credit card application sprees. Personally, I refinanced my mortgage a few months after applying for 10+ credit cards. I had no issues.

How is my credit score determined?

You need a good score to get anything from cable tv to a mortgage.

Most people have no idea how their credit scores are calculated. Scores range from 300 – 850 on the FICO scale. The score is determined by the following components:

my FICO credit score components

  • 35% Payment History - Do you pay your bills on time? This is huge.
  • 30% Amounts Owed - Also can be described as utilization percentage. What is the ratio of amount owed divided by available credit. This includes not only credit cards but also the ratio of amount still owed on mortgages or percentage of original car loan still owed. Theoretically, if you owe $20,000 and have $25,000 of available credit that is much worse than owing $20,000 with $100,000 in available credit.
  • 15% Length of Credit History - How long have you been extended credit? Did you get your first credit card last year or have you been you been building credit history over the past decade or more? What is the average age of all your credit accounts?
  • 10% New Credit - Have you applied for new loans or credit cards recently? How many recent credit inquiries do you have?
  • 10% Types of Credit Used - What is your mix of credit cards, mortgages, installment loans, etc. This is all factored into your score.

All five of these categories are used to paint a picture of your credit risk. The good news is that you score isn’t solely dependent on one category.

When someone new to the travel reward point game applies for numerous credit cards all on the same day, it’s common to see an immediate drop in credit score of 2-10 points (or more). Over the course of the next few months this generally ticks back up and sometimes surpasses the original score.

The reason your score can improve is because of the 30% category of “Amounts Owed” or utilization percentage. Overnight, you can dramatically improve the ratio of credit available to credit used by adding credit cards to your credit profile.

At the same time, applying for numerous new credit cards decreases your average age of credit account. Fortunately this only makes up 10% of your score.

As I mentioned previously, between my wife and I, we’ve applied for 26 credit cards over the past 12 months and refinanced our home at the same time. Our credit scores remain virtually unchanged. There have been small fluctuations. One reporting agency is showing an improved credit score over the past 12 months. Another service is showing a slightly decreased score. These changes are not even close to significant enough to bump us out of the “excellent” range.

For further reading on how credit scores are calculated please visit My Fico. It’s a valuable resource that you should spend some time with.

How can I track my credit score?

I recommend taking three easy proactive steps to monitor your credit score and view your credit report.

  1. CreditSesame.com - Free credit score and free credit monitoring. Highly recommended.
  2. CreditKarma.com - Free credit score and free credit monitoring. Highly recommended.
  3. AnnualCreditReport.com - A free service that provides you with a detailed credit report once per year from each of the three major reporting bureaus; Equifax, Experian, Trans Union. By law you are entitled to receive your credit report for free once per year.

Once a month I check my score with Credit Sesame and Credit Karma. Every January I download my three credit reports from Annual Credit Report and spend time checking it for inaccuracies. This is a good habit to develop.

Credit Sesame and Credit Karma are good but they are not official FICO scores. They are very accurate in my opinion and for our purposes will do just fine but to get your official FICO score you’ll need to sign up for a free trial at My Fico.

What Score Do I Need?

Many travel reward cards have more strict credit score requirements than your standard run-of-the-mill credit cards. It can vary wildly but I would say you need to have a credit score of at least 700 before you start thinking about applying for travel reward cards. Preferably a score much higher.

Credit Karma has a useful feature where you can browse cards and see the average and lowest credit scores approved for the cards. If in doubt, I would use this as a reference.

Is it Worth It?

Is all the work of understanding and monitoring your credit score worth the effort just to get a few points or miles. YES! We’re potentially talking about millions of miles and dozens of vacations.

4. Best Travel Reward Programs

So we’ve talked about how I got started with miles and points, and why you should get started too. We decided that leveraging your good credit score to take advantage of travel card sign up bonuses is by far the best way to accumulate huge quantities of points redeemable for flights and hotel stays around the world.

Before we starting applying for credit cards we need to have some type of strategy in place. You don’t want to waste precious credit card applications to get points in a program that are of no use to you.

What travel rewards programs should I focus on?

More than likely you’ve seen airline or hotel branded credit cards. Maybe Southwest, American Airlines, or a Hilton Card. You will receive carrier or hotel specific points when you sign up for these cards. This is great but it may not be your most flexible option.

Fortunately there are three reward programs that are incredibly flexible and should be the focus of everyone starting out in the point/miles game.

1. Chase Ultimate Rewards

  • Points are not tied to any specific program
  • Airline transfer partners include: British Airways, Korean Air, Southwest, United, Virigin Atlantic
  • Hotel transfer partners include: Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, Ritz Carlton
  • Numerous credit cards make earning points easy

At first blush you may not be impressed with the list of airlines or hotels. You may think you could NEVER use British Airways miles. Not true. British Airways is part of the One World Alliance. You could transfer your Chase Ultimate Reward points to British Airways and book a reward on another One World Alliance Airline, like American Airlines. This is just one example. United Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance. Transferring points to United opens up another whole range of opportunities.

Redemption options can get tricky. Remember, this is a 101 guide. Stay with me and we’ll get to the more advanced stuff.

You may also not be impressed with IHG as a reward partner. But if you transfer Chase Ultimate Reward Points to IHG you can then book hotels at any of their brands including; Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Indigo, Holiday Inn, Staybridge, Candlewood, and others. Hyatt opens up even more possibilities for you.

The important thing to remember is that Chase Ultimate Reward points are incredibly flexible and easy to earn due to the large number of credit cards associated with the points. This is your number one option and where you should first focus your efforts.

2. Starwood Preferred Guest

  • Valuable low-point redemptions at over 1,300 Starwood properties worldwide including; Le Meridian, Alfot, Four Points, Westin, W, Sheraton, St. Regis, and Element
  • 30 airline transfer partners including; American, Delta, US Airways, and United
  • 20,000 SPG points = 25,000 airline points (25% bonus on transfers!)
  • Personal and Business Starwood American Express cards make it easy to earn large bonuses

The Starwood Preferred Guest program should be a focus because of the great hotel redemption options AND more importantly the incredible list of airline transfer partners. There is no other program with 30 airline transfer partners.

I rated Starwood #2 not because the points are less valuable than Chase Ultimate Rewards, but because they are slightly harder to obtain. Chase credit card sign-up bonuses are generally larger and there are more cards to choose from.

 3. American Express Membership Rewards

  • Points are not tied to any specific program
  • Airline transfer partners include; Delta, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and many more
  • Hotel transfer partners include; Hilton, Starwood, and others

I rank American Express Membership Rewards as #3 because it has some nice features but lags behind Ultimate Rewards and Starwood for a few reasons. It doesn’t have as many airline transfer partners as Starwood and the hotel options just are not that great. Amex points have Hilton as a partner but Hilton points are incredibly inflated. It takes a lot of points for an award night. I would not recommend making that transfer.

But I mentioned Starwood as a transfer partner, wouldn’t that make this the best program ever! Yes it would but you have to keep in mind a non-favorable exchange rate. 1,000 Amex points = 333 SPG points. Not a favorable ratio.

That being said, Amex points can be great in certain situations and they are relatively easy to earn with lots of credit card bonus opportunities.

I made a huge mistake

When I started earning points and miles in September of 2012 I made a huge mistake. I thought it would be great to have points in as many different programs as possible. The result was a lot of points but not a significant amount in any particular program. This severely limited my redemption option.

I corrected my errors and in my second app-spree I focused on accumulating as many points as possible in my “top” programs. This has made all the difference. As you start, you should focus on obtaining as many points as possible in these three programs.

Where to go from here

Let me just say that we are just scratching the surface here on all the programs. I have spent countless hours reading and researching to bring you the three best programs. You’ll soon graduate from here and learn the ins and outs of airline specific programs and redemption charts. Don’t worry about that yet.

Also, once you’re up and running earning points and miles I will dig into each of the top three programs in much more detail.

The next post will have some important information on how to get free nights at some of the most expensive hotels in the world, regardless of points. And after that we’ll get you prepared for the fun: You’re first app spree.

5. Evaluating a Credit Card Offer

Now that we’ve decided that Chase Ultimate RewardsStarwood Preferred Guest, and American Express Membership Rewards are the best three programs to start with, it’s time to evaluate some credit card bonus offers.

What banks should I focus on?

Chase Bank credit cards provide (1) Ultimate Reward bonus opportunities, (2) Starwood partners with American Express, and American Express offers cards linked to their (3) Membership Reward Program. So we’ll start with Chase and American Express.

It just so happens that Chase and American Express have some of the more lenient rules when it comes to applying for multiple travel reward cards. This is good news for you!

Citi, Bank of America, Barclays, Bank of Hawaii, and US Bank have some good credit card options for other programs but they seem to be significantly more strict when it comes to applying for multiple cards. We’ll worry about this in the future.

Best Chase Ultimate Rewards Credit Cards

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

  • 40,000 Ultimate Reward Point Bonus
  • Bonus after a minimum spend of $3,000 in 3 months
  • $0 annual fee the first year, then $95

This is a fantastic offer. 40,000 bonus points can be transferred to dozens of travel partners like I mentioned previously. Roundtrip plane tickets, hotels, you name it.

In order to qualify for this bonus you must put $3,000 of spending on the card within the first 3 months of account ownership. I will tell you right now that this is no problem. If you had 5 of these cards each with $3,000 minimum spend that would still not be a problem. In a future post I’ll show you how you can satisfy any minimum spend requirement.

Despite the large signup bonus the Sapphire Preferred has no annual fee the first year. You have 12 months to figure out what to do with the card before you pay the annual fee. You’ll have lots of options at that point which we will go over. The bottom line is to not worry about the annual fee as it doesn’t apply until the anniversary date of your card.

The are numerous other features to this card including no foreign transaction fees, category spend bonuses, annual points bonuses, etc. These feature will be important in the future but not today.

2. Chase Ink Plus Business Credit Card

  • 50,000 Ultimate Reward Point Bonus
  • Bonus after a minimum spend of $5,000 in 3 months
  • $0 annual fee the first year, then $95

Again, same great features as the Sapphire preferred. This card has additional bonus spending categories that you’ll want to understand in the future.

This is a business card! I don’t have a business!

Not so fast. Do you sell anything on Etsy? Used textbooks on Amazon? Do you sell old stuff on craigslist or ebay? You may have a business.

When you apply for this card you’ll be asked to enter an EIN number. This is the federal tax id for your business. It’s like a social security number for a business.

Personally, I own an LLC so I just enter my EIN when applying for business cards. If you own an LLC or corporation you’re all set!

If you have a “business” operating as a sole-proprietorship that means you are operating under your own social security number. This doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate business. There are numerous businesses out there operating as sole-proprietorships.

If this applies to you, enter your social security number under the EIN field on the credit card application. Use your name as the business name.

One thing that is important to remember is that even these business cards are still pulling your personal credit. You’re required to enter an EIN and your social security number. You are accepted or declined based on your personal credit worthiness, not business credit history which may be non-existent. So don’t worry if you business doesn’t have a long track record or significant profits.

3. Chase Ink Bold Business Charge Card

  • 50,000 Ultimate Reward Point Bonus
  • Bonus after a minimum spend of $5,000 in 3 months
  • $0 annual fee the first year, then $95

The only difference between the Ink Plus and the Ink Bold is that one is a credit card and the other is a charge card. With a charge card you must pay off your bill in full each month. This shouldn’t be an issue since everyone should be paying off their credit cards in full each month.

Theoretically, a charge card should be easier to get approved for. There is less of a credit risk to the bank if you are required to pay off your card each month.

Can I apply for all three on the same day?

In the next post we’ll get into the actual application strategy but the short answer is yes you can. I wouldn’t recommend it your first time around. You should have no problem getting approved for the Sapphire Preferred Card (personal) and Ink Bold or Plus (business) on the same day.

If you have two legitimate businesses with separate EIN numbers you could probably get the Ink Plus and the Ink Bold on the same day. It’s almost guaranteed that you wouldn’t receive an instant approval for both business cards but would have to call the reconsideration line which we’ll talk about in the future.

Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Cards

1. American Express Starwood Preferred Guest (personal)

  • 10,000 points after first spend
  • 15,000 points after spending $5,000 within first 6 months
  • $0 annual fee the first year, then $65

**note: The current off on the American Express website appears to show a 10,000 bonus after the first spend but no mention of the additional 15,000 after spending $5,000 in 6 months. This is surprising. Please email me at donnie [at] donnielaw.com if you are having trouble finding the 25,000 point offer.

With this card you’ll have 25,000 points after meeting the $5,000 minimum spend requirements. The $5,000 will add another 5,000 points so you’ll end up with 30,000 points.

With 30,000 points you can book rooms in fantastic hotels all around the world or take 20,000 points and turn it into 25,000 airline miles. SPG points are very flexible.

2.  American Express Starwood Preferred Guest (business)

  • 10,000 points after first spend
  • 15,000 points after spending $5,000 within first 6 months
  • $0 annual fee the first year, then $65

This is the business version of the personal card. Everything else is the same.

One thing to remember is that you can apply for the personal and business version on the same day. In fact I recommend it if you have a legitimate business (even a sole-proprietorship).

American Express Membership Rewards Credit Cards

1. American Express Business Rewards Gold Card

  • 50,000 points after spending $5,000 within first 3 months
  • $0 annual fee the first year, then $175

There seems to be a constantly rotating sign up bonus for this card so make sure to search around for the best offer.

From my experience this is one of the easiest cards to be approved for because it’s a charge card and not a credit card. The balance must be paid off in full each month or else you will be slammed with fees.

Again, use your EIN for a corporation and your social security number for a sole-proprietorship.

2. American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card

  • 25,000 points after spending $2,000 within first 2 months
  • $0 annual fee the first year, then $175
  • 15,000 points after spending $30,000 within 12 months

This is the personal version of the Business Gold Card. Still a charge card. The 25,000 bonus points is not as good as the 50,000 but these two cards could be applied for in conjunction.

This card has the potential to earn you 70,000 in the first 12 months but putting $30,000 of spending on this card may not be the best strategy.

How much are all these points worth?

We’ll talk more about the actual credit card application strategy in the future but lets assume for a second that you applied for and was approved for all 7 credit cards mentioned above.

After some work you’ll meet your minimum spend (future post) and be awarded the sign up bonuses. Here’s what you’ll end up with:

  • 98,000 Chase Ultimate Reward Points
  • 60,000 Starwood Preferred Guest Points
  • 82,000 Amex Membership Reward Points

Total: 240,000 points

Conservatively, you should be able to get 2 cents of value out of each point if you’re smart when it comes time to redeem points for travel.

$4,800 worth of travel!

Not too bad for a measly 7 credit cards!

Another thing to keep in mind is that all of the cards listed above have various spend categories for earning more than 1 point per $1 spent. This is an important consideration but not at this early stage of the game. We’ll talk about spending categories in the future but when you are starting out the best way to earn points quickly is through a credit card sign up bonus. Ignore spending categories for now.

In the next post we’ll talk about some great cards for earning free hotel nights at some of the most expensive properties in the world. Stay tuned!

6. Insane Value in Free Night Certificates

In chapter 5 we looked at the best credit card bonus opportunities to quickly earn points in the best three travel reward programs. The seven cards mentioned that correspond to the three programs will be your foundation moving forward. This is where beginners and experts alike should focus their efforts. Today lets talk about how to get insane value by using free night certificates.

Before we get to the exciting app-spree day where you will put your newfound knowledge into practice it’s worthwhile to look at a couple of fantastic opportunities with hotel specific credit cards.

I almost lost $900

In September of 2012 I applied for the Citi Hilton Hhonors Reserve Visa. With an annual fee of $95 that was not waived the first year I submitted the application reluctantly.

When the card came in the mail I took it out of the envelope and looked at it for minute. I almost didn’t call and activate the card.

I was brand new to the miles and points games so spending $95 just to activate a credit card sounded crazy.

I ended up activating the card and paying the $95 annual fee. I spent $2,500 on the card in the first 4 months. A few weeks later 2 free weekend night certificates showed up in my Hilton Hhonors account.

Two free nights at any Hilton property in the world!

Was it worth paying $95 and spending $2,500 on the card to get 2 free weekend night certificates? Absolutely!

Take a look at some of the Hilton properties where I could have redeemed the two free weekend nights:

Waldorf Astoria Park City Utah

Trianon Palace Versailles

Conrad Maldives

Abby and I didn’t travel half-way around the world to use our free weekend night certificates but we did a good job of maximizing their value. We spent Labor Day Weekend at the Waldorf Astoria in Chicago. Typically, a standard room goes for $450/night. After two nights our check out bill was $0. We paid a $95 annual fee and went to the small hassle of meeting the minimum spend requirement. In return, we received $900 worth of a hotel stay. Not a bad deal! Take a look at the courtyard entrance to this downtown Chicago Hotel. It was incredible!

Hyatt offers a card with some similar perks. Take a look at my favorite place to redeem Hyatt free night certificates:

Park Hyatt Sydney Harbor

As you plan your first app-spree, consider these two cards:

1. Citi Hilton Hhonors Reserve Visa

  • 2 weekend night certificates after spending $2,500 in the first 4 months
  • Complimentary Hhonors Gold Status
  • 1 additional weekend night certificate on card anniversary if you spend $10,000 in 12 months
  • $95 annual fee, not waived the first year

2. Chase Hyatt Card

  • 2 free nights at any Hyatt property worldwide after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months
  • Complimentary Platinum status with Hyatt
  • 1 additional free night at any category 1-4 property each year on card anniversary
  • $75 annual fee, not waived the first year

Can I apply for these cards at the same time as the Starwood, Ultimate Rewards, and Amex Membership Rewards cards mentioned in Chapter 5?

Absolutely. If you remember in chapter 5 we focused on cards from Chase and American Express. The Hilton card mentioned here adds Citi to the mix. It is totally doable to apply for and be approved for all the cards mentioned in chapter 5 and chapter 6.

In the future we’ll talk a little more about the specifics of app-spree day and the importance of timing it correctly.

If you’ve been reading this series and have thought “been there done that” then I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter below. The idea of this 101 series is to start at the beginning and give people just starting out a good foundation. If you want more advanced/controversial techniques I encourage you to enter your email address below (it’s free).

7. Minimum Spend? Hello Bluebird!

Meeting credit card minimum spend requirements is not difficult. There are hundreds of creative ways to meet these spend requirements but my favorite is Bluebird by American Express.

Bluebird is marketed as a checking and debit alternative. Once you receive your bluebird card you’ll have access to your funds at ATM’s and can also make point of sale debit and credit transaction like any other bank debit card. The Bluebird online tools allow you to send checks and pay any bill.

You may be saying “that sounds exactly like my checking account.” The difference is that you can load your Bluebird account using money purchased with credit card. Here’s the process:

Step One: Register for a Bluebird Account. Go to bluebird.com and sign up for an account (it’s free). You will receive a physical Bluebird card in 5-10 business days. This is not a credit card and there is no credit check. Also, it differs from a checking account in that it is impossible to over-draw. It’s essentially a prepaid account with some unique features.

Bluebird.com
Bluebird.com
Your card will look like this.
Your card will look like this

Step Two: Buy Vanilla Reload Cards with your credit card. You are “buying money” with a credit card to meet minimum spending requirements. Take a look at the Vanilla Reload website to find locations. One thing to remember is that you need to find a location that allows you to purchase the Vanilla Reload cards with a credit card.

Some locations (including Walgreens) generally require you to purchase the Vanilla Reload cards with cash or a debit card. CVS seems to be the only consistent location for finding these cards that can be purchased with a credit card. All of my local CVS locations stock Vanilla Reload cards and allow credit card purchases up to $5,000/day. They may ask you some questions and want to scan your drivers license for money laundering monitoring purposes.

Be nice to the cashiers and gently inform them of company policies if they are unsure how many reload cards you are allowed to buy ($5,000/day equals 10 cards). The cashiers know me by name at my two local CVS stores! I try to make small talk and generally make it a pleasant experience for the cashier as they take the time to load my Vanilla Reload cards.

 

The card should look exactly like this. Be careful.
The card should look exactly like this. Be careful.
Back of Vanilla Reload card. Note the scratch off pin area.
Back of Vanilla Reload card. Note the scratch off pin area.

Make sure you divide your purchases to meet the credit card minimum spend requirements. Each Vanilla Reload card can be loaded with a maximum of $500 and each card has a $3.95 purchase fee.

Step Three: Load Vanilla Reload Cards Onto Bluebird. Once you have your physical Bluebird card and have purchased your Vanilla Reload cards you can log on to vanillareload.com. From there you can enter your Bluebird number, scratch off the back of the vanilla reload card to reveal the pin number, and load your bluebird account. Your Bluebird account is funded instantly. Using this method you can load a maximum of $1,000/day worth of vanilla Reload cards to your bluebird account. Bluebird also has a limit of $5,000/month loaded this way.

Go to vanillareload.com to fund your Bluebird account
Go to vanillareload.com to fund your Bluebird account

Step Four: Pay Bills and Make Transfers with Bluebird. Once your bluebird account has been funded it’s easy to pay any bill using money “purchased” with a credit card. How great is that!? You can also use your card for regular purchases. If you are having a hard time churning through the money in your bluebird account you can always link it to your checking account and transfer the money back to your account.

Note** I would not recommend simply loading your account and then immediately transferring the funds back to your checking account. I haven’t heard of Bluebird shutting down accounts but this could raise suspicion of money laundering. To mix things up I usually pay a few bills, make some point of sale transactions, and then transfer the rest to my checking account.

Pay bills or send checks with Bluebird
Pay bills or send checks with Bluebird

Bluebird does a good job of hiding the “send money to your bank account” function. Follow these steps to send money directly to your checking account:

Click on the add/edit funding source from the main sreen
Click on the add/edit funding source from the main sreen
Click here to add funds back to your bank account
Click here to add funds back to your bank account
Transfer funds
Transfer funds
Enter the amount you wish to transfer and then click continue
Enter the amount you wish to transfer and then click continue

To recap, loading your Bluebird acount with Vanilla Reload cards allows you to pay bills, send checks, and transfer money back to your checking acount as an easy way to meet minimum spending requirements.

You can purchase $5,000 (10 cards)/day of Vanilla Reload cards from CVS. You can load a maximum of $1,000/day and $5,000/month onto your Bluebird account.

If you want to meet your minimum spending requirements even faster you can open up a Bluebird account for both yourself and your significant other. This effectively doubles the Bluebird minimums and makes it possible to easily “spend” $10,000/month on your credit cards.

Also keep in mind that purchasing Vanilla Reload cards is not free. 10 cards X $3.95 = $39.95. However, this is a small price to pay to meet minimum spend requirements and earn huge credit card bonuses worth hundreds or even thousands!

8. Boost Credit Card Spending With Amazon Payments

Bluebird from American Express is the best way to meet large minimum spend requirements. While it doesn’t have the same potential, Amazon Payments is a good free tool for boosting your credit card spending.

Amazon Payments allows you to send money to pay for goods and services using a credit card. It’s free for up $1,000 in payments per month. After that they charge a hefty 3% fee (not worth it).

One of the reasons I don’t routinely use Amazon payments is because Vanilla Reload cards are so plentiful in my area. Also, I use so many services from Amazon that it would be a disaster if they shut down my account for what they thought was violating the terms of service. My kids would be sad if they fired up the Roku and there was no Amazon Prime Instant Video! I ere on the side of extreme caution when using Amazon Payments.

Note: There are some crazy schemes out there that involve Amazon Payments, dozens of people, and and dozens of bank accounts. To Amazon, the credit card company, and your personal bank these activities are very similar to money laundering efforts. Amazon can and will shutdown your account. Even worse, Chase or another credit card issuer can close your accounts. Use Amazon Payments at your own risk and please do not abuse the service.

Step-by-step guide to using Amazon Payments the smart way

Step One: Register for an Amazon Payments account. If you already have an Amazon account you can just use your current login credentials. If you’re creating an account from scratch you’ll need to enter all your personal information including birthday, address, etc… If you’re an existing Amazon user but have yet to use Amazon Payments you’ll be prompted to activate the Amazon Payments feature. You’ll need to verify your email address and also add a credit card to the account before you’re up and running.

Amazon Payments welcome screen. Click to create an account or sign in.
Amazon Payments welcome screen. Click to create an account or sign in.
Enter your email address or login as returning customer
Enter your email address or login as returning customer
Fill out your information
Fill out your information
If you’re new to Amazon Payments you will see this screen

Step Two: Send Money! It’s really that easy. Simply send money to an Amazon user and they can then deposit the funds into their bank account.

There are some things to note on the following screenshots. 1) You must send money to another Amazon customer with a valid email address. It could be your wife, your friend, your parent, or whoever. 2) Select “Goods/Services”. If you accidentally select “cash advance” you’ll be charged some ridiculous fees by the credit card company.

After you confirm your email address and add a credit card you will see your home screen
After you confirm your email address and add a credit card you will see your home screen
Fill out the details on the spend money screen
Fill out the details on the spend money screen
Select your desired credit card
Select your desired credit card

Other points to consider:

  • Can send a maximum of $1,000/month before Amazon starts charging a fee.
  • Start with small amount first to verify your credit card doesn’t code the transaction as a cash advance. (Citi credit cards have a history of being coded as cash advances)
  • Don’t send money to someone and then have them send it back to you via Amazon Payments. Can you say “frozen account!?”
  • Don’t create multiple accounts. Amazon will close your accounts.
  • Don’t abuse this service and make sure you read the Amazon Payments terms of service carefully.
  • Amazon will report your transactions to the IRS if you go above 200 transactions per year or $20,000 in payments per year.

successful strategy that I see people implementing is sending $1,000 per month to their spouse. The spouse simply can withdraw the money from their Amazon account directly to their checking account. If the transaction is legitimate and can be backed up with the description, I don’t see an issue.

Word of caution

I’ve seen some schemes where an individual creates 3 or 4 fake accounts. They make payments in the following manner: A → B → C → D → A. I vehemently object to this strategy. Don’t do it.

Use Amazon Payments as a legitimate and easy way to increase your credit card spending and meet minimum spend requirements!

9. The Best 24 Ways to Meet Credit Card Minimum Spend Requirements

Credit card minimum spending requirements are a big reason people don’t apply for as many cards as they can. There are so many easy ways to meet the requirements that you never have to miss out on a good bonus opportunity because of high spend requirements.

  1. Vanilla Reload / Amex Bluebird combo - Detailed in this post here. Purchase Vanilla Reload cards (for a fee) with a credit card from CVS. Load money onto Bluebird account from the Vanilla Reload website. Pay bills or deposit money back into your checking account.

  2. Visa Gift Cards / Amex Bluebird combo - Purchase Visa gift cards at the many locations that allow credit card purchases. Setup a pin number. Use gift card as a debit card to load funds onto Bluebird account at Walmart. Pay bills or deposit money back into your checking account from your Bluebird account.

  3. Green Dot Money Pak / Amex Bluebird combo - Same as above except that you purchase Green Dot Money Pak cards with your credit card. The cards are not free but they can be found everywhere.

  4. Go Bank Account - Go Bank is a prepaid checking account similiar to Bluebird. A few advantages are that you can setup recurring bill pays and withdraw funds for free from many ATM’s. You load your account the same way as with Bluebird; vanilla reload cards, pin-enabled visa gift cards, green dot money paks.

  5. Amazon Payments - I detailed the process previously.

  6. Automatic payment of all utility bills - This includes internet, cell phone, gas, electric, water, hoa fees. Any and all expenses that are recurring can generally be paid with a credit card.

  7. Federal taxes - If you are self employed and pay quarterly 1040 payments you can use Official Payments to pay your taxes with a credit card (for a small fee). Other options include Choice PayPay 1040, and Pay USA Tax. Choice Pay does not accept American Express.

  8. State taxes - Same as above. Do a google search to see what services are accepted by your state. In Pennsylvania I use Official Payments.

  9. Local taxes - My local tax collector subscribes to a service whereby residents can pay local taxes with a credit card. Yours may do the same.

  10. Discounted gift cards at Plastic Jungle Card Cash - There are lots of possibilities out there with gift card arbitrage. If you know you are going to be spending a lot of money at a certain location (Lowe’s, Home Depot, etc..) make sure you check and see if there are opportunities to buy a gift card (at a discount) from Plastic Jungle. **Update: Plastic Jungle is no longer selling cards. Use Card Cash for some great discounts.

  11. Company reimbursed business expenses - Are you taking a business trip? Work with HR to use your personal credit card for hotels and flights. Submit receipts and have them reimburse you. A friend of mine was reimbursed for two and half years worth of hotel stays. Talk about a long business trip!

  12. Pay the group tab - When you’re out with friends at a restaurant put the group bill on your credit card and have everyone pay you back.

  13. Prepay recurring expenses - If you are in a rush to meet a minimum spend requirement you can even “over-pay” your cell phone or cable bill. It will be posted as a credit to your account and you won’t have to pay again until the credit runs out as the months roll by.

  14. Charitable contributions - Many churches and charities accept recurring credit card payments. Take advantage of this.

  15. Purchase and return items - I have never done this and don’t plan to. Some people purchase an expensive item and return it after the miles/points have been deposited.

  16. Medical expenses - If you are self employed make sure you pay your premium with a credit card. The same goes for doctor visits and other medical bills. If you have an HSA or FSA account don’t use the provided debit card. Pay with your credit card and then have your HSA or FSA account reimburse your checking account. Between premiums, doctor visits, and hospital stays with my family of four, we run about $8,000/year through credit cards just for medical expenses.

  17. Car payments - Use Charge Smart to make car payments with a credit card (for a fee). You could also make these payments with Bluebird.

  18. Mortgage payments - Same as above. Make payments with Charge Smart. You can also use the bill pay feature of Bluebird. Do a cost comparison.

  19. Rent - Use the “purchased” funds in your Bluebird account to pay your landlord.

  20. School tuition - Many registrar offices accept credit cards. Simply pay off the card from your checking account before the credit card statement is cut.

  21. Buy wholesale merchandise with credit card and sell as retail - This is a much more advanced technique but with potentially huge payoffs. This is not just a credit card point strategy but an actual business opportunity. Buy wholesale items from overseas on Alibaba using a credit card and sell the items on ebay. This a legitimate business model so don’t take this lightly. Research! I purchased some japanese fishing lures direct from the manufacturer using paypal and they converted the payment into Yen. I then sold the lures on ebay and made a small profit after all the fees in addition to the credit card reward points.

  22. Buy a car - I purchased our minivan from a used car dealership using a credit card! I had all the arrangements to pay off the card arranged beforehand. You would be surprised how many dealerships accept credit cards.

  23. Fund a peer-to-peer loan - There have been reports that you can open a Lending Club account with $5,000 from a credit card. This is a long term strategy to use credit card if you were going to be investing the money anyways. You want to make sure the credit card doesn’t code the transaction as a cash advance. Citi is notorious for this. Other peer-to-peer lending companies worth checking out are Prosper and Kiva.

  24. Fund a new checking account - I certainly can’t go into detail here. You can open and fund many checking and savings accounts with a credit card. You’ll want to make sure the transactions are coded as purchases and not cash advances. There are numerous banks that allow this but I would start with your local credit unions. Once the money is the checking account you can spend it or withdraw it.

This is a just brief overview to help you understand the numerous ways to meet minimum spend requirements. I plan to go into more detail with many of these strategies. Let me know in the comments which strategies you would like explained further.

World of caution: please research all these strategies further and use at your own risk. This is an overview and not a comprehensive guide to the proper use of all these strategies.

Also, don’t forget sign up for my insider tips and tricks newsletter. This is free information that I send out via email because I don’t feel comfortable sharing some of the details publicly on my blog. Don’t miss out on some unique opportunities by not subscribing.

10. Master List of Travel Reward Programs

I made a mistake before my first ever credit card application spree. I didn’t sign up ahead of time for travel reward programs and instead let the credit card company issue me a frequent flier account number. I didn’t know any better.

Now I have two United Mileage Plus account numbers and two Delta SkyMiles account numbers. This happened because both myself and my wife applied for the airline credit cards and didn’t pre-fill our reward account number on the application.

Instead of having 100,000 miles in one account we now have 50,000 in two separate accounts. In some cases you can combine accounts with family members but this is not usually possible. This makes reward redemptions more challenging.

Keep in mind that credit card specific reward programs (Chase Ultimate RewardsAmex Membership Rewards) are linked directly to a credit card. You can’t sign up for an account before you apply for the credit card. Your points are attached directly to your credit card and accessed from the credit card website.

For airline and hotel branded cards make sure you have a reward account number before filling out your credit card application. For example… make sure you have Starwood Preferred Guest account before applying for the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest credit card. You want to know where all of your sign up bonuses are being funneled.

Another reason

Even if you don’t plan on applying for a branded credit card for a particular airline it’s a good idea to sign up for their reward program. It’s free and you’ll receive offers and promotions via email and regular. It’s a good way to stay in the loop. Even if you don’t ever plan to fly on a particular airline, sign up!

Open a spreadsheet and buckle up. This is going to be fun! Make sure you track your new account numbers, login id’s, and passwords in a spreadsheet.

Master List of Travel Reward Programs

Airline Programs

Hotel Programs

Other Programs

Remember, this is all just preparation for your first ever application spree. If it feels too overwhelming to setup an account with all these programs, at the very least open an account with the programs for which you’ll be applying for a credit card in the coming days.

11. Credit Card Application Spree Day! Stay Organized.

It’s not uncommon to be approved for 10+ credit cards on a single day. Especially if you are new to miles and points and have lots of credit card opportunities. As you become more advanced, your choices become limited.

Take a look  at the evaluating a credit card offer and insane value in free night certificates chapters. A good first credit card application spree will include some (or all) of the following cards:

  1. Chase Sapphire Preferred (personal)
  2. Chase Ink Plus (business)
  3. American Express Starwood Preferred Guest (personal)
  4. American Express Starwood Preferred Guest (business)
  5. American Express Business Rewards Gold (business)
  6. American Express Premier Rewards Gold (personal)
  7. Citi Hilton Hhonors Reserve (personal)
  8. Chase Hyatt (personal)

The direct links are constantly changing so do a google search to find the most current offer or find a link from the bank website.

After being approved and meeting the minimum spend requirements for all eight cards you will have the following points:

  • 98,000 Chase Ultimate Reward Points
  • 60,000 Starwood Preferred Guest Points
  • 82,000 Amex Membership Reward Points
  • 2 Weekend Night Certificates at any Hilton property in the world
  • 2 Free nights at any Hyatt property in the wold

Wow! If you are new to miles and points your world has just changed. New opportunities are now at your fingertips! And this is just your first application spree! Do this 4 times/year and you are really earning some serious points. This is how I earned over 1,000,000 miles and points in 12 months.

Is 8 cards reasonable?

Yes. However, everyone has a different comfort level. There’s nothing wrong with picking one or two from the list.

What I would not do is string out your applications over a period of a few days or weeks. I generally apply for cards every 4 months with nothing in-between. This is a better strategy than applying for one new card every month or two.

It may be advisable to pick one card from each bank above (Amex, Chase, and Citi) and apply for those three. As you gain confidence and experience you pick from the remaining cards for your next application spree. This is the easiest route.

During my first application spree I applied for 6 credit cards and was approved for all 6. I was tentative but it was important for me to gain a a comfort level. I monitored my credit score and after seeing it creep up a few months later after applying for 6 cards I gained confidence.

Are you comfortable with the minimum spend?

See the chapter detailing the best ways to meet minimum spend requirements. Make sure you are confident you can meet the minimum spend required to earn the bonus points. If you can think creatively you will never have an issue with minimum spend requirements. The Bluebird / Vanilla Reload combination allows you to easily run $5,000 through a credit card (or cards) every month.

The limiting factor for me is the amount of credit card approvals I can receive, not minimum spending requirements.

Stay organized

I keep track of my credit card applications in Evernote. Once I’m approved and receive the card in the mail I use a simple spreadsheet to stay organized. Here are the columns I use in my spreadsheet:

  • account owner (me or my wife)
  • card name
  • username
  • password
  • account number
  • application date
  • activation date
  • annual fee
  • minimum spend requirements
  • point bonus
  • notes

Multiple Browsers?

When applying to multiple credit cards from the same bank on the same day (ie: Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Plus) some suggest filling out the online applications in separate web browsers and submitting simultaneously. I’ve never used this strategy and am routinely approved for multiple cards from the same bank on the same day.

What do I do if I’m not instantly approved?

In the next chapter of Miles and Points 101 I will talk about credit reconsideration phone numbers and what to do if not instantly approved. Just as a heads up, I’ve never executed a app-spree where I did not have to call a credit reconsideration phone number. For me, it’s part of the process.

Let me know your plans for your first ever travel credit card application spree!

12. Credit Card Application Reconsideration Phone Numbers and Strategies

If you participate in mass travel credit card application sprees you will need to call a bank reconsideration phone number at some point. It’s highly effective at pushing approvals through and quite easy!

Truth be told, I didn’t know this strategy existed during my first application spree and I lost out on some approvals.

When you are applying for lots of credit cards online you will typically receive one of the following results:

  1. Approved - Fantastic! Sit back and wait for your card to arrive in the mail.
  2. Declined - Not the desired result. Worth a call to find out more. In my experience this is not a common result to receive instantly after submitting an online credit card application.
  3. Pending - Very common. Make sure to call the reconsideration phone number immediately.
  4. Need more information - The web page should provide you with a phone number prompting you to call. This could be for fraud protection, verification, or a number of other reasons.

The focus of this post is to give you phone numbers and strategies when dealing with result #2 and #3 above.

You need to remember that when you apply for a credit card at a particular bank they are puling your credit, looking at your score and countless other factors, and examining your relationship with the bank before making a decision. This is all automated. Sometimes, to get the desired result (approved) you need to add a human into this equation. It doesn’t always work out but in my experience more often than not I can turn a “pending” into an “approved” with a 5 minute phone call.

Remember, the credit card company wants you to approve you for their card. Why else would they offer it? It’s part of their business model. If at all possible and based on a number of factors, you will be approved.

If you don’t call, some of your pending applications may eventually be approved but you certainly help your chances by calling right away.

Make sure when you call one of the reconsideration phone numbers you sound happy and cheerful. Make the rep want to help you. From my experience, many of my calls have followed a pretty standard script:

Me: “Hello. I just applied for the American Express X card and I received a “pending” result. I’m just calling to see why.”

Rep: “Ok let me take a look at that for you. I see you have 10 credit cards with us and have been applying for a lot of credit cards lately. Why is that?”

Me: “That is very true. Between my business and personal expenses, my wife and I, and all the traveling I do, having a lot of different cards helps me to stay organized. I fly a lot on X airline so I want to make sure I have their card with your bank. I never carry a balance and pay off my cards every month.”

Rep: “Oh ok. That makes sense. The problem is that you are at the credit limit for our bank. You have 10 cards with us and we just can’t extend you any more credit.”

Me: “I see. Could you decrease the limit on one of my other cards so I can be approved for this new one? I’m flying on the new cards airline in the next few months so I want to use their card.”

Rep: “Let me check on that if you don’t mind holding.”

Me: “Take your time.”

Rep: “Ok. I was able to reduce your credit limit on X card by $5,000 and approve you for the new card with a credit limit of $5,000. Will that be enough for you?”

Me: “That is perfect. I really appreciate your help. Also, I’m going to use the card very soon. Is there anyway you could overnight the card?”

Rep: “Sure that’s not a problem. You should have your card within 48 hours. Have a great day.”

You obviously don’t have to throw in the overnighting the card part (I’ve done that before)!

The above conversation is very typical. Many times they’ll offer to move some credit around and you don’t even have to ask. Sometimes the account is automatically flagged for fraud prevention if you’ve applied to multiple cards from the same bank in the same day. It might not even be a credit issue that is preventing your approval. You won’t know unless you call.

If I’m applying for more than one card from the same bank, I will always make sure I apply for the most desirable credit card first. It’s usually an automatic approval and then I call the reconsideration number for the other applications.

If your credit card balances are reported to the credit bureau mid billing-cylce, it could appear as if you have large balances when the bank pulls your credit. You can explain to the rep that you don’t carry any balances and kindly ask them hold the application for a week or two and pull the credit from another credit bureau. This has worked for me.

Lately I have been having issues applying for business credit cards. Chase in particular. I once spent 15 minutes on the phone detailing the inner workings of my legitimate business. The rep asked about employees, the nature of my business, how long I’ve been in business, etc… I felt like I was being grilled but when she was done questioning me I was immediately approved.

Reconsideration calls are your chance to state your case. Call right away and clearly explain why you want the card. I would not mention the sign-up bonus. Treat the rep on the other end of line with kindness and you have an excellent chance of getting approved!

Chase
(888) 245-0625 - Personal reconsideration phone number
(800) 453-9719 – Business reconsideration phone number

American Express
(866) 314-0237 – Personal and business reconsideration phone number
Check Application Status Online

Bank of America
(866) 458-8805 – Personal reconsideration phone number
(866) 530-9829 – Personal reconsideration phone number
(800) 601-3923 – Business reconsideration phone number
Check Application Status Online

Barclay’s
(866) 408-4064 – Personal and business reconsideration phone number

Capital One
(800) 625-7866 – Personal and business reconsideration phone number

Citibank
(800) 695-5171 – Personal reconsideration phone number
(800) 288-4653 – Business reconsideration phone number (option 3, then option 1)
(800) 645-7240 - Business reconsideration phone number (option 3, then option 1)

US Bank
(800) 947-1444 – Personal and business reconsideration phone number
(800) 685-7680 – Personal and business reconsideration phone number

In the comments below let me know the results of your reconsideration phone calls!

13. Leverage Award Wallet to Your Advantage

Award Wallet is like Mint for travel hackers. When you have dozens of loyalty program accounts spread all over the place, Award Wallet keeps track of vital information:

  • Loyalty program account numbers
  • Point balances
  • Point expiration dates
  • Free night awards

It’s free to get started:

Click "register" to get started
Click “register” to get started
Fill out the form to register your account
Fill out the form to register your account
Start adding your dozens of award programs!
Start adding your dozens of award programs!

When you sign up for the first time you’ll receive three free months of Award Wallet Plus membership (no credit card required). After three months you can extend Award Wallet Plus by paying any amount you want for the next six months. You get to choose how much Award Wallet Plus is worth to you. If you want to pay $1/month, that’s fine. If you want to pay $20/month, that’s also fine.

Pay "whatever you want!"
Pay “whatever you want!”

With Award Wallet Plus you can see all the expiration dates for your point balances. This is the number one feature in my opinion. The Regular Account will only show expiration dates for three accounts. Award Wallet Plus also provides the ability to export data into excel and some interesting historical point charts.

Regular Account vs Award Wallet Plus
Regular Account vs Award Wallet Plus

Award Wallet is great for providing at-a-glance information related to your accounts. I recommend signing up for Award Wallet Plus and then paying to extend your membership.

I don’t recommend you rely completely on Award Wallet to track balances and expiration dates. I keep a separate spreadsheet that I update monthly with all my account numbers, account balances, point expiration dates, free night certifications, and any other relevant notes.

Is anyone a huge fan of Award Wallet? Does anyone seriously dislike the service? I’d like to know in the comments below.

14. Use Mint or Personal Capital to Keep Track of Credit Card Balances

In my personal quest of acquiring and spending millions of miles and points I’ve started to notice a trend: The importance of organization. Fortunately, I consider this a personal strength. Trust me, I have many other weaknesses…

I can’t tell you off the top of my head the top 10 credit card bonus opportunities or the secrets of booking Lufthansa first class awards. That takes a lot of research and work for me. What I am good at is staying organized as I apply for a large number of credit cards. I can do this without losing track of what I’ve spent on the various cards and all the deadlines that come with meeting minimum spend requirements. Adding to this is the difficulty of keeping track of all the annual fee dates and summaries and dates of conversations with bank underwriters and reward program customer support. It can be overwhelming!

Lack of organization skills is the number one reason why I recommend that certain people do not get into the miles and points game. If you can’t remember to pay your electric bill consistently and on time, you have no business having dozens of credit cards under your name.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution for keeping track of credit card balances without having to individually log into all of your accounts separately. You even have two choices!

Mint

Mint for travel hacking

Personal Capital

Personal Capital for travel hacking

This isn’t a personal finance blog so I’m not going to get into all the details and differences between the two services. The important features for you, the travel hacker, are:

  • Unified login
  • Up to date credit card balances
  • Alerts for payment due dates
  • Free

Mint and Personal Capital do a million other things but I only use them to keep track of credit card balances. I haven’t synced up my checking, savings, or investment accounts.

I personally use Mint but have also experimented with personal capital. Both are excellent.

My travel hacking organization system:

What tools do you use to keep track of your miles and points and travel credit cards?

15. Should I Cancel My Credit Card or Pay the Annual Fee?

This was the big question I faced in September of this year. It had been a year since I started aggressively collecting miles and points and numerous credit card annual fees were on the horizon. Should you cancel a travel credit card or pay the annual fee?

The first thing to keep in mind is the credit score implication of canceling a credit card. Previously I talked about the different factors that are used when calculating a credit score. One of those variables is the average age of credit account.

fico-credit-score-makeup

When you look the above chart it’s hard to decipher where “average age of credit account” fits. To be honest I have no idea if it’s included in Length of credit history or New credit. Maybe both?

credit-karma-average-age-credit-account

The above chard was made using data collected by credit karma on their customers and their scores. This is an unofficial chart but gives us some good insight. You can see the general trend; the longer the average age of your open credit accounts, the better your credit score.

The important take away from this chart is that it’s VERY important to have some really old credit accounts. That credit card you signed up for when you were 18 and in college with no annual fee… keep it open!

Another interesting thing to note is that this charts OPEN credit accounts. If you cancel a card after 11 months you are actually improving the average age of your credit accounts. The relatively new account drops off your credit report.

Why does this matter?

What I’m getting at is that I cancel credit cards all the time and I never worry about it significantly impacting my credit score. Keep in mind that many others are more reticent to cancel cards willy nilly. I never worry about it and my credit score is still fantastic. 780+

What cards do you keep?

There are only a few cards that I keep past the first year:

  • Chase IHG (free anniversary night outweighs annual fee)
  • Amex Starwood Preferred Guest (one of my main manufactured spending cards)
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred (one of my main manufactured spending cards)

Downgrade?

Another option when calling to cancel a card is simply downgrading it to a version with no annual fee. I typically don’t do this. I would just rather have it cancelled for simplicity sake. For instance you could downgrade a Chase Sapphire Preferred to a Chase Freedom (no annual fee).

Slide available credit to an existing card?

During the process of canceling credit cards many times the phone rep will offer to move or slide the available credit for the card you are canceling to another open credit card. While this sounds like a great offer, I usually decline. My reasoning goes like this; I will for sure be applying to more cards in the future from that particular bank. Canceling a card frees up more available credit at the bank for future cards. If I move the available credit to an existing card I negate this benefit.

If you have questions or strong opinions on the cost/benefits or keeping credit cards open please comment below.

16. How to Keep Miles and Points From Expiring

This is the last chapter of the Miles and Points 101 Series! I started by telling what you will learn and also reviewed my first year aggressively collecting miles and points.

You now have hundreds of thousands and travel miles and points and are well on your way to executing your second app-spree. Most likely you’ll be more aggressive this time and score even crazier quantities of points.

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. It’s been fun for me to distill information and answer countless emails related to my strategies.

Now lets get down to business…

This is a topic that I’ve neglected to learn in detail until recently. You see, my first points hit my account in September of 2012 so I knew at the very minimum I would have a year to figure out how to keep unused points from expiring. In my mind I had planned on spending all my points during the year so I didn’t even think it would be a concern. Boy was I wrong! Either fortunately or unfortunately I still have loads of miles that have not been redeemed.

I wholeheartedly recommend spending points within 12 months of acquiring because you just never know when a major devaluation could happen. See HiltonHyatt, and many others.

With me, this was not possible. I’m married with two little kids and a “regular” job. I wasn’t able to even come close to spending all my points over the past year. But I certainly make sure my points are not expiring. You need to do the same.

There is no one size fits all approach to this. All airlines and hotel groups have different rules relating to point and mile expiration dates. It’s easy for Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Awards. If you are still a card holder the points never expire. It gets more challenging when you look at other programs.

Your first line of defense is a paid account with Award Wallet. See chapter 13. It’s a handy way to track point expiration for some programs.

Daraius over at Million Mile Secrets who featured me in one of his blogger Friday series has two excellent posts on the topic of expiring points. Please see and study both of these posts:

Airline Miles Expiration
Hotel Point Expiration

The good news is that most programs are becoming more and more lenient as they fight for loyal customers.

Well, that’s it for Miles and Points 101!

Don’t miss a thing!

Weekly tips and tricks to help you build an audience and grow your business.