This September the BITAs are going to gallivant around Europe. We’ve booked tickets from San Francisco to Lisbon, Lisbon to Amsterdam and Amsterdam back to San Francisco. For a family of three we coughed up the princely sum of $248.58 for these tickets and I’m going to tell you exactly how we scored this deal.
Last year I discovered the wonderful world of churning. If that word conjured up images of milkmaids and cows and butter, banish those mental pictures forthwith. Churning refers to the process of applying for credit cards to benefit from the points/rewards/bonuses that the credit card offers. Some credit cards offer a % of cash back for every purchase, others offer points that can be redeemed for purchases or for travel. I love travel. Would I like to travel for next to nothing using various credit card bonuses and offers? Why yes, please and thank you very much.
There are a metric ass ton of churning-related blogs and forums out there. The sheer amount of information and choices available to a churner is staggering, and more than a little intimidating. Where is one to start? In this post I’m going to share what I did to get started with churning, how I formulated my strategy and how I used our stash of points to book award travel to Europe this September.
My Churning Strategy
There are a hundred ways to skin the churning cat. The more you peel the onion, the more there is to learn. Ever heard of analysis paralysis? It is a very real thing when faced with the many ways to approach credit card churning. After spending nearly a month devouring blogs and forums I decided that:
- I needed to start slow. I wasn’t going to do an app-o-rama and apply for a ton of cards. This may be a good strategy, but as a newbie it scared me. So I ruled it out. I would start with as few cards as I could get away with and still get some tangible benefits.
- I had no interest in manufactured spend. Credit cards require you to spend $X in 2-3 months in order to qualify for those lovely bonus points. Manufactured spend is the term used to describe techniques to ‘fake’ this minimum spend. An example would be to use your credit card to buy a visa gift card that can be swiped as a debit card, then use that debit card to buy a money order, then deposit that money order into your account. Every time a particular manufactured spend category becomes popular, eventually the loophole ends up being closed and the method no longer works. It is a moving target. Manufactured spend is also against most credit card policies and you can be subject to clawback, i.e. losing your bonus points and having your account closed if you get caught. Manufactured spend just seemed like too much work to me, so I decided that I was going to churn at a rate that fit my normal spending patterns.
- I would focus on cards that offered good redemption for travel instead of on cash back credit cards.
- I would settle for good enough when it came to redeeming my points. There is always a better deal to be had. I have a full time job and a fairly demanding one at that. I also have a toddler and a dog. I don’t have hours to spend chasing down the best possible travel deals and poring over award charts and redemption sweet spots, so what I was going to go for was the best return on investment (ROI) on time spent redeeming my points. I don’t need the best deal. I just need a good one.
Which Card(s) did I choose?
I decided to start with Chase credit cards. Why Chase?
- Chase implements a rule called 5/24. If you have been approved for more than 5 credit cards in 24 months, your application for a Chase credit card will be denied. Note that this rule applies to any 5 credit cards, not just Chase credit cards. So logically, it makes sense to start your churning journey with Chase, so that you are under the 5/24 rule.
- Chase cards offer some hefty bonuses, so if you are a churning scaredy cat like me, and only want to do a few cards a year, they are valuable cards to get your hands on.
- Chase points are called Ultimate Rewards (UR) points. UR points are some of the best in the churning business. What makes UR so yummy? Their versatility and their value. Chase partners with many, many airlines and hotel chains. This means that UR points can be transferred at a value of 1:1 to these partners. e.g. 1 UR point = 1 Krisflyer mile (Krisflyer is the Singapore Airlines reward program). As you’re going to learn later in this post, airline and hotel miles and points can be worth a lot.
Which Chase credit cards did I get?
One Chase Sapphire Preferred and two Chase Sapphire Reserve cards.
Racking up Ultimate Rewards Points
The Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) has a sign on bonus of 50,000 UR points if you spend $4,000 in three months after you open the account. If you sign up for an add-on card, you get a bonus 10,000 UR. To top it all the annual fee is waived for the first year.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR) had a sign on bonus of 100,000 UR points if you spend $4,000 in three months after you open the account (Note: the bonus if you sign up online is now down to 50,000 points. The churning forums indicate that you can still get the 100,000 point bonus if you go into a branch and apply for the card in person. Rumour has it that this will last till sometime in March).
Those three card bonuses (two cards for me, one for Mr. BITA and one add on card) gave us a whopping 260,000 UR points. By January of this year we had racked up another ~40,000 points by putting almost all our spending on these cards and we were sitting on a little over 300,000 UR points. Normally, 1 point equals one dollar of spending, and has a value of about 1 cent. However, with these cards 40,000 points does not equal $40,000 dollars of spending because you get bonus points for various categories (e.g. 3x for all spend on travel, which includes things like parking meters, and 2x for dining). In addition to that, if you shop via the Chase UR portal at stores you would normally shop at anyway, you can get significant bonuses. For example I get 5x points for buying household supplies (shampoos, body wash etc.) at Rite Aid using the UR portal.
Meeting the minimum spend was pretty easy. I didn’t apply for the three credit cards at the same time. We staggered those applications over three months. When you consider that we spend over $1600 a month on daycare alone and we can put that on the card at no extra charge (when life gives me lemons, I am going to make some fucking lemonade), you can see how I wasn’t concerned about minimum spend requirements.
What are Ultimate Rewards Points worth?
What can you buy with 300,000 UR points? As it turns out, a lot.
Imagine that you are the laziest bum that ever there was and could not be bothered to figure out how to convert your UR points to airline miles and all that jazz. If you use the Chase Travel Portal to book your travel (and this is just like using any other travel site like Orbitz or Kayak), each of your points is worth 1.5 cents. So even a lazy bum gets a $4,500 value from 300,000 points. You read that right. $4,500. That is insane.
And once you start to convert those points to airline miles or transfer them to hotels to book rooms, you can get even more bang for your UR buck. This article lists 49 fabulous ways to spend your UR points, including flying Singapore Suites in an A380. On second thought, don’t click that link. It is going to make my travel redemption seem rather paltry by comparison.
While the 60,000 bonus points points I got for the CSP were ‘free’, the 200,000 points that I got from the CSR came at the cost of a $450 annual fee per card. Now, before you run screaming from that seemingly massive fee, consider the following. You get a $300 annual travel credit on the CSR. What this means is that if you swipe your card for any travel-related expense, up to $300 is instantly credited to your account. And the credit is based on the calendar year, not your credit card year. For example, I applied for one of our CSRs in September of 2016. I got a $300 travel credit in 2016 and another in 2017. That $600 credit has more than wiped out my annual fee (assuming that I downgrade the card before it comes time to pay the fee again). In addition, I get free access to all Priority Pass airport lounges for me and all my travel companions (this is fabulous value and I’ll write another post about this soon). And if that isn’t enough, once every four years you can apply for the Global Entry or TSA pre programs and have the fee reimbursed.
Searching for award tickets to Europe
So there I was, perched aloft my 300,000 UR point stash, just as smug as I could be. Accumulating the points was easy, spending them was much harder. First, I was irrationally averse to seeing my stash diminish. Secondly, I was scared that I would muck up the redemption and get a laughably low value for my precious points. Thankfully, I eventually managed to get my head out of my arse and redeem my points for airline tickets to Europe.
I decided to convert my UR points to MileagePlus miles and book my flight using United’s excellent online interface. I honestly don’t think there is an easier way to redeem UR points for travel.
You start at united.com. What I loved about this is that you don’t have to jump through hoops to find award travel availability. You click a little box on the normal search interface and ta-da, you are on your way to booking reward travel.
Assuming that you are flexible with your dates, United will show you a nice little calendar like this next.
So it looks like there is availability on every day of the month of November 2017 for the SFO-AMS route I chose in my example. I’m now going to choose some specific dates. I clicked on the 9th and I see a bunch of options. I’m only showing a few here, there were plenty more.
30,000 miles is United’s standard cost from the U.S. to Europe, one way. Most of the flights I’ve shown here will also cost you $5.60 in various taxes/charges. You would then choose a return flight and that would cost you another 30,000 miles + change. For 180,000 miles you can fly a family of three to Europe (and remember that my stash stands at a little over 300k UR points).
It gets better though. I took advantage of United’s Excursionist Perk. To quote United, this perk offers you “a free one-way award within select multi-city itineraries. Members who book an itinerary with three or more one-way awards will be eligible to receive one of those one-way awards for free” This perk allowed me to add another European city to my itinerary at the cost of 0 miles. Remember the Multi-City option I pointed to in the screenshot above? Click that and then add in another city and if you meet the conditions for the perk, you will see that the price of that leg is 0 miles. This is how I booked San Francisco to Lisbon to Amsterdam and then back to San Francisco for 180,000 miles and $248.58.
Before you actually seal the deal and make the booking you should check out the price of your itinerary using another site, like say skyscanner, Google Flights, and the Chase UR travel portal. You must price out the tickets to make sure that you are getting good value for the 180,000 miles you are about to spend. For my dates I found that the cheapest tickets I could find were ~$1,400 per person for a return ticket from SFO to AMS, and Amsterdam to Lisbon and back would cost another ~210 euros per person. Let’s do the math. Three tickets would cost me $4,200, which if I booked via the Chase Portal would require 280,000 points (because the redemption rate is 1.5 cents when booking via the portal). And no free trip to Lisbon. As you can see, converting the UR points to miles got me some pretty incredible value.
Redeeming Ultimate Rewards Points
Once you’ve found your United award tickets, only then will you transfer your UR points to United miles and make the booking.
The first step will be to consolidate all your UR points across various credit cards into a single account. I wrote an entire post with screenshots about how to do just that.
The next step is to register for a MileagePlus account with United if you don’t already have one.
Then you will navigate to your Chase UR portal and choose the option to transfer your points to a partner.
You will be shown a nice list of airline partners and you choose MileagePlus and hit the Transfer Points button.
That will bring you to this screen.
Once you enter your MileagePlus account information, you choose how many points you want to transfer.
I transferred 180,000 points to my United account. The points transfer instantaneously (another reason to love Chase and UR points). I did the transfer in a separate browser tab and then refreshed the tab that held my award ticket itinerary.
Once the points are in your MileagePlus account, the rest of the award ticket booking process is just like booking any other ticket – entering traveler names, birth dates, swiping your credit card for the fees/taxes – no surprises at all.
I’m pretty happy with my stress-free, low-maintenance foray into the crazy world of churning. I plan to continue my slow churn through the world of credit card bonuses and over time I expect to become more proficient at spending my reward points. I hope I’ve convinced you that this hobby doesn’t have to be a time sink, and that the rewards are well worth the small amount of work you have to put in.
Here are some churning resources that I use:
- The /r/churning subreddit has a wealth of information. Definitely check out their wiki. /r/awardtravel is also pretty useful.
- Alex and Brad have a free online course that is worth your time.
- Awardhacker to search for award flights.
- The flyertalk forums have everything about everything (and can be overwhelming, so ease into it).
- I like the Million Mile Secrets blog, and the blogroll on that blog will lead you to other blogs in that area.