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May 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 34, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fly for Free to Your Dive Destination

how to play the credit card points game

from the May, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Like many Undercurrent readers, I make dive trips once or twice a year, usually to the Caribbean. In the past few years, I've dived in Cuba's Jardines de la Reina, Cozumel, Honduras' Bay Islands, and Belize twice. Great trips -- especially because my partner and I didn't pay airfare for any of them. Actually, we haven't paid airfare on vacation for more than a decade.

We use airline and credit card points -- I can score a round trip to the Caribbean for as little as 30,000 points -- but not by being frequent travelers. We churn Visa, Mastercard and American Express cards for freebies, and "earn" thousands of dollars in free tickets each year. In the past few years, my partner and I have had 119 credit cards, about 17 a year between us. Some of my friends enjoy free trips as well, and we trade info via our own little network.

You, too, can join the fun, scoring flights to just about anywhere. Though flying business class may take many times more points than flying coach, it's still possible via credit card points. Moreover, some airlines allow you to buy a basic fare and upgrade with far fewer points. So while I'm sure many of my fellow Undercurrent subscribers play the mileage points game, I'll explain the basics in case you're not among them.

Two Types of Credit Cards

There are two types of cards. The first are these sponsored by an airline and offer points on that airline or their partners. They are very good if you usually fly from an airline's hub such as San Francisco (United, which partners with Singapore Air, Air New Zealand, THAI and many others) or Atlanta (Delta, which partners with airlines like Garuda, Aero Mexico and Virgin Atlantic).

The second choice is a bank card that awards miles, which are then converted to dollars to purchase tickets.

Both types of cards offer special deals, such as five miles for every dollar spent on specific airlines, three miles for every dollar spent at grocery stores or gas stations, or 10 miles for every dollar spent shopping online at a given store (United recently offered 30 miles for every dollar spent at an FTD florist, and 15 miles for every dollar spent on New Balance shoes).

With continual spending on one card, you can accumulate points, but the real game comes with constantly applying for a new card that offers big bonus miles after you spend X amount of dollars. For instance, United's Chase Business cards recently offered new cardholders 80,000 miles after they spent $10,000. Delta's AmEx cards are always attracting new users by giving 30,000 to 80,000 miles after they spend $10,000. I just received an Alaska Airlines card awarding 40,000 miles and a free companion ticket after spending just $2,000. Some cards require you to meet the minimum limit in three months, others whenever you get around to it. Of course, it means you have use the card, and hopefully, not by making unnecessary purchases just to accrue points.

The essence of the points game is to choose the best offer of points from the banks (Chase, Citi, Barclay, US Bank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are the big names), meet the minimum spending requirement, and then move on to the next freebie. For example, one good option is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Spend $4,000 in three months, and you score 50,000 Chase Rewards points. Those are worth $625 for airfare booked through Chase, or you can transfer them to Southwest, United or some other carriers' frequent flyer programs.) Of course, there are some details and a few rules to remember, but the game is played by millions of people -- in fact, so many that airlines continue to require more and more points to get freebies, much to the chagrin of their loyal customers.

So if you want to play so you can get that next trip to Roatán or the Red Sea, here are a few tips.

* Start simply by getting one card, scoring the bonus and moving on.

* Accumulating points works best if you get both personal and business cards because you can then double your money. For couples, you can get twice as many cards, but have one person manage things to keep organized. Start a spreadsheet to track the exact name of the card, date opened, bonus and date that should cancel. My two-person spreadsheet has 119 cards on it, although the great majority of them have long been canceled.

* Don't cancel right after getting the bonus -- the banks' algorithms don't like that, and you may lose your privilege to get more cards.

* Most cards do not require a fee for the first year, so keep a card about 11 months, before the fee kicks in, because there's no need to spend on the card once you have earned the bonus. But an annual fee is not a disqualifier -- even though I once had a card with a $495 fee, I still earned rewards in the $1,200-$1,500 range, plus freebies like free entry into airport lounges.

* Know a few rules. Chase has great offers, but it also has a rule that if you opened five cards with any bank in the past 24 months, no deal. American Express has a rule that you can only get a bonus from a specific type of card just once. Both companies have some exceptions, but you get the idea. Not to worry, however, because there are loads of other options.

* Of course, initially you need to have good credit, and you should maintain it by paying off your cards each month and on time. Curiously, churning cards increases your credit rating. Why? Here's my real-life example to explain that. I just checked my FICO score and overview via my Chase account. My score is 804, which is very high (and, believe it or not, I have never made more than $40,000 a year in my life). Equally important is another fact FICO showed me: My average credit usage is $1,822, and my available credit (on a card or two I'm using, and several others waiting to be canceled) is $88,200. As FICO helpfully pointed out, my "card utilization" is only two percent of my credit. So the banks see that I'm no risk.

* Don't get hung up on loyalty to one airline. Take good deals wherever you can. And branch out: British Airways points are great, and they can be used to book most American Airline flights. A few tricks like that will extend your reach.

* Another reason not to get hung up on one airline: They are constantly degrading their programs, thanks to the billions of miles being collected by credit card users, not frequent fliers. A couple years ago, Delta jacked up its requirements for long-haul flights and business class. United will do the same starting this fall.

* Check out what the "nerds of churn" say. There's a good "Top 25 List" of bonus cards on MileNerd.com (http://milenerd.com). Another useful site is MillionMileSecrets.com (https://millionmilesecrets.com). These guys are the pros.

* Create a group of friends, share information and enjoy friendly competition. Then gather up your points and get a group dive trip together.

Incredibly, I have friends who decline to get free tickets. The idea of getting something free from the banks -- the same Wall Streeters who crashed our economy and laughed in our faces -- somehow rubs them the wrong way. I just don't understand them. Maybe on my next dive trip, after I and all my dive buddies arrive on our free flights, we'll figure that out over beers.

The author of this piece, a longtime, anonymous Undercurrent travel reviewer who goes by the initials M.A., has been diving and exploring the Caribbean and its islands with his partner for 30 years. He loves Cozumel but usually dives the less-traveled outposts. His next piece will be on Glover's Reef, Belize.

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