Why We Haven't Paid For A Flight All Year / by Shane Henderson

A common question we get here at Restless & Roving is "how do you guys afford all of your flights?" The answer always surprises people... we don't pay for them! For the last year or so we have purchased every single flight we have taken with points.  After doing a lot of research in 2016 in anticipation of our upcoming travels, we decided to start dabbling in credit card churning. We opened 6 new travel credit cards within a 6 month period in order to take advantage of the sign-up bonuses. I know what you are thinking... 'well that's dumb, your credit score is going to take a real hit.' On the contrary, my credit score has never been better, it has actually gone up 100 points since opening those cards! Here are the full details on credit card churning as well as our personal experience and recommendations for those looking to give it a try.

What Is Credit Card Churning?
The basic idea behind credit card churning is opening a number of new credit cards with big signup bonuses, hitting the spending minimum to get the rewards, and then closing the card. Although this sounds simple in theory, there are definitely some pitfalls to watch out for, so it pays to do the research beforehand. In general, I WOULD NOT recommend this for people who have a history of credit card debt, or for those who have trouble staying organized. If you open a bunch of cards and lose track of your spending and payments, it can be easy for debts to start piling up. 

Taking Advantage Of Sign-up Bonuses
So, the name of the game here is points. Most credit cards offer some sort of rewards program these days, whether they have their own reward system (like Chase), or the card is connected to a partner brand's reward system (like an airline or hotel). Many of these cards offer sign-up bonuses to bring in new customers. If you find the right bonuses and the right cards, you can wind up with thousands of dollars worth of airline or hotel miles after just three or four months!! Take for example the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card. The current sign-up bonus is 40,000 points, which is enough for a few cross country round trip flights if you are strategic! The bonuses for new cards are always changing so shop around to find the best ones. We recommend a few good ones below but if you just google 'best credit card bonuses' you can find a lot more info.

Reaching The Spending Minimum
The catch with all of these sign-up bonuses is that you need to spend a minimum amount on the card before they will award you the points. How much depends on the card, but it is usually between $1k and $4k in the first 3 months. That is a lot of money! Especially if you open up a bunch of cards at once. Unless you are a high roller and spending $10,000+ in three months on a credit card sounds like no big deal, there are a couple strategies that we recommend to hit those minimums.
1. Work Spending. If you have a lot of work expenses, and your employer is flexible, they might let you do all of your work spending on your new card, and then just reimburse you! My boss was kind enough to let me book all of my work travel on my new card, which was a big help in meeting the minimum.
2. Friends and Family. Unless your family and friends are trying to rack up points themselves, you could suggest that you make any big purchases for them on your card, and then they can reimburse you. I booked flights and hotels for one of my parent's upcoming vacations.
3. Rent, Utilities, Bills. Put all of your big monthly expenses, like a mortgage, rent, utilities, or bills, on to your new card. If your rent or mortgage does not accept credit card payments, you can use a middleman service like Tio, which accepts your CC payment and sends them payment by check. 

Closing Cards
After you hit your spending minimum and they deposit all those new points into your account, it's time to consider closing the card. You certainly don't have to close the card! You could always keep the card open and use it, just make sure you don't get behind on your payments. Many "churners" don't keep cards open because they don't want to pay all the annual fees for the cards. Take a look at the details of your credit cards, some of them offer point bonuses or other rewards to offset the annual fees. For some cards, you could also downgrade to a different card with no annual fees and just hold onto that. If you do decide to close the card, make sure you read the fine print to see you aren't penalized for doing so. Many cards require you to keep the account open for a specific period of time or else they reserve the right to take back the sign-up bonus. We closed a few cards 6-12 months after opening them, but also kept a few of them open because of the great travel benefits they offer. 

Our Path To 400,000 Points
Everyone has a different strategy for churning depending on their travel priorities. We don't stay in hotels very often when we travel and aren't particularly interested in hotel points, so we focused more on airline reward cards. Here are the cards we picked and why. Keep in mind these were the deals they were offering when we got them, they may not be the same now.

AAdvantage Aviator Red Card
50,000 American Airlines points after making 1 purchase in the first 3 months. Used the points for a roundtrip flight to Chile.

Chase British Airways Card
50,000 British Airways points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. An additional 50,000 points after spending $20,000 in the first year. We used these points for another roundtrip flight to Chile and 2 flights to Hawaii. 

Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards
50,000 Southwest points after spending $1,000 in the first three months. We use these points all the time for domestic flights.

Chase Marriot
80,000 Marriot points after spending $3,000 in first three months. We actually transferred these points to Southwest in order to get the Southwest companion pass (more on that in a sec).

Chase Sapphire Preferred
50,000 Chase Reward points after spending $4,000 in first three months. These points are easily transferable to a bunch of different airline and hotel partners. We have used them to book flights, hotels, and rental cars.

Chase Sapphire Reserve
50,000 Chase Reward points after spending $4,000 in first three months. These points are easily transferable to a bunch of different airline and hotel partners. We have used them to book flights, hotels, and rental cars.

Southwest Companion Pass: The Best Travel Reward Ever
Part of our strategy in getting all of these points, was going for the Southwest Companion Pass. A very coveted travel perk that is given to those who accumulate 110,000 Southwest miles in a calendar year, the companion pass allows you to assign one person who will travel with you for free whenever you fly Southwest. It lasts for the remainder of that calendar year and all of the following year. So, for half of 2016 and all of 2017, Anna flies for free with me anytime I fly Southwest. I just book a flight for myself on points and add her to the reservation for no additional charge! It's amazing. The best part is that it doesn't actually use up your points when you get the companion pass, you will still have all 110,000 point available for you to use. That is a lot of Southwest flights! 

Unfortunately, because the companion pass is such a great perk, Southwest has made it more difficult to get one. You used to be able to transfer hotel points to Southwest in order to meet the 110,000 point mark. We opened the Mariott card and transferred those 80,000 points to Southwest right away, which helped us get there. Southwest no longer allows you to do that. All points have to be earned through Southwest cards or purchases with their travel partners online. If you are interested in getting a companion pass now, I think the easiest way to do so is to open a Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card AND a Rapid Rewards Business Card. This will get you to 100,000 points and you will only need 10,000 more to reach the mark.

That is our experience with credit card churning and using points. There is a LOT more information out there on this subject. Tons of blogs are dedicated to credit card and reward point deals. We personally like The Points Guy. If you have any questions or want advice on any of this, feel free to comment below or shoot us an email! We love to nerd out about travel rewards!