Recently I was interviewed on the Dizruns podcast and, of course, my “cheapness” was the main topic of the interview.
As it should have been. And I thoroughly enjoyed it – “umms” and “you knows” and all.
One of the very first items brought up during the interview, probably a bit to the listener’s surprise, was travel hacking and maximizing credit cards to keep travel expenses low.
But isn’t it cheaper just to not travel to races?
Yes, there are plenty of races for me in New Jersey and Pennsylvania which don’t require a plane ticket or hotel room. In fact, my very first Half Ironman was in Princeton and the bike course was literally part of my 25-mile morning loop.
Boring! That race was a snooze fest for me.
Part of the reason that I’m searching for financial independence is because I want to experience this planet while I’m on it and racing has taken me to cool places like Mont Tremblant, Boulder, Charleston, Tahoe and Asheville! All places I may have never seen had there not been a race hosted there.
So rather than racing a whole bunch of local races I prefer to find one in a super-cool area and make a little vacation out of it. With all due respect to New Jersey (assuming it deserves any), I’ve seen enough of it and want to explore this vast world of ours while I’m still able-bodied enough to do so.
I’m not so much cheap as I’m frugal
I think one of the “problems” with being known as the Cheap Athlete is that people may come to my site expecting articles like “How to make shoes out of an old tire” only to be confused when they start reading about financial independence and are linked to websites penned by dudes who retired when they were 30.
In reality I’m a frugal athlete armed with an economics degree that constantly searches for value. I’m also 30-something with no kids, a job in finance and married to someone who is educated, gainfully employed and enjoys most of the same crap I do.
So, yea, we travel a lot and have no plans to stop. If I’m only given 4-5 weeks of vacation a year I’m gonna use the heck outta them and not waste them on lousy trips or, even worse, not use them at all!
But traveling and saving are not mutually exclusive and there are a million resources out there to help you do both.
So what is travel hacking?
In short, it’s utilizing reward points toward discounted or free airfare and hotels.
Here’s a simple example:
- Sign up for a destination race
- Figure out which airlines fly there from your airport
- Open a credit card with one of those airlines to get bonus points
- Use those points to fly to the race for free (except taxes, you always gotta pay taxes).
It’s all ’bout the bonus
A lot of us hold onto a credit card because “it gives me 2% cash-back on all purchases!” Yea, cash back is great except that your opportunity cost is, for example, 60,000 bonus miles (~$600).
To get about $600 in rewards on your 2% cash-back credit card you’d need to spend about $30,000 which, if you’re frugal like me, is gonna take forever. Or you could open a credit card and spend $1,000 which is equivalent to 50-60% cash back!
But dude, they have a yearly fee!
Yes, a lot of cards have a yearly fee (some are waived the first year) which can range from $49 to $500. However, this shouldn’t be a deterrent. For example, the Southwest card has about a $95 fee which you’re spending to get about $600 in rewards.
That is a 532% return on that $95 fee which is a big ole return! I love big ole returns, they’re my favorite type of returns.
Now once you get that bonus, pay the card off (no interest, ever) and move onto the next card. Leave the card open until the next yearly fee is about to hit and then cancel it.
But aren’t you destroying your credit?
As of this morning, my credit score is 819.
A number of factors go into your credit score such as age of credit, payment history and your utilization ratio.
If you have a bad credit history then you’re going to have a lower score and not going to get approved for these fancy cards. Yes, opening up a new card will decrease the average age of your outstanding credit which is why I suggest that you keep the card open as long as possible. If you have a free card, like the Chase Freedom, keep that bad boy open forever to increase the average age.
A large part (~30%) of your overall score is your utilization ratio which this strategy can actually help with. Algorithms look at the balances on your credit card vs. the total outstanding credit and experts suggest that you keep that number under 30%.
So say you spent $2,000 last month on your credit card. Let’s look at the overall credit card utilization ratio for the following:
- 1 open credit card with a $5,000 limit is a 40% ratio
- 3 open cards with $5,000 limits is a 13% ratio
- 8 open cards with $5,000 limits is a 5% ratio
Just don’t go crazy and open a billion cards all at once. I prefer to do one at a time, every 3 months or so, as to not raise any red flags. I also ask for the max credit I’m allowed to keep each card’s individual utilization ratio as low as possible.
Some card ideas
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of cards as there are already a million other blogs out there who do it better. I just want to give a few options so people can understand what I’m talking about.
Southwest Companion Pass (Airfare)
The Southwest Companion Pass is a huge score for anyone traveling within the United States. Here’s how it works:
After earning 110,000 points you can add a companion (i.e. your spouse) to each flight for free for the remainder of the year you earned it and for the entire next calendar year. So basically, 110,000 points becomes 220,000!
And once you deplete those points you can have your “companion” do the same thing.
Now the easiest way to earn it is not to fly a million flights with Southwest but rather to open up 2 credit cards:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business
- Bonus: 60,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.
- Annual Fee: $99
- CA’s tip: No, you do not need to own a business to get a business credit card.
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus
- Bonus: 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months.
- Annual Fee: $0
Chase Ink (Hotels and airfare)
- Bonus: 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months.
- Annual Fee: $95
- CA’s tip: You can transfer Chase Ultimate rewards points to travel partners for further hackage.
Barclay’s Red Aviator (American Airlines)
- Bonus: 60,000 points after you make 1 purchase.
- Annual Fee: $95
- CA’s tip: Make 1 purchase and collect. Carry on.
IHG Rewards Club Select (IHG hotels)
- Bonus: 60,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months.
- Annual Fee: $49
- CA’s tip: Keep open as you get a free night after each anniversary year. Basically a guaranteed $49 hotel room each year which can be redeemed at the fancy-pants Intercontinental Hotel.
Things to consider
Before going out and opening a bunch of credit cards do a little research and some self-reflection as this strategy may not work for everyone. Some things you may want to think about are:
Your spending habits
First of all, if you are paying credit card interest then you should probably focus on paying down your debt instead of buying gear and traveling to races. I own a bunch of cards and have never paid a dollar of interest as that defeats the whole point. Visit my friends Scott Alan Turner and Budgets are Sexy for some advice on tackling your debt and setting up a budget.
I know a lot of personal finance bloggers swear to the envelope budget which is great if you can’t control your spending. But for those of us who can, you’re missing out on tons of rewards which I don’t like.
Don’t open up a $5,000 spend card if you can’t see yourself actually spending $5,000 in 3 months. You should not consider the spend a challenge but if you have some major purchases coming up (car insurance, new tires, bicycle, Ironman registration fee) then that may be a good time to open up a new card.
Chase’s annoying 5/24 rule
Chase has this annoying practice where they will deny you if you’ve opened 5 credit cards in the past 24 months. So, with that said, anyone planning on giving this a try should start with 5 Chase cards before moving onto other banks since Chase will be done with your point-chasing booty after opening 5. (Mine were: Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Southwest Business, Southwest Plus, Ink)
Opening a mortgage
If you plan on taking on some real debt, like a mortgage, some lenders may not love seeing a whole buncha open credit lines. So if you plan on buying a house in the near future you may want to wait on this strategy.
Your credit score
I open a new card about every 3 months or so but I track my credit score monthly. If you notice your score start to trend down then you should probably chill a bit and let your credit age and score increase. You want to do your best to keep your score in the “excellent” (750+) category and not get screwed when trying to open up, say, a mortgage.
Your level of organization
Keeping 8 credit cards open means you could potentially have a bunch of random payments to make. Do your best to keep all of your recurring bills linked to 1 or 2 cards so you don’t potentially miss paying one. Also it is important to keep track of when you opened each card so that you know when to cancel before that next annual fee hits. If this is too daunting then maybe you shouldn’t try it.
Your travel plans
If you aren’t planning on traveling then you need to figure out if paying for these cards makes any sense to you. But if you do plan on going somewhere then it’s always in your best interest to figure out a cheaper way to get there.
Please tread lightly and don’t think of this as an opportunity to open up 25 new cards and go buy a yacht. Do your research first, open cards one at a time and PLEASE make sure you stay within your budget. If you are paying any kind of interest on your credit card debt then you must work on that first.
And that’s all, happy hacking!