So you messed up. You forgot your significant other’s birthday.…
Credit cards have many uses: getting you out of debt, getting you into debt, helping you break into your dorm room after locking yourself out. But many people don’t realize that, with planning and patience, credit cards can also earn you free domestic and international airfare. It’s called credit card churning, which frankly sounds so sleazy they might as well call it credit card old-lady-mugging, but all it means is using credit card sign-up bonuses to accrue frequent flyer miles. Here’s an introduction to the process:
Check your credit rating. In order to qualify for the best offers, you’ll need a credit score in at least the low 700s, if not higher (it’s the SATs all over again, only without your parents’ unrealistic expectations). Rather than pay for a report or deal with the hassle of a free trial, just go to creditkarma.com for a free and remarkably accurate credit score estimate.
Sign up for all the major airlines’ loyalty programs. American, Delta, United, Southwest, Bearskin Airlines. Ok, maybe not Bearskin. It only takes a few minutes, and you need those accounts to hold and use frequent flyer miles.
Make sure you’re able to pay your bills on time. This is arguably the easiest and hardest step. If you don’t have the financial means or personal discipline to pay off your monthly credit card statements, the interest and penalties will quickly erase any benefits of churning. Quick – buy this boat right now. Sorry, that was a test. If you bought the yacht (and don’t have 10 million dollars) you might not be ready for churning. Your consolation prize is yacht ownership.
Apply for one (or several) credit cards. Different cards have different annual fees, are affiliated with different airlines, and require different levels of spending to unlock their respective bonuses. There are several websites that can help you navigate the constantly changing field of credit card options (see below), but the Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the best offers currently on the market, so I’ll use it as my example.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card awards 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points once you’ve spent $3,000 within the first 3 months of activation. Those 40,000 Chase points transfer 1:1 to several airline and hotel programs, including United. For those keeping score, 40,000 United miles is a roundtrip flight to South America. Or two roundtrip flights from Akron to Decatur if you’re feeling particularly wild.
Also worth noting, the card has a $95 annual fee that is waived your first (and potentially your only) year of use. It also earns you 2 points for every dollar spent on dining and travel, 1 point on all other purchases, and 20% off travel when you redeem through their website’s awards portal.
Earn the miles. For 3 months use your Chase Sapphire Preferred card to make all of your purchases, which should hopefully be more than enough to hit $3,000. Then you transfer the 40,000 points to your United frequent flyer account and book a flight to Machu Picchu for free. That’s it. Seriously. Where exactly is Machu Picchu? Who cares – you’re going there for free! Now do it again.
Once Per Card – Most credit card companies only allow you to obtain the sign-up bonus for each card once (some companies say once a year, others once a lifetime). So don’t waste a card on a crappy sign-up bonus. Sure I got a free teacup pig for signing up for the United MileagePlus Explorer card, but I wish I had waited for their 50,000 bonus miles offer. If you’re reading this, Aaron Porkin, I’m sorry.
Annual Fees – Many credit cards have annual fees, often waived the first year. After that year is up, you can cancel the credit card (at no damage to your credit rating, and with all the fun of dramatically cutting up a credit card with scissors). Or if you like the card you can pay the fee and keep it. Or you can call the company and try to negotiate another year for free, which often works.
Different Airlines – Each airline’s frequent flyer program has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, I personally prefer United for international travel, American for domestic, and Bulgaria Air for the best in-flight borscht. It all depends on where you’re flying to and from, what class you hope to fly, and a handful of other variables. Almost every airline has an awards chart on their website that lets you compare the details.
Serious Churning – Serious credit card churning goes much deeper than the info listed above. You can also use points and sign-up bonuses for free hotel rooms and airline upgrades. You can change your purchasing card depending on what you’re buying to maximize points earned. You can make purchases through credit card website portals to increase points. You can apply for a dozen cards at once. If you want to dive in, see the websites below.
MY FAVORITE CREDIT CARD CHURNING WEBSITES
Nick von Keller is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has been featured on Comedy Central, Fark, Funny or Die, Cracked, Mondo Media, Current TV, and Channel 101, among others. A Watson Fellowship recipient, he has also won the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival Screenwriting Competition, placed as a Finalist in the LA Comedy Fest Screenwriting Competition, and had the highest rated comedy pilot on The Black List as of December 2013. He is not to be trusted.