Using Credit Cards For Free Travel

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In the spring of 2014, when I was an itty, bitty, lil’ miles and points baby, I was sitting on my mom’s couch going through all the junk mail she still gets for me and I came across an offer for a United Airlines credit card: 50,000 bonus miles if I spent $2,000.00 on the card within three months of applying. United’s usual sign-up bonus is 30,000 miles so that really piqued my interest, but at the time I already had a United MileagePlus Explorer Card. Would I still be eligible to receive the bonus? It never hurts to ask.

I called Chase to see if they would just give me the 50,000 miles out of the goodness of their hearts since I was already a cardmember. Uhhh no. So in my haste to get the bigger bonus I cancelled the card, with the thought that I would just reapply and get the 50,000 miles. ROOKIE MISTAKE. I did reapply once I got home, and was approved for the card again. Not long after meeting the minimum spend requirement, I got a notice from Chase notifying me I would not be receiving the 50,000 bonus, as I had already received one in the past.

I called Chase again to see if they would reconsider the bonus out of the goodness of their hearts since I had met the minimum spend and was a good little Chase cardmember. Uhhh no. You see, I didn’t read the fine print before I cancelled the card and reapplied. Chase clearly states: This new cardmember bonus offer is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of this consumer credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of this consumer credit card who received a new cardmember bonus for this consumer credit card within the last 24 months.

After that happened I started digging into as many airline and hotel credit cards as I could to see the different offers, read the fine print, and figure out the best deals. Hence, a new obsession was born.

Credit card companies offer lucrative sign up bonuses to get you to apply for their travel credit cards. While the sign ups and exact values differ for each company, after you meet the minimum spend requirement the best deals are generally for two domestic round trip award flights and/or anywhere from two to nine hotel award nights. Airlines charge some taxes and fees for award travel (as low as $6 each way), but hotels typically don’t charge anything extra. All you have to do is figure out what works best for you, and what minimum spends you can afford.

A minimum spend is the amount an individual credit card company determines you must spend in order to receive their sign-up bonus. They can be anywhere from first purchase made, regardless of the amount, to $5,000 in three months depending on the card.

That first year, from April to November 2014, Greg and I each applied for eight other cards. Our apps came out to look like this: 

Jamie’s Cards Sign up bonus Minimum spend Annual Fee Total
Alaska Airlines 25,000 miles $1,000 in 90 days $75    26,000
United Airlines 50,000 miles $2,000 in 90 days $95, waived first year    2,000 but no  bonus. Rookie mistake!
American Airlines 50,000 miles $3,000 in 3 months $50, waived first year    53,000
Frontier Airlines 40,000 miles $500 in 90 days $69    40,500
Starwood Hotels 30,000 points $5,000 in 6 months $65, waived   first year    35,000
Alaska Airlines 25,000 miles First purchase + annual fee paid $75    25,000
IHG (Intercontinental Hotels Group) 80,000 points $1,000 in 90 days $49, waived first year    81,000
US Airways 40,000 miles First purchase + annual fee paid $89    40,000
Radisson Hotels 85,000 points $2,500 in 90 days $75    85,000
Greg’s Cards Sign up bonus Minimum spend Annual Fee Total
American Airlines 50,000 miles $3,000 in 3 months $50, waived first year    53,000
Frontier Airlines 40,000 miles $500 in 90 days $69    40,500
United Airlines 50,000 miles + 5,000 when you add auth user $2,000 in 90 days $95, waived first year    57,000
Starwood Hotels 30,000 points $5,000 in 6 months $65, waived first year    35,000
Alaska Airlines 25,000 miles First purchase + annual fee paid $75     25,000
IHG 80,000 points $1,000 in 90 days $49, waived first year     81,000
US Airways 40,000 miles First purchase + annual fee paid $89     40,000
Sapphire Preferred 40,000 points, + 5,000 when you add auth user $3,000 in 90 days $95, waived     45,000
 Grand Total for 2014 $29,500 $616     764,000


Together with miles we already had in a few programs, Greg and I are now officially miles and points millionaires. (What do we look like millionaires?! Yes we do.)

I know $29,500 of spending sure seems like a hell of a lot, but it wasn’t as hard as you would think. We were fortunate enough to take lots of vacations in 2014, and on every vacation we took with other people we paid for certain things for the entire group so that they could pay us back in cash. I worked a bunch of overtime and bought me and Gregory both new camera set ups. We bought groceries, we bought gas, we paid for utilities, phone bills, health insurance, I paid for my doctor visits then reimbursed myself from my HSA. We met all our minimum spends with time to spare. If the Warckens can meet minimum spends, so can you.

This is not for the unorganized of heart or the uncontrolled of spenders. If you can’t afford the minimum spends, or you plan on carrying a balance on the credit cards it’s not worth the free travel bonuses. You’d be better off getting your finances under control and saving your cash. I keep a spreadsheet of every purchase we make on our credit cards, both for meeting minimum spends and keeping our budget in line, and we pay all our cards off in full every month. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of free travel if you can make it work, and you know how we love to spend less to travel more. 

To get all these free miles and points all we had to do was keep track of the money we would’ve already spent. Because I keep such a close watch on our purchases I know that Greg and I are very comfortable meeting $5000.00 in minimum spends every three months without having to scramble, but for the sake of taking it easy and earning with other cards we’re not trying to reach minimum spends on, I apply for a new set of credit cards every four months. When I know we have a big trip coming up, or we’re making a big purchase soon I’ll increase our minimum spend by applying for the higher minimum cards. For instance, we got the Starwood cards before we went to Alaska for three weeks last summer, because Alaska is ungodly expensive and we’d have a much better chance of meeting our minimum spends.

Q & A:

  • Why would you two need so many frequent flier miles and hotel points? Don’t you fly standby for free and sleep in Walmart parking lots?

Yes we do. But I got us into this for several reasons.

  1. It’s free travel! I look at all these programs as savings accounts and we’re just making hay while the sun shines. Plus we don’t plan on always having free standby flights.
  2. Flying standby means we’re the first people to get bumped from flights. Having some miles racked up really saved us last summer when we couldn’t get out of Alaska. We would’ve had to pay over $1200/person for a one-way flight home, but instead we were able to use 20,000 miles/person on Alaska Airlines to get us home for a few dollars instead.
  3. It’s just a game I like to play. I enjoy the budgeting and the research and the blogging. It’s right up my alley.
  • Doesn’t applying for all those credit cards hurt your credit score?

We both have excellent credit, but I went through each of our credit reports before I started this racket to make sure there wasn’t anything on them that shouldn’t be, and now I check them at least every three months for mistakes. There haven’t been any, and my credit score has gone up ten points since I started. We use Credit Karma, a free site to check our scores as often as we’d like. If you’re worried about your credit, or are planning on taking out a big loan in the next couple of years, applying for a bunch of new credit cards is not the best idea for you.

  • Why do you have two Alaska cards?

Because Alaska Airlines is our favorite frequent flier program and their credit cards are super churnable, meaning you can apply for another card while you still have a card open and get the bonus again. And though they charge a $75 annual fee, they also offer an annual companion fare for $99+ taxes so it’s worth it to us. After we had to use miles to get out of Alaska, I just signed us up for another card each and got back our 20,000 miles + 5,000 extra and another companion fare on both. We love our Alaska cards.


Talking about earning free travel from credit cards literally makes me sweat it’s so exciting. Like I said, it takes discipline and organization, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but if you can make it work it’s totally worth it. See our page on which credit cards we currently use and recommend.


Happy award travels!

Do you have a favorite travel card?


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