The Miles and Points Game For Free Travel : Credit Card Bonuses, Part 1

Dipping into the world of miles and points for free travel can is exciting and addictive, but can be extremely overwhelming and even frightening to begin with.  Why would free travel be frightening?  Because the number one way to pad your accounts with thousands of miles and points is not by actually flying, but through credit card sign-up bonuses, and we as consumers (especially here in the United States) are generally taught that credit cards 1. equal mounds of debt and 2. therefore, should be avoided if at all possible.

As someone in their early 30s who has been playing "the game" for a few years now, I'm here to say that, if you have dreams and goals of travel and have limited resources to fund them, the absolute first thing you should do is to change your ideas about your credit and your credit card use.  Between my husband and I, we have about 12 credit cards (nowhere near the amount of some of the big wig miles collectors, but a pretty hefty size for our goals and general usage), and we both have credit scores in the high 700s (795 and 780).  Building excellent credit is a pretty awesome side-effect to filling your miles and points accounts, but in order to do so, you need to agree and put into practice the following:

  1. Your credit and credit history is an extremely important asset, and should never be jeopardized (i.e. buying things you don't need, going into high-interest debt) merely for the sake of free travel.
  2. Credit cards should be treated like debit cards, paying off balances as you put them on your card (or at least by the end of the month) so that you never incur any interest charges.
  3. You will not sign up for any credit cards (no matter how tempting the sign-up bonuses are) within 1.5-2 years before making a large purchase, such as a house.
  4. You will not buy things you normally wouldn't purchase for the sake of racking up miles on your credit card, but instead will shift your normal daily spending (groceries, gas, bills, etc.) to your miles/points credit cards to meet minimum spends, and pay them off as you do so.

These are what I like to call the "Golden Guidelines," and if you cannot, for any reason, agree and follow all of them, then going the credit card bonus route to free travel is not for you (Don't worry!  While not as lucrative, there are other ways to play the miles and points game, which I will address in upcoming posts).  If you are already using a credit card or two for responsible spending, and feel that the Golden Guidelines would be no problem, then you can be on your way to free travel (and great credit)!

When I first got into this game, I'll admit that I was extremely scared to not only have more than one credit card, but to also meet any kind of minimum spending requirement needed to trigger the bonus miles.  Like most Americans, I held the belief that applying for and having multiple credit cards would not only really hurt my credit, but get me into trouble with debt.  It's true that your score is reduced by 3 to 5 points per application (according to MyFICO), but the ping doesn't last long and your credit score is also determined in great part by your credit payment history, your debt-to-credit ratio, the different types of loans you have, and how often you apply for credit cards.  This is why many miles and points collectors will apply for cards in "churns" of 4-5 at a time, take the one-time ping to their credit score, and then will apply again for a fresh "churn" 8-12 months later, having built excellent credit by following the Golden Guidelines in the meantime.

My first miles card was the British Airways Visa Credit card in 2011, which offered an incredible 100,000 Avios miles (double the usual 50,000) after making $3,000 in purchases on the card.  This is enough for 2 free round-trip flights (or 4 smaller domestic flights on partner airlines).  After that, I was hooked.  Since then, my husband and I have taken trips to New York City, Washington, D.C., California wine country, Chicago, London, and Beijing, for (almost) free, and have upcoming free trips to Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, and Japan planned for 2014.  That's just for playing the game a little less than 2 years!  If you want to get into the credit card bonus game, here are the first steps you should take:

  1. Sign up for the miles and points (loyalty and frequent-flyer) programs that you feel you would most use or benefit from.  Remember, a lot of the larger airlines have alliances with smaller ones, and their miles can be used to purchase flights on partner airlines.  I recommend having an email account specifically for all of your frequent flyer program emails to have a home, and using a site like AwardWallet to keep track of them all.  I also recommend setting aside 30 minutes to 1 hour to just sit down and register for all the airline and hotel loyalty programs you wish to be a part of.  My top loyalty programs are American Aadvantage, United Mileage, Southwest Rapid Rewards, British Airways Avios, Alaska Airlines, SPG Hotels, IHG Hotels, Hyatt, and Hilton.
  2. Get a copy of your credit report!  It is imperative to know where your credit stands BEFORE applying for new cards.  There are many sites which claim to give you your credit report for free before charging you a fee.  Two sites where you can actually, truly, really get 100% free credit reports is and
  3. Make a list of your specific travel goals for the next year or two.  Whether it's flying your family to Disneyworld or to Grandma's, attending a music festival somewhere, crossing off the Bucketlist, or working towards a large international or round-the-world trip, having your specific goals written down will help you to focus your mile and point collecting so that you get the most out of your spending, and reach your goals earlier.
  4. Review the Golden Guidelines and commit them to practice!

Once you have completed the 4 steps above, you are now ready to enter the exciting world of credit card bonuses, which I will detail in Part II of this post...