Europe · Travel · Travel Hacking

Cheap Travel Using Credit Card Signup Bonuses

In a previous post, I mentioned that we leveraged credit card signup bonuses to lower the cost of getting to Spain. So, how did we do it?

Planning Ahead

My first step was to give ourselves plenty of time to get signup bonuses that we leverage into airline tickets. I started with the plan of buying the tickets anywhere between 90 to 120 days before our trip so I worked backward from there. Planning on taking our trip in September, I figured we needed to buy the tickets sometime between March and May. We had to earn the signup bonus before we could use it, so I needed to add a couple months for that. Since I planned on using multiple cards, we needed to stagger out the cards. Most of the cards with signup bonuses have annual fees that are waived the first year. We didn’t intend to pay these fees, so we also couldn’t sign up too early. We also didn’t plan on going into any debt to fund the trip, instead paying the card balance off immediately[1]. Lot’s of constraints, no?

I used madfientist.cardratings.com for filtering and comparing credit card offers and bonuses.

Leaping Signup Bonus Hurdles

Most credit card offers have signup-bonus obstacles to filter out people, like me, that are only looking for the bonus. It’s also to “encourage” card users to make the card their primary tool for spending. For example, the Sapphire Preferred card requires spending $4k within 90-days to get the bonus. That could prove challenging for a single person to meet, and to repeat this spending across multiple cards is even harder. Of course a single person does have the advantage of only needing to do that on one card, or maybe two, but it’s not an insignificant hurdle.

For a family of eight, meeting the bonus requirements was not difficult. We switched all spending to the target card until the bonus constraint was met. With some out-of-pocket-with-reimbursement medical expenses, we could sometimes meet the requirement in only a couple weeks. If you know you have some largish expenses coming up, timing them to score a credit card signup bonus is a great idea. Otherwise, it takes some coordinated spending to meet the minimum spending.

But what about my credit?

Opening new credit cards and subsequently closing can have an impact on your credit, although in my experience it’s very minimal. Missed payments or too much debt have a far greater impact on credit scores. Staggering the opening over several months can lesson the impact. Frankly I’m not worried about the impact on my score, but I might be if I was looking to refinance my mortgage or take on some new debt soon after signing up for a new card.

Tarjeta Número Uno

The first card we signed up for was the Chase Sapphire Preferred in early December. The card had a 50,000 point signup bonus that required we spend 4k in the first 90 days. If we directly cashed out the points they could be worth $500 but if they were used to buy tickets, we could leverage it into $650 worth of travel, which is exactly what we did. When we purchased the tickets, we had accumulated 56,639 points, a discount of $708 towards our flights.

Unfortunately, Rachel had been a Chase Sapphire Preferred card-holder only a couple years ago so she was disqualified from getting the signup bonus.

Tarjeta Número Dos

A week after our first card, we signed up for card number two: Capital One’s Venture. This card had a $500 bonus that could either be used to reimburse travel expenses or cashed out. If you cash it directly into cash, the bonus got reduced to around $300, but there was an option to get gift cards to places like Amazon and Walmart on a dollar-for-dollar basis. We didn’t plan on putting the travel expenses on this card and since we regularly use some of the supported gift card vendors, we took that option to maximize the bonus. We had to spend 3k in 90-days.

We chose to not have Rachel signup for a separate card but possibly will in the future.

Tarjeta Número Tres

Working towards the spending limits on two cards kept us occupied until late-January. For card number three, I chose the United Explorer MileagePlus card from Chase. Our closest airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, is a major hub for United, and I suspected our final flight might be through United[2]. So both Rachel and I signed up for separate cards that each needed a 2k spend in 90 days to get 40k miles. It wasn’t until after I signed up that I learned how terrible their mileage redemption is. The points were relatively useless in flying trans-Atlantic but might come in handy for some domestic flights we have planned.

Tarjeta Número Cuatro

At this point I felt a little fatigued from managing the cards we just signed up for in addition to our other cards. However, I couldn’t help noticing that many of the flights we were considering were operated by Delta, or one of their partners, so I decided to take on one more card: Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express. At the time it offered 30k miles for a 2k spend in 90 days, as well as a $50 statement credit for our first Delta.com purchase made within 90 days. Both Rachel and I signed early-March. Since we ultimately flew Delta, the two signup bonuses saved $300/each and since I bought the tickets within the 90-days, an additional $100 for a total savings of $700.

After Action Report

From researching the different cards to coordinating our spending, from reading all the fine print to managing the timing, I found it mentally fatiguing to maximize our use of credit card bonuses and points. It took a lot of discipline and attention to detail, but I’m excited to have saved/earned $1400 towards our trip. I feel it was a good return on effort. However, if discipline and attention to detail isn’t your thing, you might want to simplify the approach, perhaps only targeting one or two cards, instead of six different cards like we did.

Footnotes

  1. It makes no sense to me to pay high interest rates in the hope of gaining points.
  2. I wasn’t super excited to fly an airline with a history of bumping passengers and even beating them up but I felt this was a low probability of happening.

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