The trick to really rocking the travel rewards is to plan ahead.
For FinCon 2014, I travel hacked my flight and hotel and NJ Transit and managed to spend an amazing weekend in New Orleans for $608.87 – with just under half of that being the FinCon ticket itself.
However, I knew I wanted to go to FinCon and started planning the trip about 9 months out.
In April this year, my best friend and I decided we were going to Hawaii. It’s been about 6 years since we’ve gone on a big vacation together (to Scotland and France and it was amazing). We talked about it and kept on not agreeing on places we both wanted to go, until we remembered we always used to talk about going to Hawaii when I worked for the cruise line.
I knew my budget was kind of tight and Hawaii might be a little expensive. Turns out, Hawaii is crazy expensive. But you can actually churn rewards cards faster than I thought.
In April, I applied for and got:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Barclaycard Cash Forward
- BankAmerica Travel Rewards Signature Visa
- BankAmerica Travel Rewards Platinum Plus Visa
Chase Sapphire Preferred
With the Chase Sapphire Preferred, I had to spend $4,000 in 3 months to qualify for the bonus. I made my first spend on 4/10 and made all of my usual purchases for the month on it (and also paid off a speeding ticket that was just over $250).
It also has an annual fee of $95 that’s waived for the first year, so it’s important to remember to cancel this card before the year is up.
My usual purchases came out to a little over $1,000. As soon as I received my card though, I opened a savings account at PNC Bank through their website and funded my initial deposit with my credit card for the maximum amount allowed – $2,000.
I have a solid future as a money launderer.
I transferred $2,000 from one of my current savings accounts to pay off that balance on my card and now that money just sits over at PNC Bank instead. As long as I leave it there for 6 months (which I plan to), it will qualify for a $200 new account bonus in October when I can decide whether I really like PNC Bank and want to keep my money there or transfer it back to my usual account.
I then opened a checking and savings account at First Niagara Bank using the same method. They had a $1,000 limit so I put $800 in one account and $200 in the other account. I used savings I already had to pay off that balance on my card and now that money will sit over there until October so I don’t get hit with an early closing fee.
Also, this is the first mistake I made. I thought I had to keep a combined total of $1,000 in accounts there to not be charged, but it’s actually $1,000 in your savings account, so I got hit with a $25 account maintenance fee (doesn’t that seem incredibly high?!). I went to connect my other savings account online so I could transfer over $225 more and not get hit with that fee again only to find that I had to print out and mail in some forms to connect an outside bank account (WTF??). So First Niagara is not a convenient bank at all and hopefully I will be able to get this sorted by I get hit with another $25 maintenance fee.
I have also gotten 8,000,000 calls from their customer service people calling to tell me they are available to help me anytime I need them and checking up on how I like their service. This is irritating. Especially since their actual service is not good.
So you may want to think twice about using First Niagara to hit a credit card spend. We’ll see what a delight it’ll be when I close that account in October. I do not have high hopes for that being a smooth process.
Finally, I opened a checking and savings account with Santander bank and used my Chase Sapphire Rewards to put $500 in each account. With Santander you have to go online and make sure all your correspondence is paperless and online or you’ll be charged $3 per statement after the first two months.
Santander also requires you to fill out a bunch of forms that they mail to you, but don’t tell you anything about. If you do not fill them out within 2 weeks of receipt, they will close your accounts. This really sucks if you’re a stage manager out on tour and have no idea these papers exist or that you should be on the lookout for them. I opened them when they were about a week past due and had to drive to a local Santander to find out if my account was closed and where my money went. Then informed me it would’ve mailed me a check (which, could probably still get you the points on your credit card), but we managed to stop the closing process in time.
On 5/14 my rewards bonus was credit to my Chase account and I wound up with 55,415 points (or $692.69) to use. I booked our hotel in Hawaii through the Chase travel portal using the points and the total came out to $151.24 for 5 nights in a beachfront property in Oahu.
Barclaycard Cash Forward
With the Barclaycard Cash Forward, I had to spend $500 in 3 months to qualify for the $100 bonus.
There is no annual fee on this card.
What’s really nice about this card is that it’s a cash back reward, so you don’t have to worry about hitting the spend in advance to be able to use it. We decided to go on a fancy and expensive tour on the Big Island, so I put our tickets on this card. The two tickets came out to $1238.00. I purchased them on 5/4 and was able to redeem the statement credit of $118.57 on 5/10.
BankAmerica Travel Rewards Signature Visa
With the Bank of America Travel Rewards Signature Visa, I had to spend $1,000 in 90 days to qualify for a $200 bonus. This card also allows you to redeem on purchases already made, which is nice; however, they have to be travel purchases.
There is no annual fee with this card.
I hit the minimum spend here between buying our GoOahu city passes and then booking our flight and hotels from Oahu over to the Big Island in Hawaii. My first spend was on 4/27 and I qualified for the bonus when I booked the flight and hotel package on 5/6. Both of those purchases counted as travel purchases, so it was easy to redeem the statement credit against them. The bonus came out to $228.58.
BankAmerica Travel Rewards Platinum Plus Visa
With the Bank of America Travel Rewards Platinum Plus Visa, I had to spend $1,000 in 90 days to qualify for a $200 bonus. This card also allows you to redeem on purchases already made, which is nice; however, they have to be travel purchases.
There is no annual fee with this card.
On 6/21, I switched to using this card as my regular spending card. I wound up putting my car insurance payment on this card, so I hit the minimum spend. The reward bonus is still pending. It usually takes about a week to clear. The $200 (plus some from the spending) will be redeemed against spending done on vacation.
Now I know some folks worry about their credit scores when they consider churning rewards and I think that’s a fair concern. I started out this project with a credit rating of Excellent and a score that varied from 765-803 (depending on the reporting agency). As of today, it’s coming up between 808-811 (depending on the reporting agency). Probably because my credit utilization is incredibly low and my available credit went up like $20,000 during this project. I actually suspect I’ll get hit harder when I close several of them, but I think I’ll still remain well above 750.
So overall, my top Hawaii budget was $4,000. Food and souvenir spending aside, it came out to $1,854.00. I haven’t done the calculations on those yet, but it’s safe to say it’s well under $2,166.00.
With some extra time, I almost certainly could’ve knocked off some of the cost of the flight as well.