I just rediscovered this entry that I made about 2 years ago when I first started travel hacking. Since then, I have accumulated and redeemed over 3 million miles and points from different airlines and hotels making our very expensive hobby a reality!
Disclaimer: This post is very long but provides plenty of essential tips to start travel hacking.
My Journey to 1,000,000 Miles
I have always been a fan of good deals and free stuff. I’ve always thought of myself as a very efficient and thrifty consumer. Some of the things I do to save money are buy stuff in bulk if they were cheap enough, sign up for promotions to maximize deals, scour the internet for discount codes for online purchases and other small things to try and keep the costs down. I’ve also always been a collector. From coins to trading cards, I’ve always been a fan of accumulating things of value. At the same time, I’ve always been a numbers guy. Since I was little, Math came naturally to me and I was always good with money. Another interest of mine is traveling. I’ve always been into seeing new things and experiencing different cultures. As I visited country to country, I’ve always wanted to see as much as I can and take in as much of my new surroundings had to offer in the limited amount of time I was there. Early on in my travels, I’ve set a fantasy goal of visiting 100 different countries before I die. This goal was set by the kid in me who wanted to see and experience everything. I knew that my goal was more like a dream. One big obvious problem was that this goal would be very expensive and time consuming. Nonetheless, I am a very driven person and I would do everything to accomplish my goal. It’s almost obsessive compulsive sometimes as I don’t stop until I get what I want. Being relentless is a big part of me.
II. A whole new world awaits..
Fast forward to July 2011, I’m currently working (deployed) somewhere in the middle east as a member of the US Air Force. It was a regular day and I was browsing the web for travel blogs and I came across one that changed my whole perspective on travel. The blog is Chirs Gullebeu’s The art of Non-conformity. The blog had entries about the writer’s quest to visit all 182 countries before his 35th bday. To keep the costs down, he uses miles and points from loyalty programs to fund his quest. I then told myself, great, I already have a few thousand in my FF accounts and I already knew how these programs worked. I have also redeemed around 200k of miles worth of flights for myself, friends and family so I’m already an expert at this! Or so I thought..
Another post in the blog also outlined how the writer accumulated over 300k miles/points in one swoop. He did this mostly on credit card sign up bonuses. Now I have a couple of airline affiliated credit cards but didn’t know that current sign-up bonuses are now 50k-100k points! I was missing out! The blog also had several links to different websites for like minded individuals; this is where I came across FlyerTalk.com. Within the first 5 minutes of reading the forum, I’ve been converted..
The wealth of knowledge on the forum was unbelievable, I spend countless hours reading about success stories of people traveling the world in first class basically for free. I couldn’t believe it! If I can do this, it will definitely make my goal of visiting 100 countries a reality! Or at least make it so much easier and more affordable! The forum was like crack, I browsed through year old entries and was just amazed of the ingenuity of the people in the miles game. I picked up valuable tips on how to game the system. People call what they do different things but the one that stuck to me the most was travel hacking. The forum led me to numerous blogs that talk about similar topics.
My favorite ones are:
Boarding Area blogs:
One Mile at a Time
View from the Wing
Rapid Travel Chai
As I continued reading the forum and the blogs, it led me to different tools to help me in my Travel Hacking journey. AwardWallet is a one-stop shop that records all my miles/points. ExpertFlyer gives me a clearer picture of award and upgrade availabilities. There are also other tools that I am still currently trying out but are proving to be very useful for the future.
III. Goal setting
One of the most important things I’ve learned from all this is to set my goals, choose a primary airline and diversify my miles/points portfolio. I was already a Delta Silver Medallion when I started this and I’ve always had a pleasant experience flying Delta so I decided that it would be my carrier of choice. I set my goal to be a Platinum Medallion someday and to have enough miles to purchase 2 RTW award business tickets from Delta. This was a ridiculous goal at the time since I only had around 30k SkyMiles at the time and the 2 tickets required 560k total miles. As for the Platinum Medallion status, I just liked the sound of being Platinum in something and I wanted to get to choose a Choice Benefit, various rewards that they give to PMs. Along with this I would get 100% mileage bonus on all my travels as well as Priority Boarding, and Same Day Confirmed benefits. I can also redeposit all my cancelled award tickets free of charge! This is on top of the much improved upgrade chances that I will be receiving from my domestic flights. All this was fine and dandy but I realized how hard it is to achieve 75k MQMs. I normally fly 30-40 BIS every year and Gold Medallion would’ve been a more realistic goal. And just for fun, I also set a goal to accumulate 1,000,000 miles/points. 1m was my magic number.
IV. Let the madness begin
My goals are now set and armed with the vast knowledge that I’ve gathered from the few days of reading, I took the giant step and applied for my first credit card. Now I’ve heard of App-O-Rama’s (when one applies for multiple credit cards in one day, sometimes 5 or more) and considered doing this but I was still testing the waters so I started off small. I’ve read extensively about the Citi AA 75k offers from Visa and Amex and decided to do this. Although AA wasn’t my primary airline of choice, 150k miles are too much to pass up. I also decided to apply for the Delta Skymiles Platinum card which would give me 40k miles with 15k MQMs! These MQM’s will help me reach the next tier of Medallion status which is gold. Long story short, applied for all 3 cards and got approved instantly. This is way too easy I thought. To get the signup bonuses, I had to meet certain spending requirements. $1500 for the Citi Visa, $4000 for the Citi Amex and $1000 for the Amex Delta Plat. This part proved to be a challenge since I was deployed. All the purchases I was going to make had to be online since these cards were not accepted in this country and there is not much to buy/pay for here anyway. My sister had a TPAC flight coming up so I offered to buy her ticket for her. I then booked about $1.2k worth of flights to my Amex Delta Plat. Score! Next up is the $1.5k spend req. for the Citi Visa. I have an upcoming mini Asian tour with my significant other this coming February to Manila, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Macau. I figured this was a perfect way to book the flights/hotels early and meet the spend requirement on my card. After a couple of days, I’ve already charged $1500. Score again! 75k AA miles for me! In this time, I also applied and got approved for another card which is the Amex Gold Premiere Rewards card and managed to have a bonus code notated to my account. The bonus code is for a promotion that awards me to get 75k Membership Reward points after spending $1k with the card. Like most of the cards that I apply for, the annual fee is waived so I’m basically getting the points for free! I also got lucky to have the bonus code notated as this practiced stopped next month. I guess Amex saw a huge influx of people trying to do this and had to cut their losses, more to this later..
The Citi Amex card proved to be more challenging as it had a $4k spend req. and I was out of ideas! My bills back home are all suspended since I am deployed and all the tips to meet spend reqs from the blogs/forum didn’t work for me. Then one day while I was doing my daily rounds of the forum, I came across this Skymall promotion that offered 25k miles for every $500 purchase! To make this better, there was no limit to how many purchases you can make! I started browsing Skymall to find items I could buy and resell. The gears started turning and before I knew it, I was already computing how much capital/out of pocket expense I had to fork out to get a boatload of miles. I researched for a few more days and with my plan finally down, I went for it. It was go big or go home. 250k miles would be my goal. After receiving my orders, I promptly listed them all on eBay for a small loss. After all was said and done, I spent roughly around $1400 for 250,000 Skymiles. Remember, the RTW tickets in business class are just 280k miles so this latest haul really gave me a huge boost! Not only that but by buying the items from Skymall, I fulfilled required spends on the two credit cards I was working on. The Citi Amex gave me 75k AA miles for meeting the 4k spend and the Amex PRG gave me 75k Membership Rewards. The Skymall promotion was my first ever “hack” and it felt awesome to “game” the system and amass all those miles. Overall, this promotion netted me over 400k miles and points! Needless to say, I was hooked.
VI. Every mile counts
I continued following the different forums and blogs that gave tips on how to accumulate miles. I signed up for a lot of free promotions that gave me miles here and there for little effort. Like most people in the community say, every mile counts! I completed surveys, watched commercials, answered trivia questions and other little things that boosted my miles/points totals. There were also other promotions that all you need to do was sign up for the first free month and you get as much as 5k miles! I also signed up for a investment account with TD Ameritrade. I was already thinking of opening one before I entered the miles game so the 15k miles that I would get for opening an account was just an added bonus. During this time, there was also an Amex/Delta promotion that gave a 50% mileage bonus for transfers from Amex MR to Delta Skymiles. On top of this, it gave me 25k MQMs which would push me to Gold Medallion status with Delta. My only problem was I
only had 75k MR points and the minimum to do this was 100k. On the last day of the promotion, I decided to give it a shot. I called Amex to advance 15k MR points which bumped my total to 90k. I then bought 10k MR points for $250 and then proceeded to transfer the 100k to Delta. I checked my Delta account and the transfer was instantaneous. I was awarded 150k Delta Skymiles with 25k MQMs. I was now a Gold Medallion!
VII. Persistence is key
The travel hacking game wouldn’t be as fulfilling without its share of bumps along the road. The first major one was Amex refusing to fulfill the 40k miles (15k MQMs) for my Delta Platinum card. They only gave me 25k (5k MQMs). After weeks of e-mails and a final letter that basically told them I would take my business elsewhere if they didn’t honor their promise, I was rightfully awarded all my miles and MQMs. This pushed me to around 70k MQMs for the year. 5k more and I would be a Platinum Medallion! It was almost too good to be true. To think that I almost gave up and accepted the loss.. If there is one thing I’ve remembered from all my research, that’s to never give up because in this game, persistence truly pays off.
Another minor setback was that the items I purchased from the Skymall promotion got back ordered and was delayed for about 3 weeks. Because of this I couldn’t resell them and it was frustrating to have my money trapped in the credit cards in that amount of time. In the end, patience paid off as I made out better than expected. There were also other smaller promotions that didn’t work out as planned. One is the now infamous 73k headsets. The AA shopping mall had an apparent error on a bunch of Verizon products and it offered 73k miles for every single purchase on the site. Thousands of people jumped into these deals only to be told that it was a glitch and that the deal will not be honored. In the end, I still got 10k AA miles as compensation so the minimal effort was still worth it.
VIII. Won’t stop, Can’t stop
Fast forward to October 2011, I decided that it was time for a new and bolder App-O-Rama. I decided to apply for the following cards:
US Airways Barclays Mastercard – 40k Dividend miles after first purchase. This would help me diversify my mileage portfolio and the bonus points were easy so this was a no brainer. The card also gives out 10k miles during the card’s anniversary dates so I might just keep it for that!
BOH/BOA Hawaiian Airline Cards – These two cards would give me 35k Hawaiian Airline miles each after reaching $1k spend. The value of this is when I transfer the 70k miles to the HHonors program since the ratio is 1:2! By completing this, I would end up with 140k HHonors miles. Since I don’t have any meaningful points in hotel programs, this was a great start!
Chase Sapphire Preferred – One of the few cards that have rave reviews across the board, it will give me 50k Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3k. It also gives a 7.5% bonus on all miles earned and have different multipliers for other purchases. Add that it has no foreign transaction fees, annual fee is waived and the card just looks cool!
I excitedly applied for all the cards in one day and the results definitely shocked me. I got a pending status on all but one, the US Airways Mastercard. This was a first for me since I’ve always been instantly approved for all my credit cards. I’ve been monitoring my credit score from the start and I’ve consistently had a 750 or more across the 3 major credit score agencies. This was definitely a major setback in my plans but as you play this game, you quickly learn to not give up and that it never hurts to ask. I proceeded to call the various reconsideration lines for these cards and I was surprised how easy it was to make them reconsider! I just needed to shift some balances in my CC accounts or prove to them why I need the card. When all was said and done, I was approved for all the cards! The Chase Sapphired Preferred card took 2 calls but since I really wanted the card, I tried again and got approved the second time!
Now that I have the cards, I had to figure out a way to meet the spending requirements. For the US Airways Mastercard, I just made a $10 purchase online and was awarded the 40k miles in a few days! Since I didn’t have any purchases/payments in the coming weeks, I had to get creative. One of my good friends was looking to buy airplane tickets and I offered if I could buy it for him and for him to just pay me back cash. He gladly said yes and that took care of the BOH Hawaiian card! 35k Hawaiian miles for me!
IX Gaming the system
Encouraged by my recent success, I proceeded to apply for more cards! This was a rookie mistake as I should have applied for these cards the same day I applied for the rest but the early rejections led me to believe that my luck has ran out when in reality, I just needed to give the banks a call.
My longest credit card is Amex and I have a very good history with them so I then applied for the following cards..
Amex Hilton – By spending $500, I get 50k HHonors miles. Too easy to pass up!
Amex Mercedes-Benz Platinum – Amex has cracked down on notating bonus codes on new cards so I missed out on the 100k promotion. The 50k offer for this card was the next best thing and I jumped on it. The annual fee is pretty steep at $450 but the benefits are tremendous! Some of them that I will definitely be using are, $200 refund on airline incidentals, $100 refund for Global Entry program, instant SPG gold status, access to Delta, American and other Airport lounges, Insurance on rental cars, Priority Pass membership and many more!
Delta Amex Reserve – the 10k MQMs upon first purchase would get me Platinum Medallion status!(5k for me because of other bonuses I have already gotten) I will probably cancel this card somewhere in the first year and get a pro-rated refund of the $450 annual fee.
Looks like my luck has definitely changed for the better, I got approved for all 3! As for the required spends, I had to be creative again.. My friend was looking to buy a laptop online that was around $500 so I offered to buy it for him. This took care of the Amex Hilton card. 50k points for me! For the Amex Plat, I prepaid my cell phone bill for the next 6 months. I also put some money on my ATT account since I was planning to buy the iPhone 4s when I got back from deployment. I then charged around $150 on the card for my purchases for the US Airways Grand Slam promotion (which will net me 25k dividend miles). After reaching $1k spend, I send Amex a secure message if I can expedite my 50k bonus points and they were in my account the next day! For the Delta Amex Reserve, I charged $10 to the card and my bonus MQMs posted after a couple of days! The 5k MQM miles put me at 75k MQMs for the year. I was finally a Platinum Medallion! I then proceeded to choose my Choice Benefit for the year which was 20k bonus miles! All in all, I now had around 525k Delta Skymiles with all the various promotions and bonuses that I have completed! My goal is 560k for the 2 RTW tickets in business class so I am definitely almost there! I also managed to achieve Platinum Medallion status and am really looking forward to future upgrades and possible op-ups.
Currently, I am working on the spend requirements for 2 cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the BOA Hawaiian card. This is $4k total spend which shouldn’t be a problem especially with the Holiday Season fast approaching. I am planning on buying a Macbook Air as my Xmas gift to myself and I found out that the Chase Ultimate Rewards shopping mall has a a x10 multiplier on Apple purchases on Nov 28! Since the laptop costs around $1200, this will be 12k UR points for me! I will also put my plane tickets (FAI-LAX-MNL-FAI) on my card and that should get me close to the $3k spend required. As for the BOA Hawaiian card, I will easily complete the $1k spend req during my upcoming trip to LA/Vegas once I get back from this deployment.
It is important to remember that I have spent very little (relative to the rewards I received) out of pocket for all the miles/points I have gotten that past few months. I rarely bought anything that I wasn’t going to purchase anyway. To think about, the only part where I bought stuff I real didn’t need was the $150 I spent for the US Airways Grand Slam Promotion. The cookies, books, wine and other random stuff that I got made my family back in Cali happy though and I got 30k miles as a bonus! As for the Skymall promotion, my total out of pocket expense was around $1400 but for 250k miles, this was a steal!
Below is a running tally of my haul. Please note that I didn’t include the other programs that I had small amount of miles and points thru various promotions.
Delta – 525k
AA – 160k
US Airways – 70k
Hilton – 200k
Amex MR – 40k
Chase UR – 75k
= 1,070,000 miles/points.
All this was done in about 4 months. With a conservative estimate of 2 cents per mile/point, my total haul would equate to about $21,400! Like I said, the redemptions I’m planning to make will be probably give me more bang for my buck. The 2 Business RTW tickets are worth about $5k each so that alone is approximately $10k in value! I’ve always liked free money and good deals and this one definitely fits the bill. I’ve accomplished all this and saw my Experian credit score jump from 750 to 770! This is most likely from the increase in total credit that I have from signing up for the cards. I guess that outweighed the hard inquiries and 2-3 point hits each credit card application commands. Since I use my excellent credit score as leverage in the mileage game, I try to stay on top of it with different websites like CreditSesame and ProtectYourID.com.
XII. Future applications
Looking ahead, I will probably apply for these cards:
Chase Marriot – 70k Marriot Reward points after first spend! Also gives a free night on a Marriot Hotel.
Chase Ink Bold – Chase is really stepping up its offers and this one is for another 50k UR points. I just got the Sapphire Preferred card so I would wait 2-3 months before I apply for this since Chase normally does not approve applications that are too close apart.
Citi Business Visa – I barely missed out on the 75k offer but the current 50k offer is not bad. It would’ve been really hard to meet the $4k spend limit on this card anyway as I am still working on others.
XIII. Making it count
One key lesson in the travel hacking game is that your miles/points is not really worth anything until you use them. This is why it is important to have a goal and work towards that goal. This means, plan for your trip/hotel stay and be ready to snatch the awards when the availability is there. For my RTW trip, Delta allows 6 stops and unlimited layovers. We will be starting my journey in Korea then possibly visit Australia, New Zealand, India, Brazil and South Africa. There will be multiple 1 day layovers along the way and this be very rewarding as we get a small taste of what that country has to offer. Also, that will beef up our tally on our march to 100 countries! For my HHonor points, I was planning to use them on a 5 night stay at one of their luxury properties in Maldives. This property would normally be a $700-$1k a night but with the points, they are free. Of course this is easier said than done as I have to find availability and book a flight to get there but I am confident I can do it. The AA and US Airways miles that I have accrued can also get me anywhere in the world in first class. As for the Amex MR and Chase UR points, I plan to keep them where they are until I need to top off (transferring points to partner airlines) an account to book an award or when there is a very lucrative promotion to transfer points to a transfer partner. This will give me much needed flexibility in future bookings.
In total, I applied for 11 credit cards in the past few months. I expected my credit score to drop because of this but the opposite happened. Going forward I will schedule my app-o-ramas probably every quarter to spread out the inquiries. Applying for multiple credit cards in the same day is beneficial as banks usually combine credit pulls if you apply for multiple cards from the same company.
Persistence and patience are keys to this game. With most bonuses, promotions and hacks, the miles or points post like clock-work. However, when it doesn’t, you have to put in the effort to reach out to these companies and try to get what you have been promised. I also quickly learned that I have to be ready to jump into deals. Most promotions that are too good to be true usually only last for a very short amount of time. The companies that put them out quickly realize that people are starting to take advantage of the system and they pull the plug on these lucrative offers. I also have to be very disciplined with how I manage my credit cards. To optimize the bonuses that I am getting from credit card spend, I must pay off the balance each month so I don’t incur any interest fees. A slip in my part and all the benefits of the miles/points are negated. Another key is to continue to stay on top of my credit score. My credit score is the most important leverage that I have in getting approved to all these good deals so I need to know if I need to cool down on applying (so that inquiries drop on my report) or if there are any negative remarks on my credit report.
Ingenuity and creativity also plays a big role in this game. Since most credit card bonuses hinge on spending requirements. I have to find a way not to splurge my money on useless things just for the sake of meeting CC spend requirements. I have already devised several ways of doing this. A few examples are:
Never paying with cash/debit card unless absolutely necessary
Offer to pay for other people’s purchases
Maximize the multipliers on credit cards (ex. x3 airfare, etc)
Pay recurring bills in advance if needed (cell phone bill, etc)
Buy and Sell stuff even for a small loss (Skymall-250k miles!)
These are only a few of the things that will help me stay ahead of the game and keep up with all the bonuses credit card companies are offering. Like I said before, this hobby changes how you handle your finances. The object is to maximize every purchase to get the optimal rewards. I plan to use my Sapphire on internet purchases via the UR website to get various multipliers. Since the card does not have foreign transaction fees, it will also be my primary card when I travel. While the Amex Plat does not have Forex fees, I will mainly use it for rental car insurance and access to airport lounges. The $200 airline incidental refund will also be useful in my travels as well. The Amex PRG gold will be useful when I purchase airplane tickets as it offers a x3 multiplier for that category.
The journey to 1M miles and points has been a great ride. I have learned so much in the short amount of time and I can confidently say that this hobby is truly a life-changer. As I take future trips for free, I will slowly realize my goal of seeing what our world has to offer. The only regret I have is not finding out about all these possibilities earlier! I missed out on some great deals that will probably never come back but the important thing is that I am here now and that I am in it for the long haul.