How I Earned 300,000 Miles and $2,000 in Hotel Stays in Six Months

The Best Travel Credit Cards

In no way am I an expert on travel hacking. I am a beginner. A beginner that earned nearly 300,000 miles and $2,000 worth of hotel stays in just six months. After spending lengthy sessions in front of my computer screen researching the best travel credit cards and tactics for earning free travel, I got the courage to try this travel hacking thing myself.

An important piece of context here is that I was raised to never spend money that I didn’t have and to stay far, far away from credit cards. I got my first credit card in March of this year.  I realize there are real dangers to falling into debt if you’re not diligent, but if you are strategic, smart, and pay your bills in full each month, you can actually earn free travel.

To my next point, these cards have a myriad of benefits. In order to choose the best travel credit card, you must know what you want. Do you want hotels? Airefare? Elite Status? Whatever it is, your priorities will help you determine what the best travel credit card for you would be.

My travel credit card priorities right now are:

1) Airline miles. Lots and lots of airline miles.

2) Free hotel stays for when my friends came to visit.

The cards I chose to apply for all had bonuses that would help me reach those two goals. It’s worth it to note that the cards I picked do offer a range of benefits, in addition to the ones that I outline below, including elite status, free checked bags, free companion passes, etc. While these are all great, I picked the best travel credit cards for me based on my priorities, so I’m that’s what you’ll see highlighted below. To me, my biggest aim was to have the freedom to book a flight whenever I want.

As you scroll through, click the links for more information about the best current offers. They are there for convenience purposes only – I will not receive any compensation. This post is organized by the timeline in which I was approved for each credit card and includes the bonuses that I received.

The Best Travel Credit Cards Line Up

MARCH

Chase Freedom

Points System: Ultimate Rewards

Annual Fee: None

Bonus: 10,000 Points after spending $500 in the first 3 months (Right now it’s actually 20,000 points!)

Earning: 1 point/dollar, 5% back on monthly categories

Spending: There are two major ways to spend these points.

1)  You can book any travel (flights, hotel, car, etc.) in the Chase travel system and use the dollar value of your points to book. For reference, 10,000 points is roughly worth $100. Major Benefit: if you do not have enough points to book directly (through United, or Southwest, for example) for an entire flight, you can use both the points and dollars.

2) You can transfer your points to any partner company. Examples: United, American, Southwest (insert others). Your point value will typically go further when you transfer it and book direct. To clarify, you will have to use less points to book your flight if you transfer them to United and book directly on United.  Major Benefit: There is an expansive list of partner companies that you can transfer your points to. This gives you great flexibility and value for your points.

This is the card that I started with. I had zero credit in January 2014. I was denied for multiple credit cards when I applied, all because I didn’t have a credit history. I earned 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $500 with the Chase Freedom – points that eventually combined with my Chase Sapphire Preferred Ultimate Rewards points. I used this card regularly for three months: every purchase that I could use a credit card for, I did. I paid the balance off in full each month.  I ultimately spend these with points + cash on my flight to Thailand!

JULY

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Points System: Ultimate Rewards

Annual Fee: $95, waived the first year

Bonus: 40,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months (additional 5,000 if you add an authorized user)

Earning: 2 points/dollar on travel & dining (uh, what else do I spend on!?)

Spending: See Chase Freedom

After three months with the Freedom, I was approved for the Chase Sapphire Preferred. My strategy was to go straight to the card that from my research, was the best card for travel. This is the card I had my eye on for months and was so excited when I got immediately approved! Obviously I don’t have insider knowledge on this, but my common sense tells me that because I was so diligent with the Freedom card, I was able to prove to Chase I was ready for a big-girl card. I used these points for my flight from Manila – Tokyo – Chicago – Puerto Vallarta.

AUGUST

Starwood Preferred AMEX

Points System: Starpoints

Bonus: 10,000 after first purchase, 15,000 after spending $5,000 in 6 months

Earning: 1 point/dollar

Spending: Starwood Preferred Hotels or transfer to one of 32 partner airlines. 

Major Benefit: Hotels in Southeast Asia have an incredible point value. For example, a night at the Aloft Bangkok is only 3,000-4,000 points/night. You also get a 20-25% bonus when you transfer your Starpoints to a partner airline.

I had read rave reviews about the SPG AMEX, but wasn’t really planning to spend a lot of time in hotels. But, once I found out I’d have some friends coming, I knew that I’d need somewhere a little nicer to stay with them. I booked 8 nights (for two separate visits) at the Aloft Bangkok with these points.

Chase United MileagePlus Explorer

Points System: United Miles

Annual Fee: $95, waived the first year

Bonus: 50,000 after spending 2,000 in the first three months, plus 5,000 for additional user  (the current offer is only 30,000 right now – I would wait until it goes back up)

Earning: 1 miles/dollar, 2 miles/dollar on United purchases

Spending: United flights. These points go directly into your United Mileageplus account. 

Major Benefit: if you are a United loyalist, you can combine these miles with the Ultimate Rewards points. Freedom + Sapphire Preferred + United Mileage Plus Explorer = 100,000 United miles.

I opened this card up next for two reasons. First, I fly United the most. Second, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to earn enough miles for my flight back, so I wanted a buffer. Plus, I was kind of on a roll at this point!

SEPTEMBER

Citi Hhonors Reserve

Points System: Hhonors points

Annual Fee: $95, not waived

Bonus: 2 free weekend nights, after spending $2,500 within the first 4 months of opening

Earning: 1 point/dollar

Spending: HHonors points/certificate go directly into your account and you can use them on any Hilton portfolio properties (think Waldorf Astoria, etc.)

This is an interesting case of an impulse purchase. A fellow hobbyist sent me a link and a recommendation for this specifically to book two nights at the Conrad Koh Samui (worth $1,000-$2,000). Even though I’ve already earned the two weekend nights I haven’t totally decided if I’m going to do it or not, since I kind of already have plans for Koh Samui. There’s a chance I’ll bake it in, but I’ll need to do some research first. My other thought is to use this to book two nights at the Conrad Tokyo on my way home. I think at that point I’ll be pretty ready for a nice hotel and will be thrilled to take advantage of Gold status (free breakfast and wifi)!

OCTOBER

Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier

Points System: Rapid Rewards (Southwest Miles)

Annual Fee: $95, not waived

Bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $2,000 in first 3 months

Earning: 1 point/dollar, 2 points/dollar on Southwest purchases

Spending: Rapid Rewards, points go directly into your account

At this point in my travel hacking career, I had learned that once you’re qualifying for the premier Chase cards, Chase likely has a number in mind in terms of the line of credit they’re going to offer you. I wanted to try my luck to see if I could get approved for another Chase card. I picked the Chase Southwest card mostly because I knew I’d have some local travel to do when I returned from my trip and didn’t want to be using my United miles for domestic travel. You can also get great mile-deals on Southwest flights.

Citi Aadvantage

Points System: American Aadvantage Points

Annual Fee: $95, waived the first year

Bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months

Earning: 1 point/dollar, 2 points/dollar on American Airlines purchases

Spending: Aadvantage miles, directly into your account 

Major Benefit: These miles will combine with US Airways Dividend Miles when they merge.

This round of credit card applications was actually preemptively earning points for the next year. I knew that I’d likely have more travel coming up (hopefully), especially if I get into business school. I chose to open up this credit card at the same time as the US Airways one so that when they merge, I could combine points. A relatively easy 90,000 American Airlines miles!

US Airways Premier World Mastercard

Points System: US Airways Miles

Annual Fee: $89, not waived

Bonus: 40,000 miles after your first purchase

Earning: 1 point/dollar, 2 points/dollar on US Airways purchases

Spending: Dividend miles, directly into your account. 

Major Benefit: You earn these after your first purchase. However, I noticed that these miles took the longest to hit my account. But, there is no minimum spend, just the annual fee, which is a major plus. 

Note: Once US Airways merges with American Airlines, this card will likely go away.

I have to owe a friend for this one who recommended I go after these miles which I already can use on American Airlines flights, but that will directly combine with my American Airlines miles once the companies merge. I actually don’t typically fly American, but having almost 100,000 American Airlines miles in the bank doesn’t hurt!

Venture Capitol One

Points System: Miles/Purchase Eraser. Basically, 100 miles=1 dollar and you can get reimbursed for any travel purchase using the dollar value of the miles you have. For example, if I have 17,000 miles, I can get $170 back on my travel expenses (airfare, hotel, anything).

Annual Fee: $59, waived first year 

Bonus: 40,000 miles ($400 worth of travel purchase eraser)

Earning: 2x miles on everything 

Spending:  You spend on travel and can “erase”, or get reimbursed for, the value of your purchase in miles. 

Major Benefit: If you hate booking with award points directly through airlines, this is the card for you.

In all honesty, I’m  not super excited about this card. It seems like there’s a lot of flexibility, but in reality, you’re not getting a huge point value like you do with the Sapphire Preferred. When booking directly through an airline, 40,000 miles could be worth WAY more than $400. I do think it’s great that it’s double miles on everything. I see this card as extra “travel cash”. 

Overall Earnings

In six months, I earned nearly 300,000 miles (including the miles earned with minimum spends) and 10 hotel nights (2 redeemable in the highest category of Hilton portfolio).

On the EXTREME low side, based on what I would likely spend these miles one, this is worth:

300,000 miles = $3,000 in airfare

2 hotel nights at category 10 = $1000 in hotel

8 hotel nights at category 3 = $700+ in hotel

However, 300,000 miles is definitely worth WAY more than this when you are strategic about your flight segments.

Let’s use my flight out of Southeast Asia as an example (who I have Jeremy Jones from Living The Dream to thank for finding!):

Manila – Tokyo (7 day stopover) – Chicago (5 day stopover) – Puerto Vallarta

Award Travel  57,500 Miles and $71.79

Dollars- $2,500

**This is what I’m talking about when I say that miles, most times, are worth much more when you book directly through an airline.**

The Math:  I spent 57,000 miles on a $2,500 ticket. If I spent all 300,000 miles this way, I would be redeeming $12,500 in free airfare. It takes money to make money. Isn’t that what they say?

Fee Free Debit Card: Charles Schwab

One thing all travelers should have, is a fee-free debit card. In any country, you will have to take out cash at some point. These fees are extravagant – at times, you can be charged 5% by the bank abroad and another 5% by your own bank. Why waste your hard earned cash on fees? The Charles Schwab is my card of choice. Setting it up is not user-friendly, but they have fantastic customer service. Just hop on the phone or live chat with them if you have trouble.

Travel Hacking Tracker 

As mentioned earlier, my father ingrained in me never to have credit cards. That, combined with my love for excel trackers, left me with this awesome system for keeping track of every credit card I have, minimum spends, bonuses, etc. Does this make me crazy?

Travel Hacking Track

Cancelling Cards

You’ll notice that most of the cards that I signed up for have annual fees. Some of them were waived the first year. Since this is my first go at “travel hacking”, I’ve never cancelled a credit card. I can’t speak to what it will do to my credit, but from everything I’ve read, as long as you continue to pay your bills on time, cancelling a credit card only dips your credit a few points and goes back up after a few months. Most of the hackers I follow have excellent credit, and cancel a few times a year.

I will definitely be cancelling a round of credit cards before the next cycle of annual fees hit. I’ll know more about what my travel schedule will look like next summer, but for now, I know I’ll be keeping my Freedom, a good basic card, and the best travel credit card, my Chase Sapphire Preferred. The rest, we will see!

Hitting Minimum Spend

Now, some of you might be thinking – how did you spend that ungodly amount of money, while you were saving for your trip, in just six months? tThere is a thing called “manufactured spending”, where you spend it, but ultimately get your money right back. Learn how I screwed it up here. Learn how to do it yourself, the right ways, here. Be cautious and smart. I ended up spending a few hundred dollars on fees over the six months, but I felt it was worth it to earn the miles now, when I have a stable income (which I won’t when I start traveling Southeast Asia).

Tips for Utilizing Points/Booking Flights

Finally, part of being a great travel hacker is understanding how to use your points so you get the best value for your dollar. Below are the questions you should be asking yourself as you book.

1) How many points would it be if you booked through Ultimate Rewards?

2) How many miles would it be if you booked through the airline?

3) How much does the flight typically cost?

Pick the best DEAL.

For dirt cheap flights, don’t waste your miles. Use them to take advantage of expensive flights, and routes where you can utilize stopovers to extend your trip. 

Go back to my example for my flight home:

 Manila – Tokyo – Chicago – Puerto Vallarta

Chase Ultimate Rewards Points – Over 200,000 points

Chase Ultimate Reward Dollars – $2,500+

United Miles – 57,500 Miles and $71.79

Cost on United – $2,500

There’s no question – it is an incredible deal to fly that route for just 57,000 miles instead of over $1,000.

———–

What do you think is the best travel credit card?

The following two tabs change content below.
I'm Emily - a twenty-something female travel-enthusiast - here to serve and inspire you. Need help planning your next trip? Email me at emily [at] letsroamwild [dot] com and tag your own travel pics to share with the world @letsroamwild.

6 Responses to How I Earned 300,000 Miles and $2,000 in Hotel Stays in Six Months

  1. Sonja at Breadcrumbs Guide November 19, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

    Wow! That is pretty incredible! I’d be curious to see what percentage of your trip ends up being covered by free points/miles.

    I just got the Delta Skymiles card for 50,000 bonus miles and have been using the Capital One Venture card and Barclay Arrival card for a while now. I think Barclay may be my favorite. It’s double miles on every purchase and I get 10% of my points delivered right back to my account if I use the for travel expenses! So its really like 2.2 points per dollar.
    Sonja at Breadcrumbs Guide recently posted…20 Essential Tips for Cusco and the Sacred ValleyMy Profile

    • Emily Moyer November 20, 2014 at 7:31 am #

      Hey Sonja!

      While I did use miles for my flights there and back, most of my miles earnings are actually set aside for when I’m back from my trip (and broke :)). I’ll be doing mostly overland travel on the trip.

      i considered the Delta card, but I actually rarely fly Delta, so decided against it. Do you like Delta?

      • Sonja at Breadcrumbs Guide November 22, 2014 at 10:15 am #

        Gotcha, that makes a lot of sense. I’ve found local transport abroad is pretty cheap so it makes sense to use your miles in the US.

        I only got the Delta card to get the 50,000 mile bonus. Once I have that I’ll probably cancel. It made sense though because Delta is pretty big in Minneapolis and Garren got the bonus as well, so we basically got 100,000 free miles for nothing. Hard to say no to that!

        BTW I’m really liking your pre-trip planning posts.
        Sonja at Breadcrumbs Guide recently posted…Inca Trail: Day 1My Profile

        • Emily Moyer November 22, 2014 at 11:26 am #

          Thanks, Sonja! I really appreciate that 🙂 Yeah, I think depending on the hub, Delta can be a great option. I just have found I don’t typically fly Delta. It’s so fun getting “free” miles, isn’t!?

  2. Brandon Perlow November 21, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    Great summary, and congratulations on your huge collections! I appreciated your note about the value of points. Frankly, I only try to use them for international first class or last-minute bookings. I would never pay $15,000 for an international first class round trip ticket, but for 150,000 miles? Done, and because I would never pay that much money for a flight like that, in a sense it is priceless.

    Two of the highest-level CC’s are the AAdvantage Exec World Elite MC, which gets you American Airlines lounge access. Right now it’s 50K bonus points, but occasionally it goes up to 100K. When it does, that’s a heck of a draw. Personally, I have the Chase United Club VC, which gets into the United Airlines lounges, guarantees you can use points on any available seat across the entire United route network (HUGE if you book last-minute), 1.5 points per $1 spend for everything (and 2 points per $1 on United purchases), and a slew of other perks (but for a hefty annual fee). I use the Club Card for my day-to-day purchases. The Marriott Rewards Visa Signature card (Chase) is also solid, 50K points plus an annual free night and guaranteed base elite status for a relatively cheap $85 annual fee, and 5 points per $1 spent across the Marriott portfolio.

    The beauty of travel and these cards is that if you play within the rules (never carry a balance, don’t sabotage your credit), the possibilities are endless. 🙂

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Sunday Postcard - November 23, 2014 - Diaries of a Wandering Lobster - November 23, 2014

    […] How I Earned 300,000 Miles and $2,000 in Hotel Stays in 6 Months – I just got into travel hacking this year and have been earning thousands of miles for my upcoming travels in 2015 and 2016. Emily is heading to Southeast Asia for 6 months and earned a bunch of rewards that saved her thousands of dollars in airfare and hotels. Check out her stories and tips! […]

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

Designed by Let's Roam Wild