This post is for people who haven’t yet joined the miles movement–like people who clicked over from today’s New York Times article. If you’re already a regular reader, forward this post to all your friends who are jealous of your travel to get them involved.m
Travel is my single favorite hobby. It expands my mind, brightens my mood, and brings me in contact with new people and experiences. My love of travel comes down to novelty. Going to the grocery store down the street is an errand; going to the grocery store in Kampala, Uganda is an adventure.
But travel is expensive. When I got back from six weeks in East Africa and all I could talk about was the month I’d be spending in Eastern Europe watching the Euro Cup, my friends all reacted the same way.
“I would love to travel as much as you do, but I don’t have the money.”
Admit it: you’ve told yourself you can’t afford a trip you’d like to take. This is especially true if you have kids.
But here’s what I pay for travel: can you afford $100 tickets?
The cheapest roundtrip from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia that I could find for New Year’s 2013 was $1,759. But I went to New Zealand and Australia around New Year’s to see the Australian Open, scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef, and Bungee Jump from 440 feet for only about $100 with both directions on flat beds in the front of the plane.
Another example: the cheapest roundtrip flight I can find from Los Angeles to Poland next summer is $1,006. But I went to Poland and Ukraine last summer for about $100 with both ways on flat beds in business class.
I saved 90% on my flight bills by using frequent flyer miles. I didn’t know much about them two years ago, but in the last two years, I’ve earned and redeemed millions of miles to fly first class for free to every inhabited continent. Now I’m trying to show as many people as possible how replicable what I’ve done is.
It’s easy to earn frequent flyer miles. Banks give them away–50,000 or more at a time–just for signing up for a single credit card. And there are tons of credit cards you can sign up for.
I just talked my girlfriend into getting two Citi cards in November, and she now has 105,000 miles in her American Airlines account. Or at least she did before she booked a roundtrip to Buenos Aires for 40,000 miles and $80. And she still has enough miles left for a roundtrip to Europe or Asia. That’s two international trips–all for signing up for two cards at once.
If this all sounds too good to be true, you’ve probably heard one of the two major myths that people use as an excuse not to get involved with miles.
Myth #1: Applying for credit cards will destroy your credit score.
If you’ve heard any semblance of a personal-finance talk, alarm bells are probably going off in your head. You’re probably thinking, “Won’t this hurt my credit score?” No, it absolutely will not hurt your credit score in the medium or long term. The facts are all online.
FICO is the most widely-used credit scoring model in the US, and FICO’s official website lists “My score will drop if I apply for new credit” as a fallacy.
Specifically, a big part of the 30% listed as “Amounts owed” is percentage of credit utilized. A new credit card will come with a new credit line, say $5,000. If your monthly spending on that card is just $500, then your credit utilization is only 10%. This will make you look like a good credit risk, causing your score to rise.
The extra credit lines from new cards, the payment histories you generate, and the relationships you establish with banks will all help your credit score over time.
If you monitor your credit score closely–and you should whether you get involved with miles or not–you will notice a decline in your credit score from each new credit card application. I see my score fall 2-5 points when I apply for a card. Then you will see your score rise slowly over time until you are at or above where you started.
I’ve gotten more than a dozen cards in the last year, and my credit score is higher now than ever. Other people with longer histories of even more extreme credit card “churning” as we call it have similar stories of maintaining extremely high credit. Here’s a documented example of someone applying for 11 cards in a year and seeing his score rise.
Myth #2: Frequent flyer miles are impossible to redeem.
Finding a seat with miles is not always simple. Award seats are capacity controlled, so if you want to go to Rio over Carnival or some other ultra-peak destination, you may be out of luck. But I’ve managed to score some incredible peak awards like Europe in the summer, Hawaii over Christmas, Australia over New Year’s, Argentina over its summer with planning and flexibility.
Redeeming miles is simple if you know the tricks–tricks we publish here. But if you don’t want to learn them, you don’t have to.
You can outsource the work of finding a ticket to a paid award booking service for $125. If you hire a booking service, you’ll still be paying way less than people who are buying their tickets with cash.
Once you are familiar with miles, you’ll realize that not only are they not hard to use, but they are way better than cash in a lot of ways. For instance on cash tickets, it’s often difficult to cheaply build in stopovers to see multiple destinations on one trip. With some awards, it’s easy to build in one or more stopovers.
With cash, good luck flying in style; international first class tickets can cost $10,000. With awards, the miles needed to fly in first class on a bed with stewardesses filling your glass with champagne can be obtained from opening one or two credit cards. All my international trips in the last two years have been in business or first class, just by signing up for a few credit cards.
There are two situations in which you shouldn’t follow my advice to start getting mile-earning credit cards.
1. You have an upcoming major loan application like a mortgage. Your score does drop slightly and briefly when you open new cards; those effects disappear in 24 months. Don’t open up new credit cards if you want to get a mortgage in the next 24 months.
2. If you are in debt or can’t control your spending on credit cards, don’t apply for new ones. If you run a balance on your credit cards, the interest will cost you more than the miles are worth. Only open new cards if you can pay off their balances every month, so you don’t pay interest.
Hopefully I’ve got your attention, and you’re ready to start traveling better than you thought possible for cheaper than you thought possible. If so, subscribe to this blog on the bottom of the page to wake up to emails with my latest post(s).
If you aren’t going on the vacation of your dreams, it’s not money that’s stopping you!