Category Archives: Churniversity

Summer Churn-i-versity Day 6: So, Where Do I Start?

Now that you’ve gotten an overview of all of your options, how do you decide where to start?

As I wrote in the beginning I think it’s best to focus on a specific trip and earn the points for that. You can build up to more complicated application strategies from there, but at least get a trip under your belt. Remember that your best bet may be to start with an Ultimate Rewards-earning card, because those points can be transferred to United.

But let me share some basic strategies:

- Include at least 1 personal and 1 business card in each churn.

- Apply in groups, and don’t apply more often than every 3 months.

- Keep a spreadsheet so you know what you’ve done — I promise, you’ll forget.

- Always get the US Airways card once a year, since there’s no annual fee and no minimum spend to get those points.

- Include a Chase card in each churn, but only apply for 1 personal and 1 business at a time. There are lots of Chase cards – you have to manage the applications to get them all in.

- Remember – although Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards points disappear when you end those cards, once points are in a hotel or airline program they’re yours, even if you drop the credit card.

- Always keep cards open for 11 months.

- Figure out how much you want to bother with having specific cards for specific purposes. I like the Amex Blue Preferred card because it offers 6% cash back at supermarkets (with a $79 fee, effectively making it a just-under-5% cash back card if you hit the $6,000 annual spend limit). I keep that card open every year. I also keep the Sapphire Preferred for restaurants and travel. Only you can determine how many cards you want to juggle. I have friends who only keep 1 card open at a time. You do what’s best for you.

- You need a day-to-day card for when you’re not trying to hit minimum spend. If you don’t travel much, you should have the Fidelity Amex card — it offers 2% cash back on everything, and that’s the best deal out there for many people. Remember – if you spend $25,000 in a year, that would be $500 cash back. If you put it on an airline card, you’d have enough for one domestic roundtrip ticket — that’s worth less than $500 in many cases.

- People generally choose between the Starwood Amex and the Chase Sapphire Preferred for their day-to-day cards if they aren’t doing cash back. Either of those is fine. I do the United Club card, which gives me 1.5 points per dollar and lounge access. But if I didn’t want the lounge access I’d get that Fidelity card. Don’t let other people pooh-pooh cash back cards. You can spend cash however you want.

- Remember: this is fun. You’re getting to take trips you probably otherwise would not have taken. That’s amazing. Keep it simple: focus on a trip, earn the points, and go. Rinse. Repeat.

Summer Churn-i-versity Day 5: Hotel Credit Cards

We’re just about there! Let’s take a look at the major hotel credit card offers that are available for your churning and bonus pleasure.

Club Carlson Premier (US Bank)

Pro: There are 2 versions. The “Premier” version earns you 50,000 points after first purchase then 35,000 additional points after spending $2,500 in 3 months. Plus you get 1 free night when you redeem 2 nights. And you’ll get Gold Elite status. $75 fee is not waived ($60 fee on their Business version). The “Rewards” card gets you 50,000 points after first purchase and 10,000 points after you spend $1,500 in 3 months. You’ll also earn Silver elite status. $50 annual fee is not waived.
Con: They’re redeemable at Radissons, which in the US are generally quite average 3-star properties. However, overseas they’re generally nice hotels.
Overall thought: It’s actually a really good bonus that, unless you’re planning on using it overseas, will get you free nights at hotels you can pick up on Priceline for $60.

Fairmont Credit Card (Chase)

Pro: 2 free nights after with breakfast after spending $1,000 in 3 months. Fairmont Premier elite status.
Con: $95 annual fee isn’t waived. Though if you apply through this link the first year fee is waived.
Overall thought: Also a really solid bonus. Shame there are barely any Fairmonts. I would only get this card if you plan on actually staying at a specific Fairmont in the next year.

Hilton (there are a bunch of cards)

Hilton Amex: 50,000 points after $750 spend in 3 months. Silver elite status. No annual fee
Hilton Amex Surpass: 40,000 points after first purchase, 25,000 after $3,000 in 3 months. Gold Elite status first year (free breakfast and Internet). $75 fee is not waived. You can only get the bonus on one of these cards.
Citi Hilton Hhonors Reserve: 2 free weekend nights at any Hilton after $2,500 in 4 months. Gold status. $95 fee not waived.
Citi Hilton Visa: 50,000 points after spending $1,000 in 4 months. No annual fee.

Pros: Really easy to earn Hilton points through credit card signups. You can churn the Citi versions of the card (2 cards in 65 days)
Cons: Hilton recently changed their program so top properties now cost a wayyyyy lot more than they used to. Not a ton of great properties, but plenty of solid 4-star options.
Overall thought: I used to be very hot on Hilton points, but considering the recent devaluation I’m staying away from them.

Hyatt Credit Card (Chase)
Pros: 2 free nights at any Hyatt after $1,000 spend in 3 months. Platinum Status.
Cons: $95 fee not waived. There aren’t a ton of Hyatts (compared to Marriott, Hilton or Starwood).
Overall thought: Hyatt’s top properties are only 22,000 points a night (32,000 for a suite) so it’s great to transfer Ultimate Rewards points into here.

Marriott Rewards Visa (Chase)
Pros: 70,000 points PLUS 1 night at a category 1-4 hotel after you spend $1,000 in 3 months. $85 fee is waived the first year.
Cons: Perhaps that the regular offer is 50k, but this 70k deal has been around for a while. And that the extra free night is only at category 1-4 hotels.
Overall thought: Marriott’s program is solid, but not spectacular. You do have a wide range of property options, though.

Priority Club Visa (Chase)
Pros: 80,000 points (through this link) after $1,000 spend in 3 months. $49 fee waived the first year. Platinum Status.
Cons: Crowne Plaza? Holiday Inn?
Overall thought: Generous initial bonus, but I can get most of these hotels cheap on Priceline. No thanks.

Starwood American Express Cards

Pros: The granddaddy of all hotel cards and widely considered to be the best hotel program (if not the best loyalty program) out there. 10,000 points after first purchase then another 15,000 points after $5,000 spend in 6 months. $65 annual fee waived the first year. A huge range of properties, including some incredible ones.
Cons: Those 25,000 points are basically 1 night in a top hotel. That bonus is good, not great. Also earning points via stays will get you nowhere – what they give you (5 points per dollar at Starwood Hotels) is horrible.
Overall thought: This was my day-to-day card for quite a while. They allow you to transfer points into a whole bunch of airline programs and you get a 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer. That’s a huge benefit. Add that to the incredible array of properties they have, and this program is a winner.

Summer Churn-i-versity Part 4: Airline Credit Cards

Still with me? Maybe? Good.

If you’re a newbie and you’re actually reading through these, it can seem overwhelming, but the point of this is just to be a resource when you need to come back and search for some info – there’s more detail in all of this then you’ll (likely) ever need.

So, let’s spend today talking (high level) about airline credit cards. There’s a tremendous amount of minutia behind airline frequent flyer programs (how many stops and open jaws can you have on an international itinerary? Can you fly to Asia via Australia? Etc…) and I’m not going to get into that. I’m just going to share quick pros/cons of the major airline cards for when you’re thinking of grabbing some points in your next churn.

AirTran A+ Rewards Visa (Chase)

Pro: 32 credits (2 free roundtrip tickets) after you spend $2,000 in 3 months.
Cons: Limited network; $69 annual fee not waived
Churnable: No
Overall thought: Meh

Alaska Airlines Visa (Bank of America)

Pro: 25,000 miles after first purchase; you can use Alaska miles on Delta, American, British Airways and others. $99 coach companion ticket that you can actually use because it’s good on any fare. It’s a really underrated program with lots of airline partners to help with redemption.
Cons: $75 annual fee is not waived.
Churnable: Yessiree, Bob!
Overall thought: I’ve never bothered with it, but lots of people love it because points can be used on so many partners.

American Airlines (Citi)

Pro: They offer several cards – a Platinum Visa, a Platinum Mastercard, a Gold Visa, and a Citi American Express (this is not a regular Amex card). Plus there’s a Business Mastercard and a Business Visa. Although the “official” offers for the card are generally for 30,000 bonus miles, you can almost always get 50,000 miles – check out this ever-changing Flyertalk thread for the latest links.
Cons: The biggest con is that they charge a ridiculous fuel surcharge when you redeem on British Airways.
Churnable: Oh yeah. You can get 2 cards every 65 days or so as long as you wait a week between opening the cards. It’s the granddaddy of all churnable cards.
Overall thought: These cards are the gifts that keep on giving.

British Airways Visa (Chase)

Pros: 50,000 Avios points after $1,000 spend. Avios has some great redemptions (4500 miles for a short-haul redemption, for example – you can find an enormous amount of information about Avios searching this site – it’s too much to write here. Just know that it’s worth grabbing the points, though not to use on British Airways because they charge absurd fuel surcharges. But you can use the points on AA in North and South America, as well as on LAN and there are no fuel surcharges). Also there’s no foreign transaction fee.
Cons: $95 fee is not waived. The fuel surcharges on British Airways redemptions are ridiculous.
Churnable: No
Overall thought: British Airways Avios is both one of the best programs out there and one of the worst. Stick with smart redemptions and you’ll love it.

Delta (American Express) – there’s a Gold and Platinum version

Pros: 30,000 miles after $500 spend.
Cons: Delta’s miles are so worthless that I’m not even going to bother writing anymore here.
Churnable: Yes, after you haven’t had it for a year.
Overall thought: Unless you are captive to Delta (or want to go to Australia, where they have pretty good redemption options through V Australia), I would just avoid it and move on with your life.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier (Chase)

Pros: It’s 50,000 points (2 roundtrip flights) after $2,000 spend (though this is sometimes only 25,000 points).
Cons: $99 annual fee not waived. If you don’t live in a Southwest city it’s pretty worthless.
Churnable: No
Overall thought: If you live in a Southwest city, people love it. If not, you could just get the card and redeem the 50,000 points for $500 worth of gift cards at one of their retail partners.

United Explorer (Chase)

Pros: 30,000 points after $1,000 spend in 3 months. Annual fee ($95) waived the first year.
Cons: Hm….are there cons?
Churnable: No
Overall thought: In my book, United has the best frequent flyer program — great redemption rules, lots of availability (usually), tons of partners. You basically can’t go wrong.

US Airways Dividend Miles Visa (Barclays)

Pros: 35,000 miles after first purchase (the only airline credit card offering a bonus on first purchase). Annual fee waived first year when you apply through this link. Great redemption opportunities on Star Alliance partners. For some reason they charge fewer miles (90k) to go to Japan in business class than to go to Europe in business class (100k). And for the same 90k miles, you can go via Europe and do a stopover. Go figure.
Cons: The biggest is that US Airways doesn’t allow one-way redemptions. Oh, and their online redemption tool is worthless.
Churnable: Yep, once a year (possibly more – but why take the risk?)
Overall thought: Everyone should get this card once a year.

Summer Churn-i-versity Day 3: American Express Membership Rewards Points

Yesterday we looked at everyone’s current favorite points program (Ultimate Rewards), and today we’ll look at everyone’s former favorite points program, American Express Membership Rewards. If you’re new to credit card churning you missed what is kind of looked back on as the golden age of Membership Rewards when they had more transfer partners (like United), and the transfer partners they had had great redemption values (like Air Canada’s Aeroplan). There are still some decent-to-very-good redemption opportunities with Membership Rewards, though it really isn’t what it used to be.

Q: Let’s start with the most important part: Where can I redeem Membership Rewards points?
A: Amex allows you to redeem the points for gift cards (generally a terrible idea); to pay for travel (terrible); to “buy” products from their catalog (awful); for cash (pretty terrible); and to transfer to partners (some terrible, some good, some great).

Their airline transfer partners are Aeromexico, Air Canada’s Aeroplan, Alitalia, ANA, Asia Miles, British Airways, Delta, El Al, Air France/KLM, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic.

Their hotel partners are slim: Best Western, Choice Privileges, Hilton Honors (terrible redemption rate), and Starwood (terrible redemption rate). Let’s just assume you won’t be transferring points to hotels from Membership Rewards.

Q: Does every Amex card earn me Membership Rewards points?
A: No. Amex Platinum Cards, Gold Cards, Green Card, and the elusive Centurion Card all earn Membership Rewards points. The rest of the Amex cards out there do not. The Green Card has the lowest annual fee ($95) if you were wondering.

Q: What about the free Amex Blue card? Doesn’t that offer Membership Rewards?
A: This is where things get a little confusing. The Amex Blue card offers Membership Rewards EXPRESS points, which can be used almost the same as regular Membership Rewards points EXCEPT for hotel and airline transfers (ie, the exact reasons you would get Membership Rewards in the first place.).

However, those MR Express points can be useful. If you cancel one of the cards that earns regular MR points and you still have MR points in your account, they are lost forever (unless you transfer them somewhere). If you don’t want to transfer them, you can open an Amex Blue account (which isn’t a bad thing, since it’s free and you can just keep it open forever), and transfer those MR points to MR Express points. Just have them sit there. When a good deal comes along for one of the regular MR cards, open one of those cards up – you’ll then be able to convert the MR Express points to regular Membership Rewards again. Like magic. Or something.

Q: That’s kinda confusing, no?
A: Yes. Just remember the short version: Membership Rewards points disappear if you cancel the card and if you don’t have an Amex Blue card.

Q: What are the differences between the different Amex cards?
A: Glad you asked. And the good news is that this isn’t particularly confusing.

PLATINUM CARDS
There’s a Business Platinum Card and a Personal Platinum Card. They both offer the same benefits:

-There’s a $475 annual fee, and they don’t waive it the first year. I would not get either card unless there was a significant bonus attached (they have, on occasion, offered 100,000 point bonuses for the personal card – unless you need the Platinum for some reason, I would wait for the bonus).

-There are 2 significant benefits to the card. First, you can get lounge access with Delta, American and US Airways (though you’ll need to be flying either Delta or American that day to gain access to those lounges) Secondly, they’ll refund you $200 worth of airline incidental charges over the year, and in most cases airline gift cards are reimbursed (so you’re getting a $200 airline credit as part of your annual fee, basically).

-There’s a 25k bonus after you spend $2,000 on the personal card. However, you are better off getting the Amex Mercedes-Benz version of the Platinum card, as it offers a 50,000 point bonus after you spend just $1,000 in 3 months. The Business version of the Platinum card earns you a bonus of 25,000 points after you spend $5,000 in 3 months.

PREMIER REWARDS GOLD CARDS
There is a business version called the Business Gold Rewards card, and there’s a personal version called the Premier Rewards Gold. They both have a $175 annual fee, though it’s waived the first year.

-The personal card offers triple points on flights and double points at supermarkets and gas stations. You’ll get a 25,000 point bonus after you spend $2,000 in 3 months, and they’ll give you another 15,000 points when you spend $30,000 in a year (though it’s not worth trying to hit that – there are better cards where you should put that kind of spend – including a 2% cash back card we’ll talk about in an upcoming post).

-The business card offers triple points on airfare, and double points on advertising, gas stations and (oddly enough) shipping. The card offers 50,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in 3 months.

-Amex offers occasional increased bonuses on these cards (generally up to 75,000 points), so I would wait for these offers before applying.

GREEN CARD
Bleh. No bonus points. Not even worth talking about.

Q: Can I churn these cards?
A: Amex explicitly tells you that you can. In general, you can get a bonus again if you haven’t had a similar card in 12 months. Meaning you canceled the card at least 12 months ago. And in the Terms they’ll tell you which cards prevent you from getting a bonus again. But generally, yes you can get these bonuses repeatedly (though not frequently).

Q: What about the Starwood Preferred Amex? I’ve heard great things about that card.
A: It is a very good card, but it earns Starwood points, not Membership Rewards points.

Q: So what ARE the good redemption options for Membership Rewards?
A: Hm, that’s a good question. Amex will, from time-to-time, offer bonus points for transferring to partners. It seems they generally do this with British Airways and Delta, though they’ve done it with other partners as well. Delta’s points are so useless (because they make so few seats available at low redemption rates) that it’s rarely if ever worth that transfer. Because Singapore Airlines miles can be used for United Airlines flights, those can be a great option – they only require 60,000 miles for a roundtrip business class ticket to Hawaii (where United charges 80,000 miles for the same ticket). Here’s their award chart. ANA is a good option for some flights, because their distance-based award chart has some gems on it (including 63,000 miles for a business class roundtrip ticket from New York to London on United). And British Airways has some great short-haul redemption options where they only charge 4,500 miles each way. We’ll talk about these tomorrow.

Q: That gets a bit confusing.
A: Agreed. Unfortunately Membership Rewards points don’t transfer to United, American or US Airways so you have to be creative about how you can redeem on those airlines. ANA and Singapore can both be redeemed on US Airways and United. And British Airways can be used for American Airlines redemptions (though they charge a ridiculous fuel surcharge on flights to Europe).

Q: So are Membership Rewards points really worth getting?
A: Yes – when Amex offers large bonuses they’re definitely worth grabbing. You just have to be slightly creative about where you decide to transfer those points.

Credit Card Churn-i-versity, Part 2: Chase Ultimate Rewards

On the last day of this week I’ll present some ideas about how to decide which credit cards to get, but I think it first makes sense to take a deeper dive into the primary rewards programs out there in the marketplace. We’ll look at 2 programs run by banks that offer considerable flexibility because the points transfer into a number of different airline and hotel partners. Tomorrow we’ll look at Amex Membership Rewards. But let’s start with Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Q: Why do bloggers talk about Ultimate Rewards all the time?
A: It’s a favorite for a few reasons: First, the points transfer into a bunch of programs. Second, the points transfer into the incredibly flexible Mileage Plus program run by United Airlines (and Membership Rewards points do not transfer into United). Third, there are lots of ways to earn Ultimate Rewards points through credit cards.

Q: What programs do they transfer into?
A: For airlines they transfer 1:1 into United, Southwest Airlines, Korean Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and British Airways. For hotels, they transfer 1:1 into Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and Priority Club. They will also let you use the points to purchase travel with a 25% bonus; meaning, if you buy a ticket (or a hotel room; or a car rental) for $625, you can pay for it with 50,000 miles.

Q: Are all of those transfer partners equally valuable?
A: There’s some controversy about how to use Ultimate Rewards points. I believe there is no bad way to use your points (except not using them). Some people only like to use points to fly first class internationally. Great. Some people never travel internationally, and find it better to use the miles for a ticket on Southwest. Fine.

Personally, I’ve used the points to transfer primarily to United because (as we’ll see tomorrow) of the flexibility and award availability offered by the program. But I’ve also used the points to pay for travel. There are times where it would require fewer points to just pay for a ticket or a hotel room than to transfer the points to a Hotel program and reserve a room that way. Some folks disagree with me about using points this way, but they are wrong ☺

For hotels, I think that transferring points to Hyatt is a good idea – their top tier hotels only require 22,000 points a night, where Hilton, for example, charges 95,000 points. Hm – where would I rather transfer points?

Q: Alright, let’s get to it: How do I earn these points?
A: Chase offers 3 primary cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points.

-The Chase Sapphire Preferred card earns 2 points for travel and restaurant spend, and 1 point for everything else. It’s $95/year, though the first year is free. They also give you a 7% point bonus at the end of the year, so you’re effectively earning 2.14 points for every dollar spent on travel and restaurants. There’s no fee for using the card overseas, either. They will give you 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $3,000 in 3 months.

- The Chase Ink Bold and Chase Ink Plus are both Business cards, with the only difference between them that you can pay charges off over time with the Ink Plus. You’ll earn 5 points for every dollar you spend on your cable, phone, internet, and cellular phone bills; as well as 5 points for every dollar spent at office supply stores. You’ll get 1 point for just about everything else. It’s also $95/year, with the first year free. You’ll get a 50,000 point bonus after you spend $5,000 on the card in 3 months.

Q: Great, I’ll take all of those cards.
A: Slow down, hoss. I generally only suggest getting 1 Chase personal card and 1 Chase business card per churn. And Chase offers a bunch of great cards tied to airlines (United, British Airways) and hotels (Hyatt, Priority Club), among others.

If you do decide to get the Sapphire Preferred card and you have a spouse, I generally recommend getting a card for yourself (or your spouse) and adding yourself (or your spouse) as an authorized user. You’ll both be putting spend on the card so you can hit the minimum spend faster. And you are still eligible for the bonus if you’ve been an authorized user.

I would do the same with the Ink Bold or Ink Plus (it doesn’t really matter which you get first). Get 1 card and add your spouse as an authorized user.

Also, Chase does not seem to allow you to get a bonus on the Ink Bold or Ink Plus if you have the other card opened. To get that 2nd bonus, you’ll need to close down one account (say, the Ink Bold) to be able to earn the 50k points for the Ink Plus.

Q: Oh good, so I should just get the cards and cancel them after I get the bonus?
A: This is a key point about churning: ALWAYS keep your cards open for at least 11 months. Never cancel a card right after you earn the bonus. Banks have been known to take back points for doing that. Keep the cards open 11 months. Repeat that to yourself.

Q: Can my spouse and I combine Ultimate Rewards accounts?
A: Good question. You’ll actually have separate Ultimate Rewards accounts for the business cards and for the personal cards. You can move points freely between those accounts. You can also move points between your accounts and your spouse’s accounts, no problem. You can also transfer your points to a spouse’s frequent flyer or hotel loyalty program account. Chase frowns on transferring points to someone else’s Ultimate Rewards accounts, and they’ve been known to shut down accounts for doing that.

Q: What happens to my points if I cancel my credit cards?
A: The points will disappear. You should always transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to your spouse or to an airline or hotel partner before closing down a card.

Q: What about these other Chase cards I’ve seen: The regular Chase Sapphire, the Chase Ink Classic, and the Chase Freedom cards? Are they worth getting?

A: The primary difference between those cards and the others mentioned here is that those cards all earn cash back rather than Ultimate Rewards points. EXCEPT, if you have EITHER a Sapphire Preferred card, an Ink Bold card, or an Ink Plus card: if you do, then you can transfer those “cash back points” (100 points = $1) you earned with the regular Sapphire, Ink Classic and Freedom cards and move them to your Ultimate Rewards account.

Q: Why would I do that?
A: Because those cards all have no annual fee. You may remember from yesterday’s post that having long-term open credit is good for your credit score. An easy way to accomplish that is to open a no-annual fee card (like the Freedom, regular Sapphire, or Ink Classic) and just keep it open forever.

Here’s my strategy with those cards: Once my wife received the bonus for the Sapphire Preferred and kept it open a year, we closed her card. We will then get her a regular Sapphire card — because she has an Ink Bold, she’ll be able to use the Sapphire card (which also earns 2 points for dollar spent at travel and restaurants) to earn Ultimate Rewards points. In other words – she’s getting the benefits of the Sapphire Preferred without paying an annual fee.

You can do the same with the Ink Bold – if you close that account and keep your Sapphire Preferred card open, you can “downgrade” to the Ink Classic and still earn 5 points per dollar on the bonus categories without paying for an annual fee.

Q: Can’t I just churn these cards, re-opening them after I close them so I can keep getting bonuses?
A: Unfortunately not – unlike some other issuers, Chase does not let you churn cards. I know, bummer.

Summer Credit Card Churn-i-versity: Part 1, The Basics

I was out to dinner with a friend last week, and after I was probably blabbering some nonsense about travel she asked me a few basic questions about credit card churning. I thought to myself, “sheesh, can’t you just go back 2 1/2 years ago and find some post I wrote about that in 2011?” Then I thought to myself, “Hey schmuck (me = schmuck). Who is going to go searching 2 1/2 years ago to find some random point I made about credit cards?”

Good point, my brain. Wouldn’t it be nice if I put together an overview of credit card churning during a nice slow summer week? Yes, yes it would be nice.

I know that lots of people have read this blog (and/or others) regularly and have a pretty thorough knowledge of the details of churning. That’s fantastic, and a hearty congratulations to each of you. Mazel Tov. But there are newbies to this thing all the time (as I find out from my credit card planning service) – it’s difficult to learn where to start.

So with that, let’s start the OTR Summer Credit Card Churn-i-versity.

Part 1: The Basics

Q: What is credit card churning, and why are you talking about it?
A: Most people think of credit cards as ways to pay for stuff. Or, perhaps they open a credit card tied in with their favoriate airline and put all of their spend on that card in hopes of earning enough miles for a trip one day. Churning is the idea that you can open many credit cards to earn miles and points. Your focus is on earning the bonuses associated with opening those cards, rather than on opening one or two cards and trying to earn points by spending.

Q: Wait a minute there, mister. I’ve always heard that opening credit cards lowers my credit score.
A: If there is one consistent fallacy about churning, it’s that the act of opening credit cards hurts your credit score. Let me say this unequivocally: opening credit cards does NOT hurt your credit score if it’s done smartly. Your credit score is made up of several factors, including how long you have had credit open; whether you have gone delinquent on credit payments; how many credit inquiries you’ve had; and how much available credit you have.

It is true that your score will take a small hit (usually 5-10 points or so) when you open a credit card (because the credit check – called a “hard pull” – costs you those points). However, over time you will earn those points back (if not more) by having additional open credit that you are not using. Let me put it this way: I’ve probably opened upwards of 50 cards over the past few years, and my score it still hovering around 800.

Q: Awesome, so even if I have bad credit and don’t pay off my bills each month I can get lots of free miles for travel?
A: Hold on, Sparky. Here’s the bad news: if you have credit scores below around 720 or so you should not be playing with credit card churning. If you do not pay off your credit card bills each month you should not be playing with credit card churning. If you are making a large purchase (say, a home) in the next 2 years, you should not be playing with credit card churning.

Q: Aw, you are a party pooper.
A: Yes I am. This brings up an important point about churning: you should feel comfortable with what you’re doing. There are people who churn 6 or 8 cards every 3 months. There are people who churn 2 cards a year. There is no right answer – you need to be able to sleep at night. You should feel free to start slow and ramp up from there once you understand the details. Again – don’t worry about what you read others are doing with the credit card churns. YOU have to live with the decisions you make.

Q: How do I keep track of all the credit cards I’m opening?
A: Some people just manage to remember. Some people put things in their iPhone calendar. I find it easiest to use this spreadsheet sent in by a reader that allows you to keep track of every card you’ve opened, the associated bonus, when you need to close it, and more. I couple that with iPhone reminders for when I need to close cards. That’s served me exceptionally well, except for the one time I was a moron about it and forgot to pay a $6 bill on one of my wife’s cards, and it caused a seemingly never-ending fiasco that I’m still dealing with 14 months later.

Q: Wait, what was that?
A: Yeah, many of us who churn have some sort of similar bout of stupidity. Use the spreadsheet, set up calendar reminders, and always set your payments to auto-pay. You’ll be fine.

Q: OK, this sounds fantastic…where do I start?
A: I think the first question you should answer is this: Where do I want to go on my first trip? We can start opening cards willy-nilly, and that’s fine too — lots of people just do that and accumulate points. If you’re a newbie, though, I find it easiest to decide on a trip and earn points specifically for that. Why? First, so you can quickly see the fruits of your labor. And second, because airlines and hotels tend to devalue their points over time, sitting on a ton of points you’re not using (like I do!), tends to be a poor strategy.

Q: That’s fine, but even if I decide I want to go to Hawaii, how do I know the best credit cards to open for that?
A: I guess there are a couple of ways to learn that. You are certainly free to ask me — that’s probably the easiest way. You can check my handy-dandy single chart of how many miles every airline requires to each destination. I’ll also be spending the next few days going over the various points programs, airline programs, and hotel programs to help show you the pro’s and con’s of each of them.

Q: Can I really earn enough miles to take a good trip? I’ve been putting my spending on a card forever, and I barely have enough miles for a trip to Florida.
A: Yes, absolutely! One example: I helped someone last year earn 500,000 miles to take 4 people in business class to China, just by opening credit cards. My family and I are going business class to Hawaii next month, with 12 hotels nights all for on points that I’ve earned with credit card signups. This is an incredibly powerful tool that opens up the entire world to you – really.

Q: So what’s the plan here?
A: In general, you’ll be opening cards and focusing on getting the minimum spend met on those (in other words, the minimum spend you need to earn a large mileage bonus). You’ll also want to pick a so-called “everyday card” for when you’re not trying to meet a bonus. Then there are purchase-specific cards (ie, cards that earn large cash back amounts for, say, groceries) that you’ll keep open when you make specific kinds of purchases. At the end of these tutorials, we’ll help you figure out the best card combination for you.

For Tomorrow: Let’s get started and talk about Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards, two programs that allow you to transfer points to a number of different partners.

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