After a Year of Travel Hacking…

First off, this post is a bit late!  I’ve been running around a lot September and October, and haven’t had the time to get this post together until today.

I consider the day I applied for the Barclaycard Arrival+ to be the true beginning of my travel hacking journey.  That means as of September 24th, 2016, I’ve been addicted for exactly one year.  So, this post is a month overdue.

It just so happens that I’m wrapping up my year of travel hacking coming from last weekend at the Chicago Seminars.  I’ll write up a bit more about this event soon, but it’s basically a conference for travel hacking, run by some great FlyerTalk folks.  What better way to commemorate one year in the game?

If you remember, I was spurred into this new hobby by my trip to Peru last year.  It was nothing short of eye-opening.  I knew I wanted to travel more.

I had caught the travel bug.

I also knew I didn’t want to pay big money for travel, like everyone else seems to think you have to.  Travel hacking enabled me to meet both of those goals:  travel and frugality.  Using the miles gained from the sign up bonus on that first card, and a bit more everyday spending, I cashed in those Arrival+ miles for $500 towards flights to Florida to see some of the family, and enjoy a few days at Disney World.

Let’s see where I’m at now, shall we?

Stats

  • Applied for 17 cards
    • Approved for 12 (10 personal, 2 business)
    • Approved after reconsideration for 1 additional (personal)
    • Rejected on 1 card (personal)
    • Rejected after reconsideration on 3 cards (3 personal, 1 business)
    • Downgraded 1 card
  • Opened 3 new bank accounts for bonuses (we’ll get into this more in later posts)
  • Earned the Southwest Companion Pass
  • Spent a week in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, saving about 50% in the process
  • Visited some family in Orlando and managed to do Disney with the kiddo
  • Discovered the wonderful world of airport lounges
  • Spent long weekends in North Carolina, DC, and Chicago, thanks to these new cards and points
  • Earned a total of over 700,000 points and miles, and some cash to boot!
  • Dipped my toe into the world of manufactured spending.  I like to think I’m at the intermediate level now, although definitely not an expert.
  • Approved for Global Entry (post to come!)

As you can see, the year went by quickly.  The Southwest Companion Pass was definitely my biggest win of the year, enabling us to travel way more than typical.  I’ve taken 5 roundtrip flights this year.  That may look small to some of you road warriors, but that’s a lot of fun memories for me.

Cards I Keep in My Wallet

With only one year under my belt, I still have most of the cards I took out.  Since the annual fees will mostly be hitting during the following year, I’ll have to close or downgrade some more cards then.  Here’s how it looks:

  • I’ve kept all my cards from before travel hacking.  This was an easy decision, because all of those cards have the longest credit history on them. and none of them have annual fees either.  When I first opened a few cards, I thought it would be crazy to pay for a credit card (I have a slightly different opinion now..).  On the list are my Discover it and two credit cards from a local bank.
  • I downgraded the Barclaycard Arrival+, to the regular no fee Arrival.  I’ll probably hang onto the Arrival, at least until I get a new Barclaycard, just to keep the relationship with Barclay.
  • Shortly, I’ll be downgrading the Citi AAdvantage Executive card to a DoubleCash or a ThankYou Preferred (still not sure which).  The lounge access alone on this card may have paid for itself, I have yet to analyze the full benefit.  Citi also sent me a recent spend bonus:  September-November, triple AAdvantage miles on gas, groceries, restaurants, drug stores, and public transit.  The bonuses earned this card a spot in my wallet the past few months.
  • I think I’ll end up downgrading my Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card when the time comes.
  • The United Explorer card is a bit harder to decide, I may keep it open for the MPX and extra award flight availability, haven’t decided yet.
  • My Southwest Plus card will be cancelled after one year.  At the moment, I’m planning on keeping the Premier open for the remainder of the Companion Pass.   However, with the increased airfare earnings on the AmEx Platinum, I’m tempted to start using the Platinum card for my Southwest spend…
  • I still haven’t decided on the AmEx PRG or AmEx Platinum.  I am leaning towards keeping at least one though, due to the airline fee credit and great AmEx Offers that pop up from time to time.
201610 Cards.jpg

And that doesn’t even include all the girlfriend’s cards…

Miles and Points Earned to Date

As I mentioned above, I earned over 700,000 points and miles in the past year.  725,158 to be precise.  Let that sink in for a minute.

In only one year, with no prior knowledge, I racked up hundreds of thousands of points!

Let’s assign a ballpark 1.4 cents per point (cpp) to these, since they’re spread out among different programs, and I want to have a conservative estimate.  Remember, I’ve been able to get 1.8 cpp from Southwest Rapid Rewards regularly.  1.4 cpp is at least realistic, and probably undervalued, to be honest.

725,158 points x 1.4 cents per point = 1,015,221.2 cents

1,015,221.2 cents / 100 = $10,152.21

whoah…

These points could represent more than $10,000 in travel!  Now, would I rather have $10,000 cash in my pocket, well, sure!  But I’ve found it much easier to get points and miles.

I know some of you are crying foul.  Points and miles aren’t safe, they’re not stable.  I get that.  I have 168,467 AAdvantage miles.  What happens if they’re devalued again?  Or American goes out of business?  To put it bluntly, I’d be screwed.  I’m willing to take that risk though, in return for the opportunity to travel.

I track all of my “Miles & Points” related spending on Mint.  All in, I’ve saved $205, not even including the actual value of my miles!  That means that after the annual fees, the Visa Gift Card fees, etc. I’ve recouped all of that cost and then some, through things like cashback portals, reimbursements, and other card benefits!

Value to Date

I’ve definitely been in an accumulation mindset this year.  I’ve earned much more for my miles and points portfolio than I’ve spent.

Although it’s not exactly ‘using points,’ the Companion Pass has been a huge help in getting us to new places.  With the pass, my girlfriend flies free on any Southwest flight I’m on.  Buy one, get one free.

So far we’ve saved:

3 RT Southwest flights PVD-MCO Arrival+ Miles $500
2 RT Southwest flights BOS-ATL-CUN Rapid Rewards $756
1 RT Southwest flights BOS-ATL-CUN Southwest Companion Pass $378
1 RT Southwest flight BOS-BWI Rapid Rewards $138
1 RT Southwest flight BOS-BWI Southwest Companion Pass $138
1 Southwest flight BWI-BOS Rapid Rewards $84
2 RT Southwest flights BOS-MDW Rapid Rewards $406
1 RT Southwest flight BOS-MDW Southwest Companion Pass $203
AirBnB Rental in Mexico Discover Miles $107.34
Car rental in Mexico Arrival+ Miles $150

$2,860.34

Some of the places we’ve gotten to this year!

Now, keep in mind that this isn’t always true savings.  Since I may not have done all of this if I had to pay cash, the math can get a bit tricky.   For example, I probably would have driven to DC if I didn’t have the points for those Southwest flights to Baltimore.  Having driven two years in row though, trust me, those were points well spent!  Driving 8 hours?  Or flying 45 minutes?  You do the math.

Manufactured Spending

Manufactured spending now represents a large chunk of how I accumulate points and miles for my travels.  Although I’ve ramped up slowly, it’s an integral weapon in the travel hacker’s arsenal.  I haven’t posted much about MS, but there’s plenty of information out there.  Some of my favorites are Doctor of Credit and FlyerTalk.  If you choose to go this route, two pieces of advice:

  1. Start slowly.
  2. Read, read, and read some more.
  3. When you finally do dive in, make sure you’re doing your math and keeping records.

So far this year, I’ve manufactured about $38,600 in spend.  Now, I don’t track my gas, mileage, or time, but I do track all the spend, points, cashback, coupons, and the like.  With 38,000 points I can get to quite a few places…  Remember, too, that MS occasionally allows me to hit minimum spend bonuses that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to hit.

There are lots of folks to learn from out there.  Learn from their mistakes, don’t make the mistakes yourself.  Make sure you really want to MS too, it can seem like a lot of work.  If you’re not getting a good return out of your methods, it’s a total waste of time.  I should mention too, this is NOT for folks who run credit card balances and pay interest on their cards.  Really, none of this hobby is.  If you’re in that boat, focus on paying off your debt as soon as possible (subtle nod in the direction of Mr. Money Mustache..).

201610-vgcs

Like any good photographer, some models for scale.  visa gift cards on the right, store gift cards for resale on the left.

Reselling & Gift Card Arbitrage

I’ve also gotten much more involved in reselling, specifically gift card arbitrage.  I’d be wrong not to point out that this kind of business can be risky, you’re not always guaranteed profit, and you have to make sure you’re sourcing stock reliably.

I use dedicated business credit cards for this spend, and will file taxes for this year as a sole proprietorship.  I want to run this like a real business!  For the year, I’m at a loss of $345.  This is in large part due to some of the resellers of gift cards going out of business this year..before the paid me for the cards I sold them…

I’ve also started acting as a very loose travel agent for some of my family and friends.  I find good tickets and prices for them, book the tickets, and they pay me back.  I get to keep the points earned on the purchases, and I charge a small fee for the service.  They get great flights at a great price!

Altogether, I have total revenues of $17,577.  Again, this represents a huge amount of bonus miles.  As I grow this little business of mine, I’m learning a lot more, and I’m sourcing much more carefully.  I’m confident I can turn a profit for the full year!

Next Year..

Thanks for following me along on this journey so far!  It’s been a thrill for me, and I hope some folks have gotten some useful information.  Better yet, I hope some of you have been inspired to see some more of the world!

I’ll post a quick summary at the end of 2016 too, and then annually after that.  I find it much easier to track these things on a calendar ear basis than on a ‘random day in September’ basis.

In the next year, I hope to continue to expand my horizons, and see more of the world.  My big trips will be out to South Dakota to visit some family, and possibly out to Oregon to visit the other side of the family.  I’ll also be going to a new country at some point, probably wherever Southwest flies, to get the most out of that Companion Pass.  At the moment, we’re thinking of Belize or Cuba.

If there’s anything here that catches your eye, please let me know!  I’ll be happy to write up specific posts for those of you that want them.

 

To fatter wallets and fuller passports!

~FH

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