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The New Jetset Will Teach You How to Travel for Free

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As our modern day gig economy turns everyone’s home into a BnB and everyone’s car into a cab, there’s also a new breed of traveler emerging who refuses to accept less than the best: the points churner. Churners manage to check off their dream itinerary while staying in luxury hotels and flying in first class -- and doing it for less than what you paid to cram into the back of the plane on a domestic flight. But how?

It’s not by luck or a savant-like grasp of math that these folks are able to maximize their credit card points and flyer miles to the fullest. In essence, churners apply for credit cards to earn rewards and then cash them in as if they’re… well, cash. They maximize these point advantages by booking fare deals and errors. They don’t break laws or rules (or the bank), they just use openly available resources to live their dreams.

To learn from these sagely jetsetters, we spoke with Emily McNutt of The Points Guy and Greg Davis-Kean of The Frequent Miler to learn the ins and outs of how points churning can make every adventure you ever fantasized about a reality instead of idly sighing, “One day…”

MEET THE HEROES OF THE HOBBY

Davis-Kean got into the hobby of points churning years ago when his routine of business flying was scaled back and he started searching for ways to earn elite status without flying. This led to an intense interest in "manufactured spending," a set of techniques for increasing credit card spending in order to earn points and/or status while getting all or most of your money back. Since then, he’s been able to use these techniques to manufacture top-tier Delta Diamond elite status for both himself and his wife.

“I've used these techniques to simply rack up millions of points that we used primarily for free first class travel,” says Davis-Kean, “including the most amazing experience of all: an all-inclusive week on Richard Branson's Necker Island.”

While the world of points churning is largely flooded with business travelers and consultants, McNutt stumbled into the hobby both as part of her love of travel and also out of necessity since she’s a renter living in bustling Manhattan.

“Living in an expensive city like New York, it’s not easy, but knowing I’m earning points from the coffee I buy each morning or anything I pick up from the bodega helps me to travel. The way I like to put it is, ‘I may be be cash poor, but I’m points rich,” says McNutt.

Mikhail Starodubov / Shutterstock

SO, HOW DOES THIS WORK?

Earning hundreds of thousands of points and miles per year without traveling for work is actually pretty easy, provided you have a decent credit score and a reasonable level of financial responsibility. The overall means is to sign up for the best credit card offers and meet the minimum spend requirements. Often the credit card's first year fee is waived, which is the case to for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, one of the reasons McNutt recommends it as the perfect starter card for folks entering the hobby of points-saving.

“With Sapphire the annual fees are small overall and they’re waived the first year; you’ll get multiplied points on dining out and there’s a good amount of flexibility on how you spend your points,” she says.

After a year, you should evaluate whether the ongoing card benefits outweigh the annual fee. If not, then call to cancel or downgrade to a no-fee card. If you're ever ready to take it to the next level by picking up advanced techniques to increase spending for points it’ll take some homework. While that might sound like some heavy lifting to the layperson, in the end this hobby is really only as complex as you care to make it.

“If you have a huge redemption in mind, like bringing a family of four to Asia, then you’ll need to think about how you’re going to best maximize your credit card strategy,” says McNutt. “But for the daydreamer looking to occasionally take a trip, then you can definitely be more lax.”

Exactly how lax? That depends, because...

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DIFFERENT PEOPLE HARVEST POINTS IN DIFFERENT WAYS

Travel rewards tend to offer, by far, the biggest bang for the buck when using points and miles. But even among those who earn points for travel, there are two very different common motivations: Many want to travel more for less money. Others are more motivated by the opportunity to experience luxury that they never would have been able to otherwise afford, such as flying first class.

“For those looking to travel more for less, the single best opportunity out there is the Southwest companion pass which can be obtained with just two credit card signups,” says Davis-Kean. The pass lets you add a companion for free to all of your flights for the rest of the year in which you got the pass, and all of the next year.

“For those looking for luxury, the best opportunities tend to be international business and first class flights booked with miles, or top-end resorts booked with hotel points,” he says. That’s a little more work, but if you’re the type who wants to pop champagne up front before the flight to your luxury suite, a tiny amount of coordinated effort yields huge increases in the trip experience.

When it comes to building up flyer miles with your credit card, if you’re at all worried about pledging loyalty to one airline or not spending your miles before they expire (typically within a year or two of inactivity on the account), McNutt says that Delta’s Skymiles are the way to go. “Delta’s loyalty program is really customer friendly and the miles never expire, so even if you only fly every couple years you’ll retain those miles,” she says.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO WATCH OUT FOR?

First thing’s first, unlike your office desk, you’re going to want to stay organized. You’ve put down your Excel skills on your resume for years, so put them to use with a spreadsheet tracking your credit card statuses. “If you don't keep track, you won't know,” says Davis-Kean. This is critical because many signup bonuses have convoluted rules about whether you can qualify based on what cards you've signed up for in the past. A spreadsheet will let you see what’s coming up in terms of eligibility, and what terms you can create to meet it. Get comfortable enough to use formulas, and eventually you’re making a lot less work for yourself, along with fewer missed opportunities.

To automate some of this effort, McNutt recommends using the free rewards tracking site AwardWallet, a handy service that allows you to manage all your points and miles in one place. “It'll save you the time of managing dozens of rewards accounts and trying to keep track of everything,” she says.

Patience is certainly a virtue when it comes to points churning. It can be tempting to sign up for lots of cards right away, but you may then find that it's difficult to meet the spend requirements in the allotted time, usually three months. And last, but not least, always pay your credit card bills on time and in full. “If you slip and end up paying credit card fees and interest, then the credit card companies win, not you,” says Davis-Kean.

IS IT ALL WORTH IT?

So after burning the calories to sign up for credit cards, accrue, track, and spend points, it this exercise worth the added effort? Both Davis-Kean and McNutt offered a resounding “Yes!”

“Once you start earning points and miles in large quantities you'll quickly realize that the world has become smaller,” says Davis-Kean. “Whether you want to fly across the country to attend a dinner, or fly halfway around the world to explore some place new, it's all possible.”

Consider the reward for your research and planning to be an unforgettable vacation that’ll be even sweeter knowing you earned it by working smarter rather than harder.

“It’s amazing to see how far -- literally -- my miles have taken me.” says McNutt. “I’ve been able to fly in Emirates’ luxury seating from New York to Cape Town to Dubai. Once you sit up at the front of the plane it’s hard to go back to economy.”