How I Got 12 Credit Cards and $6,000 in Free Travel (At Age 21)

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Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about free travel: here, here, here, and many more trips (and articles) in the pipeline. Virtually all of those trips are made possible by miles and points earned with sign-up bonuses and card spending. Here’s a breakdown of all the cards this author has or had, and what they’ve been worth so far!


BankAmericard® Better Balance Rewards™*


This is, in a funny way, the most valuable card I’ve had. It was the first credit card I opened, and it’s free: that means I’ll keep it forever. It keeps my average age of credit long, credit utilization low, and my credit score high. It also takes absolutely no effort to earn $120/year with this card!


By just using it once per month, spending even just $1, it pays you $25 each quarter. You get an extra $5/quarter for also banking with Bank of America. It’s surprisingly easy, and costs nothing (including interest) as long as you pay it off in full each month. It’s a no-brainer and wonderful beginner/lifetime card. (*It was discontinued just before this article was posted.)


Citi® Double Cash


Another free card, and thus probably a lifelong card. I have a ton of issues with the way Citi does business: they’ve tried to cheat me out of $390, run unauthorized hard inquiries on my credit report, neglected to award the benefits they advertised, and probably other things I’ve forgotten. Because of this, I’ve made it something of a personal mission to take as much money from Citi as possible.


Double Cash gives you 2% back on every dollar you spend and pay off. Spend $1,000, get $20 back. It’s a satisfyingly straightforward deal. Furthermore, they offer great purchase protection. I spent $100 on a pair of wireless headphones and wanted to return them about 40 days after making the purchase. Citi’s 90-day purchase protection exceeded the 30-day return policy at Best Buy, so I filed a claim, got a check for $100, and still got to keep the headphones.


Another perk I love is Price Rewind. Buy whatever you want, upload the receipt to Citi, and they’ll spend 60 days looking for a lower advertised price online. It’s a stellar deal, and again, costs you nothing. So far my earnings from this benefit (and a little 2% earning) total about $130 in 11 months. Pretty good for someone making few purchases on the card and buying even fewer rewind-eligible products.


Chase Amazon Rewards


This was an impulse sign-up, but somewhat worth the targeted offer. It earns 3% back on Amazon, 2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores, and 1% back on everything else. It obviously can’t compete with the Double Cash card in any area other than shopping on Amazon. The sign-up bonus was $80, and earning so far is less than $20, pretty negligible. It will be more valuable in the future, when I may shop more on Amazon. For now, it helps the credit score.


Chase Sapphire Preferred*


This card is something of a Holy Grail for travelers, bloggers, and credit card churners. It earns Ultimate Rewards, which is a highly flexible program: you can transfer points to United Airlines, Marriott, and many others. I grabbed it when the sign-up bonus was 55,000 points. I ended up cashing those points in for travel credit instead of transferring them to partner airlines: 60,000 points at United would’ve have gotten me the same product: a free JFK-AMS roundtrip.


In total, those points were worth $678 (bonus + points earned through spending). It wasn’t the most valuable use of those points: they’re most popular for exotic first class experiences. But, it brought great utility. I love the Sapphire perks, too: double points back on travel and dining purchases, travel/rental car insurance, baggage insurance, and more. I’ll be upgrading to the Sapphire Reserve card soon with a net fee of $150 to take advantage of lounge access and 3% back on travel/dining. (*WLI has its own bonus offer on this card. Shoot us an email and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours!)


Barclaycard Arrival (Plus…)


This was a particularly fun and efficient card to get. I signed up for the Arrival Plus card when it had a 50,000 point sign up bonus. These are stress-relievingly straightforward: 1 point = $0.01. They can only be redeemed against travel purchases made on the card, but you can redeem up to 90 days after the purchase date. You earn 2 points/dollar. Period.


All in all, I redeemed about $600. It helped with the free trip I wrote about here. The Barclaycard is wonderful for many reasons, but I like the straightforward rewards program and that it offers a 5% bonus on all redemptions. The effective earning rate is 2.1%.  That being said, the Arrival Plus carries an $89 annual fee after the first year, and there’s a minimum redemption of 10,000 points. You’d have to spend $5,000 before each redemption to meet that minimum, and then have just $11 net the fee.


Before the annual fee kicked in, I downgraded the card to the Arrival, (non-plus). It can’t be applied for, only switched into by existing cardholders. It has no annual fee and lowers the redemption minimum to just 2,500 points. Aside from the usual reasons for keeping a free credit card, I get great utility from its still-rare Chip-and-PIN functionality, which is essential in Europe.


Barclaycard Aviator Red


This had an irresistible sign-up bonus. Though I typically churn cards for international travel, this is only good domestically (for me). Why? Internationally, I’m always going to Europe. American Airlines, the co-brander of the Aviator card, usually puts award travelers on its partner airline, British Airways. BA tacks on about $700 in “fuel surcharges” for transatlantic round-trip itineraries which wipe out all the value of award travel. Of Delta/United/American, AA definitely has the most frustrating award program, the most uncomfortable, aging planes, and the worst flight attendants.


Back on topic: the sign-up bonus was 40,000 AA miles after making just one purchase– no minimum spend. The annual fee came due immediately, which was fair for such a valuable card. $95 and a pack of gum later, I had 40,000 extra miles with AA. They’re being used for free first-class, domestic flights that will be the subject of upcoming articles.


Gold Delta SkyMiles® from Amex*


This is getting to be a tired story. Spend $3,000, get 60,000 Delta Skymiles. That’s worth about $1,000 to me, as that’s the typical price of my NYC-AMS round trip itinerary. Applied for the card and, after a mailing mishap, managed the spend quickly and had the points in my account within a couple of weeks. The bonus points were fortified by 10,000 points earned after sending my referral code to a friend, and the 3,000 the spending earned. Total: 73,000 points.


I used these to book a trip several months out: transatlantic and free. (*WLI has its own bonus offer on this card. Shoot us an email and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours!) To be honest, total cost was $25. ‘Free’ sounds better though, no?


Starwood Preferred Guest® Business from Amex*


The last of the cards currently ‘in my wallet.’ Sign-up bonus? 25,000 points after spending $5,000. These are ultra-flexible points, similar to Ultimate Rewards. I got the card specifically to transfer points to Delta. It’s great for other reasons. Like many Amex cards, it comes with a free Boingo account. You get a 5,000 point bonus for each 20,000 point transfer you make. You also get some perks when staying at Starwood properties.


These points (40,000 total after earned points and the transfer bonus) will be combined in the Delta account with about 35,000 other points. Those were left behind after various other Delta free-travel exploits. All together, it will be enough for another free, round-trip, transatlantic itinerary. (*WLI has its own bonus offer on this card. Shoot us an email and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours!)


I managed the minimum spend on this card with a new method: Plastiq. I was able to pay rent using a credit card and the $80 fee that incurred was more than worth the 40,000 SkyMiles I ended up with. Plastiq seems great for credit card churning and travel hacking, but not so great for non-award spending, when the points and the fee will basically be a wash. Use WLI’s referral code, 724005, for $500 ‘Fee-Free Dollars’ on Plastiq.


Closed Cards


Not included in this post are the following. The Citi AAdvantage Platinum card brought a 30,000 point bonus and a $100 statement credit that Citi, as they’ve done before, refused to pay until several firm phone calls were made. The Amex Business Gold was covered here: 75,000 points that got sent over to Delta. 60,000 were used for free travel. A Banana Republic card (unnecessary and impulsive) brought a $75 in-store discount. Finally, the Capital One Venture brought $450 to use for travel.


Final Thoughts


All in all, these have been worth more than $6,000 in about 15 months. I could’ve easily pushed that number deep into five digits if I had stockpiled points for international first-class travel. However, I’d rather fly in coach four times than in first class once. I stay honest with valuations, too: usually they reflect the Google Flights cheapest flight for the date/time of my award travel.


I’m often asked about the longevity of this behavior. At this rate, this is not a sustainable habit. But it’s enough for a half a dozen or so more free trips, which should be enough for me for a while. There aren’t many downsides here: being rejected for a card comes to mind quickly. Each application brings a temporary dip in your credit score of about 5 points. Opening 5 or more new accounts in 24 months disqualifies you for most Chase cards (but not the Hyatt or British Air cards).


The final, most serious danger is credit debt. Across the 8 cards in my wallet now, I have about $50,000 in credit. It’s way, way, way to much for a 21-year-old who earns less than that annually. I never carry a balance, though, and thus never pay interest. Responsible spending matters most: only spend dollars that would’ve been spent anyway. If you don’t take that approach, this system is not profitable.


Questions? If you want to start trying this, shoot us an email. Read our guide to credit cards. Ask questions in the comments. Ask us for our unique sign-up bonuses. Think twice before making impulse applications!

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