Our family kind of lives moment to moment. It is hard for us to make long-range plans because we never know what might come up.
Spontanaity has its advantages, though. Sometimes, when you see an opportunity you can to jump on it.
Other times, it can be frustrating because tickets sell out, you can’t get reservations, and you miss out.
We have been saving miles and points for a trip to Japan for several years. Between my husband and myself, and a few strategic credit card applications, we had 300,000 frequent flier miles, enough for two roundtrip business class tickets to Japan.
OMG, My Husband Retired!
My husband retired last fall. I wasn’t really expecting it.
What does “retired” means these days, anyway? I mean, he stopped going to work every day. But, what’s next?
What’s more, our daughter graduated from high school in June. We suddenly have more flexibility than during all those years when we were tied to the school calendar.
So I did exactly what you might expect. I planned a trip. To Japan.
All Dressed Up With 300,000 Points and Nowhere To Go
I am totally conflicted about miles and points.
Sometimes I think they’re a total scam. It seems there is never availability for where you want to go, when you want to go. Or, the only flights available on frequent flier miles follow ridiculous routings.
Both United Airlines and All Nippon Airlines (ANA) fly nonstop from Washington Dulles (IAD) to Tokyo (NRT). You can use United Mileage Plus miles for either airline. It’s a code share thing. Both airlines offer lie-flat seats in business class on this route. But I couldn’t seem to find saver seat availability.
Then, miraculously, I found seats in both directions for travel during peak cherry blossom season! The routing would require an extra 15,000 frequent flier miles apiece.
Suddenly miles and points seem like magic! We’ll be traveling to Japan on United in business class, and returning via ANA in first class! The tickets are costing us 165,000 miles and $37 apiece.
That’s unbelievable! $37 to fly roundtrip to Tokyo in lie flat business class and first class. It kind of renews my faith in this hobby.
This will be our first trip to Asia. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a few things I learned from booking this trip, as well as some deals I’ve run across along the way. I am beyond excited!
If you have any tips on travel in Japan, I’d love if you could share in the comments!
My daughter graduated from high school this June (hooray!), so we are entering a new phase of life.
For the first time in 13 years, our travel plans will not be dictated by the public school calendar.
As parents well know, travel during school breaks and over the summer is considered high season in terms of airfare and hotel rates.
Flights and hotel rooms are expensive and award availability is limited. Parents with kids in school simply don’t have the same flexibility as free agents.
We are not quite empty nesters because my daughter is living at home while attending community college. My husband is looking forward to retirement soon. That will expand our opportunities for leisure travel.
There are lots of places we want to go, with Japan at the top of the list.
Bargain Flights are Back!
Have you noticed that the airwaves these days are filled with airfare deals?
My inbox and twitter feed are chock full of amazing airfare bargains.
Getting in on these deals requires you to act fast and to have schedule flexibility.
In terms of frequent flyer miles, I have a stash of American Airlines and United miles, as well as some British Airways and Southwest miles.
My strategy going forward is to spend down my miles balances and to focus on cash back opportunities.
Growing Your Travel Savings Account
Earlier this year, I opened Capital One’s Venture Card. This card earns 2 times points on all purchases. Rewards points can be redeemed for travel expenses.
I also opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card early this year. This card earns 2 times Ultimate Rewards Points on restaurants and travel. These points can be transferred to the several airline partners or cashed out for statement credits.
Cash Back is King
I plan to concentrate my spending on the Venture card, with the exception of most travel purchases that will go on the Sapphire card. Cash back is still king, but Ultimate Rewards points can be used as miles or cash.
Both the Venture card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card carry annual fees, which are waived the first year. I have heard it is easy to get the fee waived on the Venture card. That is not the case for the Sapphire Preferred, so I will probably will probably cancel that card when the fee comes due.
In the meantime, I will be accumulating points in my “travel savings accounts.” These points are a lot more liquid than miles, it part because they are good for any bargain tickets you may grab, and also because partial redemptions are possible.
Has your points collection strategy changed, in light of the raft of cheap flights?
I think gift cards make terrible presents — Cash is a much better gift!
The unspent balances and fees on gift cards make a tidy profit for the people selling them.
Spending gift cards causes delays at the checkout counter.
Returns are more difficult with gift card purchases.
Gift cards can be lost or stolen.
There are a million more reasons why I hate gift cards, but that is a topic for another post.
This post is about each of the gift cards I have in my wallet right now, and why.
Staples Visa Gift Card — Value $20
I got this card from Staples as a rebate for purchasing $300 in Visa gift cards during a promotion. Every few weeks, Staples runs a promotion on Visa gift cards, with a rebate that offsets the card purchase fees. Sometimes, the rebate is in the form of a Staples gift card that must be spent at Staples. This Staples Visa gift card is a cash equivalent that can be spent anywhere.
Clydes Gift Cards — Value $50
Amex was running a special promotion where you could get a $5 credit for a $25 purchase at various Washington area restaurants. I purchased two $25 gift cards at Clydes, one with my Amex SPG credit card, and one with my Amex Bluebird card. Clydes is my favorite restaurant so I know these gift cards will be put to good use.
Tara Thai Gift Card — Value $45
Tara Thai is a fabulous restaurant that participates in the Rewards Dining Program. I purchased this gift card whenUnited Mileage Plus Dining was running a special promotion. The gift card gives me the flexibility to participate in the promotion offer, while delaying my actual dine until a more convenient time. I ended up missing the deadline for meeting the terms of the promotion, so I just earned 5 times Ultimate Rewards Points on this.
Lonestar Steakhouse Gift Card — Value $40
Lonestar Steakhouse is another participant in the Rewards Dining Program. I think when I picked up this gift card I had it confused with Texas Roadhouse. Lonestar Steakhouse is pretty far from where we live so we’ll have to go out of our way to use this.
Whole Foods Gift Card — Value $6.70
Amex Offers was offering a $15 statement credit for a $75 purchase at Whole Foods. By purchasing a gift card, I am able to earn the credit, while redeeming for small purchases at Whole Foods at my leisure.
Home Depot Gift Card — Value $100
I purchase Home Depot gift cards at Staples using a Chase Ink card that pays 5 times points on all purchases at office supply stores. I give the gift cards to our contractor to purchase supplies for our home renovation.
Amazon Gift Cards — $100
I picked up an Amazon gift card at Office Depot recently, where I earn 5 times points on my Chase Ink card. My daughter started college recently and we purchase some of her textbooks on Amazon.
Home Improvement Gift Card — $200
This is another Office Depot purchase. Home Improvement Gift Cards are sold without a fee, and can be used at either Lowes or Home Depot, as well as a number of other stores.
Starbucks Gift Card — $32
I purchase Starbucks gift cards at Staples and load them to my iPhone. I usually pick up something from Starbucks if there is an outlet in the airport.
Exxon Gift Cards — $100
Currently, I am putting my gas purchases on my Chase Freedom credit card because of the quarterly 5 times bonuses on gas purchases. I purchased these Exxon gift cards at Office Depot, but won’t use them until October when the Chase Freedom bonus categories change.
CVS — $10
Honestly I can’t remember where I obtained a paper gift card worth $10 at any CVS drugstore. It will be a miracle if I remember to use it! I do know that some Office Depot stores sell CVS gift cards.
What’s in My Wallet? $700 Worth of Gift Cards
I totalled up these various gift cards and am appalled to report that I am carrying around $700 worth of gift cards. That is overkill, for sure.
First off it is way too much cash equivalent to have in my purse.
Second, that is an awful lot of money to have tied up in gift cards rather than earning interest in the bank.
It is just as necessary to keep tabs on your gift cards as it is on your bank account or credit card balances. It looks like I need to be more deliberate about slimming down my wallet!
Are Gift Card Purchases Worth It?
Let’s tote up the bonuses I earned on these gift cards.
Ultimate Reward points: 4,160 points
Amex statement credits: $25
United Mileage Plus miles: 425 miles
This is pretty small potatoes. After accounting for the time and gas spent driving around to purchase these gift cards, you might conclude that its not worth stuffing your wallet with gift cards, remembering to use them, and holding up the checkout line for such trivial bonuses.
On the other hand, you might find that small bonuses add up to big rewards if you consistently pursue all opportunities.
Where do you come down? Are gift cards part of your miles and points strategy?
Thanks Again is a loyalty program that awards airline frequent flyer miles for parking and other purchases at 170 airports throughout the U.S.
If you sign up via BWI’s link, you can earn 100 airline miles or 200 hotel points for enrolling! This enrollment bonus is valid through December 31, 2015.
Thanks Again allows you to automatically earn frequent flyer miles or hotel points when you park, shop and dine at BWI or any of the other participating airports, such as RDU, DCA, BOS, PIT, FWA, AUS, and dozens of others.
This is a great way to extend the expiration date on an inactive frequent flyer account, or to maintain steady activity on the account.
Thanks Again Bonus Rewards
Simply register one or more American Express, Visa, or MasterCard credit card and pair it with the rewards program of your choice. You will automatically earn one extra mile, or two extra hotel points, when you shop at any of 24,000 participating locations. This is on top of any other points you are earning with the card.
Real big spenders earn 5x miles or 10x points if they spend $1,000 in a calendar quarter.
Some generous bonus offers in the last quarter of 2014 have boosted the balance of frequent flyer miles and hotel points in some of my favorite programs, and should help fund travel in 2015.
15,000 American Airlines AAdvantage Miles
I earned 7,500 AAdvantage miles for test driving a Cadillac, and 7,500 miles for two stays at Radisson hotels, for a total of 15,000 bonus miles. The test drive was actually a fun time, because I got to experience the Cadillac’s electric vehicle, with an $82,000 price tag, no less.
11,000 United MileagePlus Miles
The United Mileage Plus dining program was offering 10,000 bonus miles for ten dines at restaurants in the rewards dining program.
I purchased gift cards for some of my favorite restaurants, which earned me 3-5 times points per purchase, for a total haul of 11,000 miles. I can spread out the dines over a number of months next year. A number of the restaurants were offering bonus coupons with the gift card purchases — a nice additional incentive.
30,000 Club Carlson Gold Points
I had two nights paid stays at Radisson hotels which yielded 40 times bonus points thanks to a double points offer, plus 6,000 points for booking the two reservations via the mobile app, for a total of 20,000 points.
The Club Carlson Visa was also offering an extra 5,000 points for restaurant purchases, above their normal 5x points, so I earned an additional 10,000 Club Carlson gold points for participating in the United Dining Rewards program bonus offer.
Were you able to take advantage of any year-end bonus offers?
Earn Frequent Flyer Miles at Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company
To be perfectly frank, I don’t know if this is the best bagel shop in New York or not.
The bagels are very fresh and very good, and the place earns four stars on Yelp.
But the key thing is that this shop participates in the Rewards Dining program.
I favor the United Mileage Plus Dining program, but most of the major airlines run a similar rewards program with the opportunity to earn their frequent flyer miles at the same list of restaurants.
If you make ten purchases at participating restaurants in a calendar year, you can earn 5 times United Mileage Plus miles every subsequent time you dine at a participating restaurant. (You earn 3x miles for the first ten purchases.) Couple that with a rewards earning credit card to increase your savings.
Thus, if you stop in for bagels or coffee once in a while, you will be on the fast track to earning five times miles at hundreds of participating restaurants.
Do you earn frequent flyer miles through the Rewards Dining program? Have you find any gems that you would like to share?
If used strategically, the new app can enable triple or even quadruple stacking of bonus MileagePlus miles.
Many readers take advantage of bonus cash back or miles by doing their online shopping through portals likeFatWallet, or the United MileagePlus Shopping portal. With MileagePlus X, you can now earn extra points when paying for in-store purchases.
The bonus points range from 2-4 extra points for purchases from national retailers such as Lowe’s, Sears, Gap, AMC Theaters, and restaurants chains, up to to 20-24 points for purchases at local restaurants, spas, beauty shops, exercise studios, entertainment, nightclubs, and other activiites.
Earn Bonus Points Up To Four Ways With MileagePlus X
Here’s how it works. The app indicates participating businesses near your location, and the amount of miles you can earn.
At the register, customers enter the total dollar amount of their purchase via the app, and purchase a digital merchant gift card.
The cashier scans the barcode to complete the digital gift card purchase. Award miles instantly appear in members’ accounts in addition to any miles the customer may earn purchasing the digital gift card with a MileagePlus Credit Card from Chase.
Chase United® MileagePlus Credit Card holders earn a 25% bonus on the miles for purchases made through MileagePlus X.
The MileagePlus X app can also be used for online purchases with many merchants. While you are checking out, use the MileagePlus X app for the amount due and enter the gift card number and PIN that is generated to pay with a gift card at the merchant’s web site.
The Considerable Downsides to MileagePlusX
Because you are purchasing and paying with a gift card, many of the consumer protections of credit cards, such as extended warranty and loss replacement do not apply to these purchases.
Your ability to return items will also be limited, most likely to store credit.
The MileagePlus X Triple Dip
If you use your MileagePlus credit card, your purchases will earn:
traditional mileage for using your MileagePlus credit card
miles for paying with MileagePlus X
a 25% cardmember bonus.
The 25 percent cardmember bonus does not apply to authorized users of the credit card.
How to Do The MileagePlus X Quadruple Dip
If a merchant is included in both MileagePlus X and the MileagePlus Shopping portal, use your MileagePlus credit card within MileagePlus X, and then pay for your purchase online with the gift card number and PIN from MileagePlus X after clicking through to the merchant at MileagePlusShopping.com.
Have you received an email inviting you to test the MileagePlus X app? What has your experience been? Please share in the comments!
Click here to compare current rewards credit card offers.
I love to read those silly What’s in My Wallet blog posts. I guess it’s because before I got into points and miles, I would not have believed that you could open an insane number of rewards credit cards without ruining your credit.
It does raise some questions, though:
How could the banks keep extending you credit?
How many times can you earn big bonuses?
How do you remember which card to use for which purchases?
How could you possibly keep track of all those credit cards without missing a payment?
15 is My Limit on Schnitzengruben, I mean Credit Cards
I recently counted 14 credit cards in my wallet from five different banks. That is crazy! I don’t recommend that for anyone.
Miss a single payment and you will be socked with a $35 fee and a major ding to your credit score.
With fourteen active credit card accounts, it is taking too much of my time to track expenses and pay the bills. Let’s face it; my office is cluttered and my wallet barely closes.
I am looking to thin out my collection.
Rewards Credit Cards Aren’t for Everyone
Travel rewards credit cards aren’t for everybody.
First off, you need to have a stellar credit score to be eligible for the best offers.
Most people prefer to carry only one or two cards, to simplify things and minimize the hassle. There is merit to this approach, particularly if you are disorganized and don’t keep current with paying your bills.
A perfectly reasonable strategy is to earn free travel is to focus on one airline or one type of flexible rewards such as Chase Ultimate Rewards points or cash back travel cards like the Capitol One Venture Card, or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.
But if you have a credit score in the excellent range, and you pay your bills on time and in full every month, rewards credit cards can be incredibly lucrative.
Once you have experienced the large bonus offers for opening a new credit card, which can be worth $500 or more, it is easy to get sucked into to opening more and more accounts to earn free travel.
Know Your Credit Score
From personal experience, I have watched my credit score progressively improve the further along I got in this game. Barclay’s bank offers its credit card customers free access to their official FICO credit score once every three months.
My most recent FICO score is 837, with 14 open accounts, and five additional credit card accounts that I have closed in the past year or so.
That is because my credit line has increased dramatically with all these cards, and my monthly spending is just a small fraction of the available credit.
The banks appear willing to extend me credit well beyond my annual income. Be careful. Like with the mortgage crisis, a lot of people get in debt over their heads from credit cards and can’t make the payments, or end up paying exorbitant amounts of interest, at rate as high as 28 percent annually.
This much is clear: the banks are making plenty of money, but probably not from people like me.
Starting Out with Rewards Credit Cards: The Chase Freedom Card
When I started my environmental consulting business 15 years ago, I opened the Chase Freedom credit card in order to keep my business expenses separate from my personal expenses. Chase Freedom is a personal, not a business credit card but I was using it for business purposes. It carries no annual fee, and earns 5x rewards on select categories of spending. This is a card that I would highly recommend for someone just starting out. The points can be taken as cash back on your next statement, or used as Ultimate Rewards Points. Ultimate Rewards Points are quite flexible and can be transferred to many airline and hotel loyalty programs but you need to have one of the premium credit cards from Chase to enable transfers.
If you are just starting out with travel hacking, the Chase Freedom card is a great place to begin because you can earn cash back or travel rewards, depending on your needs. Because the card has no annual fee, you can keep it forever, thus increasing the length of your credit history over time. This card earns 1x points on all purchases, and 5x points on select categories, that vary each quarter on up to $1500 of purchases per quarter. Generally, the 5x points is good for gas purchases for six months of the year. This spring, the card offered 5x points on restaurants, and sometimes you can get 5x points on Amazon.com, Lowes, or Kohls.
Right now, Chase is offering a $100 bonus for new applications, but I have seen this bonus go as high as $200 after spending $500 on initial purchases within three months. From time to time there is an extra $25 incentive for adding an authorized user to your account. There are cards with bigger bonuses but they usually entail annual fees and larger initial spending requirements.
Pick a Card, Any Card!
Whenever I show anyone what credit cards are in my real wallet, they look at me like I am crazy. I often get looks as I fumble through my wallet looking for the card that earns bonus points at this store or that.
Because I run a small business, I am eligible to apply for business credit cards. This allow me to “double dip” on account bonuses. I travel for both business and personal reasons and must keep my expenses separate for tax purposes. I caution you that business cards can only be used for genuine business expenses and they lack some of the consumer protections of personal credit cards.
What’s in My Wallet?
Here’s a quick rundown of what is in my wallet and why, and which cards are candidates for culling.
Chase Rewards Credit Cards
Quicken Rewards,personal (authorized user): The credit card I’ve had the longest is the Quicken Card issued by Chase Bank. We opened this card over 15 years ago because at the time, it was the one of the few cards that allowed you to download your statements into the Quicken personal accounting software. The Quicken Rewards card pays cash back rewards and carries no annual fee. This cash back card pays 2x drugstores, restaurants, and office supply stores, and 1x points on other purchases. Redemptions for airline tickets can be worth up to 1.25 cents per point, but only if you redeem at the top of a price bracket, e.g. a $500 ticket for 40,000 points. This is a keeper.
Freedom,personal:I love the Chase Freedom card because I can earn 5x points on practical things like gas and restaurants and there is no annual fee. It is a keeper because it pads my Ultimate Rewards point balance, and contributes to the length of my credit history, which is a factor that improves my credit score.
Ink Plus,business: The Chase Ink Plus is my primary business credit card. When I opened the card, I earned 50K Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 in 3 months. This card pays 5x points at office supply stores and on telecommunications and 2 points on gas stations and hotels. The points easily transfer to Amtrak, Southwest Airlines, and United — three of my preferred carriers. Chase offered me a fabulous retention offer which I declined, but I plan to keep the card open.
Ink Bold,business: This is a charge card, not a credit card. The differences is that balances must be paid off every month. I opened this card for my blog business in June 2014 when there was a special bonus offer of 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 in three months. This card has a $95 annual fee which is waived the first year. This card has the same bonus categories as the Ink Plus. The usual bonus is 50K points.
Southwest Rapid Rewards,business:I opened the Southwest Rapid Rewards card for the 50,000 mile bonus. That is an offer that rolls around every couple of months. Southwest claims that you can get two roundtrip flights for 50K miles, and that has been my experience. The Southwest Rapid Rewards card has a $69 annual fee that is not waived the first year. You get 3,000 bonus miles every subsequent year. Last year, I was offered an additional 3,000 points as a retention bonus, and this year I received this offer again! I highly recommend the Southwest Rapid Rewards card for budget domestic travelers because of the excellent availability of award tickets on Southwest Airlines.
United Mileage Plus Explorer,personal (authorized user): This is my husband’s card. He opened it because there was a targeted offer for 50,000 miles. The card carries an annual fee of $95 which is waived the first year. When the fee came due, he was offered a retention bonus of 15,000 miles which offset the annual fee, and then some.
Barclays Reward Credit Cards
Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard®, personal: I have the no annual fee version of the Barclaycard Arrival. I opened it because of a targeted offer for 40,000 bonus miles and the ongoing benefits including 2x points on restaurant and travel spending. You get a ten percent rebate on your travel redemptions, so this card effectively pays 2.2 percent cash back. I love the access to my free credit score and the free TripIt Pro subscription. The card now pays a bonus of 20,000 miles for new applicants. This is another keeper.
The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®, personal:I opened this card because it offered me 35,000 miles after making a single purchase. There is an $89 annual fee which is waived the first year. My version of the card awarded 10,000 bonus miles on your anniversary. It has a number of additional benefits such as one free checked bag for up to four family members, a free lounge pass, and 5,000 fewer miles needed for reward tickets. With this card, you can get 2 companion passes for $99 each, but there are lots of strings attached. I just received the 10,000 mile annual bonus. I called to cancel the card because I did not want to pay the annual fee. This card currently pays a 40,000 mile bonus after the first purchase, but does not offer the annual 10,000 bonus points. It has an $89 annual fee which is waived the first year.
US Airways Dividend Miles,business:I opened this card by “accident.” I had applied for a different version of the US Airways card, but was informed that that it was not possible to have two different personal cards. I was able to switch my application to this business card, and earn 25,000 Dividend Miles upon the first purchase. The annual fee of $89 is waived the first year.
This bayside restaurant serves up bushels of crabs and other seafood specials. It’s not fancy, just a genuine crab shack by the Chesapeake Bay.
Price’s Seafood restaurant is a great midway stop if your driving between New York and Washington.
LivingSocial Deal on Price’s Seafood
LivingSocial is running a fabulous deal where you can get a voucher for $40 worth of seafood for $20. (Please note that the terms of the offer exclude Fridays and Saturdays.)
But you can do better than that!
If you collect United Mileage Plus points, you can get 6x points by going to LivingSocial via the United Shopping Portal, and an additional 15 percent off with coupon code UNITED15.
You must act quickly because this offer expires today, June 16, 2014! You’ll get the voucher for $17, plus earn 102 Mileage Plus points in the bargain!
100 points isn’t worth much, but can be useful if you need a transaction on your account to keep your miles from expiring.
Alternately, if you go through the cash back shopping portal at FatWallet, you can get 10 percent cash back. I have had very good experience with FatWallet. They track all your purchases and the cash back posts fairly promptly. With this route, you’ll get $2.00 cash back on your purchase.