Back in December 2012, I met up with my old friend Rob from high school to ask him how to travel hack. I saw that he had been deviating the norm by visiting and living in some pretty amazing places and doing it all with little to no money spent on airfare. I had to know how he did it.

When I made excuses in the past about why I couldn't travel, I made those excuses mainly because the cost to fly to all the countries I wanted to visit would mean spending an enormous chunk of my savings. It was money I just didn't have to burn as a graduate student on a small income with NYC living expenses. What was the best way to minimize this expense?

"Start earning miles toward a specific airline alliance." Rob told me at a cafe across from our old high school in upstate NY. "But doesn't that take forever?" I asked him as I sipped my chai tea. I had a Delta Skymiles account earning miles practically since I was born because it's what my family used.

After years flying Delta, back and forth to many US states and even overseas once or twice to Europe, I had only just earned enough miles to pay for one round trip ticket to California to visit a friend for New Years (~40,000 miles). And that was with buying miles to keep the account active over the years, something my family had to do numerous times since Delta took until 2011 to change to a "miles don't expire" policy.

If it took nearly a quarter of a century to earn 40,000 miles, how could I possibly make my trip happen for little cost on flights in less than two years? Rob's answer: "Credit card sign-up bonuses."

Now, most people hear this and their responses are:

  • "Ohhh no. I'm not letting those credit card companies get me hooked into their scams."
  • "That can totally mess up my credit if I sign up for those."
  • "I'll end up paying more to meet those bonuses than I would for the cost of a flight without using miles!"

All of these are perfectly normal responses—thoughts that I had, too, at first. But all of these thoughts were based on misinformation and fear.

Since I became more informed and got over that fear, I have earned a total of 475,912 miles in less than 18 months. And this was with very minimal effort. I spent 40,000 of those miles with $10 in fees on flights to Maui on United for my best friend's wedding earlier this year. I also used 47,730 miles with $10 in fees on my trip to Portland, OR in June.

This has left me with 388,182 to work with for my Year of Deviation. To give you an idea of how far these miles can take me, it's only costing me 45,000 of those miles and $50.90 in fees to get to Iceland and then Germany, the first leg of my long-term travel adventure starting September 1, 2014.

I got to fly United to Maui from New York...

...and saw this for just $10.

When I sat down with Rob, I learned the basics on travel hacking. The rest came from my own research and experience. Although I am a rookie in the miles-earning business (in the shadow of giants like Million Mile Secrets), I feel confident in what I know to share as much of it as I can with you all. Here are the 3 basics:

  1. Focus on one of the 3 major airline alliances in the world: Sky Team (Air France, Delta Air Lines, Korean Air, etc.), One World (American Airlines, British Airways, Japan Airlines, etc.), and Star Alliance (Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines, United, etc.).  Some of these airlines have their main hubs at airports in countries you want to visit, others do not.

    To earn miles, you want to focus on the alliance that has airlines that cover the parts of the world (the countries/cities) that you plan to visit. For instance, at the time that I began earning miles, I chose to focus on the Star Alliance because I knew I wanted to go to New Zealand during my travels and both Air New Zealand and United would get me there the most directly and for the least expensive rates.
     
  2. Focus on credit cards that will give a big miles payout for reaching a minimal spend bonus—but don't spend any more than you normally would. Instead, be smart about your spending. Put everything from your apartment rent to a pack of gum on your card. A common sign-up bonus, like one of the first ones I ever focused on, is something like 40,000 miles for spending $3,000 in 3 months.

    At first I thought I could never spend that much money in 3 months. But then I realized, wait, I have tuition payments and rent and utilities bills that I had never previously charged to credit. All of a sudden, $3,000 was easy to meet. Even $5,000 sign-up bonuses became easier with some creativity.
     
  3. Your credit score can actually get better by signing up for cards. When you first sign up for the card, your credit score will decrease slightly, usually because of a pull to your credit history. But this is a small amount (5-10 points) which is balanced by an increase in your credit score soon after because of an increase in your available credit overall. The more credit you have, the lower your credit utilization score.

    Credit utilization is just one of many components that factor into your credit score. Understanding each of them is important to understanding how having more credit cards doesn't hurt you—it's having lots of hard inquiries on your report (knowing how to minimize this) and having bad remarks on your credit history (missed payments or accruing a lot of debt that you do not pay back each month) that has some of the most negative consequences.

Below, I present several questions I recommend you ask yourself before you decide to get involved with earning miles via credit card sign-up bonuses.  If you can answer these truthfully and take the advice I offer, you'll be on your way.

Then, for those of you ready to dive in, my next post will answer some frequently asked questions I often receive about the credit card application/sign-up bonus process and I will make some credit card recommendations.

BEFORE EARNING MILES THROUGH CREDIT CARDS, ASK YOURSELF...


Do I have the income to cover my bills each month?

This is a good question to ask yourself before you begin any sort of plan regarding earning miles through credit card sign-up bonuses. If you are not financially prepared to (or willing to put in the effort to) pay off your monthly statements in FULL every time before the due date each month, then you need to think again about going through this process.

I do not recommend to my friends and family to start this process if they already have credit card debt and/or do not plan to pay off their statements each month. A history of credit card debt factors into you having a lower credit score which, in turn, reduces the likelihood that your credit card application will be approved in the first place.

Even if you are approved, if you continue to engage in behaviors that contribute to more debt, then you may work yourself into a financial hole that is very difficult to escape (i.e., if you plan to buy a house in the next 1-3 years you may be denied a loan as a result of your poor credit history).**

What is my credit score?

Do you know your credit score? If not, it's good to know just for your own personal knowledge and definitely if you plan on applying for credit cards to earn miles in the near future. I use creditkarma.com* to stay on top of my credit score. It's 100% free. I just had to enter some background information about myself and, bam! They told me my score.

Credit Karma only provides your TransUnion score (one of the three credit bureaus), but it'll give you an idea of where you're at and what the other two probably look like. As a rule of thumb, I usually tell people that having above a 700 is good and will probably get them accepted for a new credit card pretty easily. Below that score depends on the type of card you want to get.

Some people have luck with a lower credit score (600-700). If you're curious to see a score to approval rate, you can check out a growing database outlining approval rates at creditboards.com. People post their score, whether or not they were approved for a particular credit card, from which credit bureau the score was pulled, and additional details. Simply enter the name of the creditor (a bank like Barclays) and select your state.

You'll get a list that will give you an idea of the kinds of credit scores that get approved for different cards and better be able to assess your own chances of getting the same cards. You'll know how much work you have to do on your credit score before you can apply or if you're ready to apply right away.

Credit Boards is also helpful for determining which credit bureau banks typically pull from to review your history. You can use this information to strategically spread out hard inquiries across different bureaus each time you sign up for a new card(s).

How can I increase my credit score before I start filling out credit card applications?

Two of my favorite things about credit karma is (1) I can look at how well I score in each element that factors into my overall credit score, e.g., credit utilization, history, payments, etc.; and (2) I can use their Credit Score Simulator to enter a bunch of hypothetical situations to see how my  credit score would be affected.

For example, what happens if you increase the credit limit on an existing credit card? Usually your score will go up a bunch of points. When I first started out I increased the limit on my one and only credit card by $1000 credit simply by calling Bank of America and asking them to increase it. My credit score went up 15 points almost immediately and was up by 34 points in just 2 months after that.

Your credit score increases when your credit utilization goes down, and your credit utilization goes down either when you charge less to your credit card, or when your overall amount of credit issued to you increases. That's why credit utilization is based on a percentage, not the actual dollar amount that you spend. Your credit utilization percentage will decrease slightly if you add more credit. This is a good thing because it shows that, while you use your credit (make purchases), you don't max out your credit or use too much of it.  Basically, I've found that my credit score increases when I use a bit of credit, but not a lot of it.

Is there anything I can do right now to earn miles without even signing up for credit cards?

Yes! By far, the fastest method is credit card sign-up bonuses. The process is otherwise a bit slower, and a little more tedious, but earning lots of miles is still possible. And, actually, even if you are going the credit card route, these are good ways to top off your miles (i.e., boost them into the next increment/award bracket to cover your next flight) and/or prevent inactive miles accounts from expiring. You can:

  • Fill out surveys online or view ads to earn miles/points/money that can be transferred into partnering miles accounts. To name just a few, try these: e-rewards.com (my favorite - transfers to many airline partners including United, American, Southwest, and more.), e-miles.com (US Airways), milesforthoughts.com (Spirit Airlines), opinionmilesclub.com (United).
  • Strategically purchase items from certain companies just because they offer miles: signing up for evreward.com helps you figure out where to purchase an item to earn the most miles (or get the best reward/deal). Look carefully because some require a credit card while some do not.
     
  • Sign up for miles dining programs and eat at participating restaurants. Add a credit card (any card, so it can be one that you already have) to the account and use that card when you go to participating restaurants. MileagePlus Award Miles dining program can be used for transfer to United miles. I also use US Airways Dividend Miles dining program and Rapid Rewards Dining program (Southwest).
     
  • Shop online using airline portals – Go to an airline's website, signup for their miles program, and find their shopping portal on the site (use their search engine). Purchase items online only by going to the shopping portal first, searching for that item, then purchasing it through participating/partnered companies (follow links directly from the portal).
     
  • Sign up for emails to receive special offers – Whenever you sign up for anything online that has to do with miles, always click the option to receive emails. Sometimes they'll give you miles just for clicking this option. Sometimes they will send you exclusive miles earning offers that you would miss otherwise.
     
  • Follow airlines on social media and look for special offers all over the web – Many airlines tweet about special deals. Keep on the lookout for those by following them.

*I do not get a commission for any of the links above. I am simply providing this information because I want to "share the wealth" so to speak.

**The above should not be taken as professional financial advice. This is just what has worked for me and is based on my own opinions, finances, and experiences. You need to be the final decider and do the research yourself to determine what is best for you. For example, if you plan on taking out a large loan in the next 1-3 years (e.g., house loans, student loans, etc.) then I do not recommend applying for more than one or two credit cards. You want to be certain you get that loan and that credit card inquiries or mismanagement does not prevent you from being approved.