In the early days of this blog, I conducted a public experiment.
Over the course of 45 days, I applied for every credit card I could find that offered a sign-up incentive of Frequent Flyer Miles or hotel points.
I had been applying for cards for years with success, earning 200,000+ miles every year with little effort and no adverse effect on my credit score, which remained in the 90th percentile or higher.
However, I had never applied for so many cards all at once. Would it work? Would my accounts be shut down?
Some people predicted that my credit score would take a real beating, either by applying for so many cards or by canceling them at the end of the year, before the annual fee came due.
And… it was a huge success.
I was approved for every single application, I received more than 300,000 points and miles that I used to travel the world for the next six months, and a year later when most of the cards were cancelled, my credit score was higher than before I attempted the challenge.
Many AONC readers used the original post and a free spreadsheet I created to pursue their own Frequent Flyer Challenge, racking up millions of miles and supporting countless worldwide adventures.
Since then, some of the card opportunities highlighted in the original post are no longer available—but others have sprung up.
Well, I’m bringing back the Frequent Flyer Challenge–and just like last time, some of you can join in the fun.
1. How It Works
Banks, other card issuers, and travel companies partner up in a search for new customers. Over the past few years, it’s become an arms race, with each company trying to attract more customers. A good sign-up bonus used to be 25,000 points or miles. Now, there are numerous cards that offer 40,000, 50,000, and sometimes even more miles for a single signup.
As I’ve done for more than five years, you can apply for multiple cards and earn multiple bonuses. Card companies are happy for you to do this, and they are well aware that many people get their products simply for the bonuses. (Essentially, they are betting that enough people will stick around that it will be worth it for them, and they often bet correctly. There are several cards that I initially received only for the bonus, but decided that I liked them enough to pay the annual fee when it came due.)
Of course, having a lot of miles at hand is only good if you’re going to use them—and you’ll want to make sure to use them well. The basic rule is to use the miles for flights that would otherwise be expensive and for trips that would otherwise be once-in-a-lifetime.
In short, if you’re eligible and can manage the process well, applying for card bonuses is the easiest way to rack up a lot of miles—and then head out to see the world.
2. My Goal
My current goal is to earn 250,000 new miles in the next 30 days. This should cost less than $300 in annual fees and about two hours of my time. (It’s worth the time and expense: I’ll use 250,000 miles for international plane tickets worth at least $15,000.)
Important: If you haven’t done this before, you can likely exceed this figure by quite a bit. I’ve already had some of the best cards on the market, which typically (but not always) only allow one lifetime bonus.
3. The Cards: My Recommendations
The list below is a current run-down on the best credit card bonuses that I’m aware of. Things change quickly in the world of travel hacking, but lately we’ve been experiencing a good run of strong offers.
American Express Starwood Preferred Guest. An all around great American Express and longstanding favorite currently offering a 25,000 point reward after completing a $5,000 minimum spend. Great value for cash and point redemptions at Starwood hotels or transfer for airline miles to a wide selection of carriers with 20% bonuses for more than 20,000 points. The annual fee is waived for the first year, and after the year you may choose to keep it around. (Read more / Apply here)
American Express Starwood Business. Double your Starwood AmEx sign up bonus and get another 25,000 points by also applying for the business version of the card and completing a $5,000 minimum spend. No tax ID number? Use your name and your social security number instead. The $65 annual fee is waived for the first year. (Read more / Apply here)
Chase Sapphire. The go-to card at the moment, especially for travelers. Get 40,000 Ultimate Reward points after a minimum spend and keep the rewards balance growing with 2 bonus points per dollar spent on any travel or dining transactions. Points are transferrable 1:1 to United, Hyatt and many other hotel and airline partners. No annual fee for the first year and no foreign transaction fees. (Read more / Apply here)
Chase Ink Bold & Chase Ink Plus. The two business versions of the Chase Sapphire each offer a reward up to 50,000 points (25,000 with first purchase and additional 25,000 points with a minimum spend) and no foreign transaction fees. The primary difference between the two Ink business cards is that Ink Plus allows you to carry over a balance while the Bold card does not. Chase will allow you to carry both of these cards together to give you a combined bonus of up to 100,000 Ultimate Reward points that transfer 1:1 to United, Hyatt and other partners. (Bold: Read more / Apply here. Ink Plus: Read more / Apply here)
American Express Platinum. This pricey card is the active travelers best friend. Though it comes with a steep annual fee of $450, it is worth it if you take advantage of the annual $200 airline credit and flash it for access to hundreds of airline lounges, which would otherwise cost hundreds of dollars a year for a single membership. (Read more / Apply here)
Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® Visa Signature® Card. Citi frequently offers several American Airlines cards that let you rack up AAdvantage miles. This current card offers an initial signup bonus of 30,000 miles. AAdvantage miles are best redeemed on longhaul and premium awards with One World partner airlines including Cathay Pacific. (Read more / Apply here)
Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card. This Visa earns you two weekend nights at any Hilton property and automatic Hilton Gold status. The annual fee of $95 is not waived the first year, but easily pays for itself if you cash in your free nights at pricy properties like the Conrad or Waldorf Astoria. (Read more / Apply here)
Chase Hyatt Visa. Get two free nights at any Hyatt property with first purchase and automatic Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum status. Existing Platinum and Diamond members applying for new card membership receive bonus benefits including suite upgrades. The $75 annual fee is not waived for the initial year, but a certificate for an additional free night on your membership anniversary makes up for it. (Read more / Apply here)
Marriott Rewards Premier. Get a free night stay certificate with account approval and an additional 50,000 Marriott bonus points after your first purchase. Card members receive automatic Silver Elite status and the annual fee is waived the first year. (Read more / Apply here)
Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express. A low minimum spend of $500 will get you 30,000 SkyMiles you can use for any Sky Team redemption. Additional bonuses include free checked bags, priority boarding and in-flight discounts when you fly Delta. Annual fee is waived the first year. (Read more / Apply here)
Hawaiian Airlines Visa Signature Card. Get an easy 35,000 miles with a low minimum spend. Redeem for a trip to the islands or with partners including Delta, Jet Blue, Virgin Atlantic and others. This Bank of America Visa has a $79 annual fee that isn’t waived the first year, but in return offers a bonus 2,000 miles every year on your card member anniversary and a one time 25% travel discount for two between North America and Hawaii. (Read more / Apply here)
For me, I’ll be starting with the Chase Ink Plus (I already have the Sapphire and Ink Bold), the Chase Hyatt, the Citi Hilton, and the Hawaiian card from Bank of America.
I may then try to get another AAadvantage card from Citi. I’ve had at least a dozen of them in the past few years for more than 500,000 total miles, but they don’t seem to mind as long as the applications are reasonably spaced out.
4. Don’t Live in the U.S.? You *May* Have Options
The cards listed above all require U.S. residency or citizenship (basically, you need a social security number to successfully apply). If you live elsewhere, as much of our readership does, your options are fewer.
Canadians, there are an increasing number of cards that are available to you. We recommend the AmEx Gold Card and the Canadian version of Starwood Preferred Guest. Both cards are available in personal and business versions, and you can apply for both simultaneously.
Australians, there are a few options for you guys too. Visit the Australia page on CardsforTravel.com for more details.
Elsewhere, there is still a lot of travel hacking you can take part in, but you’re not eligible for most of these bonuses. (Sorry!) You’re still eligible for Round-the-World tickets, regular purchases of discounted miles from U.S. Airways and other airlines, and all the regular Deal Alerts we publish to subscribers of the Travel Hacking Cartel.
It’s very important to maintain good credit. Bad credit doesn’t come from getting credit cards, it comes from not paying them. For those who have credit issues or think credit cards are evil, well, this plan isn’t for you.
If applying for multiple cards, it’s best to do so on a single day, every 3-6 months. This will ensure that all credit inquiries are posted at roughly the same time. In the long-term your credit score will increase (not decline) through the careful use of new cards, but you may see a slight drop when applying for a new group of cards.
The most important thing is to be responsible and pay your balance every month. If you do it right, you’ll be eligible for another big influx of miles a few months later.
Lastly, if you sign up for some of these cards through one of these links, I’ll receive a referral bonus. Though I appreciate you doing so, you certainly don’t have to. Generic links can be found on the card issuers pages (Citibank, Chase, AmEx, etc.).
I’ve used Frequent Flyer miles to go all over the world, often at great savings. If you’re eligible, this is a great way for you to do the same thing.
Oh, and if you complete your own Frequent Flyer Challenge, let us know how many miles you expect to earn. All info will be reported anonymously—it’s just fun to see what happens.
Have you traveled with Frequent Flyer Miles? Where did you go?