When coming back from a big trip, the first question I get asked is, “what were your highlights?
” Immediately following, most people ask, “if you don’t mind answering, how much did it all cost?”
It’s a fair question and a question I answer openly, because I love the planning, the organization, and the optimization of traveling. I can go on for hours talking about the minutiae of each planning decision I make. I’m one of those weird people who enjoy being at the airport since I see it as one of the most remarkable feats of human progress. In fact, the #1 match from a Job Aptitude Test at Notre Dame recommended I become a travel consultant. While I normally think these tests are garbage, this one nailed it.
In this post, I will talk about the “points game.” It’s a controversial topic that many people are skeptical of, because it sounds too good to be true and it seems like a lot of work (both false). But it’s a hobby that feeds my love of travel and organization, so I relish it. I even got a few friends hooked!
This is meant to be an informative post that highlights how I afford almost all my travels. By no means should you rush off to apply for a bunch of credit cards now. But if by the end you want to learn more, I’m happy to teach you!
The game is simple: sign up for promotions from banks through credit card sign ups and other offers, earn points, then redeem them for trips. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
But wait Ben, wouldn’t signing up for a lot of credit cards hurt my credit score?
Yes, and no. You can read about how credit scores work here
. Since I started this hobby back in 2015, my credit score has gone up 100+ points. I never carried a balance and always paid my bills on time. If you use credit cards like debit cards, you should be fine. Discipline in this hobby opened doors to traveling like never before. I used these points to redeem for $20,000+
of travel expenses in the past 20 months.
How I got started
Back in 2014, my dad gave me his American Airlines points he accumulated through his business. This was his way of saying, “hey get a job so you can actually start using this.” The number of points were quite significant, around 330,000 AAdvantage points in total (which is around $5,500 worth of flights). Thanks, dad.
Dropping out of grad school after a quarter (yeah, I know), I had around $30,000 in educational loans. Wanting to desperately pay them off as soon as I could, I was paying off my loans at a rate of $2,000 a month at one point. Combine that with an average monthly rent of around $1,000, I was spending $3,000 on just loans and rent. And since a standard credit card promotion will give you around 50,000 points after spending $3,000 on the card, the points tallied up rapidly. Plus, I paid off half my loans!
These points financed numerous trips over the past two years: a trip to Seattle, Mexico, Chicago, Washington D.C., Hong Kong, and Vancouver. So when I started planning for #QuarterLifeCrisisTour2016, I wanted to see how far the points game can take me.
How to Play the Game
Every major bank, airline, and hotel have their own points system. The main 3: Chase, American Express, and Citibank have a unique points system in that they allow you to transfer their points to a different partner airline or hotel. For example, if you have 10,000 Chase points, you can transfer it for 10,000 Southwest or United points. You can then use those points to redeem for an airline ticket or hotel room.
It’s quite easy to earn Chase and American Express points. And because they allow transfers to a wide range of airlines and hotels, I was able to redeem my points for a variety of different airlines. In general, you can redeem 10,000 for $100 in cash, which is known as a 1 points per cent value. The goal is to have the highest ppc you can, as anything above a 1.5ppc is considered to be a good deal.
Here’s all the redemptions I made during #QuarterLifeCrisisTour2016:
Most of these are 2017 prices, so it’s more of an estimate than exact pricing.
- San Francisco to Manila on Cathay Pacific Airlines ($550)
[27,000 American Airline Miles / 2ppc]
- Manila to Seoul on Asiana Airlines ($300)
[20,000 Chase Points / 1.5ppc]
- Seoul to Singapore on Singapore Airlines ($650)
[20,000 Chase Points / 3.25 ppc]
- Hanoi to Taipei on China Airlines ($390)
[10,000 AMEX Points / 3.9ppc]
- Taipei to Manila on Philippines Airlines ($100)
[8,000 Chase Points / 1.25 ppc]
- Manila to Tokyo on Japan Airlines ($450)
[10,000 Chase Points / 4.5 ppc]
- Tokyo to Honolulu on Japan Airlines ($600+) [I actually don’t remember how much this cost, but considering it was after New Years, it cost quite a lot]
[20,000 Chase Points / 3 ppc]
- Honolulu to Hilo Roundtrip on Hawaiian Airlines ($200)
[15,000 American Airline Miles / 1.3 ppc]
- Honolulu to Los Angeles on Delta Airlines ($275)
[15,000 AMEX Points / 1.83 ppc]
All other flights I purchased were from low-cost carriers, ranging from $50-$100.
Total $ saved on redeemed flights: $3500+ / 2.4 ppc
Total $ spent on all flights: $750 (avg. $31.25 per flight)
Quick note: if I didn’t have hotel points, I would have stayed at an Airbnb. So I’ll list the “value” of the stay, but the savings will be different. On average, I spent a daily average of $30 on Airbnb (including taxes and service charges). For hotel points, I found that 1 ppc is a great value, though rare.
- Hilton DoubleTree at Kuala Lumpur ($600)
[49,800 Hilton Points / 1.2 ppc]
- Holiday Inn at Chiang Mai ($625)
[72,000 IHG Points / .87 ppc]
- Hilton DoubleTree at Bangkok ($600)
[100,000 Hilton Points / .6 ppc]
- Hilton Garden Inn at Hanoi ($660)
[49,800 Hilton Points / 1.33 ppc]
All other accommodation were a combination of Airbnb, Hostels, and crashing on people’s couches.
Total value redeemed from hotels: $2485
Total $ saved on accommodation: $780
Total $ spent on all accommodation: $2840 (avg. $22.54 per night)
Total $ saved from redeeming points: $4300+
Total cost of accommodation + flights for #QLC2016: ~$3600.
For 4.5 months on the road and 24 flights, I’m really happy with the cost of this trip.
I know I could have spent way less by staying in hostels the entire trip. I know this is a lot of numbers, but playing the “points game” have quickly become a favorite hobby of mine. Glad I can share it with you all! Let me know if you have any questions or want to learn more!