Tons of folks out there talk about their adventures and successes in credit card churning all the time – Holly at Club Thrifty and Brad at Richmond Savers, to name just a couple who have been around the block when it comes to credit card offers.
We had gotten into a very comfortable routine with our 3 cash back cards, but I was curious to see what bonuses we could accrue and how easily we could use them if we gave credit card churning a try for a year or so.
Halfway Through That Year I Want To Poke My Eyes Out!
Lose #1 – Fighting With Technology
With the exception of the Chase cards (these were just added to my existing Chase login and synced perfectly) that I added and churned through, adding new cards to mint has been absolutely terrible. I use a password manager, so each new account requires a plethora of new (fake) answers to a multitude of useless, socially engineer-able (I may have made that word up) questions. And entering and re-entering them multiple times. Then when a customer service agent asks you what street you grew up on and you tell them, “Wait, I need to unlock my database to tell you the answer to that…”, see if you can sense the moments when they try and decide if you are a criminal or not.
In particular, the CitiCards website is close to useless. Seriously. Have you ever accomplished anything of use on it? I had immense amounts of trouble connecting these accounts to Mint (one still won’t connect and I look forward to canceling the card in a few months), and couldn’t even pay these bills online. I’m not a technophobe. Hell, I get paid to write code (amongst other duties). So when I tell a Citicards help desk that I have troubleshooted and am unable to login and pay a bill in no fewer than 3 different browsers in multiple locations (home and work), and there’s a problem on their end, I’m probably right. And it’s kindof ridiculous for the customer service rep to state, “No users are having any trouble connecting right now.” Clearly, at least one is, or I wouldn’t be calling. Duh.
Note to others – Run, Don’t Walk, Away From Citi Cards. The Aadvantage miles just aren’t worth it.
Take Home – Unless you have an incredibly high tolerance for system usability issues, or a boat-load of extra time on your hands, this might not be a good game for you to play.
Lose #2 – Useless Miles and Complex Calculus
One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed our cash back cards is because they’re just so darned straightforward. Earn $X in cash back, request $X in cash back. Would you like it as a check in the mail, or a statement credit? Done! At worst, there might be a limitation that forces you to wait until you have $25 in rewards before you can redeem them.
But with “miles” and “points” and various travel rewards programs, there’s a complex calculus between them that is far from clear on the surface. And since I have a compulsive need to optimize everything in my life, it’s been a horrible trip down a rabbit hole trying to make sure we’re getting as much value out of these things as possible.
“Oooh, British Airways Avios points get more of a value when you transfer them to American Airlines domestic flights… but doh! We have yet to find a trip that we need to take that has an opening when we could actually spend these points!”
“Ooooh, I can get this fare on Delta for 32.5K, but Mr PoP only has 26.4K in his account. I have 21K in my Delta account, but it costs $116 to transfer the necessary miles from my account to his. Hmm, but British Airways lets you transfer between family members for free. Why does Delta charge a fee? But look! Hyatt points transfer in for free… hmmm, at a rate of 2.5 Hyatt points = 1 Delta mile. That sucks. But I can get a 1-1 transfer of Hyatt points from our Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which I have 3K points left on. So that gets me 1200 fewer points Delta I need to pay to transfer, right? Not so fast! There’s a minimum of 5K points can be transfered at any given time between Hyatt and Delta. So is it worth it to pay $116 for the right to use miles from a different account? Or would it be better to pay $300 for a full ticket and save up miles until we have enough to use them all at once… which might be quite some time considering we don’t generally fly Delta all that often (recent trips to Australia notwithstanding). Aaaahhh!!!”
“The amount of waste is driving me nuts. Miles/Points are going to be left in these accounts and expire because we’re unable to use any small denominations, but need to transfer miles in generally much larger denominations. If this were cash back, I’d get my pennies – at least eventually.”
Lose #3 – Points Prices Make 0 Sense
Remember the 32.5K trip above that I was trying to book? Well, I also tried to split it up and see if I could book one way using Mr PoP’s 26K points, and the other way using my 21K points. Even if there’s a small cost to doing so, it should work, right? NO! A roundtrip 32.5K mile trip is somehow equivalent to combining a 25K one way trip and a 40K one way trip. What?!? Same flights. Total cost double to book it as two separate trips instead of one round trip. No sense at all.
Lose #4 – This is REALLY not Fun For People Who Have To Travel On Specific Dates
I imagine these kinds of deals work best for people who have a lot of flexibility in their travel arrangements. People who can say something like, “Oooh, half price miles flights available on the 3rd Tuesday of every month in the off-season next year. Let’s book!” And then follow-through without work and life getting in the way.
Our reality is pretty far off that mark. With limited vacation days through our job, and a large portion of our travel needs coinciding with “peak” travel times to maximize those vacation days by pairing them with long holiday weekends or specific events we plan on attending, we just don’t have a ton of flexibility in booking flights.
For instance, when looking at flights to New Orleans for a wedding later this year, it was of no help at all that flights arriving a few days earlier or departing a few days later were significantly cheaper (both in terms of miles and dollars). As it is, taking 2 days off work in Q4 is a big sacrifice for both of us to make for the bride and groom and stretching that further not only would have cost shifted to require us more spending on accommodations (canceling much of the savings), it would have meant more time out of the office, which just isn’t an option that time of year.
This means that if we can even use the miles on the dates we need to travel, we’re often not getting a very favorable exchange ratio on them. For instance, we had to pay “full fare in miles” for two one-way tickets to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway meeting, though that same 50K miles would have covered two round-trip tickets to Omaha a week earlier, and still had left 15K miles left over to put toward another trip.
It’s Not All Bad, I Guess
So far, with all this insanity, we’ve spent enough churned points to get us the equivalent of 5 one-way fares for a total cost of about $150, which I think would have cost us in the neighborhood of $1,200. But we’ve also forgone (based on past averages) around $400 in cash back bonus rewards that we would have gotten with our normal (lazily optimized) cash back card usage.
So as of now I’m putting a halt on the great card churning experiment of 2014. We’re likely to have pretty high spending early in 2015 (because of that planned kitchen remodel), so if we want to churn any cards that would likely be a good time to do it, and leaves plenty of time to plan a strategy out in the meantime. That is, if we decide it’s actually worth it to try again*.
How does this match up with your experiences in churning credit cards for travel rewards?
* This may or may not depend on whether our 100K+ BA Avios miles are ever actually usable.