“I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me.” E. Vedder

When I was in college, my friends and I spent Friday nights screaming down the hallways as we raided villages in Warcraft III. Our post adolescent bodies would grow hungry, and without Mom around we were limited to the choices of the vending machines. I never would have thought that our hero in those dire times would be a multinational bank, but like clockwork, their minions would raid our village using false promises and free pizza.

While slaying night elves and building up my fortified city, there would be a knock at the door from a peppy college-aged woman holding a stack of pizzas and a clipboard. The nice young woman explained that the bank was running a promotion and all I had to do to get a delicious free pizza was to apply for a credit card. I thought to myself “Matt, you’re an upstanding civilized adult now, you deserve a credit card!" (and a free pizza) I rushed to fill out the application and she handed over my pizza. As I shut the door, I saw several other pizza peddlers convincing students to do the same and felt pretty smug about my decision.

After my shiny new credit card arrived in the mail I immediately purchased everything from video games to a new couch for my dorm room, quickly maxing out the limit. I was a teenage boy with the first freedom I had ever been given in my life, no one told me what APR was or how to maintain credit, I was just handed several thousand dollars and told to spend it to build up my score. There were no financial education courses in my high school and the bursar's office at the college preyed on ill-advised children when handing out student loan disbursements. Even the Department of Education encouraged the full withdrawal of all financial assistance through regular audits, while knowing they should be telling students to only borrow what they need. This despicable practice is common and aims to saddle the student with a lifetime of debt, penalizing the youth of the nation when they inevitably default.

I paid some of the minimum payments, as an irresponsible 18 year old would, and the interest caused my balance to grow. Eventually, I stopped paying altogether when I lost my job as a night janitor at a nearby department store. I ignored the letters from the banks and the card was disabled at over $7,000.00. I was placed on a payment plan, but when I noticed I was only paying interest, I just stopped paying again and it ended up in collections. I negotiated a deal and had my wages garnished until it was paid off years later.

I ended up paying back more than double what I borrowed, which was why the banks targeted me with cute girls and free pizza. I fell into their trap and in that lesson I decided I was going to take up a new hobby, reading their fine print and using any loopholes I found to retrieve my lost money from the bank.

This led me into the world of churning, which is defined as “to agitate or turn in a machine in order to produce butter,” but in this case the butter was five free flights to Europe and the agitation was a spurned customer building up rewards points over the course of a year.

I devised a timeline and stuck to it, getting one card after the previous ones minimum spend had been met. I followed the above forums and waited for a card to increase its bonus prior to applying. You don’t want to go “shopping” for a credit card, let them shop for you via direct mailers and targeted ads. I am constantly monitoring churning forums to watch for posts that are generating a lot of upvotes/comments and then I apply based on rarity, popularity, and how that specific card suits my needs.

For the United Mileageplus Explorer card, we had to use fresh browsers and sign up for their dining rewards program before the 80k point link showed up online in our targeted ads. Just going to the Chase website would have only netted us 40k points, so by being patient and persistent we were able to double it. Having a spouse is advantageous because for every authorized user, you receive an additional bonus, plus you can both apply for the card which means double the points.

Chase recently implemented a 5/24 rule which means you can only apply for 5 cards within a 24 month period, anything more and you’re automatically rejected. You can stack applications on the same day to trick the system, but that wasn’t necessary for this trip. This rule is the reason you should decline the offers for store cards which give you a measly 5% discount on your purchase, those cards also count towards 5/24 and are considered a complete waste.

More information on the 5/24 rule with Chase can be found here.

You’ll need a decent credit score of at least 640 to apply for most rewards cards. Each card comes with minimum spend requirements, and we were able to successfully satisfy these requirements using regular daily activities. A good strategy is to wait for a large expenditure and then use the card to cover it, you can buy gift cards or schedule your bills to auto-debit from your credit cards to circumvent these requirements as well.

Most importantly, if you desire vengeance for financially ignorant teenagers everywhere, you must always pay your statement balance in full every month. This ensures that you’re getting free stuff from the banks, but they’re not making a dime of interest off you. Once you make a minimum payment on a card with a high APR, the bank has already won. Since starting this hobby, I've always told my wife that if we ever pay interest then I’m cutting up our dozens of cards and it’s game over. Mint has been a blessing in this area as it provides reminders and puts all my finances on a single pane of glass.

Here are the cards I churned for this trip and the bonus points I received signing up for each one:
Chase Sapphire Preferred (50k)
United Mileageplus Explorer (85k)
Chase Sapphire Reserve (100k)
Chase Freedom Unlimited (30k)
Other points accumulated through regular spend (35k)

Chase Sapphire Preferred - Open in March 2017 by my wife

We started with this card because I had previously churned it for our honeymoon trip to Hawaii and I knew that one of it’s best features was its access to the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.

This site allows you to combine points with a family member and gives you the ability to transfer rewards points to a list of travel partners, including United.

After some research I settled on flying United, not because of their customer service or comfortable experience, but because I knew they would be cheap, and they fly into all international airports. I knew the timeline of my son’s adoption would delay the booking so I wanted to keep my options open.

Another important feature of this card is the travel and rental insurance, which I ended up needing after unsuccessfully navigating the winding alleys in Paris. The travel insurance covers anyone in your party if they grow ill prior to the trip along with reimbursing costs from delays due to storms or mechanical issues. The rental insurance is recommended over the collision damage waiver (CDW) that comes with the rental company because it covers the entire cost rather than charging you a deductible like your primary car insurance would. However, you MUST decline the rental companies CDW or Chase will not pay the claim, so make sure not to check that box when booking your vehicle.

The last great advantage of this card is that you can downgrade it to a Chase Freedom to avoid the $95 annual fee, but you retain the bonus points you earned by spending $4000 on the card in the first three months.

United Mileageplus Explorer - Opened July 2017 by my wife

The Mileageplus Explorer card normally provides 40k bonus points after spending $2000 in the first three months, but if you’re targeted, that offer increases to 80k bonus points. You can click this link to see if you’re targeted and you can even force the system to select you by using one of the following methods.

What worked for us was #2, signing up for Mileageplus Dining. After we registered an ad showed up on the United page targeting us for an offer of 80k +5k for an authorized user. It’s since been reduced to 60k +5 for AU, but remain vigilant and keep checking because I’m sure it will go up again.

Here are several methods that will help get you targeted for the United Mileageplus Explorer 60K + 5K AU + $50 $100 SC offer:
Make small Mileageplus Explorer purchases
Sign up for MileagePlus Dining
Book a United flight and cancel within 24 hours
Create a United Gift Registry
Create a new United MileagePlus account and try direct link thru it

You can find more information here

The United MPE card has some great perks that we took advantage of, it also includes a free checked back for each person flying (including children) which saved us $125. The card waives its annual fee the first year, but afterwards increases to $95.

If you fly a lot, it’s a worthy card to keep in your wallet as it would more than pay for your baggage fees each year, but if you just want to churn the bonus points then you can cancel after a year and retain any points earned in your United account. Since it’s another Chase card you can also transfer points to/from the Chase UR portal and between family members.

Chase Sapphire Reserve - Opened in September of 2017 by me

Since I already churned my Chase Sapphire Preferred and United Mileageplus Explorer cards back in 2013 to go to Hawaii, and I got the Southwest Premier and Plus Companion Pass to go to Mexico, that left me with only one Chase card left that was worth applying for, and it carried a hefty $450 annual fee. However, after adding up all the perks and bonus points the fee was more than covered.

In 2017, Chase offered the Chase Sapphire Reserve card for a limited time at a staggering 100k bonus points if you spent $4000 in the first 3 months. Since we had to pay for the adoption lawyer this was the perfect time to add this card to my collection.

This card came with a plethora of benefits including a $350 travel credit (which can be used on Airbnb, trains, and hotel stays), free TSA Pre check for the entire family, airport lounge access, rental/travel insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, trip delay reimbursement, and it had no foreign transaction fees. I took advantage of nearly all those benefits on my trip, and this card also provided me with a third of the total points needed. The 3x points on travel and dining was also useful for a large family and it’s how we made up an additional 35k points to push us over the edge of 300k.

Chase Freedom Unlimited (30k) - Opened in February of 2018 by my wife

This was the final card we churned for this trip and we debated applying because it provided the smallest sign-up bonus of 30k UR points. We decided to add it to our collection since it was enough to put us over the edge and also provided us with an 18 month 0% cushion. Having a 0% loan for the trip would potentially come in handy, and it provided us with peace of mind since we didn’t want to return to a pile of immediately due bills after our adventure.

A 0% card is good to have for this reason, and my philosophy is it’s better to have it and not need it then to need it and not have it. I didn’t want my wife to pass up a once in a lifetime chance at an Italian dress just because we pushed our budget too far. My family refers to this mindset as “Vacation Matt” because the rest of the year I’m extremely frugal.

This card does come with a small foreign transaction fee which we overlooked when applying, but it was only a few dollars and there were ways around it by booking activities through their U.S. portals such as Airbnb and Disney.

Other points accumulated through regular spend (35k) - Accumulated since March 2017

The majority of these points were accumulated by using the Chase 5% rotating category calendar, the United Mileageplus Dining program, and the 3x points on travel expenses that comes with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. These points were the result of diligence and making the teller wait a few seconds while I ensured it was the correct card for the transaction. Gas, groceries, dining, movies, utilities, home repair are just some of the categories that will earn you extra points on specific cards at certain dates throughout the calendar year. Remembering which card to use takes discipline and patience, but eventually it becomes second nature. It’s also a pain to change your automatic withdrawals on certain bills constantly, but I consider it free money so it's worth the effort.

The minimum spend requirements for each card are also added to our point total, and in addition to the sign-up bonuses we were ready to book our five roundtrip tickets.

Other savings

Remember when I mentioned 'Vacation Matt?' Well, Regular Matt had to make some sacrifices leading up to the trip.

This included the elimination of a phone bill by using our business phones and having our personal numbers ported over via Google Voice, streaming media to eliminate a cable bill, making cooking at home a marital hobby, playing board games, hiking, having weekly movie matinees, ordering water for everyone when we go out to dinner, always using the correct card to make sure we’re maximizing points on rotating categories, driving energy-efficient used cars with no car payment, having a wedding that cost under $5000.00, buying groceries in bulk on Ebay, and buying less plastic crap for the kids at Christmas that they were going to break anyways.

I’m sure there are a lot more that I’m forgetting, but I basically look at these life hacks as digital pennies thrown into a jar for the trip. I also try to limit large or recurring expenditures as much as possible.

Time off from work

My wife and I are lucky to have careers which encourage us to work hard, but also play hard. I work as an Intelligence Analyst for General Electric and my wife is the Human Resources director for a youth services corporation. Thankfully, GE has a permissive time off policy which means that any vacation time needs to be approved by my manager, but is unlimited as long as my project deadlines are being met. From the companies perspective it’s advantageous because it boosts employee morale plus they don’t have to pay out vacation time when an employee departs.

Due to my wife's exemplary past-performance she was also able to negotiate her sabbatical far ahead of time, and with forward thinking, plus the support of employers who understand the advantages of having cultured and well-rested employees, we were privileged to get to have this experience.

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