Meggie and I are planning to take a long trip after our wedding in June. First, we will visit Southeast Asia, then travel to Europe, and end in Africa for a couple months to visit our friends, Amy and Kyle, who are working with the Peace Corps. When we told our friends, Jacob and Kallista, about this plan, they thought that it would be fun to join us out there. However, the $1,800 plane tickets seemed a little out of reach for their grad school budgets. I promised Jacob that this did not have to be the case and that I would email him an explanation of how to cut his costs. Instead, I decided to write it here.
Welcome to the world of credit card bonuses. You can join me and Meggie in Togo and visit Amy and Kyle with us. Really, you could go anywhere but this seems like a helpful example. However, I should give one word of caution. Credit companies do not give out these bonuses out of the kindness of their hearts. They do it because they are betting that you will spend more than you can pay back and they will make their money back on large interest charges. Never put anything on a card that you will not be able to pay back immediately and never open more cards than you will reasonably be able to keep track of.
While a little complicated, putting together a few cards can get you almost anywhere in the world on the cheap. I recently booked two tickets to Hanoi, Vietnam for $15 each. In this case, it will take three cards to get two passengers to Togo and require 10,000 dollars of spending over the course of nine months, three for each card. This could be done faster, but on a grad school budget, I will assume that you will need all the time you can get.
Let’s get started. I promise this will be easier than your grad school applications.
First, I am going build this to do list with a few assumptions.
- You want to spend as little as possible upfront. This means no super premium cards with higher upfront costs. Instead, we will look for cards in the mid-range that have their annual fees waived for the first year.
- Our focus will only be on getting to Togo. This means that I will only focus on getting the points for two tickets there. For this, United is the best option. Each ticket will cost 80,000 miles plus about $250 in fees. You can check out the comparisons here. Some of them are sneaky. ANA, for instance, costs 65,000 miles but has $1,300 in fees.
Now we will start with the first card, Chase Sapphire Preferred. This card comes with 50,000 Ultimate Rewards (UR) points, which can be transferred to United miles at a 1:1 ratio. The $95 annual fee will be waived, so there is no cost upfront. Throw me a bone and apply using my referral link to net me 125 bucks. (I would appreciate it.)
After you’ve opened your first card, the Sapphire Preferred, you will need to spend $4000 on it in the next three months. You should be able to do this without buying anything more than usual. See if you can switch over your rent to the card. This typically comes with a ~3% fee but is worth it. Switch over your bills, insurance, and the rest of your spending. This should do it. If not, get creative. If you have your student loans through Great Lakes, you can make payments by credit card over the phone. Pick up the tab for dinner and have people Venmo you the rest. Pay your dad’s insurance and have him write you a check. You get the idea.
Get yourself another 5,000 points by opening an authorized user (AU) card on your account. You could find someone your trust or open it in your cat’s name, though the ethics of that one are a little shady. Be sure not to use your spouse/partner. If you do, they will not be able to open their own card. All you need to do is put one purchase on that card to get the points.
By the end of this, you should have about 60,000 Ultimate Rewards (UR) points in the bag: 50,000 from the bonus, 5,000 from the authorized user (AU) card, and about 5,000 from the charges you have made.
Next, your spouse/partner should open another Chase Sapphire Preferred card using your own referral code. This nets you 10,000 UR points right off the bat. Now you just repeat the process. Open an authorized user card and meet the minimum spending requirement. You should end up with about 60,000 UR points on this card.
Now we’re nearing the end. You’ve spent three months on each card and you have 130,000 UR points, which can become 130,000 United miles. Just 30,000 miles left to go!
Last, open a Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card. As of today, the best sign up bonus is 40,000 miles after $2,000 spending with the annual fee waived for the first year. If that’s still the best option, throw me another bone and open it using my referral here. (It gets me 10,000 miles.) If not, go with the highest available offer. Typically, you will be able to get another 5,000 miles with an authorized user (AU) card, so get one for Mr. McFluffy and all his luxurious pet needs.
To top this all off, the Explorer card comes with two free passes to United Club, where you can get complimentary drinks and snacks, which might be nice in the midst of the 24 hour trip to Togo.
Let’s see what we have now. We’ve put together:
- 130,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points
- 2 x 50,000 for the bonus
- 2 x 5,000 for points earned meeting spend requirements
- 2 x 5,000 for the AU cards
- 10,000 for the referral bonus
- 47,000 United MileagePlus Miles
- 40,000 for the bonus
- 2,000 for miles earned meeting spend requirement
- 5,000 for the AU card
Finally, we are at the good stuff. A flight from Chicago, IL to Lome, Togo costs 80,000 miles and $250 in fees on United Airlines. Doubled, that will cost the two of you 160,000 miles and $500 dollars.
Start by transferring your UR points to United. You will need to add 113,000 miles to your United balance by transferring out an equal number of points from Chase. This leaves you with 17,000 points. You can cash those out to get $170.
You have 180,000 United Miles and have made $170. There are $330 left in fees to cover, but that’s much cheaper than the going rate.
No. I think we could do a little better. Let’s go back in time. You’re opening your first card. While you’re at it, open a Chase checking account too. The signup bonus is $300. You can set it up online and will just need to transfer in one direct deposit to get it. This can often be simulated with a push transfer from your existing bank or you can do it the old-fashioned way by adjusting your direct deposit at work.
You will need to direct deposit $500+ per month for the account to remain free. Again, this could be done the old-fashioned way, simulated with a recurring transfer from your bank account (and one back), or you could just eat sixty bucks over six months and close the account when you’re clear. (The account needs to be open for at least six months to keep the bonus.) Check out the details here.
So that’s it. You’ll have to cover that last thirty bucks yourself, but at the end of the day, two fifteen dollar tickets to Africa isn’t half bad.
Here is a 271 day to do list to get yourself there.
- Day 1:
- Open Chase Sapphire Preferred #1
- Open United Mileage Plus Account
- Open Chase Bank Checking Account
- Days 2-90:
- Open AU card and make one purchase
- Spend $4,000 on Chase Sapphire Preferred #1
- Day 91:
- Open Chase Sapphire Preferred #2
- Days 92-180:
- Open AU card and make one purchase
- Spend $4,000 on Chase Sapphire Preferred #2
- Day: 181:
- Open United Mileage Plus Explorer
- Days 182-270:
- Open AU card and make one purchase
- Spend $2,000 on card
- Day 271+:
- Transfer UR points to MP miles
- Book flights
- Fly to Togo
- Use lounge access passes and get a tall one on the house