My 2015 Credit Card Strategy (And Why It’s Different From Ben’s)

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A few weeks ago Ben complied his breakdown of how he earned miles last year, which led to some interesting conversations about how us “normal people” go about earning miles.

One of the things I like to do at the beginning of each year is go through my credit card portfolio and draft up a bit of an outline for the coming months. Ben is constantly telling people to determine their travel goals and apply all this to their own lifestyle, and I thought it might be interesting to share a few details about the approach my husband and I take when choosing the best travel credit cards for us.

So there are a few things that are different about our situation in comparison to Ben’s (but are maybe similar to yours):

  • I’m playing for two here, so while I have twice as many opportunities to earn miles, it also means a bit of a balancing act between the various programs and offers.
  • While we’re pretty nomadic, we do, technically, have a place where we pay rent.
  • I like to use credit cards for the “boost” towards elite status when I can. For the most part we’d probably make it otherwise, but it takes a bit of the pressure away.

And there are many things that are similar:

  • I also maintain top-tier status with American, Hyatt, and Starwood.
  • With the exception of some tuition bills, we don’t really have many expenses outside of travel, so the majority of our spending is more creative, or reimbursable expenses.
  • We aren’t that into manufactured spend anymore — it’s awesome for people who do well at it, but I don’t feel like I have the time to devote to doing this properly nowadays. We’ll do a bit, but more in the “buying gift cards for things we’ll need soon anyways” or “creative manners of paying rent” ways.

Over the years, we’ve come up with an approach that works pretty well for us — combining steady (but comparatively slow) credit card applications with really focused spending.

We earn many miles from shopping portals

I’m not sure if this is a side effect of how much we travel, or being a single-car household in a city where that’s really impractical, but I LOVE ordering things online.

Earning bonus miles through shopping portals makes that even better, so I always make sure we have access to the Ultimate Rewards portal, Shoprunner through American Express, etc. I’ll sometimes keep a card open longer than I otherwise would to preserve that access.

And it’s so convenient.

Like, not only can I have contact solution and deodorant delivered to my house, but I’ll get free two-day shipping and 5x-10x Ultimate Rewards points and my FSA-eligible purchases will be tracked? Done.

We redeem a lot of miles for other people

Ben has taken his parents on some pretty amazing trips, and while we’re not at that level, we do try. I brought my teenage niece around the world with me in the summer of 2013, her mom and I spent a few weeks in Europe last summer, we took my mother-in-law and her partner to Japan and Taiwan in November, I am dragging my mom to Singapore at the end of next month, and so forth.

Sicily-Etna
The pinnacle of this was bringing ten people to Sicily a few years back (With SkyMiles. From the West Coast. Just saying.)

And that’s not to mention all the last-minute Avios tickets, or the emergency hotel rooms. We’re privileged to be able to help our families travel, and we’re happy to do it, even if it takes more planning and strategy than if we were just worried about our own redemptions. So that means we do pick up cards that might not have has much relevance to us personally, but knowing that we might need those back-up points.

My brain is full

Over the years, I’ve become more selective about where I’m accruing miles. It’s easier for me to keep track of lots of points in a few programs than to have points and miles all over the darn place.

As it is, we have top-tier elite status in three airlines and four hotel chains. And I’d honestly rather have more points with those programs (or flexible points I can transfer to any program), than try and figure out how to maximize one more thing.

I realize that means I’m potentially missing out on some great opportunities, but I have to draw the line somewhere. So I’d rather have every possible variety of the Citi AA cards than a Southwest card at this point. But that’s just me — you have to find your own balance.

We intend to travel less this year

We both flew well over 200,000 miles last year, and at some point that’s just exhausting.

We had a great time — going to a wedding in Malaysia, taking my in-laws to Japan, and making several trips to Europe — but overall it meant a lot of time in the air, and between us about 250 nights in hotels. Yay?

There isn’t as much “required” international travel this year, so we’re hoping to spend more time at home. Also, our dog is really cute, and we’d like to see her more.

Brendle
I mean, look at those eyebrows…

It never really works out that way, but that’s the goal, in theory. I wouldn’t change anything about our life, don’t get me wrong, but if I can direct some spending towards specific credit cards to cut back on the number of mileage and mattress runs that’s going to be a more compelling option than in the past.

So having the right credit cards is correspondingly more of a priority.

What we have at present:

Me:Him:
Premier Rewards Gold Card from American ExpressThe Platinum Card® from American Express
Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPENGold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American ExpressGold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Card from American ExpressStarwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
The Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite MasterCard® (long story, should probably close this)Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Card from American Express
The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®
British Airways Visa Signature® CardThe Hyatt Credit Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred® CardChase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Ink Bold® Business Charge Card Ink Bold® Business Charge Card
Ink Plus® Business Credit CardInk Plus® Business Credit Card
Ink Cash® Business CardMarriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Chase Freedom®Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card - a *ahem* fewDitto
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard
Citi Executive® / AAdvantage® World EliteTM MasterCard® (x2)
Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa Card

And what we’ll be applying for in 2015:

As part of our approach for this year, many of the above credit lines will be consolidated or shifted around, and then we’re looking at adding the following (along with whatever exciting offers come along):

Me:Him:
The Hyatt Credit CardInk Cash® Business Card
CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCardBritish Airways Visa Signature® Card
Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature® Card
The Enhanced Business Platinum® Card from American ExpressClub Carlson Business Rewards Visa Card
Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature® CardDelta Reserve Credit Card from American Express (for the MQMs)
American Express EveryDay® Preferred Credit CardDelta Reserve for Business Credit Card (if needed, for the same reason)
Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express (to gift MQMs to the husband)
Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card (if needed, for the same reason)

In general, we try not to have the same cards at the same time. If there’s just an insane bonus we’ll both get a given card, but otherwise we like to trade off. That opens up more spending categories while avoiding some of the annual fees.

It’s also important to note that I’m not going to rush out and apply for all of these cards tomorrow, or anything ridiculous like that. It helps me to have a roadmap for the year, but I’ll make adjustments based on bonuses and program trends.

We generally apply for 1-2 cards every eight or so weeks, alternating whether it’s me applying, or him applying. This spaces out the minimum spends, and gives us a pretty constant trickle of points.

Bottom line

We’re in this game for the long haul, and I don’t really feel the need to be super-aggressive on the credit card front. When I was new to this hobby some banks were giving out credit cards like they used to hand out lollipops at the drive up window (certain Pacific Northwest-based airline cards seem to still have this approach), while others required ~18 months between applications.

I remember thinking that 18 months was approximately forever. We live in a culture of near-instant gratification, and it’s hard, but important to pace yourself.

Yes, there are probably some cards you should get first, and it’s good to burn as you go to hedge against devaluations, but it’s not a race.

Given our existing pool of miles and points, I’m comfortable with a slower earn rate.

What about you? How do you plot out your mileage strategy for the year? Do you?


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Comments

  1. Why would you want to close the Hawaiian Airlines Card if it’s World Elite and thus gets you lounge access in many places and sometimes even a free Priority Pass Membership?

  2. @ Abdel — Well, given I already have Priority Pass through Amex, and two other World Elite cards, there’s just not much benefit to me personally there.

  3. Tiffany – as a fellow single points earner for 2 (+ dog), how do you maintain status on AA, SPG, Hyatt? In 2013, I did a fair amount of work travel (+2 mileage runs) which got me EXP for the first time. I have fallen off the cliff and will have no status in OW for 2015. Mainly this is due to redeeming points for all my travels and slightly less work travel. Do you MR or do you travel for work which gets you close enough plus the few trips mentioned?

  4. tiffany, i know pointspros does a great job with bookings but have you all ever considered offering consulting? i’d love to have someone with expert knowledge look at my current credit card roster, annual income, etc and let me know what i could be doing better.

  5. Good lord that’s an insane amount of personal cards!!
    Try doing that in the UK and you would be refused.
    Is what you do common? (I mean outside the points fraternity)

  6. Good post & thanks for mentioning shopping portals. I (try to remember to) always check Evreward.com before shopping online.

    One of things that I don’t think you or Ben mentioned is retention bonuses & referral bonuses. I probably get 50,000 miles a year off of retention bonuses.

    Watching your credit store (Citi & Barclays provide free score reporting with their cards) is also important for most people.

    Leveraging your status for status matches can also be prudent.

  7. @ Tiffany — And, your dog looks like she’s getting old. They don’t live very long, so spend time with her while you can! I miss my pooch… 🙁

  8. @Mike H probably not uncommon for many Americans, but a lot would be credit cards to every store they shop at instead of points and miles fanatics…….

  9. Two questions:
    1) Why so many Inks? Is it just for the bonus or are there benefits to having more than one?

    2) If you guys don’t do MS much, can you share some insight into your natural spending totals. I count 4 Delta Reserves this year which seems to imply as much as $240k in spending to max out MQMs, or are you just going for the signup bonus MQMs.

  10. I am max out on cards.. middle of canceling about 10 cards so I can reload and get some fresh point & miles to my acct.

  11. @ pavel — That is absolutely something we can do, but given how many times I see your name in the comments here my guess is you’re pretty much an expert already!

  12. @ Mike H — Hmm, I think “common” is tough to determine. We’re probably middle of the spectrum? There are certainly friends of ours who think we’re nuts, and others who think we’re way too cautious.

  13. @ Steve — Great point! I never think to talk about retention bonuses, but gosh those can add up quickly!

  14. @ Gene — Aww, sorry to hear about your dog! Mine is definitely getting older, but she’s not as old as she looks (thankfully). Her mom was a yellow lab, so she’s had that funky speckling since she was a puppy.

  15. @ Jo — Oh, that’s true. I definitely know several people who have credit cards for every store in the mall, but don’t understand how we travel so much…

  16. @ Tom — Well, some are charge cards, some are credit cards, some were issued as MasterCards, others as Visas, the Ink Cash doesn’t have an annual fee, etc.

    The Delta Reserves are definitely an “as needed,” because that’s potentially a ton of spending. It will depend on how much travel my husband naturally has (it’s looking like it will be about 60k flown miles), and that will determine how heavily to hit those cards.

    The entire MQM-through-spend scenario is going to be a bit of a challenging experiment. It’s far outside of what we’d naturally spend, and without having Amazon Payments to fall back on the whole game is a bit trickier this year. Should be fun to figure out though!

  17. I only count one card without an annual fee (Chase Freedom). I would suggest that in playing the long game you want a few of these early in your life in order to punp up the Average Age of Accounts factor.

  18. @ Stannis — Absolutely, though I do (happily) pay quite a few of these annual fees. Particularly on the Alaska cards, which are our oldest accounts, given we get so much value from the companion certificates.

  19. Tiffany: How much money do you and your husband spend on annual fees and how do you make it up? Do you cancel your cards before AF is due?

  20. Seriously, how in the world do you leave that doggie? Mine cries the moment he HEARS me fetch the suitcase from the top of the closet.

  21. @ jediwho — Well, if you subtract out the Alaska cards (which I mentally do, because of the companion certs), then maybe $500-$700 depending on the year? We get a lot of retention bonuses and other benefits on the cards we keep, and those have a value to me as well, so it balances out (for me).

    If we didn’t travel as much as we do I wouldn’t keep cards like the Platinum Amex, for example, so you sorta have to weigh those perks for yourself.

  22. @ runnercm — It’s super tough! We’ve structured things so that her life is as stable as possible, so she doesn’t get upset when one of us leaves anymore. Helps with the guilt, but I of course miss her.

  23. You are the first blogger I’ve seen start a sentence with the word “Like”. 🙁 Other than that your article was informative.

  24. Where do you physically keep all of these cards, i.e. folio, safe, frozen into an ice block kept in the freezer? Surely you aren’t carrying most of them around with you on a daily basis!

  25. Out of curiosity, why no IHG card? The free annual night in any category is worth a lot more than the annual fee.

  26. Hi Tiffany,

    Is there a strategy you can recommend for someone who just moved to the states?

    We have a black lab in our family as well. We love him, and it saddens us when we travel (and also adds pressure when trying to decide for a travel plan) since we are not able to take care of him during a certain period of time (and had to send him to one of those dog hotels). I wonder how you deal with this.

  27. @ philly — Hah, thanks! Does knowing one of my degrees is in English make you feel better, or worse? 😉

  28. @ Steven L. — I have a binder with current and canceled cards, foreign currency, etc. Freezer is a good idea though!

  29. @ Christian — Totally agree, but the other Chase cards have been a bigger priority. I’d also rather have a free night at a Hyatt or Marriott where we have top-tier perks, than a free night at an Intercon with nothing. It’s a great card though.

  30. @ Norman — Are you able to apply for US credit cards? That helps significantly.

    For the pooch, it’s tough. Our situation is unique in that we have housemates nowadays, mainly because of the dog issue (between us there are three labs). All four of us travel a lot, but it works out that someone is nearly always home. Otherwise we’ve flown one of our moms down to house/dogsit, which has worked pretty well.

  31. Hi Tiffany,

    Thanks for sharing! Unfortunately neither is going to work in our situation at the moment and I guess the dog hotel will have to do. It is very sad to have him live in an unfamiliar environment though, and he lost quite a bit of weight the last time we send him their.

    The one card I can definitely get now is the HSBC Premier Card, and it should give me a credit of roughly 7,000 to begin with. I wonder as someone who doesn’t have a credit history in the US, what would be the best strategy after getting that card to eventually get those good cards.

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