Burn Miles, Not Money Part 2: Credit Scores and Itinerary Tools

The first step to credit card churning is checking your credit score. In all seriousness, if you don’t have a score above 700, you won’t get far with churning. In fact, you really shouldn’t try to churn. I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t apply for any credit cards at all if your score isn’t that high, I’m saying you shouldn’t get involved with churning. If you really want to churn, work to get your credit score higher first.

I’m not going to go into detail about credit scores here or how they work, so spend time on MyFico reading if you want to become better versed on the complicated issue. In the churning world, a high score is necessary because it will give you access to the best airline rewards cards. Also, having a high score will provide you a buffer for when your score temporarily drops when you open multiple cards (see MyFico for explanation). The higher your score is, the less impact this has on any offers that may be available to you.

To learn your score, your first stop should be CreditKarma. This is a free service that offers an estimate of your TransUnion credit score. The second free resource is Credit Sesame, which provides an estimate of your Experian score. Using these two, you can get a good idea of what your credit score should be. These are called FAKO scores because they do not provide your actual FICO scores, but estimates (fake scores). As a result, they can potentially be wildly inaccurate, but for most people, it’s pretty close. Our have always been within 5-10 points of our actual scores. If after reviewing these two estimates you feel confident about your score, head to MyFico.com and sign up for the free, 10-day trial of Score Watch, which gives you access to your Equifax FICO score.

What effect did churning have on our credit scores? For Anais, they hovered around the same number and never changed much. I opened the majority of the cards under my name, so my experience more accurately reflects what churning does to your scores. My Credit Sesame score started at 759, hit a low point of 706, and is now sitting at 760. My Credit Karma score started at 752, hit a low of 734, and has now rebounded back to 754. The drops were expected, but after a short amount of time, the scores returned back to pre-churn levels. I expect they will continue to climb even higher during our trip as some of the accounts age.

The lesson? Generally speaking, smart credit card churners increase their credit scores while earning hundreds of thousands or millions of miles and points. Which they use to travel around the world. For next to nothing. Get my point?

Feeling good about your credit score?

No? E-mail me. I will give you honest-to-goodness advice about whether or not I think you should consider churning. Even if your credit isn’t stellar, it may be worth it to apply for a card or two. Fair Warning - If you score is below 700, chances are I will tell you to work on improving your credit before you try.

For those of you feeling comfortable with your score, your next step is to read these posts. These are just a few beginner guides that will help you build a good base for successful churning. Other resources that have been priceless in our mileage-earning journey have been:

  • FlyerTalk’s Miles and Points Forum - Specifically, MilesBuzz!, Credit Card Programs, and Manufactured Spend
  • MileValue - A real genius when it comes to stretching your miles with each redemption
  • View from the Wing - One of the best. Talks about the airline/hotel industry in addition to credit cards.
  • Frugal Travel Guy - A great blog to start reading if you want to learn more about churning.
  • Frequent Miler - Trying to find ways to meet your minimum spend? Go here and read carefully as the tricks here are definitely not for beginners. He earned over 1 million miles in March, 2013.
  • Hack My Trip  - Another great resource. Scott and Amol do a great job explaining things in an easy-to-understand way.

If you’re serious about churning, start following some of these blogs in addition to all the travel blogs. Just add a “Churning” section to your RSS reader and add the ones you like.

Tools for Planning your Flightinerary

  1. Wikipedia: The airport articles are usually up to date and will have all the flights that emanate from a given airport. Look at the LAX entry as an example and find Korean Airlines. I bet you expected to see Seoul, but how many of you knew they fly the only non-stop flight between LAX and São Paulo (until Nov. 2013, when American is set to add service)? Or that LAN flies from Easter Island to Tahiti? This is also a good place to find out where budget airlines fly.
  2. Alliance Timetables (oneworld and Star Alliance, and SkyTeam): Once you’ve found the cities you want to fly between, use the timetables to see which airlines can get you there and what the flight schedules are.
  3. Airline Websites: Once you have your cities and approximate dates, your next step is to visit the airline websites to find out (1) how many miles the flights will cost and (2) if there are flights currently available. For award redemptions using AAdvantage miles, click here to see the costs for flying on American planes and here for redemptions on their oneworld and other partner airlines. For United, use this interactive tool to see the costs between different regions (if the tool is giving you issues, this PDF has the same information on pages 2 and 3).

We share these tools now because you need to have a general idea of (1) your itinerary, in flying terms (not every single place you'll visit, just the cities you'll fly between); (2) which airlines service the routes you’ll be flying, and (3) how many miles are needed for all the flights you’ll be taking. This information will help you decide which programs you need to focus your churning on and which cards you should apply for to earn the miles you need. It won’t help you to have 5 million United miles if the most important stop on your trip is Easter Island. So, sketch out a rough itinerary, check out the alliance timetables and Wikipedia to find out who flies the routes you need, and then tally approximately how many miles you’ll need for each program.

Next post we'll show you the cards we churned and share some general advice about churning that we learned.