Frequent Traveler University: What I Learned (April 26-27, 2014)

by FI Fighter on April 30, 2014

in Travel Hacking

Seattle-13

This past weekend, I attended the Frequent Traveler University (FTU) program in Seattle. While there, one of the first things I noticed was the diverse range of people in the crowd — young bucks, people around my age, and mostly older folks who are probably the best suited to play the travel hacking game (since they have the most free time and money to travel in style).

I gotta say, it was pretty awesome getting to meet up with other like-minded people. Many times, I wanted to bring up the topic of early financial independence… especially since I so strongly believe that the two games complement each other so well. I did end up engaging in some light real estate conversations with some of the people I met, and it did make me wonder, “How many other people are going full speed ahead, investing for both early FI and churning massive amounts of travel points for later?

Here is a general summary of what I got out of the event:

Earning Points is Straight-Forward

When it comes to earning points, I didn’t learn a whole lot… which is both a good and bad thing. Good because it means I’m doing something right, and on the right track, for the most part. Bad, only in the sense that I wasn’t able to pick up new strategies for earning more points…

I’m a bit of a travel hacking newbie, but it was reassuring to see that the methods I’m using to churn points were also the same ones used by the more advanced presenters.

For example, almost EVERYONE there had been participating in the Vanilla Reload game at CVS (recently ended when CVS issued a store-wide memo stating they no longer accept credit card payments). In many of the sessions, we even had a moment of silence to mourn the end of the VR game at CVS… It only lasted from around Summer 2013 until April 2014… :(

These days, the there are still many options to manufacture spend. The most popular methods are:

Visa Gift Cards and Bluebird:

  • Use credit cards to purchase Visa gift cards (Mastercard or Visa) that have debit pin for $4.95/card fee. The AMEX version of the card doesn’t have a pin, and you MUST have a pin to load the gift card onto Bluebird.
  • Purchase 10 cards per month ($500/card or $5,000 total) to load onto Bluebird (Bluebird is capped at $5,000/month load limit).
  • Go to Walmart and load $1000/day onto Bluebird, either through customer service rep, Kiosk Kate, or a cashier.

There are other alternatives to using Bluebird, such as using Serve, also owned by American Express. Serve is becoming increasingly similar to Bluebird, and at some point I will need to figure out which option is the better one moving forward. Lots of people are using Serve now because you can use online credit card loads ($200/day and $1000/month) directly to Serve… This means you can bypass the Walmart/gift card step.

Also, there are cheaper alternatives to using Visa gift cards that come with a $4.95 fee. A great alternative is to use a Simon gift card by US Bank that only charges a $2.95 fee. Give these a try, if you can find them!

Another easy way to manufacture spend is to buy money orders at Walmart:

Money Orders:

  • Use credit cards to purchase Visa gift cards (Mastercard or Visa) that have debit pin for $4.95/card fee. The AMEX version of the card doesn’t have a pin, and you MUST have a pin to load the gift card onto Bluebird.
  • Go to Walmart and purchase a $1,000 (or $2,000 if your store allows it) money order. Pay for the money order using the Visa gift cards (2x $500 cards, or 4x $500 cards). Since Walmart charges $0.70/money order, it is standard practice to ask them to input $999.30 (or $1998.60), so that your cards have enough funds to pay for the money order and the fee. Otherwise, you would need to tell them to charge the fee separately (you can pay the fee with coins or cash).
  • Once you have the money order, go to your local bank and deposit it back into your checking account.

In the very near future, I will do a step-by-step post on how to load Bluebird with debit gift cards and how to buy money orders from Walmart.

Amazon Payments is still a great way to transfer money around, although you are limited to just $1,000/month with credit card:

Amazon Payment:

  • Setup an Amazon Payment account and add a credit card.
  • Send payment with a credit card. You can only send $1,000 each month to another recipient (spouse, relative, friend, etc.) without fee.
  • Once the other party receives payment, have them re-route the funds back to your checking account.

Lastly, there was some talk about Evolve Money, which is something new for me. I haven’t considered using it yet, but it is intriguing because using Evolve Money allows you to skip the Walmart step… You use Evolve Money to pay bills (mortgage, rent, utilities, student loans, etc.), just like Bluebird.

Evolve Money:

  • Use credit cards to purchase Visa gift cards (Mastercard or Visa) that have debit pin for $4.95/card fee. The AMEX version of the card doesn’t have a pin, and you MUST have a pin to load the gift card onto Evolve.
  • Log on to Evolve Money account and pay bills directly with gift cards.

The Best Cards

At FTU, there seemed to be a strong consensus on which credit card deals are the best ones going on right now.

Citibank AAdvantage Executive Card:

AA_Executive

Without a doubt, the best credit card out there right now to earn points is the Citibank AAdvantage Executive Card. With this card, you can earn 100,000 miles for spending $10,000 in 3 months.

The best part? The Citi Executive card is churnable right now! That means you can sign up for one today… wait around 7 days and apply for a second card (I have TWO right now!)… wait another 65 days or so and you can get a third one. There were folks at FTU that had FOUR of these cards. That’s 400,000 miles! With the current AA awards chart, that’s enough miles for THREE first class round-trip flights from the U.S. to Europe (need 405,000 for Asia)!

Southwest Cards:

Southwest_Plus

The next best deal is the Companion Pass that’s made possible by signing up for two Chase Southwest cards. The 50,000 points promo comes and goes, so if it is not immediately available right now, you might just need to sit tight for a few weeks or months… They are bound to show up again.

Two Chase Southwest cards (one business and one personal card) will get you 100,000 points combined. To qualify for a Companion Pass, you will need to earn 110,000 Rapid Rewards points in a calendar year. The two cards will get you pretty much most of the way there…

Other Cards:

Outside of those two deals, the Chase Sapphire (40,000 points for spending $3,000 in three months) and Chase Ink Bold or Chase Ink Plus charge cards (50,000 points for spending $5,000 in three months) were recommended, as expected. Ultimate Reward points are valuable, and these cards will help you earn a lot of them for a minimal amount of work.

In general, Chase products are typically good and worth churning, whenever possible.

The Art of Redemption

While earning reward points and miles is pretty straight-forward, most of the skill involved is learning how to book the award tickets. A lot of times, this will require you to call an agent and spend hours on the phone, guiding them every step of the way. Here is an example of the round-the-world expedition I booked for August… Not the most complicated flight pattern, but hey, I’m still learning myself…

In order to get what you want, you must be persistent and learn not to take “no” for an answer. If I got anything from FTU, it’s that the best travel hackers are the ones who never give up without a fight.

Of course you won’t always get your way… but you need to cultivate a mentality to accept the fact that you probably won’t get a “yes” answer on your first try. Take it in stride, and learn techniques to get the other party to ultimately give you what you want. It’s an art form that can be learned and improved with experience. Just keep at it!

The Best Tips

The most useful tip (probably fixed now) given out was how to avoid paying fuel surcharges when booking with British Airways. Apparently, there was a glitch in the system that allowed you to circumvent this charge if booking with U.S. Airways dividend miles points… and only through this method.

I haven’t tried it, so can’t vouch whether this tip was accurate or not.

Other tips, such as fuel dumping (which routes to book that cause grey areas in the system which help you waive fuel surcharges), were given out and discussed. However, this topic is too advanced for me at the moment…

Lastly, if your local Walmart customer service rep has been known to give you problems when you are attempting to unload your debit gift cards to Bluebird, or to purchase money orders, here’s a trick you can use — When the rep asks to see your debit card, show them a MyVanilla prepaid Visa card… regardless of whether or not you have actual funds on the card… These cards look like legitimate debit cards and they don’t say “gift card” on them, so they won’t be subject to as much scrutiny as perhaps the other debit gift cards. When it comes time to unload the cards, wait until the rep isn’t looking, and revert back to using the “gift cards”. If you don’t have a MyVanilla, I guess you could also try any standard debit card…

Change is Constant

The days of easy earnings are coming to an end… Quite simply, the economy is improving and the bonus points and perks are no longer anywhere near as lucrative as they once were…

Further, United’s massive devaluing of its points chart earlier this year was just the start of things to come… Everyone suspects that it won’t be long before AA follows suit and announces their own new, devalued chart. AA eliminating their Explorer Awards program seemingly overnight and without any advanced warning drew the ire of many hackers…

The general vibe I got was that the travel hacking game will soon shift from credit card companies offering massive sign on bonuses, to new products requiring the end user to make lots of recurring purchases. The American Express EveryDay card got a lot of mention, and many suspect that other credit cards will soon follow suit.

EveryDay Card:

Use your Card 20 or more times on purchases in a billing period and get 20% more points on those purchases less returns and credits. Terms and limitations apply.

You become incentivized to use the card more often to earn more (higher) bonus miles/points.

Closing

Lastly, most everyone is still sad about the demise of the CVS Vanilla Reloads… But, the travel hacking game will continue on. Just like in the past with the elimination of the 5x Office Depot Vanilla Reloads, and the U.S. Mint Coins before that…

Change is constant. When one door closes, just be patient and another one will open up, eventually. Always be adaptable! And don’t give up so easily… I’m going to take what I learned from my fellow travel hackers and do my best to apply this knowledge over into my investing game.

It’s good to hang out with travel hackers… It’s good to network with real estate and dividend investors… There’s definitely lots to learn! As an early FI enthusiast, I’m trying my best to merge those two worlds together so that I can maximize life. :)

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Income SurferNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 4:47 am

Nice post Fighter. I think I’m going to get on that Southwest deal because that’s what we use to see my wife’s parents. We’re not paying $400 round trip per person!
-Bryan

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2 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:13 pm

Bryan,

That’s a great deal and I hope you’re able to get the companion pass as well. Yeah, who wants to pay $400 for domestic travel?

Take care!

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3 Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful LifeNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 5:37 am

Thanks for sharing. I just used the travel hack on my Barclaycard to get to Europe so I’m shopping for the next one. Maybe the AA, but I don’t want them to devalue my miles just before I’m able to use them.

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4 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Stefanie,

Awesome! Yeah, the AA one is great and I would definitely recommend doing that if you’re able to. I think you’ll have some time before any more changes take place… but you never know with these things.

All the best!

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5 Even StevenNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 6:38 am

You mentioned early in the article about bringing up FI during the event, did you eventually bring this up while you were there and chat with some people?

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6 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Even Steven,

No, I held back from bringing up the topic of early FI. The closest I got was talking about real estate investing with some folks… Most of the folks I met were quite a bit older than me, and were probably already FI, haha.

Cheers!

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7 AlexNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:19 am

I know what you are saying about meeting like minded people. It’s pretty cool to meet people who actually want to talk with you about credit cards and points and don’t roll their eyes haha.

I went to a FTU in LA and it always surprises me how intensely people chase points, but few of them seem to be chasing FI as well. In fact, some of them would rather fork over $$ for status or other things that don’t seem all that valuable. Sure you aren’t paying full price, but it still seems like a waste. To each their own I guess

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8 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Alex,

FTU was definitely fun and I would love to go again… Actually, now I’m really wanting to go to an early FI event (if such a thing even exists).

Yeah, there are some really crazy, hardcore travel hackers out there… I bow down to these folks… Some are much younger than me and have already traveled to like 60+ countries… Pretty impressive stuff.

Yeah, same here — my main focus is early FI. I like to travel well and cheap, but I know my limits… The game for me is all about value, but I won’t go overboard with it. That would hurt the early FI progress, and we can’t have that! :)

Cheers!

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9 The First Million is the HardestNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:56 am

Interesting, I don’t know much about the travel hacking game. The credit card companies don’t frown upon this kind of thing just to rack up the points, or do they just not care so long as they’re collecting the swipe fees etc…?

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10 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Jay,

No, I don’t think the credit card companies care too much… When they do care, they simply stop offering the massive bonuses, or make whatever changes they need to in the points programs to still attract enough customers, yet still make money.

Exactly, they make money on each swipe, so as long as they are profitable, they’ll leave us alone… or encourage us to spend more.

Take care!

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11 JC @ Passive-Income-PursuitNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 10:00 am

I really need to devote some more time to travel hacking. There’s just no sense in not doing it if you’re wanting to travel more. It’s a shame the VR got shut down but I’m sure someone will find a great way around it.

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12 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:21 pm

JC,

Travel hacking is very lucrative, which is why I do it. I think it’s worth the time investment, but it does take time, which I realize not everyone has.

VR is gone, but there are still ways to play this game… I personally don’t mind making the Walmart trips since I’m located close to one… but it is more hassle for sure.

All the best!

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13 Dave @ The New York BudgetNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 2:18 pm

I am definitely a slow, beginner travel hacker at this point. I feel analysis paralysis much more with travel hacking than I do with things that cost a lot more money (like real estate investing!) I’m not sure why this is, but I definitely want to continue to learn.

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14 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Dave,

Haha, that is kind of funny b/c I would imagine buying a rental property being way more nerve racking! ;)

I’ll do some intro posts shortly, so maybe those will help a bit? I know when I start something new, I like to see step-by-step guides… Once you get over the initial learning curve, it becomes like any other thing.

All the best!

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15 FlyerMNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Good post FI. You’re 100% correct that the art of collecting miles is only half the game, the other half is redeeming them correctly. Most people enter this hobby after only researching 1 side of the coin, and will then pursue a strategy that the ends up being a waste of time or costing them more than alternative options/routes.

As a Travel Hacker myself, I totally recommend picking a destination(s) PRIOR to signing up for a bunch of cards or starting to earn any miles/points. That way you at least have an idea of 1) Which airline/alliance you need miles for 2) Which hotel chain you need points for. Only then can you map out a strategy and see your plan through.

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16 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Flyer M,

Thanks! Yeah, I definitely agree that knowing how to redeem is at least half, if not more of the battle. Earning points is pretty straight-forward, and most everyone will agree on what the best deals are at any given time.

Great advice there and I hope beginners see your comment. Yes, it does help to have an end goal in mind (same like early FI!), so that you can plan accordingly.

I would also say, start small and try out a few cards… fly around first class once and stay at a hotel for free… After that, it just becomes insanely addicting and you’ll have the urge to churn more points/miles.

Take care!

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17 Addison @ Cashville SkylineNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 6:29 pm

I’m using the Barclay Arrival MasterCard to save up for an international flight right now. I’ve got about $600 to spend so far, but I’ll probably wait until I reach $1,000 to cash it in. Probably to Iceland! I’ve got the Companion Pass on Southwest Airlines and various points from other airlines that need to be cashed in. I travel so much for work that it’s hard to stay motivated to travel hack sometimes.

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18 FI FighterNo Gravatar April 30, 2014 at 9:26 pm

Addison,

I hear you on that… I don’t fly around much for work anymore, but when I did, I also grew tired of flying around so much.

Sounds great! Hope you get a chance to go on a nice, relaxing vacation soon.

The Companion Pass is awesome! I’m making use of one right now…

Take care!

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19 Done by FortyNo Gravatar May 1, 2014 at 7:58 am

Thanks for sharing this info. We’re travel hacking newbies as well, but that’s par for the course with us. We’re just now getting into real estate investing, now that the salad days are ending. :)

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20 FI FighterNo Gravatar May 5, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Done by Forty,

I think you’re getting in at a good time. REI and travel hacking aren’t as lucrative as before, but it’s definitely not too late!

Hope you can get in on some of the great travel hacking deals soon.

All the best!

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21 SuzanneNo Gravatar May 5, 2014 at 7:11 am

Hi – I’m new to your website and getting lots of tips on Financial Freedom and gaining travel points. One question about Bluebird? Do folks buy VISA giftcards, transfer them to Bluebird, then turn around and pay off their VISA bills with these same funds? I wondered if this is legal? Thanks for you informative site.

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22 FI FighterNo Gravatar May 5, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Suzanne,

Some folks do that, although I would caution more against it… I would use Bluebird to pay for other things, if possible. At least use Bluebird to maybe pay off a different credit card, and not the one you used to purchase the gift card…

In general, it’s usually a good idea to avoid circular loops: A buys B; B transfer to C; C pays back A.

Mix and match spending as well. Don’t only use a credit card to buy gift cards…

Hope that helps! :)

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23 AnnyNo Gravatar May 6, 2014 at 7:53 pm

“The best part? The Citi Executive card is churnable right now! That means you can sign up for one today… wait around 7 days and apply for a second card (I have TWO right now!)” –What do you mean by churning? Does that mean you can apply for a card numerous times and get one card each time? Sorry, newbie to this vocab

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24 FI FighterNo Gravatar May 9, 2014 at 9:40 am

Anny,

Yes, it means you can have multiples of the same card… Not every card or company will let you do this.

The Citi Executive is great since you don’t have to wait very long before opening a second card. And they are nice enough to let you earn bonus miles (100k) on EACH card.

Hope that clears it up!

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