The Credit Card Points Game

Photos from 2018 and 2019 trips that have been paid for with points. Clockwise from top left: trekking to Gokyo-Ri in Nepal (Everest in the background), family trip to Osaka in Japan, family trip to the Dolomites in Italy, diving off the coast of Belize. That’s 10 roundtrip tickets that I’ve bought with points in the past 18 months, plus 4 more to Hawaii very soon.

My family of four is headed to Hawaii this summer and our airfare is free. Well, I should clarify that we are technically paying for the airfare, but we are paying with points rather than dollars. I’ve written about my Hawaii strategy in the past, but the reality is that most of the international trips that I’ve taken over the past decade have been paid for with points. Playing the “credit card points game” is a great way to save on travel costs and I’ve certainly benefited from participating.

Without getting into the details of where the points come from, who pays for them, or how to maximize their value (check out thepointsguy.com or flyertalk.com for in-depth knowledge and strategies) below are some general guidelines for playing the credit card points game.

  1. The biggest value is in the sign-up bonuses. Opening a new card and spending some specified dollar amount within a few months typically yields tens of thousands of points. Although there are opportunities to arbitrage the difference in airfares that are denominated in points vs those denominated in dollars, most points are worth 1-3 cents each. Thus, the bonus from opening a new card can easily be worth over $1,000. Points can also be accumulated by spending, but a simple cashback card will often deliver the same value as a card offering points (~2 cents per dollar spent). A common strategy (called “churning”) is to open a new card and spend enough to collect the bonus, before moving on to another card, and repeating this over and over.
  2. Keep a spreadsheet. Many cards charge an annual fee upon account opening or after one year. These fees can offset a portion or even all of the benefit from sign-up bonuses, so it is important to cancel each card before an avoidable fee hits. Tracking multiple cards and when to cancel them can be difficult without a spreadsheet.

I should note that the credit card points game is not for everyone as the benefits can be more than offset in the following cases:

  1. Someone who cannot keep a spreadsheet and cancel cards as needed. Fees could wipe out the potential benefits.
  2. Someone who has trouble regulating their spending. Accumulating points could become an incentive to spend more than one would otherwise and could more than offset the benefit.
  3. Someone who needs the very best credit score. Churning is not typically impactful to someone’s credit score in the long-term, but I would not recommend opening multiple cards in quick succession immediately before applying for a mortgage as the lower score and resulting higher mortgage rate could more than offset the benefits from points.

Also, a final word of caution: the credit card points game can become a hobby in and of itself, similar to investing, sports, or politics. Just ask my wife, who instagrammed the below from a recent wedding:

Full Disclosure: Nothing on this site should ever be considered to be advice, research or an invitation to buy or sell any securities, please see my Disclosures & Disclaimers page for a full disclaimer.