Photo: Jack Zalium

As the sun sets on Cathay Pacific flight 749 from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, you take one last sip of Chablis Grand Crubefore dimming your reading light and settling in for the night. Your seat, you’re pleased to note, folds into a full-sized bed, and the duvet you pull up around your chain is roughly the texture of baby alpaca.

You’re in first class. Not only are you in first class, but you’re in first class on one of the nicest airlines world, and all it cost you was some miles from your Alaska Airlines credit card and a relatively low amount of taxes.

How exactly did you pull this off? How are you on a flight that if bought using cash would cost over $9,000 USD and cost you next to nothing?Welcome to the exciting world of credit card churning.

What is it?

Credit card churning is when you get an airline credit card, get the bonus miles, use them for free flights (I say free but you usually have to pay a small amount of taxes), close the card, and then repeat the process. It’s called “churning” because it’s usually done with several cards, closing one and opening another, often having several cards open simultaneously, the idea being that you’re always getting bonus miles from a new card, always getting free flights, and usually closing the card before you have to pay the annual fee.

For example

Say you live in Los Angeles (hub to several major airlines). You open up the Delta AmEx card and spend the required $1000 in the first three months to get the 30,000 bonus miles (the annual fee is waived the firstyear). You then use the miles for a round trip in the US, or a one way to Latin America or Europe (Paris! Rome! Tegucigalpa!). Before the year is up and you have to pay the annual fee, you close the card. You then do the same thing with the United card, spend the minimum amount, get the free flight, and close the card. At some point, you repeat this process with the EXACT SAME CARDS (or more). Congratulations! You’re now a credit card churner.

Which cards should I get?

This depends on where you live and also which cards are offering favorable bonuses (check the cards website or check handy and knowledgeable miles websites like onemileatatime.com or nerdwallet.com). If you live in Seattle, for example, the Alaska Airlines card is a great option since Seattleis their hub and besides a small annual fee they don’t make you spend any money to get the miles (almost unheard of nowadays). If you live in Florida, American or Jetblue might be a good option. And if you live in a place like Denver, Frontier might be a good option (though a better option might be to move since Frontier Airlines is terrible).

Next, take a look at what the card requires. How much do you have to spend in the first few months to get the miles? Is there an annual fee? Foreign transaction fees? What kind of bonuses are there like companion fares, access to airport lounges and free checked bags?

Lastly, take a look at the airline’s mileage chart. Some airlines require less miles for free flights, something especially evident when flying non-US routes. Delta’s partner Aeromexico, for example, only requires 10,000 for many one way inter-Latin America flights, and only 20,000 for first class. This is a steal!

This means you can fly Managua, Nicaragua to Bogota, Colombia in first class for 20,000 miles and $30 in taxes, a flight that would normally set you back close to $800.

What’s in my wallet

I’m a fairly low-level churner. Right now I have 4 cards open and miles in 5 different accounts (if you close a card you don’t lose the miles). This is perfect for me, since if I had any more I might have a hard time meeting the minimum spending requirements (important: if you can’t pay off your cards in full every month, churning is not for you). Plus, more cards are just harder to keep track of, and possibly more headache, and even despite my low-level churning, I’ve enjoyed my fair share of free flights.

Here are some of them:

  • Seattle to Barrow, Alaska (the most northern town in the US, a place where my right eyelid froze shut on the walk to the grocery store). (Alaska Airlines, coach)
  • Seattle to Medellin, Colombia (United and Copa, first class)
  • Mexico City to Paris (American Airlines, coach)
  • San Jose, Costa Rica to Seattle (Frontier Airlines, dog crate)

Air travel can be expensive, but if you play your cards right you could potentially enjoy almost free flights for the rest of your life. To get started, find the cards that work for you, the airlines that work for you, and develop your own churning system based on the aforementioned elements. Thanks to credit card churning, a life of jet-setting, first-class beds and champagne is just a quick online application away.

View 3 comments