How I Flew Business Class from Bangkok to Washington, D.C. for $55
Written by Mr.David DeLorimier, experienced credit card schemer, travel hacking aficionado, and fiance to The Curious Dabbler. Edited by The Curious Dabbler.
Anyone who knows me knows that one of my favorite hobbies is experimenting with different credit card “schemes” to get travel rewards. In general, credit card companies are evil.
They make money off the little guy (or gal) lacking a sound understanding of credit lending by making it really easy to get a credit card, only to charge previously hopeful individual an exorbitant sum of money on interest. The result of which eventually leaves him (or her) jaded and debt ridden, possibly for years to come. My way of “sticking it to the man” is to take advantage of as many credit card sign up bonuses, airline rewards perks, and loyalty program loopholes as I can find. A lot of my friends (including The Curious Dabbler herself...although, I am slowly convincing her to see the light) hear about these programs and write them off as crazy or unrealistic, due to deep seated trust issues they have with credit card companies or their lack of desire to take on more “debt”.
My goal in sharing my personal experiences of how I’ve taken full advantage of several credit card rewards programs is to illuminate just how easy it really is and how much free stuff there is to be gained.
This particular scheme began a few months before we left the States for our 5 month trip to teach English in Thailand. In September, Kristen and I combined all of our Chase points to buy 2 one way Business Class flights to Bangkok, which presented us with a new opportunity to rebuild our point reservoir back up from ground zero. Here’s the problem with flying Business Class - once you do it, you think it’s the only way to fly. So, added to our pre-departure to-do list was my side project of figuring out how to get home in style, without having to spend our wedding fund. On September 13th, after booking our flights to Bangkok, we had 0 points to our name. By December 10th, we had booked 2 Business Class flights from Bangkok to Washington D.C. valued at $13,770 for only $224 of actual money.
For the purpose of this post, I’ve broken down the process into 3 digestible steps:
1. Picking the Credit Card
2. Getting the Points
3. Picking the Flight
1. Picking the Credit Card: Citi ThankYou Premier - The first step to any solid credit card scheme is to pick the card (or sometimes cards) that you’ll use to accrue the rewards points. There are a few things to consider when choosing your card:
Overall Rewards Program - The best cards have solid rewards programs associated with them, but you should do your research to learn exactly what you can use the points for once you earn them. My favorite (and consensus best among our friends) rewards program is Chase Ultimate Rewards. Chase points are easy to accumulate and can be directly transferred to 9 well known airlines and 4 major hotel chains. (Side note - another advertised way to book flights and hotels with Chase points is using the Chase travel portal, but that is almost always a significantly worse deal than transferring to partners!). Over the last few years, I’ve signed up and benefited from all of Chase’s major credit cards. In full transparency, I am currently in somewhat of a “time out” from them, due to their 5/24 rule (max of 5 Chase cards in 24 months), which led me to discover a new loyalty program, the Citi ThankYou program. Less popular than the Chase Ultimate Rewards, the Citi ThankYou program still has a lot to offer consumers, including 15 different airline partners, a few of which I’d never looked into before.
Sign Up Bonus - The second (and often most important) thing to consider when picking a card is the sign up bonus. While you can always earn points on cards by spending money in your regular day-to-day life, the best way to get the maximum value is to use a credit card with a solid sign up bonus. Good sign up bonuses are between 30,000-40,000 points, great ones are 50,000+ points, and the legendary Chase Sapphire Reserve was an astounding 100,000 points. Chase eventually smartened up and cut the deal, as it was legitimately so good that it reportedly caused the rewards programs to lose money. The main reason I chose the Citi ThankYou Premier card was due to a special they were running, which offered 60,000 ThankYou points after spending $4,000 in your first 3 months. For some people it’s fairly easy to hit that limit, for others it may be outside of their normal spending range (and comfort zones). If you fall in the second category of people, don’t worry. We cover this issue in section 2: Getting the Points. Kristen and I had to embrace our creativity in order to hit the limit for the second Citi ThankYou Premier card; we offer our personal experience on exactly how we accomplished this.
Referral Bonus - Another type of sign up bonus typically offered by rewards programs is a referral bonus. This type of bonus provides the current card holder with 5,000-10,000 bonus points for referring a new member (who applied for and was accepted to become a card holder themselves). While this method doesn’t help the new card member at all, it's a nice way to spread the love and help out your points hungry friends!
General Points Accrual - The last thing to consider when signing up for a card is the general points accrual process that kicks in after the sign up bonus is awarded to your account. This is probably the least important of the three for me. Personally, once I hit the spending limit on a new card to get the sign up bonus, I typically resume exclusive use of my Chase Sapphire Reserve card since the benefits are so good. That being said, an important aspect to consider when researching the general points accrual process of your potential new card is the opportunities that exist to earn double or triple points on purchases like restaurants, travel, or grocery shopping. You should also investigate any other monthly bonuses that will help you passively accrue points with your regular day to day spending. After considering these aspects, I signed up for the Citi ThankYou Premier card in September and Kristen followed suit in October, before we left for our trip.
2. Getting the Points - This particular scheme is a great example of two of the three ways you can hit a credit card sign up spending limit, without necessarily spending the money:
Spend the Money - The first, most straightforward, and most common way is probably exactly what you are thinking - just spend the money. In September, when I got the card, I used it for everything. I hit the limit within three months and got the first sign up bonus. Nowadays, with apps like Venmo you can offer to pick up group tabs, book group concert tickets, or group trip accommodations to hit your limit and request your friends Venmo you afterwards. In our group of friends it’s almost certain that there’s someone trying to hit some kind of credit card spending limit. Chances are when there’s a group tab someone offers to take it, so it works out well.
Align the Sign Up Bonus Time Frame with Your Big Expenses - The second way to hit the sign up bonus spending limit requires a bit more planning and flexibility depending on when you need the points, but can still help you hit the spending limit without spending any extra money on fees. With this method, simply sign up for the card when you know you have some big expenses coming up. For example, if you’re moving into a new place where you know you’ll have to spend extra money on moving expenses and new furniture, that's a great time to get a new credit card. Other examples include planning a group trip, shopping for gifts during holiday season, or planning a big event like a wedding (cough cough @TheCuriousDabbler). With a little planning, you can align the timing of acquiring a new card with a sick sign up bonus with the time you’ll need to make big purchases. Then you can use the card to your advantage and ultimately reap the rewards and maybe even a free trip!
Employ the Venmo Trick - The third way to hit the sign up bonus spending limit is the least ideal. In this method, you ultimately have to spend extra money on fees, but if you’re in a pinch you can do it in such a way that still make the points worth it. Once I hit my sign up bonus spending limit, we still had to hit Kristen’s and the timing was not exactly ideal. We had just become proud new members of the Thailand education work force and while our new salary allowed us to live quite comfortably, the cash oriented lifestyle in Thailand cut our credit card use to practically $0. We had to get creative. In order to hit Kristen’s spending limit we resorted to using Venmo. Full disclosure, I only recommend this method in a pinch because it does cost extra money! You simply attach your credit card to your Venmo account and send money to a *trusted* friend through Venmo with your credit card. The friend receives your Venmo payment through their Venmo account and sends it back to you. This method works because the credit card company lends the money to Venmo, which becomes cash in your friends Venmo balance. When your friend sends it back to you, you can then use that same money to pay off your credit card bill. Now, this is where the extra money comes into play. Apparently, a few years ago (unfortunately, before I got into the credit card scheme game) there was no fee associated with this transaction, so rewards points members could rack up points on points without holding back. Sadly, digital payment services like Venmo and Paypal eventually wisened up. In order to prevent this, they added a 3% charge to any credit card payments using their service. In our situation, we ultimately decided that the $112.50 (3% of $3,750 remaining on her limit) of our own money was worth it to reach our end goal of obtaining a one way Business Class flight back home. But it’s definitely something you should consider if you’re thinking of employing this handy “Venmo trick” (as we’ve aptly named it). One last note - this trick can also be used to help out with the last few dollars of that spending limit if you’re nearing the end of the sign up bonus time frame and don’t foresee any major expenses coming up that would push you through the finish line. Just remember to keep in mind that there’s a pesky 3% fee!
3. Picking the Flight - The final step is the most fun (at least for nerds like me!) So now you are “virtually” rich and have amassed a large sum of points to spend on a life of luxury. Depending on which card you have, you usually have a few airlines to choose from. I find it helpful to go to sites like ThePointsGuy.com to read reviews of the best Business or First Class products. One interesting thing about airline loyalty programs is that they almost all share flights with other airlines via some kind of alliance. Let’s say you’re flying to Asia. Now, you’re first instinct might be to look into flights operated by Asian airlines. However, this might not actually be the best deal! Our particular case was a prime example of this: the best bang for our buck was actually through a program called LifeMiles, the frequent flyer program of Colombian: Airline Avianca S.A.! Yes, the Colombia of South America, whose major hubs include Bogota and Lima. There were a few reasons LifeMiles was the best deal for us. First, they’re a Partner of Citi ThankYou points with the standard 1:1 immediate transfer option. Second, due to the alliance concept I mentioned above, they offered a business class route from Bangkok to Washington D.C. (with one stop in Copenhagen) on Thai Airways and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), both offering above average Business Class products (per the Points Guy). Another small positive, that wasn’t a determining factor but more of a side note I will keep in mind for future flights, was how easy it was to use the LifeMiles search engine (you can search flights by class) and their general booking experience. Finally, the most significant factor in choosing this flight was the 25% point bonus deal that Citi and LifeMiles were running at the time. For every 1 point transferred from Citi, we received 1.25 LifeMiles, giving us each 80,000 LifeMiles to play with. Keep an eye out for stuff like this because that was the difference in flying on quality airlines with miles to spare or flying Air China (notoriously poor in flight product) after spending extra money.
The Final Breakdown (TL/DR Version)
See below for a quick recap/timeline of this whole process from start to finish:
Mid September: Signed up for Credit Card #1
Late October: Signed up for Credit Card #2
Early December: Hit the spending limit bonus for Credit Card #1 by using it for regular spending over the next couple months
Credit Card #1 Points Accrued: 64,000 (4,000 on $ spent + 60,000 bonus)
Early December: Used the “Venmo Trick” to hit the spending limit bonus for Credit Card #2
Cost: $112.50 (3% fee on $3,750)
Credit Card #2 Points Accrued: 64,000 (4,000 on $ spent + 60,000 bonus)
Mid-December Transferred Points from Citi ThankYou Rewards to Avianca LifeMiles
LifeMiles Accrued: 78,750 per account (63,000 * 1.25)
Mid-December: Booked 2 Business Class flights on Thai Airways and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) using Avianca LifeMiles
Cost: $111.18 ($55.59 per flight in taxes and booking fees)
For those of you keeping score at home that’s $223.68 out-of-pocket for 2 Business Class flights from Bangkok to Washington, D.C.! A couple of quick google searches showed that a similar flight on economy would have cost around $1,400 for both of us, a reasonable Business Class flight would have cost around $6,000, and the exact same itinerary we booked with Thai Airways and SAS would have cost almost $14,000!