It was 2011, and Bryce Conway wanted to travel during spring break. So he did what any broke college student would do: He started googling for cheap flights.
He didn’t come up with anything he could afford. From that point forward, though, he noticed that all the ads on his search result pages began touting airline credit cards. Their promises of cash-back rewards and points that could be redeemed for fabulous free trips seemed too good to be true, but he decided to test one out anyway.
“I looked at my $1,000 textbook bill for the semester, and I said, ‘Let’s try this and see what happens,’ ” Conway tells MONEY.
What happened was the discovery of a new passion—one that has taken Conway all over the world for free and even kick-started a profitable business.
“I went from lamenting with my friends that I couldn’t afford to travel to ‘I just went to Florida and Las Vegas because I couldn’t pick between the two,’ ” Conway says. “One of my friends asked me if I’d started selling drugs.”
No drugs were involved, but something just as addicting was. Conway had stumbled onto the magic of credit card churning, a strategy that entails applying for as many credit cards as possible for the sole purpose of taking advantage of sign-up bonuses and rewards points to save thousands of dollars a year on travel and other lifestyle perks. He quickly became an expert at the points game, and he started the website 10xTravel.com to share the fascinating practice with as many people as possible. The site now has more than 20,000 members in its Facebook group, 50,000 unique readers each month—and pulls in six-figure profits every year. While running the site, Conway has continued to go on lavish trips around the world virtually for free.
Conway says he and his site don’t endorse the extreme methods some churners employ to rack up points, which can lead to account closures. Credit card churning is a clever—and risky—way to finance expensive trips and travel in style. Sophisticated churners use rewards points to fly first-class to destinations like Hawaii, Australia, and Japan or stay in penthouse suites at exclusive hotels, all for practically nothing. Why pay $20,000 when you can use 200,000 points instead?
Also referred to as travel hacking, it’s not for the faint of heart. It requires supreme organizational skills, a knack for personal money management, and a tolerance for engaging in behavior frowned upon by some credit card issuers and personal finance experts. Done well, though, the rewards (no pun intended) can be impressive.
As churning has become more popular, online communities like Conway’s have sprung up to share their know-how. Given all the complexities of the practice, it’s crucial for adherents to gather and compare notes. Many also use the forums to share details of their grand, rewards-fueled vacations. And others, like Conway, use them to make money, partnering with issuers to drive new customers to their credit cards.
Going all in on churning is a big commitment, but there are useful lessons to be gleaned from this community even for more casual card users. Here are some of the best tips and tricks from the Internet’s top churners.
1. Pick the right cards
Alycia Moore, a 29-year-old wedding photographer based in San Francisco, said she received incorrect advice from other online travel hacking groups before finding 10xTravel.
“There’s a lot of bad information out there,” Moore tells MONEY. “I got the wrong cards at first because I was in the wrong group. When I found 10xT, it was nice because I could ask all the questions I had without feeling like an idiot.”
When Moore says the “wrong” cards, she is referring to one of the most important tenets of travel hacking—the 5/24 rule. The 5/24 rule is the Chase Bank policy that states you cannot qualify for any Chase credit card if you have taken out more than five credit cards from any issuer in the past 24 months. This includes store credit cards, like a Nordstrom account. The 5/24 rule is significant to churners because Chase cards are among the best, if not the best, rewards cards out there. The indisputable advice among churners is to start with Chase cards. More than half of Chase Sapphire Rewards cardmembers are millennials, and they’re likely to be heavy users.
Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred are considered the top two Chase options. Once you have your Chase cards? Ignore everything your mother told you, churners say, and take out as many credit cards as possible. Serious travel hackers can have anywhere from 20 to 50 credit cards.
Despite getting locked out of Chase cards early on, Moore was still able to go on a three-week trip to Africa with her boyfriend almost entirely on points. The couple saved a whopping $17,000 by combining points from multiple credit cards, enabling them to enjoy the trip of a lifetime they could not otherwise have afforded. Moore is lucky in that she can put expenses from her photography business on her personal card, which allowed her in just six months to rack up part of the 295,000 points they used for Africa, but many churners say they’re able to go on the same kinds of expensive trips from their regular monthly spending. She and her boyfriend also used points accrued on his Chase Sapphire Reserve card to book first-class flights to Cape Town, and they were able to spend 14 free nights at various hotels.
2. Know how credit works — and get organized
The churning community bucks the conventional wisdom that holding a high number of credit cards is financially irresponsible.
“A common misconception in all this is that opening credit cards hurts your score. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Matt Brown, a self-employed web developer from North Carolina who says he hasn’t paid for an airline ticket since 2016. He estimates he now has around 30 to 40 cards and his wife has another 20 to 25.
Brown says his credit score rose from 710 to around 800 since getting into the travel hacking game, thanks to something called credit utilization—the ratio between the total balance you owe on your credit cards and the total credit limits on all your cards. The more credit cards you take out, the higher your credit limit and the more available credit you have; so if you aren’t carrying debt, your credit utilization should be low.
Credit utilization is one of five factors credit agencies take into account when calculating your credit score, but it is weighted more heavily than some of the other factors, making up 30% of the total—meaning it’s key to raising your FICO score, which is used by lenders to evaluate your credit risk.
“Most people who are pros can easily have $300,000 to $400,000 of credit extended to them across a number of different banks, but their utilization rates are probably less than 5%,” Brown says.
Experienced churners are confident in their money management abilities, but people starting out should understand the potential risks involved in using multiple credit cards at once. Missing a payment or landing in debt could seriously impact your creditworthiness.
“It can go wrong very quickly,” Rod Griffin, director of consumer education and awareness at Experian, tells MONEY when asked about churning. “You could do serious damage to your credit history, which then can impact your ability to obtain credit when you need it in the future.”
In any case, carrying a balance on which you owe interest will effectively cancel out any free travel perks you earn. You’re actually paying for the trips everyone else is taking for free; credit companies can offer complimentary rewards programs because customers who are in debt more than make up for those costs with the interest they pay.
“If you can’t pay your credit card bill in full, on time every month, you have no part in this game,” says Brown. “Those are the people that fund what we’re able to take advantage of.”
Most serious credit card hackers spend at least five solid hours a week, often more, managing their cards. Moore uses spreadsheets to stay on top of everything because it can be “totally overwhelming,” she admits.
“You have to be really dedicated. A lot of people don’t want to do the work that’s necessary or do the research,” she says, but “it’s definitely addicting.”
Doing the math to redeem points and plan trips (a more complex process than for a regular vacation) becomes more of a mindset than a chore. Many points devotees’ spreadsheets track important dates such as when they opened the card, when they have to hit a minimum spending amount, when to cancel or downgrade before an annual fee kicks in, and any log-ins and password information. Some set phone alarms as reminders to keep the stats up-to-date.
3. Spend smart
Many impressive credit card rewards come with daunting spending requirements. For example, if you need to spend $4,000 in three months to qualify for a 50,000-point sign-up bonus and you make only $45,000 a year, you might think it’s out of the question. Churners employ hacks like manufactured spending—charging purchases on a credit card in ways that allow them to still apply that money toward their balance—to ensure they can achieve the minimum spend no matter their monthly income.
But proceed with caution: Credit card companies frown on this behavior. If they become suspicious of your account activity, they can shut it down at their discretion. Instances of this happening are rare, churners say, and occur only when people seriously abuse their cards.
People get inventive when it comes to hitting the minimum spend. A relatively simple way is to use your card to send money to friends via peer-to-peer transactions, or electronic money transfers, and then ask them to pay you back via check or cash. Another trick is buying prepaid gift cards for yourself (i.e., a Visa or American Express card you can buy at CVS) and converting them into cash (you should also be able to pay some monthly bills like car loans). If the minimum spend on a card is $3,000 and your take-home pay allows you to spend only $2,000, you can buy two $500 gift cards to hit the $3,000 requirement.
For people who aren’t comfortable experimenting outside their regular spending, there are airline shopping portals. Aletha Alexander buys everything she can through Delta’s shopping portal to earn points. The 35-year-old stay-at-home mom says she doesn’t use any special tricks other than the portal, which allows you to shop at popular stores like Walmart, Sephora, and Home Depot while earning double or triple the number of points you would accrue if you were shopping in the physical store or going directly to its website.
“You don’t want to break the bank trying to get miles,” she says. With shopping portals, “you can amass a decent number of points very quickly.”
Points were a game changer when she didn’t have an income as an undergraduate student at Rutgers University. She used 95,000 points to fly to Shanghai—where she stayed at the Ritz-Carlton, also on points—and has traveled as well to hard-to-reach places like Tunisia. She has flown to Aruba on points multiple times.
You can achieve minimum spending the old-fashioned way too—putting group dinners on your credit card and having friends Venmo you, or using your card to cover reimbursable expenses while traveling for work.
Being clever with points is especially valuable for someone like Rose Trafford, 29, a teacher who lives in a small town in Iowa, where flights out of the local airport are more expensive than from major hubs like LAX or JFK. With rewards programs, tickets out of different airports often cost the same amount of points, so she only has to spend in points what she would if she were flying out of a cheaper airport.
“Our miles can actually go much further,” Trafford says. Trafford’s best advice for beginners is to take it slow and start with one card. She recently flew business-class to China using 80,000 points, saving herself about $5,300.
4. Share in the fun
Travel hacking tends to work best if you have someone to do it with. Part of the allure of credit card churning isn’t just to travel but rather to experience luxury travel—often to exotic locales. You’ll probably want to show off.
Brown and his wife flew business-class to Australia to celebrate their fifth anniversary earlier this year—a trip that would normally have cost the couple $20,466. They paid only $343.80 by using points. The Browns stayed at the Park Hyatt in Sydney and in Melbourne using mostly Chase points, which they earned from 12 separate credit cards.
“We enjoy spending time together exploring new places and cultures,” he says. “We don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”
Even if you like to travel solo, truly successful travel hacking means being part of an active online community like 10xTravel or Reddit’s /r/churning. Churning is virtually impossible to get good at without the collective intelligence of a group of like-minded obsessives who consistently research new cards and sign-up bonuses to figure out how to play the rules to the cardholder’s advantage.
“The game changes constantly,” says Brown. It’s not realistic for one person to stay up-to-date.
If you can’t persuade people to dive into the points world with you, you can still share the benefits. Moore and her boyfriend are taking three friends to the Dominican Republic to celebrate some of their birthdays in January, all with points. She booked the equivalent of $3,500 in flights using rewards.
“Most of the friends I’ve tried to convince think I’m a little crazy when I try to explain everything,” she says. “Then they see the types of trips I go on.”