The mid-year progress report I’ve been putting off writing for two months because I’m so lazy.

This has been a good year for my actual traveling — including a hike in the Faroe Islands that may be one of my top two or three travel experiences ever — but on the credit card side of things, it has kind of sucked. I’ve written about this a little bit already, and the stats speak for themselves: in 2015-2017, we applied for 39 cards (between Justine, me, and my business) and were denied twice, whereas in 2018, we’ve applied for eight cards and been denied thrice.

Churning is catching up with us, and this is the biggest thing that concerns me moving forward. It’s getting to the point where instant approvals are cause for surprise and celebration, rather than a matter of course. Most worrisome is that two of the denials (Capital One Venture and Citi Premier) have stated “no accounts with revolving balances” as a reason for rejection. I realize that banks need consumers to carry balances in order to make money, but getting rejected for being too responsible with credit just goes to show how worthless FICO scores are in the age of churning. It also speaks to how expensive rewards programs are for these banks, since they’d rather risk a wave of defaults by giving credit to less responsible borrowers than give people points for paying off their balances every month.

Of course, “too many recent inquiries” has become a problem as well, and as much as everyone hates Chase’s 5/24 rule, at least it’s spelled out clearly. Bank of America said this was the main reason I couldn’t get an Alaska Airlines card, although they wouldn’t give me any more information about what “too many” is and how far back “recent” goes. I suppose I could just try again every few months, since I don’t need to worry about the effects of all those inquiries on my credit score anymore…

That’s my little state-of-the-hobby preamble. Here are some random bullet points relating to my credit card decisions throughout the year:

  • The first card I picked up this year was the Hilton Aspire card, and I’m lukewarm on it so far. I don’t know how much incremental value I’ve gotten from Diamond status versus Gold, although I find the fee fairly easy to justify. $250 in American Airlines gift cards plus a free weekend night (assuming I can actually use it) is probably worth $450 to me, since I routinely spend that much with American Airlines and Hilton every year anyway.
  • Speaking of Amex’s Hilton cards, I took an upgrade offer to the Hilton Ascend for 75,000 points. I know I should have canceled my basic Hilton card and applied for the Ascend separately to get 25,000 more points, but Amex is starting to penalize people for canceling too many cards, and I really want to stay on their good side. 25,000 Hilton points isn’t that much in the scheme of things, so it seemed easier to play it safe rather than tempting fate. Especially given how difficult things with Chase, BofA, and Citi have become.
  • Speaking of Citi… I completely fucked myself with them in what’s probably my biggest bonehead mistake since I started churning. My plan from last year had been to cancel my Prestige card, wait 24 months, and reapply for either a Prestige or Premier card to start earning Citi points again. Well, I was about 15 months into that plan when a Citi Preferred card I had left inactive for too long was canceled automatically, resetting my 24-month clock. I called Citi to try to straighten it out, but they said I’d have to reapply to get the card back. Oops. I’m realizing that I should probably stop bothering to convert cards to no-fee versions and just cancel them instead. I know keeping the no-fee version helps my average age of accounts and utilization percentage, but see above RE: not caring about my credit score.
  • Speaking of converting cards to no-fee versions, I decided to keep my Korean Air card open for another year rather than canceling it or converting it to the no-fee version. I wanted to keep something open with USBank in case I ended up applying for the Altitude card (which is only available to current USBank customers), and they offered me a modest 5000-mile retention bonus, so I gave in. (Combined with the 2000-mile anniversary bonus, I basically paid $80 for 7000 Skypass miles, which is pretty decent).
  • Speaking of the USBank Altitude, I went ahead and applied for it when my application for the Capital One Venture card got rejected. Why did I change my mind? Well for one, I have an iPhone with Apple Pay now, so I can actually take advantage of the main benefit. Plus, I could definitely use the extra flexibility when booking positioning flights, and since it doesn’t sound like USBank is introducing transfer partners any time soon, that would be a perfectly good use of those points. Long-term, I don’t know whether this card is a keeper or not. It doesn’t have much in the way of benefits, so whether I pay $75 (effective) next year will depend on how the rest of my churning strategy looks and if I’m doing a good job of earning 3x on mobile wallet transactions.
  • Speaking of cards I should probably cancel but may not, I’m actually considering keeping my Amex Green card for another year. The Amex Green may just be the worst rewards card in existence, seeing that it only earns one point per dollar and has a $95 fee. However, it seems like every good Amex offer I get is through this card. I’ve earned 15,000 points in bonuses this year from offers that were only available on this card. There’s also that whole “Amex getting mad at me for canceling too many cards” thing in the back of my mind, but this card is really bad. Is it worth $95 to gamble on some good Amex offers next year? I’m torn.
  • Finally, I should mention the Morgan Stanley Amex, but I’m going to write a separate post about that one. I have a few things to say about it.

So overall, here’s where I’m at: for myself, I’m going to keep chasing sign-up bonuses, even if it starts to seem like diminishing returns (40,000 Jet Blue miles here, some USBank Flex Perks points there, and so on). I’d love to apply for some of the new Chase cards (Iberia, new IHG with the 100,000-point bonus, new Hyatt, etc), but with the reports that Chase is shutting people down after approving them for new cards due to too many inquiries, it’s too scary for me. Rather than slowing down and then trying to sneak back into some new Chase cards, I’m gonna keep going down the road I’ve chosen. Maybe if I find out that Amex won’t give me sign-up bonuses anymore, I might just hang up my cleats for a while.

On the other hand, once Justine got rejected for the Citi Premier card, I realized it would be better to wait for her to get back under 5/24. Her credit report is a lot less busy than mine, so she’ll be under 5/24 in less than a year, at which point she’ll apply for the Sapphire Preferred and United Explorer cards (and hopefully Chase won’t reject her for not having any revolving balances). Once she’s back over 5/24, then we’ll probably look into some type of American or Alaska Airlines play, but that’s way too far in the future to consider.

I’m definitely pessimistic these days, but I still find myself with enough miles to fund my travel goals, so something is working. It’s tougher than ever, but I have to keep reminding myself that sign-up bonuses aren’t the only way to succeed in this game… turns out paying a little more attention to which cards I use when can pay some pretty big dividends too.

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