Why Reward Card Churning Is Not Worth It And What To Do Instead

 

This steam punk mechanical display in Kiev, Ukraine is an approximation of what it feels like trying to keep track of reward card churning.

If you want to save a lot of wasted time and aggravation, then take my word for it when I say reward card churning is not worth it. It seems that everywhere you look there is a blog bragging about how many first class flights they flew and how many free nights they spent in a five star hotel in some exotic location just by exploiting this “Little Trick” or by sharing with you “The Secret The Credit Card Companies Don’t Want You To Know”. It sounds exciting doesn’t it? Who knew that credit card companies are eager to foot the bill for people to travel the world in luxury? Hmmm, how do credit card companies stay in business if they are just handing out all this free stuff to anyone who asks? Who cares how they do it, I just want to sign up now before they close the loophole and I have to go back to flying standing room only on Ryanair and sleeping in one of ten bunk beds in a one room hostel with 20 other practically homeless backpackers.

The Dream

The dream that they are all trying to sell is that by signing up for the right reward credit cards and receiving the signing bonus miles or points, you will get free or extremely discounted travel. They take it a few steps further and give you some scenarios of which reward cards are best for you according to your needs. Even if you don’t travel there are still cards for you where you can get all kinds of merchandise with your points. By this point some people may be skeptical, remembering the last time they thought they were getting something for nothing and how that turned out. What about the yearly fees? Oh, you can just cancel the card before the year is up and go on to the next card and big sign up bonus. A few websites will even help you keep track of what you can redeem your points for on different airlines, hotels and stores. All you have to do is click on this convenient link, sign up for this credit card, and spend $1000 or so in the first three months and you are on your way to hobnobbing with the likes of Sir Richard Branson at the finest travel destinations in the world.

The Reality

Credit card companies are like casinos in that the house always wins and you will never see a fifty story hotel built on the Vegas Strip from the winnings of some blackjack player with a “system”. I’m sure from analyzing their customers’ behavior, they know that they will come out ahead because most people will eventually forget or not be able to pay their monthly bill in full and then the 15-20% interest kicks in. Even assuming you will always pay your bill in full and avoid any finance charges, you still have the yearly fees to pay. Now some will argue that it is still worth it if you get more value from the points than you pay in the yearly fee. This may be true in some cases, like if you spend a lot per year, but when you are juggling multiple cards, the yearly fees can add up to a lot of money.

In my mind, the biggest reason not follow these schemes is that the time you have to invest and the benefit you receive is just not worth it. Have you ever tried to figure out which types of points are accepted or compatible with which companies? Once you spend hours figuring that out, you then have to spend more hours trying to find a flight or hotel that you can use the points on. To make matters worse, the rules and values for the points are always changing and they also devalue your points like American Airlines did not too long ago. The end result is that you now have an unpaid full time job as a lawyer trying to figure out all these programs and how to best redeem your points before they expire or are devalued.

So if reward card churning is not worth it or profitable for the average person, why are so many blogs pushing it as a viable strategy for everyone? Probably because they get $100 to $200 or more when people sign up through the link on their blog. So the reality is that these bloggers get a lot more money out of getting you to sign up for credit cards than they do for any of their reward card churning schemes that they try to glamorize.

So Should I Swear Off Of Credit Cards?

No. To me, the simplest deal with the least hassle is getting a no fee credit card with cash back. That way you are not forced to buy your flight or book your hotel room from that specific company. Usually you can find much better deals for where you want to go or stay just by searching a travel website like Kayak.

Here is an example :

I plan on going to Europe this summer. I have about 70,000 miles from an airline reward card that I had yet I could not find a flight for those miles even though I searched many different dates and even cities all over Europe. This took a lot of time to do and the end result was that I did not have enough miles. I also set up searches on Kayak for flights to Europe that show up in my email a few times a week. I eventually got a ticket to Spain for only $370 on another carrier. The carrier that I have my miles with charges about twice the price for the same flight. So why should I be boxed in with one company when I can pay cash to the most competitive company?

Let’s look at the actual numbers:

New York City, US to Madrid, Spain

Traveling from mid June to late July using the exact same dates for all three examples.

1 Stop Flight

Option # 1:

80,000 Miles + $50 fee or $622 cash without using miles

So I have to spend $80,000 to get a ticket worth $622 meaning I get $622/80,000 = $.0078 for every dollar spent

Non-Stop Flights

Option # 2:

125,000 Miles + $50 fee or $672 cash without using miles

So I have to spend $125,000 to get a ticket worth $672 meaning I get $672/125,000 = $.0054 for every dollar spent

Option # 3:

$370 cash on a competing airline. Since I know that I already get $.02 for every dollar spent, I only have to spend $370/$.02 = $18,500 to buy this ticket with my cash back money.

As you can see, it takes a lot more spending to buy a ticket on one of the airline miles cards than it does with a cash back card in most cases. Even if you account for sign up bonuses and other ways of accumulating miles without spending, you are still paying more and your choices are limited to dealing only with that airline and their partners. It’s kind of like going to a concert or the airport and finding out that a bottle of water is $4. Why is it so expensive when you can buy the same water a few blocks away for $1? It’s because you are captive in their venue and they control the price without any competition.

So What Card Should I Get?

Well, if you already have a bunch of cards, maybe you shouldn’t get any new cards. The card I use for everything is the Fidelity 2% cash back card. Fidelity offers a 2% cash back Visa card on everything if you have a brokerage account with them. It gets deposited right into your brokerage account. You can spend your money when and where you want to spend it with no black out dates or expiration of your rewards. There are other cash back cards out there. Do a little research, pick the best one for you, then figure out what you will do with all of this newly found time that you are not wasting with reward card churning.

(I am not affiliated with Fidelity or any other company mentioned in this article, nor do I receive anything for writing about them).

 

 

 

 

There Are Over 50,000 Homes for Less Than $50,000 In This Top 10 Greatest Country

So, what country am I talking about? Well just click through my 40 page slideshow for the answer at the end. Just kidding, it’s Spain!

Spain is one of the U.N.'s top 10 greatest country to live
Spain is a great place to retire early

Before we get to Spain, let’s define what the “Greatest Country” means and who else are on the list. In this case it means countries that are:

“… world leaders when it comes to health goals set by the United Nations, according to a report published in the Lancet. Using the UN’s sustainable development goals as guideposts, which measure the obvious (poverty, clean water, education) and less obvious (societal inequality, industry innovation), more than 1,870 researchers in 124 countries compiled data on 33 different indicators of progress toward the UN goals related to health.”

This is from the Bloomberg article:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-22/america-is-not-the-greatest-country-on-earth-it-s-no-28

Is Spain number 1 on the list or are there even greater countries?

The top 30 countries in the world
The top 30 countries in the world

Spain is number 7 on the list but is unique out of the top 10 countries on the list. Here are the other countries and the reasons that they are not the best place to live in my opinion:

  1. Iceland: I have never been here and I’m sure it is a nice country, but it only has 330,000 people, has an average high temperature of less than 60 degrees in the summer. It is also is expensive, and has the word “Ice” in its name.
  2. Singapore: I have been here. It is a nice place but also very expensive.
  3. Sweden: I was just here along with the other Scandinavian countries. It is a nice place to visit and see, but it gets cold and is very expensive.
  4. Andorra: It only has about 85,000 people and is a tiny country between Spain and France. Not super expensive and decent weather, but no beaches.
  5. United Kingdom: Cold, rainy and expensive. That’s why so many Brits go to Spain to retire.
  6. Finland: Nice country, but also very expensive and cold.
  7. Spain: It seems to have the best quality of life for the least amount of money.
  8. Netherlands: Nice country, but expensive and cold.
  9. Canada: With a country actually slightly larger than the US, but with only about one tenth of the population, I don’t know how housing can be so expensive with all that empty land. Also, it is very cold.
  10. Australia: It’s like a warm Canada. It is about the size of the continental US but only has 23 million people. Again, with so much empty space, why is housing, along with everything else, so expensive there?

Now, you might be wondering what makes me an expert on these countries that I can just write them off with a few words like “expensive” or “cold”.  Well, I’m not an expert. I have been to all of them except for Iceland, United Kingdom, and Andorra. Even though I’m not an expert, I know what I am looking for in a possible place to live. A place that is cold or expensive is a deal breaker for me.

So what’s so great about Spain and those 50,000 homes?

If you want to retire early and do not want to spend a large portion of your net worth on a home, there are literally thousands of inexpensive houses and apartments all over Spain for as low as $10K, $20K, $30K and up. No, you won’t get a $10K apartment in the middle of Barcelona, but there are a lot of really good prices in cities, suburbs and rural locations. There really are 50,000 homes for under $50,000 in Spain.  These two property websites list a large majority of them:

www.fotocasa.es

www.idealista.com

(I have no affiliation or make any money from these websites)

Most people assume that if something is cheap it must not be good. They probably think that these homes must be in some place like Chernobyl or Mogadishu. Those are the same people that were tripping over themselves to buy these same homes for $150K when Spain had a real estate boom. Now that the $150K home is $50K, people think there must be something wrong with it.

This August I spent a month in Alicante Spain to see what the city was like. I also traveled to Torrevieja, and Benidorm as well as Valencia and Barcelona last summer.  I wanted to see if Spain was a place I can live in or at least spend a few months a year.  Here are my thoughts:

The Good:

Beaches: Spain has about 5000 miles of coastline which includes hundreds of miles of beaches in both crowded cities and sparsely populated areas.

Weather: Warm weather especially on the southern coast.

Food: The quality of the food is excellent. The quality of the vegetables I got was much better than I get in the US.

Crime: Very safe walking around late at night. Has a ranking similar to that of Germany, China, and Netherlands.

Infrastructure: First world infrastructure, water, electricity, internet, roads, public transportation.

Culture: Very friendly and laid back. Also has a strong family culture of kids, parents, grandparents all out together playing, walking, and talking until late in the evening instead of sitting in front of the TV.

Costs:  Many areas, excluding Madrid and Barcelona, have low housing costs. Food is extremely cheap but very good quality.

Healthcare: Ranked number 10 between Germany and Denmark

The Bad:

Jobs: The unemployment rate is still around 20% so if you want to live here you should have your own money or a business you can do online

Language: This is not bad; it’s just bad for me since I don’t speak Spanish yet. Not many people in Spain speak English except in tourist areas.

Residency: You cannot just move there unless you are an EU citizen or you get residency.

 

Conclusion: Many people in the US look to South or Central America as an inexpensive place to retire. From what I have seen of Spain, it is actually cheaper than places like Costa Rica, yet it still has all the first world amenities that you would expect in Europe. If I ever decide to move from the US, Spain will be at the top of my list. It’s no wonder so many people from the other 9 greatest countries go there to retire.

Is The Advice That People Give You Worth Listening To?

 

Playa del Postiguet in Alicante Spain.
Playa del Postiguet in Alicante, Spain. Is it as bad as some reviews would have you believe?

I am in Alicante, Spain for the month of August as a vacation as well as to see if it is someplace I might want to live or at least spend a few months a year.  Being on the Costa Blanca, which is about 120 miles of towns and cities on the beach, I was planning on exploring some of the beaches.  In my first few days here, I went to downtown Alicante to get an idea of the city and where everything is. There is a beach right in the city center called Playa del Postiguet. I walked by it and took some pictures although I didn’t come there to swim that day. From what I saw, it looked like a nice beach although admittedly, it wasn’t very long or wide so it was pretty crowded.

When I got back to my hotel and did some research on the beaches in the area, I read some really bad reviews of Playa del Postiguet along with some good reviews.  Some of the bad reviews did not pull any punches saying things like the sand is completely filled with broken glass and cigarette butts, the water is dirty and there are particles floating in it, and that the beach is plagued by an army of thieves that will steal all your belongings as soon as you sit down.  Well, I didn’t see any of that when I was there but I listened to the advice of some of the people who posted that a better beach is in Playa de San Juan which is just north east of Alicante and can be reached by the tram system. The tram to get there took me about an extra 30 minutes longer than it took me to get to Playa del Postiguet, but it was a very nice, clean, wide beach with plenty of space and very nice clear water.  So I figured this beach would be the one I went to whenever I wanted to go to the beach.

Walking around downtown Alicante a few times and seeing all the people going to and coming from Playa del Postiguet got me thinking. If this beach is so bad, why are people still going there by the hundreds? How come they are not covered in dirt from the dirty water? How come their feet are not bloody from all the broken glass in the sand? How come they still have their cell phones in their hands and do not have the angry look of someone who had all their belongings stolen? I figured that I had to see just how bad this beach is for myself. So I went one day to have a swim and see how accurate the reviews were.  The water looked fine and I could not tell the difference between the water here and in Playa de San Juan. I did not cut my bare feet on any glass. In fact, I did not see any broken glass or cigarettes in the sand. I did see an odd water bottle cap or two lying around. I did keep an eye on my stuff when I was in the water, but I did not see anyone lurking around my stuff or anyone else’s for that matter. The beach was crowded but I was able to find a spot. The worst thing about the beach in my opinion was that it cost 9 Euros to rent a lounge chair and 9 Euros to rent an umbrella. If you did that every day for a month that would be 540 Euros which is more than it costs to rent many 3 bedroom apartments in Alicante.

So why were the reviews of the beach and my experience very different? Were people just lying about the beach? Did I just go there on a day where the water was clean, the sand was clean and the army of thieves took the day off? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Like I said, there were many good reviews about the beach, but maybe I focused more on the bad reviews.  What I have come to realize is that there is no accounting for what types of people are making these reviews. Everyone knows people that will act like it’s the end of the world if the slightest thing is not to their liking. You know people like this. They complain if their beer is not absolutely freezing, or the train is 2 minutes late, or the shower in their hotel room doesn’t have the pressure they are used to. In real life you know to take their complaints with a grain of salt. Online, it is hard to know if the person giving the review has a real gripe or is just really particular with how they like things. Also more people write reviews when something goes wrong than when everything goes as it should. Or maybe some of these reviews were old and things have changed at the beach.  Now getting a cut from a piece of glass or getting your things stolen is a real gripe and I don’t doubt that it has happened, but I doubt that the beach is “full of broken glass everywhere” and that there are an “army of thieves” operating there every day.

This is a small example of the more common bad advice I get from people who warn me not to go to the country I am traveling to. The funny thing is that almost all the time, the people who warn me about where not to travel to have never actually been there. They have no firsthand knowledge of the place, but somehow saw a bit about it on the news and now know that it is not safe to go to.  I know they mean well, and there are some real dangerous places that I don’t have a desire to go to, but if you listened to everyone’s second hand advice, you would never go anywhere or do anything.

Here are some examples of advice I have been given on why I should not go someplace:

2006 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:

The man at the check in counter at JFK Airport in NYC told me and my friend that when we get to Brazil we have a good chance of being kidnapped from the airport and taken to various ATMs around the area to withdraw money from our bank cards. I was also told not to wear my watch (a $60 Casio watch). We were a little concerned being told this by the guy who worked for the airline, so we took some precautions like taking off our watches and being very aware of our surroundings. What we noticed after a while is that we were the only ones not wearing a watch.

2009 Medellin, Colombia:

Just about anyone I told about this trip had the same comments about getting kidnapped by FARC or questioning jokingly if I am in the drug trade.

2010 Bangkok,Thailand:

People were warning me not to go because of the government protests and unrest in some parts of Thailand that they saw on the news.

2015 Athens, Greece:

People warned me not to go because the Austerity Vote was going to take place while I was there and there could be problems, protests, strikes etc. They did have a bank holiday and put limits on ATM withdrawals for Greeks while I was there, but I came prepared with extra cash just in case.

2016 Kiev, Ukraine:

Many people warned me about going there because of the fighting and the plane that was shot down about 2 years ago. I’m not sure if they realized that Kiev is about 500 miles away from Crimea where the problems are.

Taking advice about where to go or what to do from someone who has never been there or never done that is not a good idea. Sometimes, you just have to take a look for yourself to make up your own mind or see if it really is how they say it is in the media. Most times you will find it is not how they portray it to be. Hell, even if I just stayed in Florida and vacationed at Walt Disney World in Orlando I would still have people in New York telling me it is too dangerous to go there because of the recent shooting.  I guess the only safe vacation place is my couch.

Americans Average Only 1.5 Years of Vacation Per Lifetime

How much time do Americans take off in their lifetime?
Americans take only 1.5 years of vacation in a lifetime?

Wait, what?

Yes, when you add up all the vacation time that an American gets throughout their working life, it only comes out to 1.5 years of vacation.

Here is the math:

Assume you start working at 22 and stop working at 65 for a total of 43 working years.

The average vacation time given in the U.S. is 2 weeks.

14 Days of Vacation x 43 Working Years = 602 days = 1.65 Years Off

But, out of your 14 days vacation, 4 of those days are weekends that you have off already so:

10 Days of Vacation x 43 Working Years = 430 days = 1.18 Years Off

It gets worse. If you consider two days lost in traveling back and forth on your vacation you get:

8 Days of Vacation x 43 Working Years = 344 days = .94 Years Off

And one last thing, 658 million vacation days went unused last year.  If there are about 160 million people in the workforce, then they each lost about 4 days each. So now:

4 Days of Vacation x 43 Working Years = 172 days = .47 Years Off

Some might argue that my assumptions are a little extreme, but even if you take the best case scenario of getting 1.65 years off, is that really much better?  Think about that, you work for 43 years only to get 1.5 years off to yourself.  Are you okay with that?

Okay, that sucks so what can I do about it?

     At a minimum, you should make sure you use every vacation day given to you even if you are just going to stay home and do laundry.  This is the low hanging fruit if you just want more free time without changing your lifestyle.  Unfortunately, many Americans do not take all the time off they are allowed because they are afraid for their job or think their work is too important to leave to someone else while on vacation.

You can try to get a job in Europe where they get double or more the amount of vacation time. This is a little better, but you will have to disrupt your whole life and move out of the country just to get twice as much time off. This is not for everyone.

Another idea is to save up a year or two living expenses while you are still young and take a year or more off from work to do what you want to do. You might find out that when the year is up, you want to do something completely different from the work you were doing before.

Or, you can do what my blog and many other blogs advocate and work, live below your means, save, invest and retire early. This is not easy, but if you can do it, then you can really see what you want to do with your time. I know people say that work is a purpose in your life that you need, but if the work you were doing was so purposeful to you, they wouldn’t need to pay you because you would do it for free.

How A Team Of Subway Pickpockets In Athens Greece Almost Ruined My Trip

 

Subway pickpockets of tourists in Europe
This is the train I was in when they tried to pickpocket me. The accomplice stood where the girl with the blue shirt is standing with her back towards the open door. The pickpocket was about where the girl with the backpack is standing.

About a week ago, I was in Athens Greece visiting family and kicking off a two month trip around Europe. I was getting on the train on a very hot July afternoon and I wasn’t really expecting any problems at my aunt’s local train stop. I also had my backpack on which probably marked me as a tourist. That was probably my first mistake.

Waiting on the platform I didn’t notice any group of suspicious people. I admit, I was looking at the woman security guard who had what looked like some kind bullet proof vest on, but she had no gun.  Anyway, there weren’t many people standing around me, but when the train pulled in and I moved from my spot a little to get in a car that looked less crowded, it seemed that there were now five or six people standing with me at the train door that I wanted to get on. I guess not thinking anything of this was my second mistake.

As you can see from the picture above, there is some kind of metal divider in the middle of the train door entrance. I walked in on the right of the divider behind a guy that went into the train first. The man in front of me stopped only about three feet into the train and I was stuck behind him because another guy came in behind me. So now I couldn’t move forward or backward because there was someone in front and behind me. I also couldn’t move to the left because of the metal divider and I couldn’t move to the right because it also had a metal divider. I was boxed in! I have rode New York City subways all my life and everyone knows that when you get on the train, you move all the way in to let the people behind you get in and also to get your own personal space if there is room. The strange thing was that the guy in front of me did not move. He just stood there with his back to me. If the train was packed, this would have been his only choice, but the train had a lot of standing room. This made no sense to me. For a second I thought it was some cultural thing to not care as much about personal space as Americans do. Before I could consider if I should ask him to move forward so at least I can walk out to all the available standing space, it dawned on me that he was doing this on purpose.

I immediately looked down at my two front cargo shorts pockets and put my hands over them. When I looked down at my left pocket, sure enough, the guy on my left on the other side of the metal divider had one arm with a folded jacket over it covering what he was doing with his other hand. His hand had one of the two buttons on my left pocket open. In another second or two he probably would have had what was in my left pocket. I had 900 Euros and my credit cards and ATM cards in my left pocket and my passport and $1200 US dollars in my right pocket.

After I grabbed my pockets I pushed both of them out of the way breaking their box they had me in. The pickpocket said to me “Take it easy!” in English. I said to him “I know what you’re doing!”.  I turned to face them with my back to the opposite door making sure no one was behind me. At this point I wasn’t sure how many of them were working together.  I was looking at everyone, including women and children, not sure if they are working with them. I just stared down the three I knew for sure were in on it as the train pulled out of the station. I wasn’t sure if they were going to try to jump me and get out at the next station.  I just stood there with my arms and legs apart and watched them while they acted nonchalant like nothing happened. No, I am not Chuck Norris or an MMA fighter; I just figured that they do their thefts in a non confrontational way so they would probably not try to continue with me after they have been exposed. The rest of the people on the train didn’t seem to notice what was going on and I doubt would have got involved if the situation got worse for me.

When the train pulled into the next stop, about six people got off. I can’t say all of them were working together, but there were definitely three and maybe up to five of them. Had they known what was in my pockets, I don’t think they would have given up after my resistance. Of course, if they pulled out a gun or knife I would have given them whatever they wanted because money and passports are just things that are replaceable.

So besides this article being a travel tip on staying alert, what does this incident have to do with anything? Well it shows you the importance of diversification even in a micro sense. If I had everything in one pocket and they stole it, I would be in a really bad position and probably have to really delay or cut my trip short. If they just got the Euros and credit cards, I still had cash and my passport in the other pocket. Had I lost the passport, it would be the most devastating in terms of getting new travel documents, but I would still have cash and credit cards.

Now you might be thinking, “If you didn’t have all of that in your shorts, you wouldn’t have this problem in the first place.”.  That is true, but the only other place to put them is my backpack which can also be stolen. This incident made me think that I need some kind of passport and money holder that goes under my clothes that pickpockets do not even have on their radar.

Just because this happened in Greece, it doesn’t mean that Greece is more dangerous than many other tourist countries. As a matter of fact when I was around 14 years old around 1985, my cousin (who is only a few months older than me) and I got robbed in broad daylight in Times Square in New York City on Thanksgiving Day.  This was no pickpocket either, the guy steered us to the outer edge of the sidewalk while many people walked by. He picked us because he followed us into McDonald’s and saw my cousin break a $10 bill to buy a 50 cent ice cream cone. He said he had a knife and would stab us if we didn’t empty our pockets. We emptied our pockets with one hand while we continued to eat our ice cream with the other hand. He got about $15 between the two of us. He then told us to walk and not turn around. As we walked away eating our ice cream and walking towards the 49th Street subway station, my cousin asked how we would get on the train with no money. I told him not to worry because I had a $20 bill in my sneaker. I guess even back then I was weary of putting all my eggs in one basket.