How to fly for free using Chase credit cards

Next week my wife, Meghan, and I fly to Sweden on our third trip to Europe in seven months. We've paid exactly $0 for trans-Atlantic airfare thanks to to the way we use our Chase Bank credit cards for most of our every day purchasing. I've written in the past about how to Travel further for less (or no) money by smartly earning and using credit card points, but here I'll specifically address why I find the Chase ecosystem to be so good at maximizing travel value, and I'll offer some simple tips so that you can realize this value yourself.

Background Reading: Deciding if a premium travel credit card makes sense, and choosing the best one for you

Why Chase, in particular?

Each of the big three American credit card issuers (Chase, Citi, and American Express) have ecosystems of travel services, benefits, and different credit cards catering to customers with different needs and spending habits. For example, one credit card might offer three times the point earning for travel, while another might offer 1.5% cash back on all purchases. The points earned within one company's ecosystem become a form of de facto currency redeemable for travel, goods and services, and to transfer as miles to airlines (for example). Though I have done banking with all three companies in the past, it generally behooves the customer to maximize what they spend using cards from a single provider so as to more rapidly accrue more points in a single "currency" (i.e. not find yourself in a situation where you have lots of points in multiple ecosystems, but not enough in any single one to pay for the trip you want).

Background Reading: When to book free travel with credit card points vs transferring to airline miles

I love Chase's ecosystem in particular because their currency, called "Ultimate Rewards Points", is extremely valuable and versatile for use in many different ways. Chase offers a very compelling lineup of different cards with different point earning schemes that can be pooled into one pot. While American Express offers more airline options to which you can transfer points, Chase's transfer partnership with United Airlines makes it a more compelling ecosystem for point transfer than Citi, whose only US-based transfer arrangement is a relatively poor value 1000 Citi "ThankYou" points for 800 jetBlue points.

Background Reading: How to use credit card points to get great deals flying First or Business Class

How can I get the most travel value?

The key is to acquire several of Chase's most compelling credit cards, and then use them to purchase specific goods and services based on their point earning. So, in other words, book hotels with the one that maximizes value for travel, pay your phone and cable bill with the one that maximizes value for telecom services, etc. It's really important to note here, though, that Chase applies what's known as the "5/24 Rule", meaning that they will generally deny your application for a card if you have opened up more than five other credit cards within the last 24 months. So be judicious.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

This is the keystone of your entire strategy, so get it first. It also happens to be (my opinion) the best travel credit card available in the market today. This card earns 3x points per dollar spent on travel and restaurant expenses, so use it to pay for flights, hotels, car rental, Uber and Lyft, trains, cruises, and all manner of dining out. Sapphire Reserve cardholders also redeem points for 1.5 cents apiece when booking travel through the Ultimate Rewards website, meaning that customers effectively 4.5% of all travel and dining purchases to spend on future travel. Transfer the points you earn with the other cards over to your Sapphire Reserve account.

Background Reading: New Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card is the best card for free travel with great perks

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Once you have the Sapphire Reserve in your wallet, consider which combinations of these other cards will give the best value. The Freedom Unlimited earns 1.5 points for every dollar spent on anything, with no special bonuses. Use for all purchases that aren't covered by a category bonus on another card. Transfer the points to your Sapphire Reserve account for the 1.5 travel multiplier, meaning that you get at least 2.25% of any purchase you make back to use on travel.

Chase Ink Business Cash

Use the Ink Business Cash to earn 5x points for purchases at office supply stories (you'll be surprised at what you can buy at Staples), cellular phone, landline, Internet, and cable TV services... and 2x points at gas stations (use it there). The 5x bonus is particularly valuable combined with the Sapphire Reserve's 1.5 travel bonus to basically mean that you get 7.5% of what you pay for phone and Internet back to use for travel.

Chase Freedom

While Freedom (unlike Freedom Unlimited) only gives 1x points on purchases, it offers a special rotating 5x bonus category that changes each quarter of the calendar year. For example, in this current quarter (second quarter of 2017), the Chase Freedom offers 5x points for all purchases at grocery stores.

For a little idea of how all the math on this works... If you spend $400 per month on telecom (not too far off for cable, Internet, and two cell phones for a married couple), that's $400 x 5 points x 12 months per year for a total of 24,000 points a year. Apply the Sapphire Reserve's 1.5 travel multiplier to take the total to 36,000, and then divide by 100 to see how many dollars of travel that gets you when booked through the Ultimate Rewards website. That means that each year you're getting $360 worth of travel just by using that specific credit card to pay for services you were already going to buy anyway. Start to think about your purchasing in this way, and you can see how living in the Chase ecosystem can start flying you places quickly.

Good luck, and of course, be responsible!