“If I feel the need to lie flat next to people who have had too much to drink, I can always stay in a hostel when I arrive at my destination.”

Disclosure: We get a commission for links on the blog. You don’t have to use our links, but we’re very grateful when you do. American Express, Barclaycard, Chase, and US Bank are Million Mile Secrets advertising partners. Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or endorsed by our partners. Here’s our Advertiser Disclosure.

Don’t forget to follow me on  Facebook or Twitter!

Welcome to the next interview in our interview series where renowned mile and point gurus share their insights on having Big Travel with Small Money!

Miles & Points Interview: Bottom-Feeding the High Life

Doug is an economist, electric power analyst, and real estate investor who writes Bottom-Feeding the High LifeHe also collects miles and points, so I was looking forward to our Friday chat!

Bottom-Feeding the High Life – Interview with Doug

Doug and his wife near Eiffel Tower

How and when did you start collecting miles and points?

My mother signed me up when I was a kid, so I think I’ve had frequent flier numbers since before I can remember, although  I don’t think I actually earned any trips until I was in college in the 1990s.  That was the golden age of cheap flying: most advance-purchase round-trips on Southwest were $100 or less.

I remember published fares between Phoenix and Ontario for $19 each way – and for years they practically gave away double or even triple credits.  You could fairly easily get a free round-trip after three trips.  When they give you that much for flying that little, who wouldn’t collect credits?

For many years I had an American Express card (the green card) and slowly accrued points based on spending.  Over a 10-year period I think I got enough points for a round-trip to Europe and 3 domestic round-trips.  It occurred to me I had been paying as much in annual card fees as those tickets would have cost out of pocket.

I also found that it was increasingly hard to find the flights I wanted, and that a few airlines I had planned to fly on actually had canceled flights due to the recession or high fuel prices and/or even gone out of business.  At that point, I canceled the Amex in favor of a cash-back card with no fees.

Things changed in 2010.  With two young children and a rental property, my wife and I found ourselves spending quite a bit of money every month on non-discretionary expenses.  I happened to come across the Points Guy’s blog from a link on a news website.  I couldn’t believe it: Citibank was offering 100,000 miles on American Airlines to sign up for a credit card?

To use a hackneyed expression, that was a game changer.  I had to wait a few months since I was already applying for another loan, and the 100,000 offer was reduced to 75,000, but it still seemed like too good a deal to pass up.  I started charging everything possible on my new AA Citicard.

Soon after, I began to follow Million Mile Secrets, which I discovered from a link on the Points Guy’s site.  I found to it be a better fit for my travel profile, since it focuses on ways that non-business travelers can accrue points through credit cards, which I use anyway, whereas the Points Guy seems to focus more on high-end international travel and road-warrior level premium status.

Why did you start your blog?  What’s special about it?

I have lots of friends with whom I enjoy discussing travel experiences.  I have often found that their descriptions left me thinking that they wasted their money or travel time, and could have saved one or both of those if they had just known about a few things.

Similarly, I always find that I could have avoided wasting money if I had been more knowledgeable about this or that.  I had sent friends many emails describing tips and lessons learned the hard way, and had posted similar information on message boards.  I had been thinking that it would be a good idea to have a central repository for all of this information, as well as a place where I could share trip reports.

The blog is evolving out of that, and many of the postings are actually edited versions of those original emails and message board posts.  Hence, one could say that I’ve been working on the blog’s content much longer than it actually has been up and running.

Bottom-Feeding the High Life – Interview with Doug

View from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

As for what may be different about it:

I provide trip reports, as well as any deals we received or points used.  I discuss the deal at the bottom of the post in a section entitled “The Finagle.”  If that is all you are interested in, you can skip to it.  I try my best to explain how I got the deal, and note anything I might have done differently.

I don’t think I can add much to the discourse on accruing miles, since web sites such as Million Mile Secrets already do such a good job of that.   Rather, my blog is more about how we have found it best to spend points and/or cash for maximum value.  For example, on our recent trip to Paris, we got two Los Angeles -Paris roundtrips from a Citicard for 40,000 points + $98 in taxes each, and stayed 5 nights using points or points+cash for a total of 32,000 points and $240.

I’m not interested in miles per se.  About 90% of my travel is on my own dime, so I focus on minimizing the total cash outlay needed to travel comfortably.  I often would rather stay in a Holiday Inn Express than an Intercontinental, so I won’t have to pay extra for parking, breakfast, internet, etc.

Using miles may be a means to that end depending on the circumstances.  Some very good deals are worth exploiting even though they accrue no miles.  Limiting oneself to mileage-accruing travel means you can’t take advantage of these opportunities.

For example, a lot of people don’t realize you can rent timeshares amazingly cheaply, without a requirement to listen to a sales presentation, from owners who pay the annual maintenance fees but sometimes cannot use them.

If you are traveling with a family or large group, and especially if you are going to stay in one place for more than a couple of days, renting a timeshare can be superior to a hotel room.  They typically are apartment-style accommodations with kitchens and separate living, dining, and sleeping areas.

I also use coupons while traveling.  Nowadays they go way beyond food shopping with web sites such as Groupon, Restaurant.com, etc., with minimum effort and often can be done from a mobile device without a printer.  These can open up great opportunities for saving money at restaurants, entertainment, etc. when away from home, and may also direct you to restaurants you might not otherwise have heard about.

Lately, I have been posting content that focuses on two things that many people do individually but might not necessarily intersect: traveling with kids, and visiting Las Vegas.  I have traveled once or twice a year to Las Vegas for my entire adult life, so I do it differently than most people.  My wife Nancy and I usually (but not always) now travel with our kids to Las Vegas and most other places, which is a fun but different experience from traveling without kids.

For bargain seekers that enjoy traveling well, and have a minimum level of self control, there is probably no better destination on the planet in terms of what you can get for your money, provided that getting there is not too costly.  It’s easy to blow a fortune in Las Vegas, but with some gentle direction and flexibility, you can have almost as much fun without doing so.

What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?

Applying for credit cards goes a long way, especially for getting free airplane tickets, and I doubt I can add much here.

To elaborate on what I had alluded to earlier,  I will say that I believe spending the miles as efficiently as possible is equally if not more important than maximizing mile accrual.  Judicious use of points can result in double or triple the amount of travel you can get out of every successful credit card application.  For example:

Make the most of stopovers and one-way reservations when using AA miles.  This may allow you to bundle a completely separate domestic trip with each international trip.

Take spring and fall breaks, and plan as early as you can.  For the number of miles you need for a ticket in September, you may be able to afford two or three tickets in March.

Look for hotels that might require fewer point outlays than others in the area. Some of these places may be off the tourist grid, which can be an advantage in cities with good transportation.  You can try local restaurants that are better, more interesting, and have lower prices.  You might even be able to find a coupon!

Try to use hotel points in expensive cities such as New York, Washington, or Paris, where cash room rates can be very high.  For cities with relatively low hotel room rates, you may do better by using cash to buy your room, provided you can use the points elsewhere.

You probably won’t see the same relative value in these places if you use points.  Also, in Las Vegas, some of the best hotel deals may not be at chains with which you have a relationship.

What’s your most memorable travel experience?

Riding on the roof of el Nariz del Diablo, the Riobamba-Bucay railroad in Ecuador that starts in the Andes mountains and ends near the coast.  There is a section that descends using herringbone switchbacks and we saw butterflies 8 inches across.

That was in my younger, more nimble days.  Points weren’t involved, but I did use a bump voucher to get there, and rooms there were about $8/day back then.

What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?

Recently my wife cut me off from applying for new credit cards for the next several months because it was starting to adversely affect our credit score, and we depend on credit for more than grinding credit cards.

She rolls her eyes whenever I try to sign up for denied boarding compensation on overbooked flights or join a slot club.  However, credit card bonuses did get us to Paris just last month so she recognizes their upside.

Bottom-Feeding the High Life – Interview with Doug

Flying to LA with the kids.

I try to be an ambassador of information about the cards, etc. to our friends, most of whom are quite surprised the offers exist.  I wish more of our friends could take advantage of some of these deals.

Unfortunately many people in our community currently have credit issues stemming from the declining real estate market, so they will need to wait until their credit scores return to normal before applying for new cards.

Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?

I keep alert by reading blogs and signing up for email and Facebook promo notifications from airlines, hotels, etc, and reading them.

Also: if a deal seems especially juicy, read and understand the fine print, and then act on it quickly, or at least make a reservation that you can cancel later, because it often will be pulled once the marketing folks have met their target and start realizing that it is costing them too much.

The Citi American Airlines and last year’s Chase British Airways 100,000 cards are examples of this.  Another was the original Hotels.com Welcome Rewards program which gave you a free night in a hotel worth up to $400 for any 10 stays in hotels that cost at least $40.

Then, use Outlook or some other tool to remind yourself to cancel strategic reservations you have made that you don’t need, before you get charged for them.

What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?

This is going to be boring, since I’m not a hard core point junkie.  We recently bought $1500 in laminate flooring from Home Depot.  I used the Chase Sapphire Preferred ultimate rewards mall interface to buy it at the homedepot.com web site and got 7500 bonus points.  It’s nothing of enormous value, but it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye if you have to spend the money anyway.

Bottom-Feeding the High Life – Interview with Doug

St. Germain des Pres yard

What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?

I wish had I understood better how credit scores were calculated, and that I had realized that my score and my wife’s score are more or less independent of one another.  When I had the opportunity to use the “two-browser trick” for the Citibank 75,000 visa pair, I didn’t, because I erroneously was concerned about the impact on my credit score and my wife’s credit score.

I also had underestimated how quickly I could meet minimum spending requirements.  That has never really been an issue.

I also only fully understood the power of an AA international stopover only a few weeks before we left for Paris.  Had I realized this when we booked our reservation, we could have looped in one-way tickets to Hawaii on the return end to use later this year.  Doh!  By the time I understood this, the change fees would have made it not worth it.  I was really kicking myself for letting that one slip by.

What would your readers be surprised to know about you?

I’m an academically trained economist.  I never really enjoyed the research or teaching, so nowadays I am a consultant in the electric power industry and dabble in wholesale power trading.

Any parting words?

I love traveling, but also I get a rush from the finagle itself.

I’m not ever going to be a one-stop shop.  I don’t post the latest and greatest travel deals in real time: I don’t have the patience or inclination to grind through flyertalk’s 100 pages of discussions on each topic, and I don’t tweet.  Folks will need to rely on other sources for that.  Instead, I share my personal experiences – good and bad – and suggest approaches and strategies that hopefully will enable others to help themselves.

Bottom-Feeding the High Life – Interview with Doug

Opera in Paris

Also, I’m short.  For this reason, first class usually won’t be worth the extra cost to me, in either dollars or points.  If I feel the need to lie flat next to people who have had too much to drink, I can always stay in a hostel when I arrive at my destination.

Doug – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!

* If you liked this post, why don’t you join the 4,000+ readers who have signed-up to receive free blog posts via email (only 1 email per day!) or in a RSS reader …because then you’ll never miss another interview with Mile and Points gurus!

Or like me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter!

* If you liked this post, why don’t you join the 25,000+ readers who have signed-up to receive free blog posts via email (only 1 email per day!) or in an RSS reader …because then you’ll never miss another update!

Editorial Disclaimer: Neither the responses below nor the editorial content on this page are provided or commissioned by the bank advertisers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertisers. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of the bank advertisers. It is not the bank advertisers’ responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

20 responses to ““If I feel the need to lie flat next to people who have had too much to drink, I can always stay in a hostel when I arrive at my destination.”

  1. Dear Doug,

    Fly to South Asia, Southern Africa, or Southeast Asia and then tell me that you don’t need lie-flat seats.

    Yours, Mark

    Love the interviews, Daraius.

  2. Mark — I have flown to SE Asia, and coach was fine. But I’m 5’8″.

  3. Nice to read about someone who is more interested in just getting there instead of flat beds with champagne and caviar on board!

  4. Anyone who relishes coach on international flights should be banned from travel sites. Peasant lol.

  5. Another great interview! Doug, I like the way you think! We should exchange tips on Vegas – my husband and I live here. Happy travels!

  6. Ace — The reason I like this site more than others is because it is less focused on high-end travel. Go to thepointsguy, where you can spend all day bragging about ridiculous cents per mile calculations, and leave us coach travelers alone. I have a ton of points and miles, but I’m not going to waste them just so I can get a nasty airplane bed and some crappy food.

  7. @ Mark: …. Have done all of the above recently and was perfectly fine in Economy Comfort seats.
    If you do a leisure 100K on t-pacs or tatls in 3 months on your own dime, coach is the only way to go for most of us !

  8. Maybe folks are underestimating the comfort of a hostel?

    Although to be honest, I don’t stay in them anymore. I fear that people would look at a person on the throes of middle age such as myself staying in a hostel and think “creep”.

    But seriously, most of the time we are traveling with our kids, on Southwest, which doesn’t even have first class. The Paris trip was an unusual opportunity, since both my parents work full time and can’t often watch them. In the future we will be bringing them with us, and given the limited number of credit cards we will be applying for, first class just isn’t realistic.

    I don’t think I’d want to bring my kids into first class anyway. You won’t like it, and I don’t want them used to it. Some places are just better for adults. (See my bloviation on the Las Vegas Strip at http://zzdouggo.blogspot.com/2012/04/taking-kids-to-vegas-really-part-3.html)

    @Travelwhimsy: I’d love to hear some more of your ideas and recommendations for cheap restaurants and other things to do!

  9. Great interview! I’m definitely more of a middle class-level, casual traveler rather than a business frequent flyer so I appreciate that perspective.

    I’m tall and HATE flying coach, but find that just the few inches extra in economy plus makes a huge difference without having to spend the points/dollars necessary for executive or business class.

  10. “lie flat next to people” Ah, ignorance is bliss, I suppose. On an AA FC 777, the pitch is 92 inches, meaning your head is more than 7 feet from the head of the people in front or behind you. If you are in a window seat, you are so far away from the person on the other side of the aisle that if you both stretch out your arms you can’t reach each others fingertips. Then put on the complimentary Bose noise cancelling headphones, and you won’t know anyone else is on the plane with you.

    Of course, if you fly the new LH Business class, then you are practically sharing a twin bed. But then, that’s why you’ll never find me in LHBC. I am impatiently waiting for that new lie flat herringbone pattern BC from AA, however.

    Anyway, on a 777 FC seat with calm skies, I end up sleeping uninterruptedly for hours at a time. If Doug can do that in the middle seat in economy, he’s taking something I don’t have a prescription for. Then when he gets up to go to the bathroom from that middle seat, and on a 14 hour flight to Asia he will sure need to, the two people he has to climb over to get to the aisle can forget about sleeping any longer. If indeed they were able to get to sleep in the first place.

    Add in the stress of waiting for hours in a crowded terminal for a delayed flight, guarding your wallet from pickpockets, and your luggage from thieves, compared to relaxing in a FC lounge, with comped food and drinks, maybe taking a shower or stretching out in a “quiet room”, between flights. Flying non-stop from the West Coast to Europe, or any US airport to Asia, in a true lie flat seat will save you from several unncessary days of supposed “jet lag”. Which is in reality just the stress of steerage class flying.

    A few of us may be reading this blog in hopes of being served Krug and caviar. Not that I would mind getting them, but on AA that’s not going to happen. But for me it’s a matter of reducing the stress and discomfort of the flight to a level that I can be excited about going, rather then dreading the process of getting there.

    Like Doug, if I don’t have Hilton HHonors points to spend, when I get to Europe I’m going to stay in a Holiday Inn Express or a Marriott Courtyard. Because really, in a good example of those brands I will sleep just as well as in a Hilton or Hyatt. In contrast to a TA flight, where in economy I will toss and turn the whole flight, never actually sleeping more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. And arrive so exhausted it will take me days to recover. Whereas in FC on a wide body non-stop flight from the West Coast I will sleep for 6 or so hours of that 10 hour flight.

    The food and wine can be nice perks when well done, but it’s the level of reduced stress and physical comfort that compels me to attain the miles for true FC. And the reason I read this and other blogs to find out which flights are worth the miles they cost. If he’s lucky, one day Doug will get bumped from Economy to First on a TA flight with a good crew, and find out what he’s been missing.

  11. I enjoyed this interview, Darius. Thanks for the interesting content, Doug.
    I wanted to ask more about the part you said, “Had I realized this when we booked our reservation, we could have looped in one-way tickets to Hawaii on the return end to use later this year.”
    I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the free layover AA gives on international flights when using miles but I wasn’t able to follow this one. Could anyone explain that a bit better to me. Thanks 🙂

  12. @Aaron, if you live in/near an AA gateway city (where AA has international flights), such as LAX, ORD, JFK, DFW, MIA, etc., then you can get a free stop-over for your one-way ticket. In Doug’s case, he could have tagged on an additional segment LAX-HNL several months (as long as the ticket is valid) after his return to LAX. You could then technically do this all over again, if you plan well for your second trip to Europe. Once you are done with your vacation in Hawaii, you could book another one-way from HNL to Europe (with or without a stopover in LAX or any other AA gateway city).

    @Doug, TravelWhimsy and I flew to Milan in February 2011 in AA economy from Las Vegas, too. I think we just do what makes sense (we thought it was a good deal – 40k AA miles vs. the normal 60+k). This coming February, we are flying USAirways in lie-flat Envoy class to Paris, again because it is a good deal (55k vs. the normal 100k).

  13. ********I also only fully understood the power of an AA international stopover only a few weeks before we left for Paris. Had I realized this when we booked our reservation, we could have looped in one-way tickets to Hawaii on the return end to use later this year. ********

    Darius, Can you explain more detail of what he mean by the above. perhaps set an example of it. Thanks, Ken

  14. @Ken, I will take a crack at this. Here is an example of two one-way tickets, assuming you are returning from Europe and your home airport is LAX.

    (1) First one-way:
    Ticketing date: 12/1/2012 (your travel needs to end by 11/30/2013)
    Europe – LAX: 2/15/2013 (stop-over in LAX)
    LAX – Hawaii: 11/25/2013 (before your ticket expires)

    (2) Second one-way:
    Ticketing date: 11/1/2013 (valid until 10/30/2014)
    Hawaii – LAX: 11/30/2013 (this will get you home from Hawaii)
    LAX – Europe: 10/30/2014 (start of another trip to Europe before the ticket expires)

    AA defines North America as ” the U.S. (including Hawaii and Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, The Bahamas, and the Caribbean,” so you can get creative here if you are able to find seats for your routing and a cooperative agent.

  15. That’s it in theory, except that AA only allows booking some 10 and a half months in advance, so you can’t book 10/30/14 on 11/1/13. They won’t book that far out.

    Not to mention that you are going to have to find the Hawaii availability open the same day you find the Europe availability open to book it at all. Or at least find it within the 5 day hold period. As if finding that sort of US Eur award availability wasn’t difficult enough on it’s own.

    The saving grace here is that you can change the dates of travel for no charge, as long as the itinerary doesn’t change. So you can book each of the flights based on what’s open now, then change the dates if/when they open up. Good Luck with that….

    AA has made this so difficult to book, that if you can master it, you shouldn’t be wasting your time doing it. Devote yourself to creating tax shelters, and arbitraging stocks. Then take the $1,000 an hour you make doing that, and just buy the fricking ticket.

  16. @ Aaron
    @Ken Lee
    Daraius did a fantastic series on AA, you will find all the answers there: http://millionmilesecrets.com/2012/02/16/american-airlines-award-travel-4/#more-9119

  17. @Robert: good point! I’m trying to do that too, although I’m not there yet. Everything is always much harder than it sounds.

    Thanks everyone for your interest, and thanks especially to Daraius for the interview.

  18. BTW, I agree with most of the posters that it’s certainly more comfortable in first or business than it is in coach. HOWEVER, if you’re funding a family of 5 on points, coach is almost always where you end up. Sure, I can get 2 RT tix from east coast US to Europe for about 200k miles, BUT for 200k miles, I can get all 5 of us there in coach. 200k is < 500k. We can take two (and a half!) vacations in coach for every one we could take in first.

    If it's just me and/or the Mrs., we'll probably go business or first. The family, though, flies coach.

  19. @David Moye If you are taking your family of 5 to Europe, you’ll get no criticism from me. Any Dad that does that is a hero in my book, regardless of the cabin. In fact, putting up with coach in order to give the kids the experience of traveling in Europe just adds to my respect.

  20. Most hostels now have private rooms for couples and families. All of the private ones and many of the YH hostels have eliminated “duties” and lockout times. I have a very outdated but probably very useful page on how to find these hostels on my website. Click on my name here, then on Gary’s Cheap Travel Hints > Cheap Lodging.