“I’m not a big user of credit cards to collect miles.”

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Welcome to the next interview in our interview series where travel bloggers share their insights on having Big Travel with Small Money!

Miles & Points Interview: ORD to Anywhere

David lives in Chicago and writes ORD to Anywhere to share his experiences and his love for the Oneworld Alliance.

Buddha Inside The Temple Of The Tooth In Singapore

Buddha Inside The Temple Of The Tooth In Singapore

How and when did you start collecting miles and points?

My partner and I had been actively daydreaming about traveling somewhere exotic for some time when he stumbled upon a $450 round-trip fare between our home city of Chicago and Tokyo.  I’m half-Japanese and speak some of the language, so with the extremely low price and no language barrier we decided it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

We booked our tickets and had an amazing 10 days in Japan.  I collected the miles from the trip into my newly created American Airlines account and was under the impression that I had likely just earned myself a free ticket.  After all, Tokyo seemed so far and I must have received tons of miles.

After the sad reality that my 12,000 miles wasn’t getting me anywhere very soon, I turned to the internet to see what I could do with the small stash I’d earned.  And here I am today.

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

I’m a big fan of honesty, so I’d genuinely have to say I don’t think my blog is very unique or special.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s something that I do because I enjoy writing and I like interacting with other travelers, but it isn’t by any means something cutting edge or innovative.

The primary focus of the content I manage to post is focused on the Oneworld alliance since that’s really where my interests lie lately.  I post random hotel and flight reports since I often am seeking information on the quality of various hotels and airlines.  As a user of that type of information I try to return the good deeds others travelers have done for me.

I have a few posts that seemed to have sparked some interest from readers, but my primary goal is to entertain myself and meet new people.  If someone happens to find something I write helpful, that’s all the better.

Cuvillies Theatre In Munich

Cuvillies Theatre In Munich

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

I’m not a big user of credit cards to collect miles, so I’m a bit old fashioned as I earn about 95% of my miles from actually flying on a plane.  I think some folks often forget that when airlines introduce new routes or face increased competition on existing routes that they’ll throw out rather lucrative bonus mileage offers simply for booking a ticket.

Many of these have fare class requirements to earn the really large bonuses, but on occasion you can find a gem that’s not so restrictive.  Even the smaller bonuses for lower fare classes can help top off or pad your accounts nicely.

What’s your most memorable travel experience?

The first time I was ever in Hong Kong I was wandering the city by myself and trying to take in all the sights.  I decided to take the Ngong Ping cable car to reach the Po Lin monastery.  Since I was alone the cable car attendants herded me into a car with a large Chinese family.  The first minute was a bit awkward as they all stared at me and whispered amongst themselves.

After that quick conversation they all stood up and started rearranging themselves within the car and sat an elderly gentleman next to me.  He looked at me and in very slow but clear English said, “Hello sir, how are you today?”  It turns out this was a family from mainland China on their first vacation.  The older gentleman was their grandpa and had taught himself English over the years from various books he picked up while working as a mail carrier in their hometown.

He said he didn’t know many people who spoke English back home and wanted to ask me about my life as a way to practice.  I missed out on the scenery just outside the glass but ended up with quite a great memory.  There’s a photo of me and a random Chinese family with great big smiles floating around somewhere in the world.

I wasn’t smart enough to ask for one to keep for myself though.

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

My partner wasn’t really on board with the idea for awhile.  I think his mind changed when we decided we wanted to backpack through India for two weeks and I used my American Airlines systemwide upgrades to move us into business class for the 14 hour flights to and from Delhi.

From what I can tell the rest of my family doesn’t really get how or why I pay so much attention to these miles/points programs, but they do support my unquenched wanderlust.  I have a few friends who’ve asked me to explain how I travel so often for so little money, but generally speaking I find that you need to be a certain type of person to really get into this hobby.

I’ve made quite a few friends through my interest in travel, but have yet to move any of my non-mileage earning friends in the opposite direction.

Statues Outside Buckingham Palace In London

Statues Outside Buckingham Palace In London

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

Stay positive and always wear a smile.  You’re bound to miss an upgrade or have your flight canceled over the course of your travel career.  I try not to let that sour my experience and have found that being a decent human being can get you quite far.

So maybe that empty seat on the seat map next to you in coach remains empty when the doors close after a congenial conversation during check-in.  The best results I’ve had while on the road have almost always come from my interactions with people, and I try to make sure I stay in as many good graces as I can.

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

I had a friend who collected American AAdvantage miles on and off for a few years but never got around to using them.  One day she emailed me and simply said “I’m never going to use these miles and you seem to know what you’re doing, so why don’t you just take them?”  I was a bit shocked and asked her why she never thought she’d use them, and even offered to help her book some basic awards.

She declined and just reminded me not look a gift horse in the mouth.  I didn’t, and it helped me top off my account to redeem a Oneworld Explorer award in First class that I thought I’d have to wait a few more months to book.

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

It’s not everything.  For a portion of my point collecting career I really let my obsession get in the way of seeing the world.  I’d refuse to book fares if I thought the cost-per-mile was too high, or I’d end up flying to the same location over and over again simply because it was a good deal.  But all that got me was a few more points and far fewer memories.

So I had to change the way I looked at the game and remind myself that I’m doing this so I can marvel at the Taj Mahal, dip my toes in the waters off Phuket, and climb Table Mountain.  Cathay Pacific first class is a wonder, but it’s no Taj Mahal.  So maximize your miles without marginalizing your life experiences.

What would your readers be surprised to know about you?

I’ve been on safari in Africa, backpacked through India, climbed the Great Wall of China, and ran from a riot in Argentina.  Yet I’ve never once set foot in New York City.

Panorama From Chobe National Park In Botswana

Panorama From Chobe National Park In Botswana

Any parting words?

Don’t crowd the boarding gate.  Nobody likes it. 😉

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

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23 responses to ““I’m not a big user of credit cards to collect miles.”

  1. David’s posts on the rules regarding Oneworld Explorer awards and the tips in them are pure gold for anyone interested in such trips. Highly suggest people read them.

  2. Alex (@NoviceFlyer)

    I also accumulate 90%+ of my miles by flying. And I really enjoy it too! 🙂 Good article for those who don’t churn cards every 4-6 months for miles. Keep up the great work!

  3. David is one of the kindest and most genuine people you can hope to meet. You are sure to see his humility in this interview, as he knows WAY too much about OneWorld. I am grateful to count him as a friend.

  4. @David, will you be at the Chicago Seminars this year? Great interview btw. You’ve been to so many beautiful places.

  5. Robert Hanson

    American does not allow you to give your miles away. Not even to a family member, much less a friend. Sure, you can “gift” them, but only by paying the exact same amount that it would cost to out and out buy them. And you can give away an actual award if you have enough miles to qualify for it. But you can’t just transfer your points to someone else for free.

  6. @Amol & IPBrian – Thanks for the nice comments, I appreciate it! 🙂

    @Grant – Unfortunately I will not be able to make it. I’ll be sunning myself on a beach in Hawaii that weekend. I’m sad to miss the event, but not *that* sad. 😉

    @Robert Hanson – Yup, AA does not allow you to outright transfer miles between accounts without a fee. But, I never said that happened. I paid the nominal fee associated with putting those miles in my account. Since I was looking to book an Explorer award, I need them in my account with my existing balance, so simply booking the award from her account wasn’t an option.

    And to be clear, sharing miles between accounts actually is NOT the same cost as buying the miles. This is easy to see simply by viewing the pricing on the two options. Buying 25,000 miles from AA currently costs $687.50 plus fees. Sharing 25,000 miles between two AA accounts currently costs just $300 plus fees. That’s over a 50% different. You might have confused the “Gift AA Miles” option with the “Share AA Miles” program. Gifting miles is the same as buying them. It’s intended as a birthday present, anniversary present, etc. Sharing miles is what two people who know each other do, and is considerably less expensive.

  7. Finally an honest blogger!

  8. Hi there, just looking for a piece of advice. My strategy is to accumulate a ton of points and save them for when the economy takes it’s next dive and then I can travel for less points. As during the last recession, points programs became much more generous and the thought of not having to spend a bunch of money when times are tougher is appealing. Is there any downside to this strategy (beyond points expiring)?

    Many thanks in advance for your feedback.

  9. Even though I do churn credit cards as a primary way of earning miles since I cannot afford to fly so much per year, it’s very refreshing to see someone who talks more about the travel experience than the flight there. Many bloggers talk about first class this or business class that, but then stay in a city for 1 or 2 days. I really appreciate hearing about the interesting adventures and the cultural immersions you’ve had David. Those are what I remember about my trips as well, not the nice flight or lounge.

    P.S. You need to get to New York!

  10. @alex: Accumulating a ton of points for the future is not a good idea due to devaluation.

  11. Great interview! I had a chance to ask David a question sometimes ago. I was so surprise by his responses since he took the time to research thoroughly and give me many options. David is one of the rare bloggers who is “the kindest and most genuine people you can hope to meet.” I sincerely hope that someday I would be able to meet David and buy him lunch 🙂 Thanks.

  12. David,

    It is nice to hear your story about the travel to Hong Kong and Asia.

    Do you use Avios a lot to go to NY?

  13. @alex: generally when the economy takes a dive, in my personal opinion, that is the best time to actually buy tickets bc no one else is… capacity opens up, load factors decline and prices need to drop… and you can get econ tickets for cheap. however, i suppose you could argue biz class seats open up (for award redemption) as well… but at one point during ’09 i recall a RT ticket to milan from houston for $400. i wouldnt mind flying anywhere in Europe in economy for that price. granted i think airlines have wised up since then.

  14. @Steve I actually have good friends who live there and have a bed with my name on it should I ever decide to go, so the hotel prices aren’t even a factor in keeping me out. I don’t know why I just haven’t hopped on a plane and gone to be honest. Some day!

    @Nguyen – I actually do remember emailing with you as well. I never learned the outcome of your travel plans but I hop you ended up booking something that worked out for you! If you’re ever in Chicago email me and we can grab a coffee and chit chat.

    @Steve – I actually have some Avios burning a hole in my pocket. NYC might a rather inexpensive redemption to consider. Hmmmm….!

  15. “I’m a big fan of honesty, so I’d genuinely have to say I don’t think my blog is very unique or special.”

    What a refreshing admission.

    “I’m not a big user of credit cards to collect miles, so I’m a bit old fashioned as I earn about 95% of my miles from actually flying on a plane.”

    Oh my. So he’s spending 10x more to travel than he should…

  16. @Paul – I’m actually likely spending far less than your average American Airlines Executive Platinum to retain my status perks and earn miles. When AA institutes a revenue requirement for its elite status program I’ll likely drop out of the status game as I pay far too little money for the tickets I book. The $2k-4K I spend per year on airline tickets is a reasonable investment in my humble opinion for the lounge access, 100% bonus miles, 8 SWUs, etc.. that AA provides to me.

    So do I pay more money than someone who travels only by churning credit cards for miles? Yes. But I’m still traveling far more for far less and far more comfortably than 90% of folks out there.

    I always say get in where you fit in. Credit card churning is not a fit for me, I find ways to travel that work for me. 🙂

  17. In addition to being an expert on rules of oneworld and AA award redemptions, David is also one of the most generous people I know when it comes to sharing his knowledge and helping others.

    Great interview!

  18. That was some fun reading..thanks for sharing this. The picture of that theater in Munich is awesome….love to visit that someday.

  19. @Steve @ Canadian Travel Hacking

    Did you not read the post? Dave said he has never been to NYC.

  20. Great interview and incredible sounding blogger! Certainly a joy to read. Keep up the good work! Love your bucket list. 🙂

  21. Wow, David, you must have really made an impression on people. This is the first time I remember reading the comments after an interview and not seeing any along the lines of, “I have no idea why you interviewed this pathetic loser, and I have no idea why he/she thinks he/she should have a blog.” 🙂 You must be doing something right.
    I’m looking forward to catching up on your blog, I’m an ORD person, too (west burbs), and a local perspective on travel is always helpful. I’m hoping there are some posts in there about good (cheap?) restaurants to hit up in our chicagoland area, too, since we are new-ish to the area.

  22. @AAdvantage Geek & Charlie – Thanks for the kind words, I appreciate them!

    @Ozaer – The Cuvillies was quite small but very beautiful. I was lucky to visit right before it closed down for the day and it was all light up and completely empty. I set my phone down and opened my photo app and let it do it’s work. Was beautiful. 🙂

    @Jamie – I’ll take that as a badge of honor, I’m glad the response has been so positive. Unfortunately I don’t really write about Chicago much, the blog is more focused on getting out of the city. Don’t get me wrong, I live here for a reason – I love it! Feel free to use the Contact Me links on the blog to email me or tweet me and I can definitely give you some thoughts on places to eat. 🙂

  23. Robert Hanson

    I did indeed confuse sharing miles and gifting miles. Despite being Lifetime Gold with AA, I was unaware of the sharing program. I long ago decided that the buying and gifting options were such a bad deal, that I never check on the page describing them, and thus didn’t notice when AA added the sharing possibility. I guess AA doesn’t actively promote that option either, as they would prefer to have us buy the miles instead.