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Welcome to the next installment of our interview series where folks share their thoughts about Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: My Travel Tools
Ben writes My Travel Tools to showcase his personal travels and assist fellow travelers with tips, tricks, and tools for traveling the world efficiently and cheaply. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
My first foray into miles and points was actually a cash back card. Charles Schwab used to have a 2% cash back credit card and they somehow approved me as a freshman in college with no real income. It had a massive $500 credit limit.
From there, my friend I met in college, Jimmy, introduced me to even more opportunities. I think my next cards were the PenFed Travel Rewards Card and the Chase United Explorer. I had both of these before graduating.
Then I got the Chase Sapphire Preferred once I had a real income.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I started my blog to show how useful miles and points can be to my friends and family by showcasing some of my travels. The other part of the name My Travel Tools is to create and identify unique tools that help travelers. I have ideas on unique web tools to assist people with their travel needs.
For one, I created a visualization of the recent Southwest schedules (I need to go back and update it!). The premise is to show the Southwest route map but with the number frequencies and for certain time frame. The Southwest website only shows all routes from a city without noting the frequency or if it is bookable for a certain time frame.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Put all the spending you can on your miles and points earning credit cards, no matter how small. With the caveat that you pay your credit card bills off in full and on time. Credit card debt is no good and it ruins the value of miles or points you earn.
It is very rare for me to use cash now. Even if the total price is only $1, I will still use a credit card. Have to get those points!
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
Really tough question now…I’ve had some truly amazing experiences, but 2016 in particular was a banner year for me and my wife with trips to Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico, all thanks to miles and points.
But the most memorable was a our near one-month honeymoon across the world, which was also in 2016. We started by using our Southwest Companion Pass to head to Punta Cana for 5 nights at the Westin. From there we flew Business Class on Air Berlin to Europe and eventually landed in Italy.
In Italy, we spent 4 nights at the Radisson Blu in Rome on points, 4 nights in Monterosso in Cinque Terre, and 3 nights in Venice. Our final stop was to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where we stayed at the brand new Sheraton for 5 nights.
It was a memorable experience that will be hard to top. Nearly all flights and accommodations were done with miles and points. We were fortunate to be able to do so many amazing trips, and without miles and points it would have not been financially possible.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
My family doesn’t fully understand it but they do read my blog posts and are always impressed by the travels. I have taken a ski trip with my dad to Banff, Canada, and used Delta miles to get us both there. A very good redemption by the way, 25,000 Delta miles round-trip!
I’ve also recently helped my mom and sister book a trip to St. Thomas using miles. On the other hand, my wife really appreciates it as she sees firsthand the power of miles and points! She always makes sure to use the best earning credit card when buying anything.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Like I mentioned earlier, I really like tools. I find awardmapper.com to be an amazing way to see where you can use your hotel points throughout the world. Another one is flightconnections.com, which shows nonstop flights from most airports and airlines in the world. You can filter by major alliance or by airline. I know a lot of people suggest using Wikipedia for finding all the nonstops from an airport, but I love visualizations.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Many people think entering those mile contests online or in-person is a waste of time, but I beg to differ. I won 100,000 United Airlines miles from one of their cruise promotions a couple years ago.
The promotion at the time allowed you earn more entries every time you purchased something through their shopping portal. I happened to be big on the United Airlines shopping portal at the time so I am sure that helped me win. Those miles were used for Business Class tickets for when we traveled to Australia.
Another contest was the Starwood baseball contest where all you had to do was login each day. I think between my wife and I we won over 20,000 Starwood points. Those were put to great use during our honeymoon trip!
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
Earning is the easy part, burning is the hard part. Once you understand the basic concept of sign-up bonuses and credit card spending, it is pretty easy to rack up a decent amount of points. Where it gets more difficult is extracting the best value out of your points.
Sure, you can easily book a 50,000 mile American Airlines AAnytime award, but does that make sense? Most of the time, no. It helps to focus on a particular award and accumulate the most valuable or easiest to use points to get there.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I know how to make pupusas and mofongo.
Pupusas are a thick Salvadorian tortilla filled with cheese, pork, or beans. They are so delicious and we fell in love with them during a trip that we had a stop in El Salvador for a couple of days.
Another dish I picked up while traveling was mofongo when we went to Puerto Rico. Mofongo is made with fried plantains that are mashed up with salt and garlic with a wooden mortar.
Both dishes are easy to make, honestly. I am not a chef by any means, but I do enjoy learning to cook something, especially from a place that I traveled to.
Any parting words?
Travel the way you want. Everyone has their own unique travel style and their own destinations they want to visit. Many blogs promote the super luxury vacations that miles and points make more affordable (key word is affordable!).
You also need to factor in the cost of activities, food, and local transportation. Does it make sense to stay at an isolated 5-star hotel where it will cost you $50 to eat a basic meal? For some people that would be perfect.
But for us we like to get out and explore while still keeping our budget in mind.
Ben – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!
If you’d like to be considered for our interview series, please send me a note!