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Welcome to the world of miles and points!
We show time-starved folks how, they too, can acquire airline miles and hotel points, and travel very comfortably to see the world, for a fraction of what they would otherwise pay for such travels.
For example, (when we were married) we enjoyed a $32,000 honeymoon in Paris for ~$2,000, paid only $60 for two ~$8,000 seats in a First Class plane suite, and stayed for free in a hotel suite that costs ~$3,500 per night!
Thousands of others have also made cheap travel their hobby, and this Beginner’s Guide can help you get started.
You can earn lots of airline miles and hotel points by signing-up for credit cards and using them responsibly. In this guide, we will give you the tools to get started and recommend specific credit cards for which you can apply. You can go on family vacations for a fraction of the cost, fly First Class, and stay at the some of the best hotels around the world.
You will NOT damage your credit score! You’ll actually improve it if you pay your bills in full and on time. Included in this guide are some great organizational tools to help keep you on track.
Beginner’s Guide Index
- How Collecting Miles & Points Has Changed Our Lives
- What Our Readers Say
- How You Can Do It Too!
- What’s the Catch? (Read This Before You Get Started!)
- Step 1 – Set Your Travel Goals
- Step 2 – Sign-Up for Loyalty Programs
- Step 3 – Stay Organized
- Step 4 – Choose a Credit Card
- Step 5 – Sign-up for Your 1st Credit Card
- Step 6 – Meet the Minimum Spending Requirements
- Step 7 – Don’t Cancel Your Card Too Soon!
- Step 8 – Earn Points for Everyday Spending
- Step 9 – Use Your Points
- Step 10 – Signing-Up for Multiple Cards
- Bonus Step 11 – Share With Your Family & Friends!
How Collecting Miles & Points Has Changed Our Lives
Emily and I have visited over 30 countries, made some wonderful memories, and learned about ourselves and the world. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without collecting miles & points from large credit card sign-up bonuses!
Prior to this hobby, we thought travel was something that we’d have to save up for over several years. Fortunately, we discovered collecting miles and points. This opened up a world of travel we never thought possible!
Imagine being able to visit friends & family who live in far away places…
Treating your loved one to a surprise weekend trip…
Exploring ancient cities…
Lounging in a private overwater bungalow…
Or even getting a good night’s sleep in a bed during a long flight…
We’ve done all this and more, thanks to miles & points. Learning about cheap travel has provided us with nearly free flights, free hotels, and cheap rental cars. And you can do it too!
What Our Readers Say
“Thanks for a great blog. My grandmother turned 90 this year! So with your help and advice, my wife and I were able to get her a ticket to Hawaii and a free room to enjoy a surprise party with 40 of her family and friends. Without your help, there’s no way we could have made this trip of a lifetime happen for her!” –Doug
“Hello Daraius and Emily! I wanted to say “thank you” for sharing your trip with us! I am a physician who takes care of cancer patients. My wonderful nurse (who is a truly caring and giving person) has had a lifelong dream of traveling to Italy…We plan to visit Rome, Florence, and Milan. I am probably most excited about Siena!
“It will be a trip of a lifetime for us. You guys helped make it possible!” –Kristen
“I have been on 3 wonderful trips to Europe since collecting miles and points. Traveling very luxuriously! We are retired and never dreamed we would be traveling as much and as well before finding this passion and hobby.
“You have helped so much with your wonderful insight and knowledge you share. Thank you for helping these 2 older people follow their dreams.” –BFD
How You Can Do It Too!
The easiest and fastest way to get frequent flyer miles is to sign-up for credit cards with big bonuses.
Some credit cards will give you 100,000 points for signing-up and completing a certain amount of spending. You can turn those 100,000 points into a lot of cheap travel! Some of these bonuses are enough for a family to go to Hawaii, or fly First Class to Europe and Asia.
You don’t have to get 50 cards to get enough miles for a vacation. One or 2 is all you need to get started!
What’s the Catch? (Read This Before You Get Started!)
Be sure to read my post on the 5 Dangers of Applying for Credit Cards before getting into this hobby. Collecting miles & points isn’t for everyone. This may not be for you if you don’t:
- pay your bills on time
- have a credit score of at least ~700
- pay attention to detail or
- track your credit card balances
And you shouldn’t get into this hobby if you plan to take out a major loan within the next 2 years (mortgage, car, student, etc.)
If you have a credit score significantly below ~700, it is better to fix your score 1st and get into this hobby afterwards.
You can estimate your credit score for free by using Credit Sesame, Credit Karma, or the tool on CreditCards.com. You’ll see your credit score and report. All of these services can help you monitor your credit moving forward.
Expect to invest some time and effort into organization and shopping. But the pay off is Big Travel with Small Money!
For many folks reading this blog, they’d NEVER be able to afford First Class tickets to the Maldives or a bungalow in Bora Bora. So the time spent earning miles is worth more than they could ever earn by working overtime or at a 2nd job.
Step 1 – Set Your Travel Goals for the Next Year
The 1st step to getting started with collecting miles and points involves making some fun choices.
A mistake many folks say they regret making when they started collecting points was jumping right in and not setting goals or determining a strategy to reach them. This can leave you with lots of points in different accounts that can’t be used to their full potential.
Also, it’s MUCH easier to find flights you can book with miles if you plan a year in advance. So it’s a good idea to plan ahead.
You can still find good deals only 3 to 4 months in advance, but it may require more flexibility. For instance, you may have to leave the US on Wednesday instead of a Friday. Here are some questions that only you can answer:
- Are you mostly interested in traveling within the US or internationally? Do you want to visit a beach destination, a big city, etc.?
- Do you prefer fancy hotels or budget hotels where you can stretch your miles?
- How many people will be traveling with you? Are you part of a family of 4 or more, or is it just you and a companion?
- How often do you want to travel?
- Which destinations appeal to you?
For domestic flights, the best way to get Big Travel with Small Money is with the Southwest Companion Pass.
You can earn points with airline and hotel branded credit cards. Or you can earn bank points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards points and AMEX Membership Rewards points which gives you the ability to transfer to airline AND hotel partners.
If you need a little travel inspiration, check out our Trip Reports which include trips to Hawaii, Europe, Asia, and more, for ideas on places to visit and step-by-step instructions on how you can use your points to get there!
Step 2 – Sign-Up for Loyalty Programs
Sign-up for a few hotel and airline loyalty programs. There are many programs to choose from, but I recommend signing-up for just a few of the major programs initially. You can always sign-up for the rest later on.
Make note of your user name, password, and account number for the next step!
- Airline Frequent Flyer Program Sign-Up Links
- Hotel Reward Program Sign-Up Links
- Rental Car Reward Programs Sign-Up Links
Step 3 – Stay Organized
Staying organized is the most important thing you can do to make sure you get the most value out of your miles!
When you are applying for multiple credit cards at a time, there are lots of payment due dates, spending requirements, and account balances to track on top of your household budget. And if you aren’t responsible, you can end up paying late fees, interest, and accumulating debt.
Fortunately there are a lot of excellent tools available to help you keep track of it all. Here are some programs that you can use to stay organized.
- Award Wallet – enter your airline and hotel account information from Step 2 to track all of your mile & point accounts in 1 place. You can even track accounts for multiple people.
- Mint – will help you keep tabs on your checking account and credit card balances
- Credit Karma – tracks your credit and gives you an estimated TransUnion credit score
- Credit Sesame – also tracks your credit and gives you an estimate Experian credit score
You can also use spreadsheets that include information such as the date you were approved for the card, the minimum spending requirement, the date the minimum spending should be completed, the bonus, the credit limit, the annual fee, and any other categories that may help you.
Step 4 – Choose a Credit Card That Will Help You Achieve Your Travel Goals
Because you are new to this hobby, I recommend starting out slow with just 1 or 2 cards. But keep in mind in the long-term, you want to apply for multiple cards. That’s because more cards means more sign-up bonuses and more miles for travel!
Choosing a card that is right for you depends upon your travel goals.
You have decided where you want to travel, now you need to decide which points you should earn to get you there. For example, if you want to go to Paris find out which airline (usually United or American) has the most flights from the US to Paris for a low amount of miles.
Then decide which hotel chain offers the best options for you in Paris. You could also use my guide to choosing the best hotel card for a trip to Paris to help you with this decision.
There are also a few categories to consider and how they may fit with your goals. In the next step, I’ll give you my top choices for specific cards but here are the 5 general categories.
1. Cards That Offer Flexibility
Cards that fall into this category are a good choice for folks who are new to this hobby. Despite your best efforts to make plans, you never know what direction life may take you and these cards give you options.
2. No Annual Fee Credit Cards
Many mile & point credit cards charge an annual fee which can range from ~$50 to ~$450 per year. These fees are often waived for the 1st year you have the card (Don’t worry, it’s easy to cancel your card if you don’t want to pay the annual fee in the 2nd year.)
And sometimes paying the annual fee is worth it because the benefits outweigh the costs. For example, if a credit card comes with a free hotel night, it could be worth it to pay the $49 annual fee.
However, there are a few cards that charge NO annual fees.
A no annual fee credit card is a great choice for folks who are new to this hobby. That’s because with no annual fee you never have to cancel these cards. This helps you build a relationship with the banks and increase your credit score by creating a longer credit history.
Whatever you do, don’t cancel your longest credit cards because they help your credit score and establish history with the bank.
3. Airline Credit Cards
With airline credit cards you will earn points for use with specific airlines.
This is may be a good option for folks who do a lot of business travel with a certain airline. These are also good cards to get when you know the airline you want to fly. And airlines have partners. So you can use 1 airline’s miles to fly its partner airlines.
For instance, British Airways award flights typically come with high fuel surcharges. But you can get around this because British Airways is a member of the oneworld alliance, which includes American Airlines. So you can use your British Airways miles to book a flight within the US on American Airlines and avoid the high fuel surcharges.
4. Hotel Credit Cards
Hotel credit cards earn points that you can use at certain hotel chains. A hotel card may be a good choice if you stay at hotels often.
5. Cash Back Credit Cards
With cash back cards you earn points that can be redeemed for credit card statement credits.
|Card||Cash Back at Restaurants||Cash Back Limit||Annual Fee||Foreign Transaction Fee||Sign-up Bonus|
|AMEX SimplyCash||• 3% cash back at restaurants if you choose this as your bonus category|
• You can also earn 5% cash back at chain restaurants by purchasing their gift cards at office supply stores
|• up to $25,000 in spending per 12 billing cycles||No||2.7%||$250 statement credit, if you apply by April 27, 2016, and spend $5,000 within 6 months|
|Chase Ink Cash||• 2% cash back at restaurants||• up to $25,000 in spending each card anniversary year||No||3%||• 20,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points ($200 cash back) when you spend $3,000 within 3 months|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred||• 2X points (you can use this for 2% cash back) at restaurants||No limit||$95 annual fee waived the 1st year||No||• 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points ($500 cash back) when you spend $4,000 in purchases within the 1st 3 months
• 5,000 points when you add an authorized user and they make their 1st purchase within 3 months
|Barclays Arrival Plus||• 2X points (2.1% cash back if redeemed for $100+ travel purchases) on dining and all other purchases||No limit||$89 annual fee waived the 1st year||No||• 40,000 Arrival miles ($420 in cash back when you redeem for travel) when you spend $3,000 within 3 months|
|Citi DoubleCash||• 1% cash back on spending and 1% cash back on payments||No limit||No||3%||No|
|US Bank Cash+||• 5% cash back at fast food restaurants if you choose this as 1 of your bonus categories||up to $2,000 in spending each quarter||No||3%||No|
|Chase Freedom||• 5% cash back on rotating categories each quarter (sometimes includes restaurants)||up to $1,500 in spending each quarter||No||3%||• 15,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points ($150 cash back) when you spend $500 within 3 months|
|Discover It||• 5% cash back on rotating categories including restaurants|
• Earn 5% cash back at chain restaurants when you buy gift cards in other categories such as online shopping, home improvement, and gas stations.
|up to $1,500 in spending each quarter||No||No||$50 cash back after your 1st purchase in the 1st 3 months of opening your account|
|Chase AARP||• 3% cash back on restaurants and at gas stations||No limit||No||3%||• 10,000 points ($100 cash back) when you spend $500 within 3 months|
Cash back cards could be the right choice if you prefer types of travel that you can’t usually pay for with miles & points. For example, road trips, trains, boutique hotels, and cruises.
Cash back cards are also a great way to help pay for incidental travel expenses such as meals and entertainment. And cash back cards give you the ultimate flexibility because you don’t have to worry about black out dates and finding award space.
However, keep in mind that cash back is NOT the best way to get Big Travel with Small Money.
That’s because you can get much more value from award travel than cash back. For example, 125,000 cash back points are worth $1,250 in travel. But with 125,000 American Airlines miles you can fly round-trip from the US to Europe in First Class. Without miles a First Class flight from the US to Europe could cost ~$7,500 depending upon your destination and exact travel dates!
Step 5 – Sign-Up for Your 1st Credit Card
Now that you have thought about your goals and different credit card categories, it’s time to choose 1 or 2 cards that will work for you. Again, this is just to get you started. But once you feel comfortable the best strategy for Big Travel is to have multiple cards that cover several different categories.
Here are few cards I recommend within each category. However, each person has their own unique goals. So take a look at the Hot Deals page for other cards that may work for you. If this guide was helpful to you, please consider applying for these cards using our links on the Hot Deals page. We earn a small commission on some cards, and we are grateful for your support!
1. Credit Cards That Offer Flexibility
- Chase Ultimate Rewards – You earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold, and Chase Ink Plus cards. The benefit of collecting Chase Ultimate Rewards points is that you can choose from a variety of hotel and airline transfer partners. Your points aren’t useable in just 1 airline alliance or hotel chain.
Note: If you’ve opened 5 or more credit card accounts (from any bank) in the past 24 months, it’s VERY UNLIKELY Chase will approve you for any of their Chase Ultimate Rewards earning cards, like the Chase Freedom, Chase Sapphire Preferred, or Chase Ink Plus.
If I could only have 1 credit card, it’d be the Chase Sapphire Preferred because of the flexibility, no foreign transaction fees when I use my card abroad, and because I get 2X Chase Ultimate Rewards points for all my travel-related purchases.
- American Express Membership Rewards Cards – You can earn American Express Membership Rewards points with cards like the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold and AMEX Platinum. These cards are also great if you want some flexibility because you can transfer your points to many different airline and hotels partners.
2. No Annual Fee Card
With this card you get 5X points on up to $1,500 in spending on rotating categories. So you can earn an additional 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points per year by spending the maximum in bonus categories each quarter. You can redeem your 30,000 points for $300 cash back.
Or if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold, or Chase Ink Plus card, you can transfer your points from your Chase Freedom account to 1 of these cards, and then you could then transfer your 30,000 points to Hyatt and get 2 free nights at a category 4 hotel.
3. Airline Card
For travel within the US, I recommend the Chase Southwest credit cards.
The best deal in domestic travel is the Southwest Companion Pass because your favorite person can fly with you for free for up to 2 years!
You can easily achieve the Southwest Companion Pass by signing-up for 1 business and 1 personal Chase 50,000 mile offer Southwest card and earning 6,000 additional points. Chase usually offers the 50,000 bonuses every few months. Some folks may qualify for a business card even if they don’t own a large business.
For international travel, the best way to determine which airline card is right for you is by checking which airlines have the most flights out of your local airport to your desired destinations.
4. Hotel Credit Card
This is an excellent choice because you get 2 weekend nights at any Hilton hotel (even the hotels that cost thousands of dollars per night!) when you spend $2,500 on this card within 4 months.
You also get free Hilton Gold Status with this card, which includes free breakfast and internet. This could save you $20 to $30 per night! Check out our Trip Reports for ideas on which hotel card will fit with your travel goals.
5. Cash Back Credit Card
My favorite cash back card is also my favorite no annual fee card, the Chase Freedom.
I like this card because you can earn points faster by taking advantage of the rotating 5X points categories. I also like the Barclays Arrival Plus card because you earn 2.1% cash back on ALL spending when you redeem your cash back for travel purchases of $100 or more.
You’ll notice that some of these cards are business credit cards. You might be surprised to learn what qualifies as a business!
Step 6 – Meet Minimum Spending Requirements
To get the sign-up bonus on credit cards, you have to complete a certain amount of spending on the cards. The required spending can range from making your 1st purchase (of any amount) to spending $10,000 within 3 months.
You may be wondering how folks are able to do this amount of spending on multiple cards. Check out my list of 40+ ways to meet minimum spending requirements for all of my tips. But here are a few highlights :
- Avoid using cash – You want to be rewarded for your spending. So put as much of your everyday expenses as possible on credit cards. But do NOT spend beyond your budget just get miles & points!
- Use Bluebird Where Credit Cards Aren’t Accepted – Bluebird from American Express is a type of debit card. You can use Bluebird to pay bills that you usually can’t pay with credit cards, such as your mortgage or rent, car loans, student loans, and utility bills. You can do this by buying PIN Enabled gift cards with your credit card, using the gift cards to load your Bluebird account, and then paying your bill with Bluebird.
- AMEX Serve – You can also use the AMEX Serve prepaid card to pay bills you can’t usually pay with a credit card.
Using these tips and the other 40+ ways to meet minimum spending makes it easy to do lots of spending on credit cards and earn big credit card sign-up bonuses!
Is Meeting Minimum Spending Requirements Easy for You?
Big Spenders get even more perks for putting lots of spending on credit cards such as:
- More bonus miles
- Elite status without flying or staying in hotels
- Companion Passes
For example, with the Citi Hilton Reserve card you can earn another weekend night stay each year you spend $10,000 on the card. Read my series on Big Spenders for more details on rewards you can earn for doing lots of spending.
Step 7 – Decide Whether to Keep or Cancel Your Card(s)
Now that you have met your minimum spending and earned your sign-up bonus, do NOT cancel your card!
Canceling your card right away will make the banks unhappy. They could even decide to blacklist you. Which would mean no more credit cards and no more Big Travel with Small Money for you!
If you have applied for cards with annual fees, you should evaluate whether or not the card is worth paying the annual fee after ~8 to 10 months.
Before canceling, read this post to find out if you will lose the miles or points which are already in your account. Read my post on When to Cancel Your Credit Card to help with your decision.
Don’t worry about it being a hassle if you decide not to keep the card, the banks are happy to close your account for you. You can also have the bank switch you to a card that doesn’t charge an annual fee.
While no annual fee cards typically don’t have as many benefits, this will help you keep fostering a good relationship between you and the bank. The bank might even make this call easier for you by offering you some incentives to keep the card. They could give you a statement credit or additional miles to help cover the annual fee.
Step 8 – Earn More Points on Everyday Spending
Aside from sign-up bonuses, you can earn lots of points by taking advantage of bonus categories and promotions.
1. Category Bonuses
With mile & point credit cards you typically earn 1 point per dollar on regular spending and then more points per dollar in certain categories such as groceries, gas, travel, and dining.
And you can earn 3X points with airlines and 2X points at US restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores with the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold card. You can rack up a ton of points by taking advantage of these spending categories. And having multiple credit cards that cover each of your major categories ensures that you are earning bonus points on most of your purchases.
2. Shopping Portals
Another way to earn more points is by shopping online through portals.
Airlines and hotels offer bonus points for clicking their links to certain stores before you shop. These bonuses can be quite lucrative especially because you are earning points for shopping you were doing anyway. Sometimes you can get 18X to 36X points when you shop online!
Before you shop, check evreward to see which portals offer the best bonus.
3. Earn Bonus Points For Dining Out
With Rewards Network you can earn up to 5X points per dollar spent at one of their over 10,000 participating restaurants, clubs and bars. Each city has a roster of different restaurants that range from fine dining to fast food.
Emily and I live in Austin and the list of places includes a highly-rated Brazilian restaurant, casual Mexican dining, local pubs, a pita place, Jack in the Box, pizza, sushi, coffee shops, and of course barbecue!
Here’s how you get the points:
- Sign-up for a free Rewards Network account
- Enter your credit card information
- Automatically get miles in your frequent flyer account when using your card at 1 of their ~10,000 restaurants, bars, and clubs
Step 9 – Use Your Points for Flights & Hotel Stays
The possibilities are almost endless when it comes to using your points towards travel.
Take a look at the airline and hotel award charts to find out how many points you need to travel to your desired destination. You can also browse our Trip Reports to see how miles and points can get you to Maui, Kauai, Venice, Rome, Bora Bora, and more.
Try to book your travel as soon as possible, because award seats fill-up fast!
The number of bonus points offered by the bank will fluctuate, but let’s say you earned 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points by signing-up for the Chase Ink Plus card. To use your Chase Ultimate Rewards points with United Airlines (1 of its partner airlines), you would go the United Airlines award chart and find that it costs 30,000 miles for a 1-way coach trip from the US to Europe.
You’d also see it’s 45,000 miles for a round-trip coach ticket from the mainland US to Hawaii! Without miles, this same flight could cost you ~$1,000 depending upon your travel dates.
You can also transfer 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt for an All-Inclusive Weekend in Mexico!
And if you earn a few more points on your Chase Ink Plus card you could book a 1-way Business Class ticket from the US to Europe for 57,500 United Airlines miles.
The same ticket could cost you ~$3,000 (depending on your dates of travel).
You have to transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines or Hyatt to book your award travel. But make sure seats or rooms are available on your desired travel dates BEFORE you transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points! Once you transfer your points you can’t get them back.
These are just a few examples of what you can do. But check out our Trip Reports for some inspiration and to learn how to use your miles like a Pro.
While my award booking guides, like The Ultimate Guide to United Miles, will give you in-depth details on how to book an award flight, here are some basic tips to remember:
- Book in Advance – You will find the most availability ~1 year before your departure date. This is important if you want to use your miles to travel during peak times, such as holidays.
- Be Flexible – Remember you will be taking a trip for close to free, so there are going be some trade-offs at times. You may not be able to get an international flight at the exact date and time you want. This is especially true if you don’t book well in advance!
- Use Airline Alliances to Your Advantage – There are 2 major airline alliances Star Alliance and oneworld. If you can’t find available award seats to a desired destination, check with a partner airline.
And if you need some help, there are plenty of Award Booking Services who can book your award ticket for a fair price.
Step 10 – Signing-Up for Multiple Cards
Now that you have applied for 1 or 2 cards you have an idea of how things work. It’s time to start applying for multiple cards at 1 time, so you can earn lots of points quickly. This is how you get Big Travel with Small Money!
How Many Cards Should I Apply For?
Emily and I each like to sign-up for 3 to 6 cards every 3 to 4 months. But do what feels comfortable to you!
Apply to Cards From Different Banks
Banks don’t like to see that you’re applying for a lot of credit at once. But many banks only pull your credit score from 1 of the 3 credit bureaus. So by spreading your applications across different banks you are limiting the number of credit inquiries with each credit bureau.
For example, if you apply for the Chase Sapphire card and the Barclays Arrival Plus card in the same day and Chase pulls your credit report from Experian, then Barclays pulls your credit report from TransUnion they will not see that you have already applied for a card from Chase.
Which credit bureau is used not only depends upon the bank, but also the card you are applying for and your location. You can check the CreditBoards and Flyertalk to get an idea of which bureau a bank may use.
Maintain a Good Relationship With the Banks and a High Credit Score
If you don’t do these 2 things, banks will consider you a risk and you will be denied credit. Here are the steps you should take to ensure you stay in the game:
- Stay organized
- Pay your bills on time
- Find no annual fee cards and cards with great benefits to keep and establish a long history with the bank
- If you decide to cancel a card after you get the sign-up bonus, wait 8 to 10 months!
Bonus Step 11 – Share With Your Family & Friends
Now you get to enjoy a special bonus reward…sharing your travels with your friends & family! We like to send photos of us in tropical locations…
Or photos like this, of us on another adventure…
It’s fun to share all of the amazing trips you’ll take and it just might inspire some of your loved ones!
You may even get the chance to pay them back for all they’ve done for you by treating them to a special trip!
We’ve taken a lot of incredible trips over the years thanks to miles & points! And we’ve helped a lot of friends, family, and readers do the same along the way.
By mapping out your travel goals, signing-up for credit cards with large sign-up bonuses, and staying organized you will be on your way to Big Travel with Small Money, too!
We hope this guide motivates you to start collecting miles & points and to get out there and see the world!