I am happy to introduce a new “interview series” where I will post interviews with renowned mile and point gurus about their insights on having Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: Gary Steiger of Free Frequent Flyer Miles
Our first interview is with Gary Steiger. Gary has been collecting miles for years, and maintains one of the most comprehensive sites on the web – Free Frequent Flyer Miles.
Unlike other sites which focus on only a few aspects of earning miles, say, credit cards, Gary writes about – in great detail – about almost every avenue of earning miles – from credit cards, to dining programs, to shopping mall bonuses, to registration bonuses. Free Frequent Flyer Miles was recently featured in the July edition of Condé Nast Traveler as 1 of 6 sites to help keep you “ahead of the game” in all things miles and points.
Gary wants to be anonymous when he travels, so he didn’t let me take a picture of him, but he did include the following pictures which typifies his travels.
Free Frequent Flyer Miles can help us earn more miles and points, and I was interested to hear Gary’s ideas about his mile and point
Daraius: How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
Gary Steiger: When I was an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard in the Midwest, I had responsibility for port safety for 1,200 miles of river. Flying was essential to getting to where I needed to go. Alas, that flying was on Ozark Airlines, with no miles program and the dirtiest planes.
When I came home to California, I really was sick of flying, and stuck to road trips and backpacking, mostly in the Sierra Nevada. But then a girlfriend (currently my S.O. of 23 years) talked me into flying to Hawaii over Easter break. She found a cheap fare on Continental Airlines, then just coming out of bankruptcy. Our return flight was on the Sunday after Easter break, probably the busiest day for flying out of Honolulu. So of course Continental downsized the airplane, causing them to offer bumps to a lot of people. They offered dollar value credit towards future flights, overnight accommodation at a very nice Waikiki hotel, very nice meals, and Business First travel home the next day. I accepted. My S.O. couldn’t. (It’s amazing how much faster flying in Business First is than is flying in cattle class.)
I used the dollar credit for tickets for the two of us to Denver. The Denver airport was then the old high altitude one. Our departure was scheduled for noon, and the day was hot. Airplanes have considerably less lift on hot days at high altitude. They had to bump 20 people to reduce weight.
They were offering a free flight to any domestic location to which Continental flew. I asked what restrictions were on that ticket. They said 10 days advance reservation. Fine. I always book well in advance of that. I asked if we would receive miles for the free flight and was told yes.
So we both accepted the offer, and were bumped to a 3pm flight. Sure enough, they had to bump people off that flight too, so we got another two free flights, and were bumped to the 5pm flight. Yep, volunteers were sought then, too. But alas, they didn’t need us. But they did put us in First Class for our trip home. (Still faster than going to Denver in cattle class.)
So I called many months in advance to use our free tickets for a nonstop from San Francisco to Newark. We were then told that the tickets had to be booked no more than 10 days in advance. Sheez. I eventually was able to book the tickets very near our departure time, but I was not at all happy about this. So on our return flight I discussed this with a very sympathetic flight attendant, who said that Continental was very interested in this sort of compliant and handed me a complaint form. Having nothing better to do on that flight, I filled it out and mailed it in, not thinking that much would happen as a result. A few days after returning, I checked my account and found none of the promised flight miles in it. I called Continental about this, and was then told that my free flight was not eligible for miles. So I was ready to cross Continental off my list of airlines I wanted to fly on ever again.
But then I got a phone call from the Vice President of Continental Airlines in charge of customer satisfaction. He said he couldn’t read all of my writing, and to please explain my complaint. I did, saying that I was lied to in Denver about the 10 day advance reservation requirement, and about the miles for using those free tickets. He was furious, and said heads will roll in Denver! He converted our remaining free flight coupons into standard Y class, miles earning tickets, and gave us 7,500 miles each for the first free flights. Our total miles then gave us two more flights. So one ticket to Hawaii produced 9 flights plus a very valuable lesson on getting bumped, and a life changing introduction to miles.
Why did you start Free Frequent Flyer Miles? What’s special about it?
I retired from teaching high school math and was looking for something to do. I spoke seven computer languages, but knew nothing about setting up a website. I didn’t know then exactly what the subject of my website would be – investing or travel, probably – but I took a couple of courses on HTML anyway, if for no other reason than to keep my mind active.
About that time the long distance telephone companies were offering miles for switching to their services. I had discovered Flyertalk, which was discussing how to get these offers by switching service every six months. So I got hooked.
Also, at that time there was a website called Mileage Workshop (now defunct), which described many miles deals. I thought I could do a much better job of this, and investing was covered much better by many others anyway, so I decided on freefrequentflyermiles.com.
I believe that travel is the key to intercultural understanding and thus, perhaps a few generations from now, world peace. I believed that I could provide a unique service that shows people who would not otherwise be able to travel how to travel for free or very cheap.
I believe that freefrequentflyermiles.com is the most complete and up-to-date (except when I am traveling) resource on how to obtain free or very cheap airline miles.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
They can spend a few hours reading all of the pages of my website. Then they can subscribe to the notification service for my What’s New page. This will cause an email to be sent to them whenever I post a new or changed offer.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
There are really an awful lot of very memorable experiences. But I suppose the most memorable was my tour of Vietnam a few years ago. If you want to feel like you are in a very different culture, that is a place to go. Just trying to cross the street is a unique cultural experience.
I believe that if lots of Americans had visited Vietnam before our war with them, there would have been no war. There is no way anyone could have shot a gun at any of these sweet people.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
When I mention my website to friends, some discount it as too good to be true, or not worth their time, without actually looking at the information to discover that “they” really are giving away free travel.
Others try it and become as addicted as me, often providing me with new offers in return. I have learned to not get upset by those who don’t believe me – less competition for me for free tickets.
It took a while for my S.O. to be convinced that the acquisition of miles was worth doing. But after a few free trips, she became a believer. Now she collects any miles she can find, and often tells me about deals I don’t know about. We now travel wherever in the world we want to go as often as we like, usually in comfort in business class.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Yes, learning to get good offers, from telephone company offers then to credit card offers now. Blogs like yours and others will do a good job of teaching people how to do this.
I never, ever expected 50,000 – 100,000 mile offers for credit cards. Insane, but I love it while it lasts.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Long ago I registered a credit card for one of the iDine programs because someone was giving away some miles for doing so. Then I promptly forgot about this. About a year later I dined at a restaurant in Napa, California, and some miles magically posted for this.
I was truly surprised, as iDine restaurants do not put signs in their windows advertising their membership in the program. So I now follow the iDine (now Rewards Network) programs on my website. They are a good way to pick up a few miles, perhaps to keep your miles from expiring from inactivity.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I wish I had known about credit card offers. And I wish I had known about how to use airline alliances for getting a trip on multiple carriers, and how superior the service is on most foreign carriers.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I led Sierra Club backpacking and hiking trips for 25 years. No flying involved there, and lots of tough miles.
I have a BA degree in Mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, and I spent 1 year in law school at the University of San Francisco, 3 years as a U.S. Coast Guard Officer, 27 years teaching high school math in Marin County, California, 25 years as a Sierra Club backpacking and hiking leader. Now I’m retired and the webmaster of FreeFrequentFlyerMiles.com
Any parting words?
Currently (July 2011) banks and credit card companies are truly giving away free business class tickets to anywhere in the world. Everyone should grab the three American Airlines credit card offers for 225,000 miles you have discussed, and everyone should grab any Continental Airlines miles before that airline merges into the United Airlines program and thus the Continental offers disappear.
Currently there are five Continental credit card offers and two brokerage offers that will get you these miles. See the 7/1/2011 listing on my What’s New page for exact instructions on how to access the credit card offers, for a potential total of up to 207,000 free miles (no kidding). But it may not be possible to get all of these, as Chase Bank offers four of the five, and Chase has been sensitive to too may credit card applications in a short period of time, and too many credit cards issued by Chase to one person. Hopefully you and other bloggers will show people how to deal with Chase. We have to the end of the year until the merger with United.
And if done right, the brokerage offers of Fidelity and TD Ameritrade could get you another 125,000 Continental or other airline miles by simply moving assets back and forth.
Gary Steiger – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!
If you haven’t checked out Free Frequent Flyer Miles, now is a good time to get started!