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: Ric Garrido of Loyalty Traveler
Loyalty Traveler focuses only on hotel loyalty programs and is the best source for updates on hotel promotions. I find Ric’s “Current Hotel Loyalty Promotions” to be a great reference tool when I want to find a current hotel promotion. So I was thrilled to be able to talk with him about all things miles and points!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
In 1989 I booked our honeymoon flights to London on Pan Am. This was a couple months after the Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. The travel deal was book a flight from the US to London on Pan Am and earn an additional free ticket anywhere in North America.
My wife and I honeymooned in London and Edinburgh and a few months later flew to the US Virgin Islands for a second honeymoon. I bought the Entertainment Guide and booked 50% off rooms in London and Edinburgh. The hotel we stayed in London is now the Crowne Plaza St. James Court.
1991 is when I first started collecting miles and points as a frequent traveler. I flew between San Francisco and Washington DC regularly on United Airlines for National Education Association work. I qualified on flight segments for a free ticket anywhere in the world through some Mileage Plus promotion.
I wanted to go to New Zealand, but with only one free ticket my wife said, “Don’t bother to return” if I went solo (we made it to New Zealand together in 2005). I redeemed for three domestic economy flights instead. In 1991 I also earned elite status with Westin Premier hotel loyalty program (before Starwood Hotels was born).
1999 is when I found Healthy Choice chocolate pudding for about 115,000 miles, but Pudding Guy has the better story with that adventure. I found FlyerTalk soon after and learned some tricks of the trade. I quickly earned about 2 million miles while traveling around Europe and the Americas within one year of joining FlyerTalk.
Why did you start Loyalty Traveler? What’s special about it?
Loyalty Traveler is my lifestyle entrepreneurial endeavor. My goal is to make a middle class living teaching others how to travel better for less money while working primarily at home or on the road at my leisure.
I licensed Loyalty Traveler as my business in 2006. In the prior three years I had been laid off twice when a new “stressed-out” boss became my manager and I no longer fit in with the employee culture. I felt I had the discipline to develop my own career. What was unclear to me in 2006 was how to turn my travel knowledge into a paying job.
Loyalty Traveler started out analyzing frequent flyer programs and hotel loyalty programs. Within three months of starting Loyalty Traveler, a publishing firm hired me full-time as a frequent flyer analyst at $50,000 a year. That was a cool gig that I quit within a year to get back to developing Loyalty Traveler since I felt blogging was where I could connect in real-time with people and share deals in a timely manner rather than producing a weekly or monthly newsletter.
It is pretty damn cool to sit at home working on my computer, play with my cats and take care of household errands when I want and then travel to places when a good opportunity arises.
Two things are special about Loyalty Traveler. One is I focus almost exclusively on hotel loyalty programs. There were several people focused on frequent flyer programs when I started, but nobody seemed to cover hotel loyalty programs in depth from a consumer point of view.
The other thing I try to do with Loyalty Traveler is actually analyze promotions. There are several sites for an extensive database of the current airline and hotel loyalty programs. The added value I provide is the analysis of hotel promotions to determine which deals are potentially high value deals for the frequent guest.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more points?
Travel. Plain and simple.
You can also play the credit card, but I am not an advocate of that lifestyle. I see a difference between promoting airline and hotel travel providers and credit card sign-up bonuses. I don’t want my blog to pimp for banks, even if they do provide a seductively enticing offer for some consumers.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
Tough question. I asked my wife and we agreed we have had many memorable travel experiences, but I did come up with one.
In 1997 my wife and I spent a month in County Donegal, Ireland and we spent some time in Derry, Northern Ireland. We experienced “The Troubles” as tourists during the 1997 summer marching season. A marching parade was planned by Protestants through the Catholic dominated neighborhoods of Derry. Riots and bomb threats in Derry had driven most tourists away.
We walked streets where soldiers in armored vehicles pointed machine guns at us. We saw burned out buses and cars in several towns as we traveled through Northern Ireland.
Our summer travel itinerary concluded with a week in Scotland. After three days in the highlands of Scotland we found ourselves in Ullapool watching Hogan’s Heroes in a Bed & Breakfast with two young German guys. That night we both felt compelled to return immediately to Belfast and agreed to pack up and leave Scotland the next day. We traveled over 300 miles by bus and train to get to the ferry seaport of Stanraer, Scotland. The next morning we arrived in Belfast. It was Sunday, July 20.
Newspapers were displayed around Belfast declaring the IRA had pledged a new ceasefire. People we spoke to were skeptical, but a calm celebration ruled the day. The skies were clear and the temperature warm as we walked miles of city streets around Belfast.
We hiked up Shankill Road in the Protestant section of the city and even walked a heavily fortified, high walled street connecting Shankill Road to Falls Road in the Catholic section. Even on that celebratory day we were the only pedestrians taking the “no man’s land” route. There were no people or cars as we walked that Belfast city road. It was a lonely walk and a bit frightening and a bit of history. We remember it well.
Turns out the IRA ceasefire that day led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement establishing the peace process in Northern Ireland that is still in effect today.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
For me, miles & points are my business, not a hobby. I attended a business start-up meeting in 2005 in Monterey. My main takeaway was a statement that everyone around you will likely discourage you from starting your own business. Friends thought I was having a mid-life crisis when I stopped looking for teaching jobs. I questioned myself many times about continuing self-employment when the finances were tight.
My parents have fared the best since they trust me to plan their travel. They know the deals I get are better than they find booking their own travel. I don’t want to be a travel agent. That is a concierge service exclusive to my parents.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
The trick is spending time reading travel blogs covering travel promotions. There are enough travel blogs focused on airline, hotel and other travel deals that you can stay on top of the best offers without too much effort.
The tool is daily RSS and email feeds to keep on top of all the blogs you want to read. FlyerTalk and MilePoint bulletin boards are great resources, but most of the best deals will be summarized in the travel blogs.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Chocolate pudding for more than 100,000 miles, but “Pudding Guy” has the primary claim on that story. I won a ClickRewards sweepstakes once that I turned into 50,000 Starpoints.
One time I redeemed 100,000 Hilton HHonors points for a 6-night award stay at the Amsterdam Hilton and I returned home to find my account had been credited 43,000 points for the stay. I hadn’t spent any money at the hotel. That was about $2,000 redemption value for 57,000 points.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
Airline booking codes. I lost out on 100,000 miles in 1999 from American Airlines for not understanding booking codes. I only received 50,000 miles rather than 100,000 miles from a OneWorld promotion due to my Cathay Pacific booking code “M” not being eligible for earning miles with AAdvantage.
My wife lost 50,000 miles too from our first set of mileage runs. We did get 300,000 bonus miles while traveling to Canada, England, the Netherlands and Spain over Thanksgiving and Christmas school vacation in 1999, although 400,000 bonus miles would have been better and easily earned for $50 more if I had been knowledgeable about airline booking codes.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
Here are four things:
I never ride in a taxi if there is the viable option of public transportation, a shuttle van or walking.
I am still a fully credentialed elementary school teacher in California.
I was invited to a wine and appetizers party at the White House in 1993. President Clinton had skipped town. The tears running down my face as Hillary Clinton spoke were from swallowing champagne incorrectly. I tried squeezing tears out of my eyes rather than cough violently through her speech. Sitting on the stairs inside the front door of the White House listening to a live band play Doobie Brothers ‘Long Train Runnin’ also ranks high in my most memorable travel experiences.
I attended twelve schools in K-12 before testing out of high school in my junior year. I went traveling. I road tripped across the U.S. from California to Florida and north to Virginia. I came home to California and worked for a few months trying to earn the money to go to New Zealand. I only made it as far as Hawaii and lived on the beaches for a couple of months. I was 17 and not allowed to have a legal camping permit in Hawaii so I “occupied” the beaches illegally.
Earn and burn your miles and points. My wife and I burned through about 4,000,000 airline miles in six years from 2000 to 2005. The same flights now would likely cost about 7 or 8 million miles and the flights to earn those miles are certainly more expensive today (although the premium cabins have been upgraded since my heavy travel years). Burning 1,000,000 Hilton HHonors points five to ten years ago for the same hotel stays today will take 2.5 million or more points.
The points and miles cost of free flights and nights tend to trend upwards each year.
My parting words are earn and burn.
Ric – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!