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: Flyalog
David writes Flyalog where he shares his experiences earning and burning miles and points. He recently redeemed miles for 5 seats to Paris on the same flight, so I was looking forward to our Friday chat!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
I started collecting miles and points very recently. I was finishing the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail with a friend in early May 2011 and we were talking about taking vacations (the irony is not lost on me). He and his family of three do a really nice vacation every year.
Typically they head to Asia or (less frequently) Europe, flying first-class and staying in nice hotels. I asked him how he managed that, because no mere mortal is going to shell out that kind of cash for an annual family trip. He introduced me to miles and points and gave me a quick primer. From that point on, I was hooked.
My first big earning event was getting 2 Citi AAdvantage cards in May and 1 in July for a total of 225,000 miles. My first redemption was transferring some AmEx Membership Rewards points to Delta and bringing my wife with me to Prague on a business trip in September.
We extended the trip for several days and stayed in the Crowne Plaza Prague on a Priority Club Point Break (5,000 points per night!). From that point, my wife was also hooked and supported my new obsession 100%.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
To be honest, I started Flyalog as a learning experience. I knew that I was going to be diving headlong into a world that I hadn’t been in before and I learn best by writing about topics. I also knew that I couldn’t be the only one just getting started, so I decided to target the blog at the newly initiated and the community of travelers that take maybe 1-2 pleasure trips per year. Most full-time employed folks probably can’t swing more than that unless they have travel as part of their job.
The original concept was to have a dialog about travel — hence the name of the blog. In addition to discussing active promotions and earning opportunities, my readers and I would talk about recent or upcoming trips, redemption plans, and things to do while there. Others would chime in and offer advice on things to not miss, or maybe a better way to use points for the trip. It hasn’t quite gone that way yet, but I’d like to see it become that over time.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
I think that this is different for each person, or at least that there are several archetypes of earners. First, there is the typical adult — pretty good credit rating, full-time job, etc. For that group, the quickest way to earn miles is to sign up for credit card offers.
MMS does a great job of keeping a running list of the best offers to take advantage of at any given time. The trick here is to be disciplined. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to about earning this way that opt out because they know they can’t handle having credit cards and spending on them actively.
The next group is people that travel a lot as part of their job. In addition to the credit card strategy above (if you have the financial discipline), this group can earn by actually doing. This has the nice side benefit of helping them obtain elite status in programs that may be harder for those in the first group. Earners in this group are best served if they target one or two loyalty programs — at least until they achieve the status that they want with that program, then they can vary a bit. Status goes a long way toward getting upgrades and can also increase your earn rate.
The last archetype is the person who spends a lot for business reasons. Maybe this person is in procurement or runs a department with a decent sized budget that they can control the spending on. This, maybe even more than the first group, requires strict discipline. You cannot just choose purchases and vendors based on how many miles you earn.
Sometimes you have to pass on getting more miles in order to get the best deal. Remember, this is not your money that you’re spending. These folks can earn quite a lot of miles through shopping portals to stack on top of the credit card offers that they should be signing up for — remember, this group will have no trouble with minimum spend.
Of course, some people will fall into a blend of multiple archetypes. That’s actually where I fit it. I’m sort of a blend of the second two. I travel some as part of my job (maybe 4-5 domestic and 1 international trip per year). But, I’m also in charge of the IT department for my company and therefore procurement of hardware and software. My spending on credit cards can be quite high — often $10k per month or so, and sometimes substantially higher.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
I have two that are pretty close and for different reasons. My first international trip was in 2002-03 over New Year’s. This trip was originally planned for summer 2003, but I was watching fares several months ahead of time (this is before points and miles for me, so I was buying our tickets!). My wife and I were going to Germany to visit a friend and his wife (incidentally, the same friend I was on the Appalachian Trail with last year). Sometime in November 2002, the prices to Frankfurt from DC just started tanking.
I watched them drop from about $500 each, to $400, to $250. At $250 each, I called my friend and said we were coming over the winter (fares were valid for Dec-Jan travel only). We talked about changes to our plans — Northern Italy became Austria and the Czech Republic since those were better winter destinations.
I went online to book the tickets, and the prices had gone all the way down to $159 each round trip. It was insane! We spent about 2 weeks in Innsbruck, Prague and Vienna and day-tripped around Germany and into France. It was an amazing trip for my wife and me.
The other memorable experience was my adventure in bump vouchers. I had gone to Austin, TX for a job interview flying first class. On the way back, Delta offered me a bump voucher to fly coach. $400—what’s not to love. About 10 minutes later, they offered me another $400 to give up my coach seat and gave me a lunch coupon and a promise to get me onto the next flight that same day. 10 minutes later, they offered me my original seat in first class on my original flight — and I could keep the vouchers.
So, essentially, they bought me lunch and gave me $800 in vouchers just to talk to them a few times. I parlayed that into 2 tickets to Hawaii later that summer. The tickets were $450 each, but I figured that extra $100 was worth it. We booked a room at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach for $289 for the week with an understanding that we’d listen to a spiel about a timeshare while we were there. We obliged, and gave up 90 minutes of our vacation for the cheap rate. All in, that vacation was under $400 for flights/hotel. Not bad!
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
Like I said in the first bit, my wife is behind me 100%. So are our parents and our kids — they’ve all benefited from the miles. My friends, on the other hand, mostly think I’m crazy. To me, this makes them crazy! I’ve only really converted one friend — and that was because his wife and kids wanted to go to Japan to visit her folks and I told them to get the Citi AAdvantage cards and go off-peak.
That got them there for only the taxes. But, for whatever reason, most people think it’s just a weird obsession and don’t see how it could work for them. It’s strange.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
I’ve developed a nice spreadsheet that tracks everything for me. It has a Summary tab that lists all of my loyalty plans, balances, status and “pending points.” There’s a Timeline tab that shows pending points and when they should post, as well as reminders such as credit card applications and gift card expiration dates.
Then there are a few other tabs: a Posted tab that things get moved to from the Timeline, a Month Total tab that’s used mostly for my “Month in Review” posts on the blog, a Dining tab that tracks dining programs and which cards are associated with which programs — I buy a lot of lunches for my teams.
Other than that spreadsheet, I am an avid AwardWallet user. There’s not a better tool out there for tracking miles and points.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
This is a tough one. My earning is all pretty planned out, so “least expected” is not really all that applicable. I will say that last year’s Grand Slam promo yielded me a lot more than I thought I was going to get out of it. This was, in part, because that promotion is just fun to try and tie things into.
My spending was carefully spread around, and I bought several things I would never have otherwise bought. But, that promotion landed me 103k miles on about a $400 outlay (that I would not have otherwise spent earning miles toward US Airways).
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
How to redeem them! My first redemption (that trip to Prague for my wife) cost me 70,000 Delta miles (which almost all came from AmEx Membership Rewards). That same ticket on AA would’ve been 40,000 miles if I’ve booked it ahead of time. I’ve applied that learning to my next trip. I managed 5 tickets from Raleigh-Durham to Paris in April for 220,000 American Airlines miles (4 coach and 1 business — which my wife gets).
Routing it was hard, and I had to rely on my more experienced friend to help me out with some finer details, but we got it done. I think that redemption is a topic that doesn’t get as much treatment as it should. Having the miles is only half of it. Spending them wisely is the other half.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I’m more of an adventure vacationer. If you asked me for my ideal vacation, it would be backpacking in some remote area with no one around but my group, and living out of a tent or a under a tarp. One of my absolute travel heroes is Francis Tapon. He is the king of the road less traveled and has recently written a great book, The Hidden Europe, that I highly recommend.
Any parting words?
Tailor your trips to suit what you like to do. If you want to get pampered in luxury hotels and fly first class, by all means, do it! If, for you, it’s more about the destination and the cultural experiences or the adventure, don’t worry so much about the flight or hotel being top-notch. Spend your miles/points on lots of coach flights instead of a few luxury trips.
There’s a lot of talk on the blogs about getting the best “value” for your miles. Only you can define that word for you. Hiking in Estonia is likely a very different trip than staying in a 5-star resort in Bali. Some people prefer one while some prefer the other. Vacationing is about creating a non sequitur — a departure from the premise of your everyday life. Untether and embrace that.
David – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!