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: Bottom-Feeding the High Life
Doug is an economist, electric power analyst, and real estate investor who writes Bottom-Feeding the High Life. He also collects miles and points, so I was looking forward to our Friday chat!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
My mother signed me up when I was a kid, so I think I’ve had frequent flier numbers since before I can remember, although I don’t think I actually earned any trips until I was in college in the 1990s. That was the golden age of cheap flying: most advance-purchase round-trips on Southwest were $100 or less.
I remember published fares between Phoenix and Ontario for $19 each way – and for years they practically gave away double or even triple credits. You could fairly easily get a free round-trip after three trips. When they give you that much for flying that little, who wouldn’t collect credits?
For many years I had an American Express card (the green card) and slowly accrued points based on spending. Over a 10-year period I think I got enough points for a round-trip to Europe and 3 domestic round-trips. It occurred to me I had been paying as much in annual card fees as those tickets would have cost out of pocket.
I also found that it was increasingly hard to find the flights I wanted, and that a few airlines I had planned to fly on actually had canceled flights due to the recession or high fuel prices and/or even gone out of business. At that point, I canceled the Amex in favor of a cash-back card with no fees.
Things changed in 2010. With two young children and a rental property, my wife and I found ourselves spending quite a bit of money every month on non-discretionary expenses. I happened to come across the Points Guy’s blog from a link on a news website. I couldn’t believe it: Citibank was offering 100,000 miles on American Airlines to sign up for a credit card?
To use a hackneyed expression, that was a game changer. I had to wait a few months since I was already applying for another loan, and the 100,000 offer was reduced to 75,000, but it still seemed like too good a deal to pass up. I started charging everything possible on my new AA Citicard.
Soon after, I began to follow Million Mile Secrets, which I discovered from a link on the Points Guy’s site. I found to it be a better fit for my travel profile, since it focuses on ways that non-business travelers can accrue points through credit cards, which I use anyway, whereas the Points Guy seems to focus more on high-end international travel and road-warrior level premium status.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I have lots of friends with whom I enjoy discussing travel experiences. I have often found that their descriptions left me thinking that they wasted their money or travel time, and could have saved one or both of those if they had just known about a few things.
Similarly, I always find that I could have avoided wasting money if I had been more knowledgeable about this or that. I had sent friends many emails describing tips and lessons learned the hard way, and had posted similar information on message boards. I had been thinking that it would be a good idea to have a central repository for all of this information, as well as a place where I could share trip reports.
The blog is evolving out of that, and many of the postings are actually edited versions of those original emails and message board posts. Hence, one could say that I’ve been working on the blog’s content much longer than it actually has been up and running.
As for what may be different about it:
I provide trip reports, as well as any deals we received or points used. I discuss the deal at the bottom of the post in a section entitled “The Finagle.” If that is all you are interested in, you can skip to it. I try my best to explain how I got the deal, and note anything I might have done differently.
I don’t think I can add much to the discourse on accruing miles, since web sites such as Million Mile Secrets already do such a good job of that. Rather, my blog is more about how we have found it best to spend points and/or cash for maximum value. For example, on our recent trip to Paris, we got two Los Angeles -Paris roundtrips from a Citicard for 40,000 points + $98 in taxes each, and stayed 5 nights using points or points+cash for a total of 32,000 points and $240.
I’m not interested in miles per se. About 90% of my travel is on my own dime, so I focus on minimizing the total cash outlay needed to travel comfortably. I often would rather stay in a Holiday Inn Express than an Intercontinental, so I won’t have to pay extra for parking, breakfast, internet, etc.
Using miles may be a means to that end depending on the circumstances. Some very good deals are worth exploiting even though they accrue no miles. Limiting oneself to mileage-accruing travel means you can’t take advantage of these opportunities.
For example, a lot of people don’t realize you can rent timeshares amazingly cheaply, without a requirement to listen to a sales presentation, from owners who pay the annual maintenance fees but sometimes cannot use them.
If you are traveling with a family or large group, and especially if you are going to stay in one place for more than a couple of days, renting a timeshare can be superior to a hotel room. They typically are apartment-style accommodations with kitchens and separate living, dining, and sleeping areas.
I also use coupons while traveling. Nowadays they go way beyond food shopping with web sites such as Groupon, Restaurant.com, etc., with minimum effort and often can be done from a mobile device without a printer. These can open up great opportunities for saving money at restaurants, entertainment, etc. when away from home, and may also direct you to restaurants you might not otherwise have heard about.
Lately, I have been posting content that focuses on two things that many people do individually but might not necessarily intersect: traveling with kids, and visiting Las Vegas. I have traveled once or twice a year to Las Vegas for my entire adult life, so I do it differently than most people. My wife Nancy and I usually (but not always) now travel with our kids to Las Vegas and most other places, which is a fun but different experience from traveling without kids.
For bargain seekers that enjoy traveling well, and have a minimum level of self control, there is probably no better destination on the planet in terms of what you can get for your money, provided that getting there is not too costly. It’s easy to blow a fortune in Las Vegas, but with some gentle direction and flexibility, you can have almost as much fun without doing so.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Applying for credit cards goes a long way, especially for getting free airplane tickets, and I doubt I can add much here.
To elaborate on what I had alluded to earlier, I will say that I believe spending the miles as efficiently as possible is equally if not more important than maximizing mile accrual. Judicious use of points can result in double or triple the amount of travel you can get out of every successful credit card application. For example:
Make the most of stopovers and one-way reservations when using AA miles. This may allow you to bundle a completely separate domestic trip with each international trip.
Take spring and fall breaks, and plan as early as you can. For the number of miles you need for a ticket in September, you may be able to afford two or three tickets in March.
Look for hotels that might require fewer point outlays than others in the area. Some of these places may be off the tourist grid, which can be an advantage in cities with good transportation. You can try local restaurants that are better, more interesting, and have lower prices. You might even be able to find a coupon!
Try to use hotel points in expensive cities such as New York, Washington, or Paris, where cash room rates can be very high. For cities with relatively low hotel room rates, you may do better by using cash to buy your room, provided you can use the points elsewhere.
You probably won’t see the same relative value in these places if you use points. Also, in Las Vegas, some of the best hotel deals may not be at chains with which you have a relationship.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
Riding on the roof of el Nariz del Diablo, the Riobamba-Bucay railroad in Ecuador that starts in the Andes mountains and ends near the coast. There is a section that descends using herringbone switchbacks and we saw butterflies 8 inches across.
That was in my younger, more nimble days. Points weren’t involved, but I did use a bump voucher to get there, and rooms there were about $8/day back then.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
Recently my wife cut me off from applying for new credit cards for the next several months because it was starting to adversely affect our credit score, and we depend on credit for more than grinding credit cards.
She rolls her eyes whenever I try to sign up for denied boarding compensation on overbooked flights or join a slot club. However, credit card bonuses did get us to Paris just last month so she recognizes their upside.
I try to be an ambassador of information about the cards, etc. to our friends, most of whom are quite surprised the offers exist. I wish more of our friends could take advantage of some of these deals.
Unfortunately many people in our community currently have credit issues stemming from the declining real estate market, so they will need to wait until their credit scores return to normal before applying for new cards.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
I keep alert by reading blogs and signing up for email and Facebook promo notifications from airlines, hotels, etc, and reading them.
Also: if a deal seems especially juicy, read and understand the fine print, and then act on it quickly, or at least make a reservation that you can cancel later, because it often will be pulled once the marketing folks have met their target and start realizing that it is costing them too much.
The Citi American Airlines and last year’s Chase British Airways 100,000 cards are examples of this. Another was the original Hotels.com Welcome Rewards program which gave you a free night in a hotel worth up to $400 for any 10 stays in hotels that cost at least $40.
Then, use Outlook or some other tool to remind yourself to cancel strategic reservations you have made that you don’t need, before you get charged for them.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
This is going to be boring, since I’m not a hard core point junkie. We recently bought $1500 in laminate flooring from Home Depot. I used the Chase Sapphire Preferred ultimate rewards mall interface to buy it at the homedepot.com web site and got 7500 bonus points. It’s nothing of enormous value, but it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye if you have to spend the money anyway.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I wish had I understood better how credit scores were calculated, and that I had realized that my score and my wife’s score are more or less independent of one another. When I had the opportunity to use the “two-browser trick” for the Citibank 75,000 visa pair, I didn’t, because I erroneously was concerned about the impact on my credit score and my wife’s credit score.
I also had underestimated how quickly I could meet minimum spending requirements. That has never really been an issue.
I also only fully understood the power of an AA international stopover only a few weeks before we left for Paris. Had I realized this when we booked our reservation, we could have looped in one-way tickets to Hawaii on the return end to use later this year. Doh! By the time I understood this, the change fees would have made it not worth it. I was really kicking myself for letting that one slip by.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I’m an academically trained economist. I never really enjoyed the research or teaching, so nowadays I am a consultant in the electric power industry and dabble in wholesale power trading.
Any parting words?
I love traveling, but also I get a rush from the finagle itself.
I’m not ever going to be a one-stop shop. I don’t post the latest and greatest travel deals in real time: I don’t have the patience or inclination to grind through flyertalk’s 100 pages of discussions on each topic, and I don’t tweet. Folks will need to rely on other sources for that. Instead, I share my personal experiences – good and bad – and suggest approaches and strategies that hopefully will enable others to help themselves.
Also, I’m short. For this reason, first class usually won’t be worth the extra cost to me, in either dollars or points. If I feel the need to lie flat next to people who have had too much to drink, I can always stay in a hostel when I arrive at my destination.
Doug – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!