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: Travel by Points
Jimmy is passionate about using miles and points for richer, more meaningful experiences. He also writes Travel by Points, so I was looking forward to our Friday chat!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
August 13, 1998. The summer after sophomore year in college I made the trek from Middlebury, Vermont to Boston’s Logan Airport to take advantage of a cheap fare back to Shanghai. While waiting overnight, I noticed the United Mileage Plus program brochure on the counter, picked one up, filled it out, and thus embarked on my love affair with miles & points travel.
Prior to that day, I had flown 4 round trips between China and the US and 1 round trip between China and Germany, none of which earned any frequent flyer miles. When you know better, you do better!
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
Allow me to share with you an anecdote unrelated to travel. A few years ago, my brother-in-law was ready to buy his first new car. I offered to help him do the research and after a day of email/phone negotiations with a few dealers in town, we nailed down a final price that was about $6,000 below the MSRP of $20,000, without even setting foot in the shop. The whole in-store buying process took less than an hour with negligible hassle.
While filling out the paperwork, I remember the salesperson pulled me aside and asked in a conspiratorial whisper how I knew the magic number to negotiate for and told me that even he couldn’t have managed to snare this price as an employee. Before I could answer, a loud gong rang to announce the completion of a new sale. We turned and saw a sweet gray-haired couple smiling at the attention and looking a bit embarrassed.
At that moment, I wished I could reach out to them to make sure they got at least a fair price, but clearly that was not the appropriate forum. Moments like these reminded me of the power of information and how unfair it can be for those who lack access to it. My blog is an attempt to channel one of my passions, miles and points travel, into something that can hopefully benefit those who want to travel but never thought it was possible on a fixed budget.
My wife Travelwhimsy and I work full time and can totally understand the constraints of real world commitments as they apply to travel wanderlust. We met at our first real job after college, working for a major investment bank in its Hong Kong headquarters. As young bankers, we flew business-class, took 2-3 luxury vacations a year, and stayed at 5-star hotels almost weekly for work (I once booked 6 months at the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai for a project!).
I tell you this not to exalt that lifestyle, but rather to say that the travel we do today, sneaking in weekend trips to Yellowstone or Washington DC, is far richer and more meaningful than it was 10 years ago. The more we traveled this way, the stronger my desire to share the knowledge became.
I wanted to show our friends and family that we don’t have to wait until we have more time and/or money to travel. We can travel NOW, despite our full-time jobs, limited vacation time, kids, and other financial or non-financial obligations and commitments.
Still remembering how overwhelmed I was by some of Flyer Talk’s jargon and acronyms when stumbling upon it for the first time, I set a few blogging guidelines for myself (please let me know if you find me not sticking to them):
- Put myself in a beginner’s shoes and explain jargon and acronyms
- Use bullet points to be concise (after all, I am Travel By Points!)
- Share true out-of-pocket expenses for our trips to show that travel can indeed be done inexpensively
- Try to limit the word count of every post to 500 (not possible all the time on this one, sorry!)
- Repeat an idea by another blogger only if I have something new to add or if it is extremely important for beginners (and always give credit)
- Try not to be exhaustive on a topic to avoid overwhelming or confusing beginners (questions can always be addressed via comments/emails)
English is my second language, so please be lenient when you see some awkward use of words and sentences.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
At this point, I believe even beginners of this game are aware of the large sign-up bonuses that come with credit cards. The mega bonuses, however, are declining across the board.
Besides the sign-up bonuses, my one-sentence answer to this question is to always use your miles & points credit cards for all your daily expenses, as long as you don’t incur any fees or pay interest on your credit card balances.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
Like everyone else, I wish I could share more than just one, so that I could talk about my proposal to my wife on the beaches at the JW Marriott Phuket 10 years ago, or our delayed honeymoon trip to Italy in 2011 (main reason for delay – I did not receive my US passport until the fall of 2010).
My most memorable travel experience, however, would have to be a last-minute trip using United miles to fly back to Shanghai to see my grandmas in November 2008. My maternal grandmas, two biological sisters who decided to become Buddhist nuns in their early twenties, adopted my mom. They are both dear to my heart and I have so many happy memories with them.
I knew that my older grandma was still healthy but might not have too much longer (she was almost 90), so I took my entire 2 weeks of vacation in November 2008 to return to Shanghai to see both grandmas.
To make it logistically easier for everyone, we brought both grandmas from their temples to my mom’s apartment, so that I could really spend all my time with them. I stayed home the entire trip, sharing every meal with and taking good care of them.
Two months later, in early January 2009, my older grandma passed away in her bed peacefully with no pain or suffering. During her last moments, she asked people around her to light incenses and candles because she saw all the Buddhas coming to get her.
When I heard the news, I felt extremely happy for the way she had lived and passed, and incredibly thankful for the two weeks I got to spend with her and my other grandma.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
My wife Travelwhimsy, as you might still remember from her interview with you, thinks that I am crazy, but she is the best life partner I could ever ask for. Here is something that might surprise you. Even though she and I worked in the same department in Hong Kong, we never worked on the same project.
But since we moved to Las Vegas in 2004, we have been working together (sharing an office) for the same company (we are the only two in the division, so it is extremely difficult for us to take an extended vacation together). Yes, we are together 24/7, and we only have one car!
If she can still put up with me and my hobby, then she is obviously just as crazy as I am about miles & points (wow, I just got the last word in and that rarely happens in real life!). In fact, she started her blog a few days before I did and pointed a link to my empty blog, which forced me to start writing!
I have recently started managing credit card applications, miles & points for my in-laws, and they don’t mind it as long as I take care of most of the details. As for friends, a lot of them think it is too much trouble and requires a lot of effort, which is another reason why I started blogging, so that I could show them and others how easy it can be!
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
The online travel community. Every day, I am still amazed by how collectively selfless and helpful the whole community is. I know that some may think that bloggers are motivated by the potential advertising income, but as a new blogger without any active advertising affiliations, I am confident to say that most are just plain passionate about travel with miles & points that they would be willing to do this even without any compensation.
I might be biased, but I find that people who love to travel tend to be very generous and fun to be around (even in cyberspace). A few months after we returned from our Italy trip, my wife saw some pictures posted by a friend’s friend who lived in town and had visited Florence around the same time we did. We connected via Facebook and have become dear friends.
Just this past week, I exchanged emails with another Las Vegas Flyer Talker, and we are going to meet for lunch this coming weekend. I have not personally met any of the miles & points bloggers, but imagine if we all lived in the same city, how much fun we would have getting together!
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Again, besides the big credit card sign-up bonuses, it has to be earning extra miles & points for everyday expenses, such as Amazon & other online purchases, dining out, opening an online brokerage account, etc.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I wish I had stumbled upon Flyer Talk or Mile Point and all the travel blogs earlier! I always thought I was savvy when it came to knowing what airport codes meant or getting miles from credit card sign-ups or dining out but when I started reading I realized that the true experts were in a totally different league and I quickly set out to educate myself.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
That six-month stay at the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai did not earn me any points (I’m still smacking myself on the head over it)! I knew that it was part of Marriott, but not sure whether the Ritz-Carlton reward program was in place at the time yet, and was just too consumed by work to really dig into it. I like to think that it was not possible at the time just to console myself.
Also, despite having a double major in computer science and economics, I went through a phase where I was a bit anti-technology (as of this writing, I still have yet to sign up for a personal Facebook account). I felt it was taking time away from us doing more meaningful things and developing deeper personal connections with friends and family. Now that I have started blogging, I have to learn everything technical from scratch. I still believe technology is a double-edged sword, and we have to be vigilant about not letting it take over our real lives.
Any parting words?
An ancient Chinese philosopher once said and I paraphrase – let’s draw a circle, the area of which represents how much we know and the circumference of which touches the unknown. The larger the circle, the more of the unknown we realize we could still learn from.
That circle could represent travel. The more we travel, the more we realize how much more there is to be discovered. We don’t have to wait till we retire; we can start traveling today!
Thank you, Daraius, for having me today!
Jimmy – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!