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: Points Chaser
Ariana chases miles and points to open up previously impossible travel opportunities, so I was looking forward to chatting with her on Friday!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
I started collecting miles and points last summer. I had just returned from an amazing month-long trip with my family, visiting the Netherlands, Dubai, Afghanistan, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. I was hooked. I began googling terms like “how to travel free” – believe it or not, nothing came up about points and miles!
A while later, I read an article about the US Mint coin scheme, which was subsequently shut down. I was directed to another points blog and eventually stumbled upon Million Mile Secrets. It was through this site that I learned all about points and miles and was introduced to the other wonderful blogs on Boarding Area.
I have always been a sucker for a good deal, especially when points of any kind are involved. When I found out I could have another amazing trip without paying the exorbitant price, I jumped at the chance and began establishing frequent flier accounts to claim our miles from the summer trip (a whopping 68,000 miles that would have otherwise gone to waste!). The more I read, the more I became obsessed with the different ways I could earn points and miles.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
After my family and I took a trip this summer on points and miles, word got out about how I managed to earn enough points and I’d spend hours explaining to people which frequent flier accounts to sign up for, which credit card offers are the best, how to redeem points and miles, etc.
I’d often have to explain it to them more than once, so I decided to start a blog with a comprehensive Beginner’s Guide to Free Travel so that those with no knowledge about this world could get all the information they needed.
I also kept a personal database of deals for each rewards program. It became exhausting looking through a single 60-page document, so finding a place to store and access them easily also went into the decision to publish a blog.
The sheer amount of information about points and miles can be overwhelming. Creating the Beginner’s Guide and Point Database was my way of helping newcomers catch up, while providing veterans with a database of the latest deals. If you remember the Hawaiian Miles Toolbar debacle of 2011, you’ll realize there are mile-earning opportunities even seasoned veterans don’t know about.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Shopping portals are an excellent way to get more miles. Not only am I a fan of the search function that lets you earn 100-5,000 free miles every month, but they’re great for multiplying your points on purchases. Get yourself a flexible rewards-earning credit card, (preferably Chase Sapphire or Ink Bold), then use those cards to purchase EVERYTHING through a shopping portal.
I pick clothes out in store, then order them online to earn 4x the points, and I regularly earn 10 points per $1 buying household items from Drugstore.com through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall. This might sound like a hassle to some, but at the end of the year, when you’ve earned just 10,000 points, remember that could easily have been 40,000 or more if you had taken the time to shop online.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
My most memorable travel experience was my trip to Europe and the Middle East during the Summer of 2011. Not only was it a catalyst for my point-obsession, but I got to visit places I hadn’t been to in a long time. The highlight was definitely Afghanistan.
Many people are thinking, “Who goes on vacation in Afghanistan?”, but it was wonderful to return to the place where I was born, the village my family has lived in for centuries, and even the ruins of a 130+ year-old fortress that my great-great-grand-father built.
People have all kinds of pre-conceived notions about Afghanistan, but I felt completely safe during my visit. The people are some of the most kind and hospitable in the world – and resilient.
I loved meeting all the kids that sold gum and bottled drinks on the streets to help support their families; The little girl who lived in a tent with her family behind the ruins of Darul Aman Palace – her father was a freedom fighter during the Soviet occupation, with a bullet still lodged in his head, and her mother was stick thin, recovering from surgery in that old tent.
Despite what appears to be a destitute country, the people are seemingly carefree and resilient, constantly smiling and relaxed.
One day, we were driving down a road at a fairly quick speed. A few kids were walking by the side of the road, and the wing mirror grazed one of them on the shoulder pretty badly. I yelled out in horror and when I looked back, the kid was rubbing his shoulder with his right hand and laughing it off.
That is the spirit of resilience that I really came to admire. Nothing in my life seemed quite as stressful and difficult after I returned from that trip.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
My family was very skeptical when I told them we would all be traveling in business class for the cost of a short-haul coach flight, and staying at hotels free. My brother would roll his eyes every time I talked about “frikin flyer miles,” as he so eloquently puts it, and thought this whole thing was a joke. However, when I actually booked our tickets (alas only one-way in business class), they were all on board.
My dad actually calls me now before he makes a purchase and asks “Which card should I use if I’m shopping at ___?” My aunt, who thought this wasn’t worth the hassle, is now helping me meet my spending requirements by charging her business expenses to my card and splitting the points with me. They’ve seen that this isn’t a scam, and are now committed to it.
Of course, I’m still in charge of everyone’s mileage accounts, registering everyone for promotions, and picking out credit cards, but they’re now happy to contribute to a reasonable extent.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
The most helpful tool has to be the miles and points community itself. There are blogs, forums, and events centered around helping people travel cheaply. Take advantage of them and if you come across new knowledge, share it with others. Let them enjoy it too.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Considering I was clueless about miles and points until a year ago, every way I’ve earned points has been unexpected. The Hawaiian Miles Toolbar, which on a good month earns me 5,000 miles for searching, was a nice surprise. After a year of searching for a way to earn miles on my student loans (without paying exorbitant fees), I was thrilled to discover through FrequentMiler a way to earn not 1, but 5 points per $1!
By the time I’m done paying off my student loans, I’ll have a nice first-class ticket to Europe as a reward. It kind of takes the sting out of paying back such a substantial chunk of debt.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I wish I had done more research into different frequent flier programs and their redemption options. I focused on American Airlines because of the 75k point credit card offers, and when it came time to redeem, I realized all that availability on the AA website was actually for British Airways, which notoriously tacks on huge fuel surcharges.
I also thought you could just call the airline, tell them “I want to go to Destination X” and they would find you an itinerary. It wasn’t until late (and I mean LATE) in the game that I realized all those friendly AA agents were not checking individual partner airlines for availability, and that most of them didn’t even know the partner airlines’ routes!
When I asked a rep to look up a flight to Abu Dhabi on Etihad, she responded patronizingly, “Ma’am. Etihad doesn’t fly to Abu Dhabi.” That’s when I realized I had better get educated fast about routing rules if I wanted this trip to happen. Having all the knowledge I eventually accrued about frequent flier accounts, point redemption options, routing rules, etc. would have saved me a lot of trouble early on.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I think my readers would be surprised to know that I’ve lived on 3 different continents. I was born in Kabul and spent 8 years of my early life in Germany.
My parents would load us into the car on weekends and drive us to nearby countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, and Denmark. I’ve been lucky to have had those early experiences, which exposed me to so many different cultures and really expanded my mind.
Any parting words?
“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.” – Samuel Johnson