Welcome to the next interview in our interview series where travel bloggers share their insights on having Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: Mad Fientist
Brandon runs The Mad Fientist and writes about financial independence, the benefits of geographic arbitrage, and how travel can actually help you retire earlier. He plans to achieve financial independence in his early 30s and then ‘slow travel’ around the world, with the help of miles and points!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
As someone who always tries to extract the most value out of every single purchase I make, I signed up for Northwest Airlines’ frequent flier program when I first traveled abroad in 2001.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
My blog is actually not a travel blog but a personal finance blog that focuses primarily on early retirement and financial independence (which is what the FI stands for in Fientist). By living frugally, saving a large percentage of your income, investing intelligently, and utilizing some of the strategies and tactics that I describe on my site, it is possible to retire very early in life.
I, for example, plan on achieving financial independence next year at the age of 32 and I have not won the lottery or received any sort of inheritance. I’ve simply saved a large percentage of my income and lowered my expenses to a point that my savings will be able to fund my lifestyle indefinitely.
So why am I being interviewed for a miles and points blog? I actually plan on using travel as a means to lower my expenses even further, while also improving my quality of life.
Since I will be primarily living off of passive income from my dollar-denominated investments, the value of those investment returns will be much greater when living in cheaper places (this is the core idea behind geographic arbitrage…earn money in an expensive currency and spend money in a cheaper currency).
By living in cheaper but interesting and exciting places, like Southeast Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe, my money will go much further than if I stay in the United States after Financial Independence.
Obviously, paying for expensive flights to get to these places would take big chunks out of my savings so that’s where miles and points come in to play. I plan on living somewhere cheap like Thailand or Ecuador for part of the year and then spending the rest of the year in Scotland or America (my wife is Scottish and I am American). I will use miles and points to travel between these places for very little cost.
So while my site currently focuses on advanced strategies for achieving financial independence as quickly as possible, it will be slowly morphing into one that explores slow travel, travel hacking, geographical arbitrage, and the best places in the world to retire early.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
The best thing you can do to get more miles is to have firm control of your finances. Being in control of your financial life will allow you to take advantage of the lucrative credit card offers that we all hear about and will allow you to utilize some of the other promotions that require a large amount of capital to participate in (like the current offer from Fidelity that gives you 50,000 AA miles if you deposit $100,000 into a brokerage account).
If you have sufficient savings and minimal debt, every financial company in the world will want you to be their customer and they will pay handsomely to entice you, often in the form of miles and points!
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
After living in China for three months, my wife and I traveled to Tibet. We flew to a city in the northwest of China and traveled overnight, by train, to the capital, Lhasa. After spending a few days in Lhasa, we hired a jeep to take us to Everest base camp and then to the Nepalese border.
It was a four-day journey and the scenery was the most incredible I have ever experienced in my life. The high-altitude lakes, the Himalayan peaks, and the mountain passes were breathtaking (literally and figuratively).
We only stayed one night at Everest base camp and sadly, the peak of Everest was covered in clouds the entire time we were there so I am determined to go back after I achieve financial independence to get a glimpse of the world’s highest peak.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
They are interested but not interested enough to do the research needed to utilize miles and points properly. In all honesty, they probably just think it’s another example of me trying to save some money so they probably don’t pay too much attention.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
The FlyerTalk is a great resource for researching specific questions that haven’t been covered on the blogs. I also keep an eye on the forums there to see if any good mistake fares pop up.
Another useful tool that I use is one that I actually created myself. I’m a professional software developer so, in my spare time, I created a credit card search tool to help me plan my credit card churns: TravelerPlastic.com.
The site allows you to pick the programs that are important to you and then it automatically displays the most lucrative credit cards for those specific programs (it even converts flexible points like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards points into the points of the programs you selected). It also allows you to filter the results by attributes that are important to frequent travelers like annual fees, free checked baggage, lounge access, etc. so it is very handy for figuring out which cards to apply for next.
I currently don’t earn any money if you click on the links on my site though so if you do decide to do your planning on travelerplastic.com, you should still click the links here at Million Mile Secrets when you apply for the cards so that at least someone gets paid for the clicks!
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
I got in on the American Express Premier Rewards Gold madness a few years ago when there were multiple “bump the bonus” opportunities. That single credit card signup netted me over 125,000 Membership Rewards points, which I then converted to 187,500 British Airways Avios points during one of the 50% transfer bonus periods.
I live near Boston and it just so happens you can fly from Boston to Dublin for 25,000 British Airways Avios points roundtrip on Aer Lingus (with minimal taxes and fees). Since my wife’s family and friends are still back in Scotland, we go there at least once a year so we fly that route quite often. It’s amazing that one credit card signup has provided us over 7 roundtrip tickets to Europe!
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I wish I had known about the American Airlines Explorer Award back when it was possible to sign up for two 75,000 mile American Airlines credit cards at the same time (using the “two-browser trick”).
I let those signup bonuses pass me by and now that I’m starting to plan a multi-city American Airlines Explorer Award tour through Europe and Asia for next year after I quit my job, I really wish I had an extra 150,000 American Airlines miles sitting around in my account.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
Even though I’ve lived frugally compared to my peers and have saved enough of my income to retire in my 30s, I’ve actually been to over 40 countries and have lived on three continents.
What little money I did spend in my 20s, it was usually on travel and seeing new places. I don’t have many personal belongings but I have more than enough memories to compensate for my lack of stuff.
Any parting words?
Do you hate it when you see a mistake fare that you can’t take advantage of because you don’t have enough vacation days? Do you have more miles than you have time to use them?
By being conscious of what you spend and investing what you save, it’s possible to obtain financial independence earlier than society leads you to believe is possible. Once you’ve attained freedom, you can then use it to live the life you’ve always wanted to live and travel to places you’ve always wanted to go.
Imagine what you could do with all the miles and points you’ve accumulated if you didn’t have work tying you down. I know I imagine it every day and thankfully, in less than two years, it will become a reality!
Brandon– Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!