Welcome to the next installment of our interview series where folks share their thoughts about Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: Early Retirement Ahead
Chad writes Early Retirement Ahead to help folks with financial planning, budgeting, and traveling for less.
And he’s giving away a $25 Amazon gift card!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
I started really collecting miles and points about 5 years ago when I moved to California and was flying back to the Midwest a lot. It seemed to make sense to try and grab the value that was presented to me in the form of airline miles and hotel points.
Before I moved out here, when I traveled I used my frequent flyer and reward accounts, but never had a plan on how or when to use them.
I got even more serious about points while planning my wedding in 2013 (yes I did most of the wedding planning). Unfortunately, it was too late for our Hawaiian honeymoon to be paid with points. But we did amass a large amount of Marriott points. We have been collecting points as a couple since then.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I started writing my blog in 2014 as a creative outlet documenting my journey over the next few years to early retirement and financial independence, hence the name Early Retirement Ahead.
Interestingly enough, I keep finding ways to talk about credit card, miles, and points because it is such an easy way to reduce that travel line item in our budget.
We can travel more on much, much less by spending a few minutes a month trying to maximize our points. Now the only limitation is my work schedule and number of vacation days each year!
The intersection of a personal finance blog and a travel blog is that they both involve some aspect of financial freedom. Maximizing credit card and travel rewards can be considered an equivalent to reducing spending because both free up resources that can be used for whatever you want.
I enjoy writing about increasing retirement savings AND finding ways to travel more often and to new places. That may sound like competing priorities, but travel rewards are great because they fit a specific role in our budget.
The more we can accumulate the better vacations we can take. We can also use the points around the holidays in more of a money saver capacity to just reduce our regular travel costs.
One of my goals in 2014 was to amass 500,000 credit card and travel reward points between myself and my wife. We managed to get just over that amount with only a minimal impact on our credit scores and without really buying anything we didn’t need.
Those points allowed us to fly to the Midwest over Christmas to visit family and friends and book 4 flights to Hawaii in September for under $700. Because of the miles accumulation, we are taking Grandma with us for free!
Our goal for 2015 is the same 500,000 mile number. Though I am about to get the 140,000 points with the Chase Ritz-Carlton card, so maybe I should increase it!
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Since it can require some organizational skills to manage multiple cards by going after lots of credit card sign-up bonuses, most people might be better off just throwing all their spending on their credit cards that don’t have annual fees, like the Chase Freedom card.
Not only can you earn rewards quickly, but having a record of where it was spent that can easily be dropped into a spreadsheet or budgeting software helps you know where you money is going and how much you can spend on travel.
For the constant business traveler, it is trying to pick the flights and times that earn you miles with the airlines you want and trying to stay at your preferred hotel chain. Often times, you just have to let whoever schedules the travel know what your preferences (and reward account numbers) are for them to utilize.
I am also a big fan of leveraging work travel with vacation time by letting the company pay a lot of the costs for your extended trip.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
I think visiting New York City while in college was a 1 of a kind experience for me. That city is buzzing 24 hours a day and it’s hard to describe as anything other than just alive.
The culture and diversity of New York are by no means overstated. The amazing museums we visited even introduced me to my now favorite painter, Odilon Redon.
I was able to see a Broadway show, walk around on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during trading, and sit in the background during a national news show broadcast all as part of that trip.
Getting to see the New York night life, eating at some amazing restaurants, and visiting the sites was an experience I will never forget.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
I think they are tired of me telling them about ways to earn points for more travel.
Some have started to take me seriously, but are doing baby steps. I try to keep them updated with what deals are out there and I have helped a few develop plans to build up large point balances to use for a specific trip in the future.
I get more questions than before, but still most people consult with me in my real expertise, which is finance. Answering the travel questions is more fun because the finance ones usually involve me saying “spend less, save more.”
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Sites like Million Mile Secrets and online forums have been essential to my learning curve. I am still an amateur compared to many of you pros out there.
One great example would be the Marriott Hotel + Air packages that create additional value by pushing miles to an airline at a better transfer rate. Reading blogs about it has helped me learn how to redeem the points. It turns out earning them is really the easy part!
Reading the sites to find out what the best offer for a particular card in the past has also been a big help. Trying to wait for a better offer or jumping on a rare offer is gratifying. Because I known I’m getting the peak value out of it.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Calling a credit card company to complain and getting 2,000 American Airlines miles for my trouble was a surprise. I had previously called on a Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® to get my annual fee waived and was inquiring why it was taking so long to get the $95 credit.
Long story short, they had agreed to waive the annual fee if I used the card for 5 purchases in the next 90 days. I immediately used it 5 times in the next 3 days, however, it turns out it took 48 hours for it to be entered into the system, so my 1st 2 purchases did not count!
I was upset at finding out that news, so the supervisor offered me the miles (but said she could not make the purchases count). Be sure to ask the timeframe question to avoid my problem if you are ever offered bonus points for spending.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I really wish I knew how valuable Chase Ultimate Reward points are a few years ago. I would consistently apply them as a statement credit until late 2013. Since a Chase Freedom was my main card then, I could not transfer them, but I could have saved up thousands of points for later travel.
I think the inter-connectivity some of the programs have is a surprise to most people (and it was to me as well). If I had known that having a Chase Sapphire Preferred card would let me transfer points to United Airlines or Southwest Airlines, I would have added that a while back and banked the points instead of using statement credits all the time.
Now I have over 125,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points as a backup for United Airlines points knowing I can pull over as many or as little points as needed when the time comes.
I may even pull some points over to Marriott if needed to help with our 350,000 Hotel + Air Package trip to the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands resort in 2016.
Having a plan for the points would have also been helpful as it would have guided me to decide which sign-up bonuses to try and get or which programs make the most sense for my location.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I am a lifelong Kansas City Royals fan. It was essentially my hometown team and I lived in Kansas City for about 8 years after college.
The national recognition they achieved last fall was really well deserved, even if they came up just short. It sure was fun to root for them during that incredible playoff run! I would sure like to use some miles to go see them play in New York City sometime.
My wife isn’t really a baseball fan, but would love to go see New York City for a few days and stay at a nice spot like the Park Avenue Hyatt or the Ritz-Carlton Central Park hotel. The only downside is it’s a fairly long 5 hour cross-country flight for us.
Any parting words?
Thanks for choosing me for an interview. I have quite enjoyed sharing some of my experiences. This process has made me think about how far I have come in the last few years.
I still don’t use all of the complex (and usually extremely cost effective) tricks to earn and redeem miles, but I still enjoy the hobby and will continue to use it for family (and some couples) vacations.
I’m excited to visit Hawaii for the 3rd time in a little over a month and apply some more of what I have learned. We even opened a new Barclaycard Arrival Card for my wife so that we can get an extra ~$440 back on some of the travel expenses (like parking at the hotel, shuttles, etc) to make the trip even cheaper.
Chad – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!
If you’d like to be considered for our interview series, please send me a note!