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Welcome to the next installment of our interview series where folks share their thoughts about Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: Mile High Duo
Stephanie and Elliott write Mile High Duo to share their travel adventures and stories from their new home, Cuenca, Ecuador.
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
I’ve always been super frugal and super into saving money, so I actually started by collecting cash back when I was a teenager. I 1st had a credit card where I earned 5% cash back on everything that could then be used for Ford purchases, and I ended up saving over $2,000 on my 1st new car.
Then in 2002, I had the Chase Rewards card, where I earned 5% cash back at pharmacies, drug stores, and gas stations. At that time it was really novel to go to the grocery store and buy Home Depot gift cards to remodel your bathroom, saving 5% on the whole project.
I picked up a few miles cards here and there, especially as the bonuses started to get huge. I had a US Airways card, a British Airways card and the Citi American Airlines card (for 75,000 miles) in 2010. And I had already redeemed miles for flights here and there.
But at the end of 2010, things really changed when 1 of my friends emailed me an article called, How to Travel Around the World for $418. I knew right then and there that I was going to travel around the world on miles.
The article had links to a lot of great resources and 1 of the best points and miles blogs at the time: Frugal Travel Guy. I went to his site, read 2 years worth of posts, and was convinced that switching my main focus from cash back cards to miles and points cards was going to get me the best value possible.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
My husband Elliott and I started our blog when we began a year-long trip around the world. Our friends and family back home asked us to please blog about all of our travels. We thought it would be a good way to share our adventures and photos, keep in touch with loved ones, and have a nice journal for ourselves.
The blog followed us as our 1 year extended into 15 months, and then as we started a new adventure in Cuenca, Ecuador. Now that we are living as residents of Cuenca, we can only leave Ecuador for 90 days per year, and we’ll spend those days back home in Philadelphia.
Since we’ve stopped traveling internationally (for the time-being!), the focus of our blog has changed a bit. It currently focuses on life in a developing country and travel within Ecuador.
I thought this might feel limiting, but it’s really not! Ecuador is a fabulously diverse country with tons of enticing travel destinations (we recently returned from a week in the Amazon), and just living in Ecuador brings lots of daily excitement and challenges.
Although I don’t think most of our current readers are going to start collecting points and miles, occasionally my posts do include information on the subject, especially to explain how we achieved some of our trips and stays.
We have a lot of passions: travel and adventure, collecting and redeeming points and miles, cruising, Disney, early retirement, dance, and even cross-stitching (that one is Elliott’s, believe it or not). Going forward we will be incorporating all of our interests into our blog.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
The short and simple answer in the past would have been to open more credit cards with high sign-up bonuses.
Today my simple answer would be to open a Bluebird account and learn how to use it effectively if you don’t already have one. These 2 strategies work together really well to get the average person a good amount of points and miles; enough for a couple of close-to-free trips a year.
If you’re really into the game, however, the answer becomes more complicated. You’re best bets are to stay on top of the information out there (which is hard because there is a TON of it!), be creative in your thinking about how to earn and scale (maybe you could be the next Pudding Guy), and most importantly, make friends.
Whether you make friends at home who will help you by allowing you open accounts in their name, or friends at mile conferences who will share their latest earning ideas with you, it’s a win-win.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
LOL, am I allowed to have more than one? Elliott and I have been so blessed as to have traveled to 66 countries together now, and to have many wonderful experiences throughout that travel.
One of my earliest memorable experiences was when we crossed the border from Israel to Jordan on foot with my father, none of us having a clue as to how it worked.
We left our rental car in the parking area, hoping it would not get towed during our 2 day trip to Jordan. We walked through the long expanse of barbed wire between the 2 countries, following huge tour groups and very aware that we were the only people doing this “on our own!”
We handed our passports to the Jordan officials and fretted as we saw them get mixed in with hundreds of other passports from the tour groups, and then waited for over a half hour, wondering if we’d get them back. And then we trusted 1 taxi driver who drove us 10 minutes away from the border, ordered us into another taxi, and nervously laughed as I said, “For all I know, we’re being kidnapped right now!”
Petra was a fabulous destination and the Jordanian people were friendly and wonderful, but those 1st few hours of the trip were absolutely nerve-wracking!
We’ve had many other memorable experiences like walking on the Great Wall of China, floating in the Dead Sea, standing over the Prime Meridian and hiking across the equator, but one of my most recent memorable experiences was summiting Mount Kilimanjaro at sunrise.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was Elliott’s idea and he’s not even the hiker in this relationship! But after 8 days of slowly ascending at very high altitude and seeing the beautiful landscape of another continent change over and over, arriving at the top of that mountain was definitely something I’ll never forget.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
My family doesn’t say too much about it, but my dad is extremely helpful in keeping me up to date on credit card offers that come in the mail, as well as the information from my actual credit cards after I do a churn!
It would be impossible to churn while living in Ecuador if it weren’t for him. (I’m thanking him by flying him and his wife to Ecuador to visit us soon!)
I think my family believes I’m a bit over-the-top and crazy, but they are excited when I tell them what I’m able to accomplish due to this hobby, such as my trip to New Orleans over Mardi Gras for only $22 plus 2 credit card fees totaling $158. And they were certainly impressed when I told them our around the world ticket was only costing us $600 a piece in taxes!
My friends think it’s pretty cool and always support and encourage me. They even
go so far as allowing me to add them as authorized users on my accounts and letting me do other activities in their name that help with earning miles and points. I try to show my thanks by offering to fly them here as well.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
AwardWallet is great. I went against the grain and never stuck to collecting 1 or even a few types of points or miles, so managing my points and miles is sometimes my biggest challenge. My free subscription to AwardWallet at least lets me know when things are about to expire. Perhaps even more important than AwardWallet are my Excel spreadsheets.
You can laugh, but I seriously could not do this hobby anywhere near as well without them. I’m lucky to be an extremely meticulous and detail-oriented person, and I have several spreadsheets each with many tabs that I use on a daily basis. At points and miles conferences I’ve had many people ask me about them and for templates, so I guess they could be a useful tool for a lot of people!
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
In early 2011, Capital One offered the Venture No Hassle Rewards Visa card, with a unique sign-up bonus. The first part of the sign-up bonus was accomplished in the typical manner. You would receive 10,000 points after
spending $1,000. But there was more…Capital One offered, in addition, to match up to 100,000 miles you had recently earned in another airline program with another credit card!
It was a no-brainer to open 1 of these cards for my husband, since we had each earned close to 100,000 American Airlines miles through other credit card bonuses. But I already had the Capital One Venture card.
Not to be discouraged, I called Capital One and told them I would like to have this promotion applied to my existing account. Elliott thought I was crazy, as did the 1st representative I spoke to. But I asked to speak to a manager and I just went on about my loyalty to the bank and how they should reward long-standing customers at least as well as new customers. The rep was convinced!
Though the points didn’t post after my $1,000 spend and Capital One later tried to go back on their word, with a few more phone calls I was able to get them to uphold that manager’s commitment, and I got my 100,000 miles!
I still can’t believe it worked. Not because I don’t think I had a good case, but because the success rate on this type of request is very, very small.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I simply wish I knew how valuable miles can be, as well as all the other perks I could get from focusing on earning miles rather than cash.
I did well with cash back cards and still use them as part of my strategy, but I’m definitely jealous of the people who were smart enough to start collecting miles at the age of 14 or 15! I was over 30 before I got into the game in a serious way.
Now that I have both cash back and points and miles credit cards, I get so much more value than I ever did with just the cash back cards.
I’m a coach flyer; maybe when I’m older I’ll start to care more about luxury, but right now I just want to travel as much as possible, as cheaply as possible. So everything else is a perk, but the perks are great!
Elliott and I have stayed in incredible hotels with amazing rooms, grounds and pools, where a simple glass of orange juice costs $7.00 a glass; we never would have stayed in hotels like that if we had to pay! We’ve had concierge and executive lounge access in hotels where we got free breakfast and appetizers substantial enough to qualify for our dinner.
We’ve had lots of free baggage and lounge access in airports, which is really a benefit when you spend as much time in airports as we do, waiting for crazy long layovers.
And we even have Global Entry! I could never see us paying for this benefit out of pocket, but now that we live in Ecuador and fly back home 5 times a year, Global Entry is really saving us time and serving us well.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
We didn’t stay in hotels as we traveled around the world; we couch surfed for free!
I’m a total hoarder when it comes to my points and miles, with over 3 million miles in my bank right now.
And my trip with Elliott around the world actually marked the beginning of an early retirement for us, at the ages of 39 and 38 respectively.
Any parting words?
As I think more about all this hobby has done for us, I realize it has truly changed our lives. We never could have left our jobs and traveled for over a year, literally flying around the world, if it weren’t for my points and miles hobby.
Elliott agreed to live in Ecuador based on the fact that we can go back to Philadelphia to visit several times a year. And it is the miles (including our Southwest Companion Pass!) that enable us to do this.
It’s even changed our loved-ones’ lives in some cases. Without all of my points and miles, my little sister and her husband would not have had their honeymoon. And we wouldn’t be able to fly any of our friends or family here to Ecuador to visit us.
Dream big and work hard. I always have, and it really does pay off.
When you get frustrated making calls to the credit card companies, dividing spend between 20 different credit cards, fighting with a bank to match your miles, or even writing letters to the CEO of a company to make your argument, remember the payoff. One day soon you’ll be out of that cubicle and back in the air.
Stephanie and Elliott – 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!