“Informally, this little hobby has been going on since I was four years old.”

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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:  First Class and Beyond

Ari is an avid traveler who has been getting on and off airplanes ever since he was a child, so I was looking forward to our Friday chat!

First Class and Beyond – Interview with Ari
Ari & His Wife at Park Guell in Barcelona
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?

Informally, this little hobby has been going on since I was four years old.  Though I took my first flight (which was New Yorkk, JFK to Tel Aviv before my first birthday, it wasn’t until four years later that my parents signed me up for a mileage account.

Over the course of the following 13 years my family took plenty of vacations, mostly around the US or to the Caribbean.  What really sparked my love of flying though, was my parents’ divorce when I was seven.

From the age of seven until I was seventeen, I flew between Toronto (where I lived with my mother) and Philadelphia (where my father was) nearly twice every month!  Of course, at that point, my family still controlled and used my miles, but from then on I was hooked.

As a “collector,” I’d say it all started in 2008.  I was introduced to DansDeals and FlyerTalk by a good friend in Philadelphia, and from that point on I was hooked. I struggle with the proper adjective sometimes; is it an addiction? Is it merely a hobby? Am I overly obsessed? Even if I am, I’m not quite sure that’s such a bad thing!  In any case, my wife and I have now collected millions of miles (and redeemed well over a million as well) to see the world in a different way.

Lord only knows what will happen when the miles run out, but let’s not even think about that – at least for now, as many of your readers are learning (or are already aware), there’s an unending supply!

Why did you start your blog?  What’s special about it?

I started the First Class and Beyond blog in 2010.  At that time I was still a student and of course – as I will continue to do for many years – still learning the ropes of the miles game.  Really, there was no “niche” to the blog.  No focus on a certain program, not necessarily geared towards singles, or families with kids.  Instead, I did it as a way to reach out to my friends (and others like them) who really had no idea such a “game” existed.

I always find myself saying that I help people solve a huge problem – simply put, I am a points problem solver; I tried to stop people from wasting their points and miles and begin to see much better value.  The problem however, is most people don’t think there’s anything wrong.  As a result, the hardest part of my job is (and I fear always will be) having them first understand they have a problem which needs to be fixed.

After several months of writing the blog I decided to stop and focus solely on award booking.  That was a simpler time when there were really only three or four viable competitors, as opposed to today when everybody and their cousin who’ve read a single post on FlyerTalk fancy themselves an award-booker.  But I digress… I’ve now been running my site FirstClassAndBeyond for just over two years and am loving every second.

While I’ve been offering the service for nearly five years, I was only working through word-of-mouth to start; after that, it with a small link on my blog.  At this point though, I have a nice site (though no blog) and offer workshops, consulting and award booking services.

What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?

I know it sounds like I’m beating a dead horse, but the answer is simple: CREDIT CARDS! Before factoring in flown miles, hotel stays, credit card spending or promotions I register for, I would say that I’m earning anywhere from 200-300,000 miles every year from credit card sign-up bonuses alone.  Don’t forget I (like you, Daraius) also have a wife who does the same!

And to all the naysayers out there crying about their precious credit scores, let me say this. (Sorry if that sounded a tad harsh, but as you can see I’m quite passionate on the subject): I started playing this “game” several years ago having only had one (non points-earning) card to my name, which had only been open for two years.  My score was in the low 730s when I went for my first App-O-Rama.

Of course it took a slight hit (and does each time I apply for cards), but now – all this time, and about 20 cards later – my score sits in the mid 750s!  My lowest of the three scores is 738 and my highest is 770.  Coincidence? I think not!

What’s your most memorable travel experience?
First Class and Beyond – Interview with Ari
Ari & His Wife in Tanah Lot

This is a tough one.  I almost feel as though I’m betraying the other trips by singling out one as “most memorable.”  Jeez, this might be worse than asking a parent to choose a favorite child!  Alas, I guess you need an answer.

As part of my honeymoon, my wife and I were booked on a Lufthansa flight (in first class of course!) from Frankfurt to Washington, DC.  This was in November, 2009.  At that point Lufthansa had announced the change to their 747 first class seats and had even begun installing them on some aircraft.

Unfortunately, by the time the honeymoon came they had only completed the retrofit on seven of their 23 B747-400s.  Nonetheless, I had held out hope.  I checked the relative FlyerTalk thread multiple times a day, to the point where I now knew – by memory – the tail numbers of each of the seven that had the new seats.  While enjoying the incomparable First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, I found myself whispering these numbers to myself and praying that we’d find ourselves one of them.

Then, the moment of truth. “Sir. Madaam. Your flight has begun to board – may we drive to the aircraft now?” As we drove down the tarmac in our beautiful grey S550, passing several 747s and two A380s, I saw our plane.  The car slowed down and pulled in to the left, positioning itself parallel to the plane.  Excited as I’ve ever remembered being in my life, I jumped out of the car, checked the tail and screamed “Sarah! This is it! This is one of the retrofitted planes! Yes!!!” Needless to say, it was the flight of a lifetime.

A quick side note to the readers here: Don’t be fooled.  Just because we “professionals” have flown in the world’s best first and business class products, we still enjoy every moment.  Some more than others, but for me, the novelty still hasn’t (and hopefully will never be) worn off.

What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?

Haha.  To say they think I’m crazy would be an understatement.  Good luck explaining a mileage run to anyone on earth with an ounce of self respect and common-sense!  Despite it all, they are continuously wondering how I manage to do it all.  All kidding aside – though they do think I’m nuts – my family members are my biggest fans.

They always support my hobby and tell everyone they meet about my site.  It’s hard to argue with my success though!  Thanks to this hobby, my wife and I are able to take trips – at least once or twice a year – that people making $200,000+/year would consider “once in a lifetime.” Now that’s saying something.

Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?

As an award booker, I can’t live without ExpertFlyer.  Well, I could, but business would be a bit slow!  Personally though, I highly value the communities on FlyerTalk and MilePoint as well as all of the bloggers – both those associated with Boarding Area as well as those who are independent.  I think many people have a sense of entitlement.

“Well, you know about this trick so just tell me.”  This is not the way the frequent flyer enthusiasts operate. We have strong communities and endless support lines to help even the most novice of flyers feel comfortable with the nuances of these programs.  Just remember, no one here was born with this knowledge.

Speaking for myself, I knew nothing when it came to frequent flyer miles until I was introduced to this “new world.”  Thanks to hours, days, weeks and months of continuous research I am where I’m at today.  As they say with everything, the frequent flyer community will deliver to you just as much as you put in.  Put in the time, ask questions, read and answer others’ questions, and you’ll be surprised at how easy it all comes.

What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?

Last year when AMEX began to crack down on their better bonus bumps, I managed to get myself and my wife a few cards just before the cut off (which was September 1st, 2011).  Despite hours on the phone with supervisors’ supervisors and emails and letter written to the corporate office, the answer I had gotten was essentially “tough luck buddy.”

That didn’t quite sit well with me, especially since the “final” answer didn’t come until April of this year – yea, it took that long!  After sleeping on it for 6-8 weeks (no pun intended) I finally had my solution.

The next day I opened up two separate complaints – one for my two cards and one for my wife’s two cards – against AMEX with the BBB (the Better Business Bureau).  As a bit of background, I was supposed to have earned 175,000 MR points, though I only received 75,000 (plus 10,000 for my troubles).  At the same time, my wife should have earned 125,000, though she only earned 30,000 (plus 5,000 for her trouble).

To make a VERY long story short, AMEX ended up giving us 185,000 out of the 195,000 owed. But, of course we also got to keep the 15,000 from previous compensations!

So, what’s the moral of the story?  Never give up!  If you’ve been wronged or if you’ve been promised something that was never delivered, it is well within your right to make yourself heard.  Don’t under estimate the power of the BBB. This entire ordeal was put to rest within two weeks of my filing the complaints.

What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?

At the very beginning I didn’t realize there were so many online tools for checking award availability.  It’s funny now, given that I run an award booking site (and use things like Expert Flyer daily).  In my first few months though, I really had no idea!  Don’t ask me how long it took to piece together my first big miles trip, but boy did it feel good.

What would your readers be surprised to know about you?

Here’s a fun little tidbit:  While I played hockey, basketball and baseball growing up, it was all just for fun.  I never intended to go pro – okay, maybe I did when I was six or seven – nor was I ever good enough.  In fact, I never hit a single home run while playing little league baseball.

That is, until I joined a league in Israel while was living there for six months for a semester abroad in high school.  That’s right, I hit my fist and only home run as a little league baseball player in Efrat, Israel!

Any parting words?
First Class and Beyond – Interview with Ari
Ari Enjoying the Bali Diving

Never take no for an answer when yes is even a remote possibility.  People are too quick to give up and move on.  Whether you have to hang up and call again or file a complaint with the BBB, I very much feel people – and specifically large corporations – need to be held accountable for their actions.

I don’t advocate cheating or lying, but if you know there’s availability or if you are skipped over for a suite upgrade or if a promise isn’t delivered, don’t just say “oh well, maybe next time.”  As the saying goes, “carpe diem!”  You only get to live once, so make the most of it and make the most of those points and miles.  Travel safe, travel often, and be sure you do it all in First Class and Beyond!

Ari– Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!

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