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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: Miles Czar
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
After flying international Business Class for work several times 12 years ago, I realized there was no better way to get over the jet lag and hit the ground running when you land at your destination. I applied for a couple of credit cards and signed up for airline programs. Before that, I used to pay cash for everything and did not even credit the miles for any of the intercontinental flights.
I only got serious about this hobby and started earning millions of miles and points after I met my wife in 2009. She encouraged me to get more credit cards and dig deeper into how it all worked.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I am passionate about miles, traveling, and photography. For years I was a go-to resource on topics related to credit cards, miles and points and travel planning for my relatives, friends, and co-workers. Instead of repeating myself over and over again and informing them of changes and hot deals individually I decided to create a blog which anyone could use whenever they have a question or want to save money on anything travel-related.
I was also shocked how little people around me traveled. Some thought they did not have the money. Others knew they could afford it but had no idea how to go about planning the trips and even what they needed to bring. Many were simply used to staycations and not sure what they had to gain by getting out of their comfort zone.
I wanted to inspire people with photography so my blog features albums from some of the places I’ve been to. Traveling not only lets you immerse yourself into other cultures and see the incredible world, but is also the best way to learn about yourself.
I keep the number of posts on the blog to a minimum and make them succinct and simple. Besides travel notes, we only cover the most important news and best credit card, airfare and travel deals. Miles Czar is not focused on flying in luxury or only visiting the major cities where you can stay in 5-star hotels.
Rather we want to inspire our readers to travel more, travel to more exotic destinations and give them all the tools they need to realize their travel dreams. That’s why we created several reference guides.
The Miles 101 introduces the most important concepts in this hobby and guides you step-by-step how to make credit cards, miles, and points work for you so you are able to afford your travel dreams.
In the Travel Planning guide we share our tips on how to go about planning the parts of the trips which do not involve any miles and points – anything from choosing a guidebook and saving money on a hotel to getting around another country without speaking the local language.
In the Travel Gear guide we show what good quality items to bring on the trips.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Over the last couple of years credit card issuers implemented a lot of rules to make it harder to get multiple cards and receive the sign-up bonuses more than once. Make sure you familiarize yourself with these rules to avoid pitfalls and strategize your credit card applications.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
I am fortunate to have taken many amazing trips in various parts of the world, so it’s hard to narrow it down. The most memorable experiences though were not necessarily the most enjoyable ones. I got lost hiking alone in the Villarrica National Park on the border of Chile and Argentina.
My tent, food, and warm clothes were at the campsite, there were no people around, and I could not find the way back. When the sun started setting I bumped into a wild boar and tried to take a shortcut by crossing the lake, which water damaged my phone. I started my hike early in the day and did not register with the rangers when I entered the park, so I knew no one would be looking for me for days.
Cold, and without water or any means of communication, I did my best to stay calm and finally found my tent around 3:30 am.
Two weeks later, with an international flight in less than 9 hours, thieves stole my drivers license, passport, and credit cards near the train station in Buenos Aires. I realized I did not have time to go file a police report, managed to remember the face I saw for a split second, found the culprits in one of the most crowded areas of the city and persuaded them to give me back my belongings.
To finish my answer on a positive note, I will mention a more pleasant travel experience as well.
We have used our Alaska Airline miles to take a trip to French Polynesia, New Zealand and South Korea. After the most relaxing time being surrounded by stunning views in Bora Bora, we flew to see a festival in Oakland, toured the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and enjoyed the thermal pools near Rotorua and completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike. We then flew to South Korea for a long and grueling but exceptional Dinosaur Ridge hike in the Seoraksan National Park.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
Even though my wife was originally the one who suggested I spend more time on this hobby, I do not think she ever expected that I would get so addicted that I would get up in the middle of the night to check various forums after receiving the alerts on my phone.
She gets to fly home to South Korea in Business Class 2 to 3 times a year. We took several family trips to the Philippines and had her entire family fly Business Class to the US as well. All things which would not have been possible without this hobby.
My family was actually skeptical at first, but after my mother got to fly First Class to our wedding in South Korea they were sold. Even my grandfather has 7 credit cards now.
My friends usually have a good laugh whenever they see my card book holder full of credit cards. Some of them still think it’s too good to be true and believe I will eventually ruin my credit. Others jumped on board and have been consistently asking me to help plan their credit card applications, book their trips, and keep them in the loop of the best deals.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
I have a color-coded Excel spreadsheet with multiple tabs to keep track of the miles and points, credit card applications, spending, payments, promotions, number of credit pulls, etc. When I created the sheet, I just wanted to keep things organized and recorded every single piece of information about the cards and applications.
Over the last couple of years we saw banks continuously change the application and bonus rules, so having all this information readily available is a necessity.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
When I flew from London to New York on American Airlines last year, the seat I was in would not fully recline. The crew told me they were aware of the problem since it happened on 2 previous flights but resetting the seat couple of times used to do the trick. They promptly moved me to another Business Class seat.
I thought what if it happens again when the flight is full – so I sent a comment to American Airlines with the flight and seat number and asked to pass the information to their maintenance department. Within 48 hours I got the response from American Airlines – they thanked me for bringing it to their attention and also credited me 20,000 American Airlines miles as a gesture of goodwill for having to change the seat.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
When I started out, I used to think the airline booking agents knew much more than I do and have more reliable tools so I never questioned the answers they gave me. The reality is that many of the booking agents are often not very knowledgeable in redemptions on other airlines, especially for more creative itineraries and will not necessarily go out of their way to help you.
Do your research regarding the routing rules so you can challenge them. And if you have found the availability the agent claims does not exist, try to politely feed the agent the exact flights with flight numbers and times. Sometimes this works like a charm, but once in a while you will get an agent who will get defensive. If an agent is not being helpful we just politely end the call and call back to speak with another one.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
On my site there are photos of me paragliding in Venezuela and climbing a 20,000 foot mountain in Bolivia, mentions of taking 6 flights during just one trip and flying small aircraft on not very reputable local airlines. I think my readers assume I love flying, but I actually have fear of heights and get pretty nervous during heavy turbulence.
Any parting words?
You don’t have to win a lottery or quit your day job to take some exotic and exciting trips. This hobby will make it easier for you to see the world! If you are short on time, the West Coast has many amazing national parks, but you can also fly flat-bed to make the most out of your short trips abroad.
I remember taking a connecting flight to China on Friday after work. I was so well rested and felt so much energy when I arrived at my destination that I went straight to hike the Huashan mountain before checking out the city of Xi’an. Just few days later I was in Tibet.
Another trip we took brought us from the Shilin Stone Forest in China to the Luoping’s canola fields, and then to the remote Yuanyang rice fields, where we were invited to a local feast in the Hani minority village.
We then crossed the border into Vietnam to check out the Sapa’s rice fields, took a Hualong bay cruise and spent a couple of days in the charming Hoi An. We did not hire a driver, but still managed to see it all taking only 7 days off work. Using miles for Business Class flights and renting out our place on Airbnb, we actually earned money taking this trip.
If you jump into the miles and points world trying to learn everything at once, you may feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Try to learn gradually, but make sure you know the basics of timing and strategizing your applications. When you earn the miles and points, do NOT hoard them.
This hobby is not about getting rich; it’s about being able to afford to travel more, spending more time with your friends and family, enjoying other cultures, and seeing the beautiful world around us.
Miles – 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!