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Welcome to the next interview in our interview series where travel bloggers share their thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: Miles to Memories
Shawn runs Miles to Memories with a focus on family traveling.
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
From the time I was very young I had dreams of traveling all around the world. Unfortunately, my family didn’t travel much and with the birth of my son when I was only 18, that dream seemingly became impossible. One day, though, I was talking with a co-worker about how she had taken a one month trip to Europe with her young son years before.
Suddenly my mind was stimulated beyond belief with the possibilities, and in 2007 I was able to realize my dream. From April 2007 until September 2008 my wife, son and I traveled around the world. It was during that time that I learned not only how to travel cheaply, but also about how miles and points worked to some extent.
Unfortunately it wasn’t until about two years ago that I really started to find out how to properly leverage miles and points to travel for pennies on the dollar. Looking back at our around the world trip, I often think of how much money I could have saved if I knew then what I know now.
Of course, my life has been blessed so I really don’t have any complaints.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
My blog started as “Family Round The World” in 2007 to document our trip. During the trip, I blogged almost daily about our adventures as a way to share our experiences with both our family back home and others looking to travel the world with children. Once we returned, life got busy and I didn’t write for a while, but decided to keep the website up with an occasional post to reflect on our travels or to look towards the future.
About a year ago in preparation for a three month backpacking adventure through Europe, I started writing again with more of a miles and points angle. We were able to complete that trip for next to nothing thanks to information learned on Million Mile Secrets and other websites.
While we still primarily stayed in guesthouses and hostels during our trip, breaking those stays up with luxury hotels booked with points was a nice change of pace.
I think the thing that makes the blog different is my background and the experience I bring into it. I have been traveling the world for quite a while now and have done it on just about every budget. While I love to fly in first class and do from time to time, I believe travel is more about the journey and the destination than anything else.
I have squeezed in with a hundred other people on a chicken bus in Guatemala, suffered on dilapidated old trains in numerous countries and taken just about every other messed up form of transportation you can think of to go where I want and within the budget set.
I also have experience with family travel both within and outside the realm of award travel. My goal with the blog is to show people how to achieve their dream trips no matter what. Essentially, I want to show them how they can take their miles and points, combine them with the knowledge I share and turn them into the trip of a lifetime.
While reading my blog you may read about five star hotels and first class airplane experiences as well, but travel is about so much more. I try to write about so many different things. Among them is traveling as a family, cruising, sleeping in airports, living in the moment and learning how to do all of that and more for as little money as possible.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
The obvious and easy answer to this is to get credit cards. Most people answer this question the same way, because the honest truth is that credit card bonuses provide the greatest sum of miles and points for people like us. If your dream trip is one vacation a year, I think getting a few choice credit cards is enough.
I think the actual answer to this question, though, is to study. If you want to take several big trips a year or even a few extra-long weekends in addition to your normal vacation, then you have to find the best ways to earn miles with the least amount of effort possible. Study the loyalty programs and how they work.
Study which credit cards give which bonuses and maximize your everyday spending. Learn which shopping portals give the best payouts so that one extra click gets you a lot more miles. You don’t have to know everything about every program, but knowing about the programs that you use regularly is so important.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
I have been so many places and have had the pleasure to share most of them with my wife Jasmine and my son Shawn Reece. Since my passion for travel runs so deep, more often than not I come home from a trip thinking that it was the most amazing thing ever.
If I had to pick one experience to rule them all, then it would have to be attending the Beijing Olympics in 2008 because it was the ultimate realization of a childhood dream.
It came about in an unplanned way. As we were finishing our big trip in 2008, I was able to get the flights to work so that we could spend ten days in Beijing during the Olympics. Through the goodwill of others and buying tickets from Chinese scalpers, we were able to attend 8 events for a total cost of $100. I remember those days well because most of the time we would wake up without any tickets and just go to a venue.
Every time except one, we were able to see the event that we wanted to. It was quite an amazing and magical experience. With that said, there are half a dozen more experiences I want to share with you right now, but I will have to save those for another time!
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
Everyone has always known me as the guy who gets cheap travel deals. During our around-the-world trip, I honed my skills and could usually travel for half the cost of anyone else that I knew. Now that I use miles and points to travel even cheaper, most people still look at me the same way.
They are amazed by how I do it, but most people’s eyes glaze over if I try to talk about it. Usually they say, “I will have to call you before booking my next vacation.” Of course they never do and end up spending thousands of dollars to take a trip that I could have helped them get for one-tenth of the cost.
I have learned that talking about this hobby is most fulfilling when I am speaking with others who have the same passion for it as me. My family and friends just don’t understand why I would do a mileage run that involves dozens of hours sitting in coach.
Or why I would stand in front of that ridiculously slow Walmart kiosk to empty Visa gift cards onto my Bluebird. (Heck I’ve questioned myself more than once while waiting for that kiosk to load!)
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Over the years I have learned to use certain websites and tools in a way that I can quickly get down to the information I need. My habits and “techniques” are just something that I have learned with practice. Everyone eventually learns what tools work for them and develops their own system.
With that said, without a doubt the most important tool we have in this hobby is each other. I think networking and talking with others has helped me in more ways than any website or other tool.
Here is a great example. About a year ago every CVS near my house in Las Vegas stopped selling Vanilla Reloads with credit cards. I then moved on to buying Visa cards at my local Smith’s (Kroger) for the fuel rewards.
When that deal went away I was sort of stuck. One day I decided to post on Flyertalk about my dilemma and suddenly another member sent me a message with the location of a CVS in town that still sold Vanilla Reloads with credit cards. It was that simple.
Since then I have met others in the points and miles community who have been enormously helpful. I will be attending my first Frequent Traveler University in April so it will be nice to meet some more people face to face.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
This is a difficult question because I regularly jump through hoops by doing so many random things to get miles. Don’t get me wrong. I have never had a baldness exam like some or dragged hundreds of pounds of coins to the bank, but I constantly am working to figure out how to pad that mileage account.
In the past year, I have earned miles by switching to Directv (something I was already going to be doing) and opening checking accounts. (One account each for both Jasmine and I.) Both of those things cost me nothing, took almost no time and netted me a combined 85,000 miles. I guess I need to get out there more, because my answer to this question is much less interesting than others!
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I wish I knew a lot of the tips and tricks that only come with some experience. There were times in the early days when I blew miles on stupid redemptions. I also used to be so excited about what I was learning when I was new to the hobby, that I was in a rush to do everything.
In the beginning, I over applied for credit cards and even applied for one or two of the wrong cards. One time I was so excited for an offer, I applied in my name with my wife’s social security number. That was tough to explain to them on the phone!
Like many others have said this is a marathon and not a sprint. I read those words in the beginning, but they didn’t sink in until I ended up spending way too much time on the phone with reconsideration lines and found myself denied for a couple of cards. While dealing with reconsideration and an occasional denial is unavoidable, there are definitely things you can do to bolster your success.
Now I have a much more coherent strategy for getting what I want and what I need. I have also learned that applying for 8 or 10 credit cards at one time is a bit of overkill. The truth is at some point I came to realization that it is much easier to earn miles and points than I ever thought possible so I can take my time and do it right!
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
Something that may be surprising to readers, but is well known to all my friends and family is that I love visiting amusement parks and riding roller coasters. I have been to all eleven Disney parks around the world and have ridden over 800 roller coasters in more than thirty countries. Some of the most authentic local experiences I have had have been in local parks in places like Guatemala or Vietnam.
Tourists don’t go to these places for the most part so it is just us and the locals! While Jasmine and Shawn Reece aren’t as die-hard about coasters as I am, they have both been on about 500 coasters and we continue to visit theme parks around the world as a family.
Any parting words?
I won’t lie that at times award travel and the miles and points hobby in general can be frustrating. Heck travel in general can be both stressful and exhausting. I have been blessed to spend the past seven years doing what I love.
The more I travel, the more my passion for it grows. My best advice is to stay in the moment. Remind yourself when you are standing on the Great Wall of China or eating a baguette on the streets of Paris what that experience means to you. Narrate your experience in your head, live as it is happening.
Life isn’t about making memories just so we can check something off of a list and have something to look back at. Life is about living in the moment and enjoying those experiences.
As for miles and points, I want you to know that someday soon you will be sitting on a plane to your dream destination, you will be with the person you love most in the world and you will be taking that trip for a fraction of what it normally would cost. In other words, this hobby has enabled me to live out so many of my dreams and I know that it can do the same for you.
By reading Miles to Memories, Million Mile Secrets and other travel sites, I guarantee that you will be surprised at just how easy it is to live your travel dream! The final thing I would urge everyone to do is ask for help and to help others when you can.
I know that I am always willing to answer any questions and so many bloggers like Daraius and others have been helpful to me over the years. Thank you for taking the time to read this!
Shawn – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!