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Welcome to the next interview in our interview series where travel bloggers share their insights on having Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: Miles to the Wild
Tara has been collecting miles for a long time and writes Miles to the Wild to share her experience using miles for eco travel.
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
I started the old-fashioned way back in the 90s butt-in-seat miles and was only in Pan-Am’s (blast from the past) program and United’s Mileage Plus but I credited as many partner flights to them as possible.
I’ve only ever been a leisure traveler but I flew long distances so the miles added up quickly and I would get a free trip every couple of years or so.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I became involved with conservation of wild birds, especially parrots in the mid 2000s. My blog’s parent site, Feathered and Free has evolved from a Vbulletin based forum founded in 2007 (same software as Flyer Talk) to an el-cheapo Go Daddy website that drove me crazy to update, then to a popular Facebook group which got a lot more international exposure and grew rapidly. Moving to a blog was a natural progression that I would have done a lot sooner if I had known how easy WordPress was to work with.
In all cases, my message has been that we need to save wild birds who are threatened by trappers and deforestation. Even if birds aren’t your passion, there are lots of animals in the rain forest and if you save the habitat, you save them all! Eco-tourism is one of the best ways to do this. Many of my birding guides were former poachers who know the birds very well and use that knowledge to guide eco-tourists.
Other jobs are created by accommodations, restaurants; craft shops, transport givers and people learn that they have more to gain by keeping the birds wild and free so tourists want to come.
There are many organized birding tours but they tend to be expensive. I show people how to trim down the costs by using miles to get to the destinations and hotel points to get free rooms at airports and gateway cities. Then you have more money to spend directly in the communities surrounding the nature reserves and national parks and the people benefit directly.
I write a niche blog for two main audiences. One is the miles/points enthusiast who already knows how to collect miles and points and wants to use them for eco-tourism. The other is the keen conservationist or bird lover who dreams of seeing birds in their native habitats but doesn’t know how to go about it or can’t afford it. Learning to use miles and points makes eco-tourism affordable for a lot more people.
I have just launched a new weekly feature called “Eco-Lite” which will focus on a mini-trip anyone can work into a more conventional trip such as Bali or a major world city. The aim is to get people to participate in eco-tourism even if only briefly and to get their families interested in conservation. Many of these people will go on to more extensive eco-adventures!
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Be organized and know your goals, then concentrate your efforts on accumulating your miles in just a few programs. In my blog, I have several recommended programs because they serve the areas that would attract eco-tourists: American Airlines, United, US Air, British Air & Iberia, (both earn Avios) Qantas, Virgin Australia & Singapore Airlines. The last 3 are of more benefit to Australians.
My point of view is both American and Australian since I am a dual citizen so I like to offer options for both, plus some for other international travelers.
Use whatever means are working at the time to get miles as long as you don’t start spending beyond your means. Get credit cards for sign-up bonuses only if you can control your spending and pay them off each month. Try to get miles for everyday expenses like grocery shopping, utilities (can be done in Australia), Mother’s Day flowers, online shopping, web-hosting.
Use Evreward to see who is giving the best bonuses. Don’t spend more, spend smarter! Knowing your goals means you know which program you need to concentrate your efforts on.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
My trips are strictly for the birds! Several trips stand out. One was the trip to South America in 2007 when we went to Tambopata Research Centre in Peru (which I blogged about) and saw the famous Clay Licks where thousands of wild parrots congregate. We also went to the Pantanal in Brazil in that same trip and we joined a research team for a day to see Hyacinth Macaws and the biologists brought down some baby Hyacinths for inspection to make sure they are being fed properly and we got a close up look.
A few days later, I got to see what it was like to fly by jumping off a mountain in Rio de Janiero! It was awesome!
The other trip that stands out was last year in Brazil (blog in progress) to some different birding areas. I saw the relatives of several of my pet parrots in Linhares and the northern Pantanal and Cristalino. Then I got to see a flock of 27 Golden Conures in Amazonia National Park, they are my dream bird and it was amazing to see so many of them in the wild!
The last trip to West Papua was pretty amazing too; I just finished blogging about that one!
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
I am the only traveler in my family so they don’t really relate to why I do this, let alone that I travel all over the world to see birds! During the Grand Slam years (2009-2011) my mother was the lucky recipient of shipments from OfficeMax containing Post-its and Crayolas, Biscoff cookies and spreads, batteries from Skymall, earbuds from Bose and other such delights.
My friends in Australia probably think I have a secret trust fund (I don’t) because Aussies don’t have the opportunities Americans have with credit cards and manufactured spending. At least other Americans will have seen ads for credit cards and are aware such things exist!
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Hands down my custom-designed Excel spreadsheet. I have a 5 year plan for trips I want to take, how many miles I need for each one and which alliance works best. I give priority to trips that are coming up soonest and aim at first to have enough for economy for the next 3 years, and then start trying to get business class by getting more miles.
In a pinch, there are trips I could bring forward if a merger like American Airlines/US Air warrants it but I prefer to do 1 short haul and 1 long haul trip a year. My husband is not American so he can’t churn; I have to churn enough for both tickets. It’s all color coded and I have formulas to track which program I need to concentrate on next.
I figure that if I have enough miles for business class, if there is an unexpected devaluation I would still at least have enough for economy.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Probably buying Track-It-Back stickers during that amazing shopping bonus US had in 2009. I didn’t buy THAT many but still it was amazing to get so many miles for stickers! Some of the things I did during Grand Slam were pretty funny too-I bought trees from Gaiam, no-show airport shuttles, calling restaurants and buying the person on the phone a sandwich.
I am an expat American living in Australia there are many things I can’t do that require physical presence in the USA so I had to get creative!
There was also an Aussie American Express promo back in 2008 where you got 5000 bonus miles for every 5 transactions. I got about 300,000 AMEX Membership Rewards by splitting up my grocery shopping into small transactions, buying $10 gift cards, buying shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, etc. one at a time at Kmart or Target, paying bills in several installments of $10 or so.
After that promo, I didn’t have to buy shampoo and other toiletries for a couple years, I was so well stocked!
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
That expat Americans can also churn credit cards. I got into that game a bit late. Oh well, better late than never! LOL!
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I’m terrified of snakes. I can’t even bear to watch them on TV. Not great for someone who is always traveling to rain forests to watch birds! I make a point of asking my guides not to point out any snakes if they see them.
I’ve been to every country in the world (not necessarily officially or legally) except Libya and East Timor. I did all this between 1980 to 1999. Since I got married, we have been going to countries I have already been to but concentrating on eco-tourism.
Also I love Bollywood films when I can find them with English subtitles. Sometimes YouTube, sometimes Singapore Airlines flights!
Any parting words?
LOL, is anyone still reading? Just be true to yourself and know your own dreams. As you get more involved with miles and points and read more blogs and forums, you will be exposed to all kinds of bloggers and travelers. Many of these people will be more affluent than you and can afford more luxury than you can so don’t try to be competitive with them.
Don’t be one of those people who are never happy with anything and always complaining. I see a lot of that especially on Trip Advisor and Flyer Talk and feel grateful for my 30+ years of backpacker experience that makes me more accepting and tolerant. I know some people scoffed at my $70 Overwater Bungalow because it wasn’t part of a luxury resort; but to me it was priceless to lie in bed and watch Palm Cockatoos flying through the trees.
Know your limitations and work with them. These may be financial, age-related, fitness level or otherwise. I will never be a great photographer because I just don’t have the stamina and eye-hand coordination to manipulate the heavy camera and lens.
Tripods are too heavy and difficult to manage when trekking through a muddy rain forest plus the birds are usually flying or hiding in dense foliage. It’s frustrating but at least I do get some shots as memories of my trips!
Some people dream of lie-flat seats and showers in the sky, some dream of taking their kids to Disneyland, some dream of exploring the Amazon Rainforest. Stop worrying about how many cents per mile you get. If miles and points enable you to go somewhere you otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, just go and enjoy it!
Tara – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!