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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: Milevalue
Scott is a professional poker player who also collects miles and points. I love his blog tagline – “Rationally Exploiting Frequent Flier Programs” – so I was looking forward to our Friday chat!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
I started collecting miles in 2008. I was in law school in Virginia, and my family was in Hawaii. In an effort to get a free trip to Hawaii, I signed up for a United Mileage Plus card offered in an inflight magazine for a 25,000 mile bonus. What a sucker!
With some miles earned flying and a few months of spending, I got my free trip to Hawaii, but it’s painful to think how much money I spent on travel between 2008 and 2011 that would have been free (and in first class) if I knew then what I know now.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I started my blog in March for two reasons. First, the #3* question I get from my friends who notice me disappearing for a month of travel in Africa, South America, or Europe every few months is “How do you travel so much?” I wanted to answer that question for them in one place, and I’m doing that through my month-long series that starts today called Free First Class Next Month.
In daily two minute posts that prompt the reader to spend two more minutes setting up an account or familiarizing himself with a travel resource, I’m going to break down step-by-step how I travel for free in first class for months at a time on a budget that is probably smaller than most people’s budgets for a quick vacation.
The series will include the basics on earning miles, redeeming miles, finding mistake fares, using Priceline to bid for hotels, maximizing credit cards, and using the incredible travel resources available online.
The second reason I started the blog was that I am an avid miles collector, miles-blog reader, and math geek. So when I read great posts like the ones here on Million Mile Secrets on the latest mega-sign up bonuses, my first thought was always, which offer do I signup for? Are 50,000 Membership Rewards points worth more or less than 50,000 Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points.
To answer that question, I wrote an equation to figure out how many cents per mile award redemptions are worth. And then I studied all the programs’ fine print to figure out exactly how much a mile or point in every program is worth. I’m putting all that information on my blog.
The formula for the value of award redemptions is in an easy to use calculator app on my site, and the in-depth analysis of the programs is occurring daily. By the way, I value the Amex Platinum Card signup with 50,000 Membership Rewards points at an eye-popping $1,275, and the Southwest Chase Visa at a healthy $845.
*I’m a professional poker player, so the #1 and #2 questions I get are “Where do you play poker?” and “How much do you make?” Those aren’t answered on the blog, so I’ll answer them here: Commerce Casino and enough.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
I think my answer is a bit counter-intuitive: ignore category bonuses. Category bonuses are dwarfed by credit card signup bonuses. So the way to score miles in the millions is to avoid falling in love with one card for everyday spend because of its category bonuses and sign up for more cards. If you spend less that $40,000 a year on cards, it should all be going towards meeting minimum spends and getting signup bonuses.
Also if you spend less than $40,000 a year on cards, you should try to increase how much you spend on cards. The Million Mile Secrets post on creative ways to increase spending on cards is one of the most useful resources on the web for miles aficionados. And specifically I’d draw attention to the ability to pay rent, mortgage, and taxes with a card.
Paying rent, mortgages, and taxes with a card incurs a fee, sometimes as high as 3%, but if a signup bonus is 75,000 AAdvantage miles for $1500 in spend, the bonus dwarfs the fee. (Specifically, this particular bonus is about a 100% rebate on the first $1500 in spend.)
The way to rack up miles is to sign up for 3-5 cards every 90 days, meet their spending minimums through putting all your spending on them, and repeat. Don’t fall in love with category bonuses of 2-5 miles per dollar, instead earn 50 miles per dollar by clearing bonuses.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
The summer before law school I went to Peru with $600 cash and a return ticket 86 days later. My plan was to play poker in the casinos I passed to pay for the trip. I ended up traveling through Ecuador, Uruguay, and Argentina (Buenos Aires to Lima on a fully flat bed) for three amazing months. I improved my Spanish to a conversationally fluent level, I saw Machu Picchu, I spent a night on a man-made floating island, I went sandboarding, and I swam with pink dolphins in the Amazon river.
It was the trip of a lifetime.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
I’ve bored literally dozens of people with my obsession. But I’ve also shown a few the light. My brother got in on the Citi American Airlines Amex/Visa 150,000 mile bonanza, which we’re using to fly first class to Melbourne for the 2013 Australian Open, a dream of his that he hadn’t been able to put in motion without the miles.
And I got my parents to sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Ink Bold cards and ditch their Capitol One cards, so their next European vacation will be in first class, not coach.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Very often, my preferred routing is unavailable at the price I want. For instance, on one trip to Peru, direct Los Angeles to Lima flights cost $100 more than those with a stop in Miami. And on my recent trip to Atlanta, Sunday returns were $200 more than Tuesday returns.
If you are booking sufficiently far in advance, book the undesirable but cheaper option; I booked the connection in Miami and the Tuesday return. Why? Airlines constantly make minor schedule changes. When that happens, call up and politely explain that the new schedule doesn’t work for you. (I have done this when they’ve changed a flight time by only five minutes!)
Make sure you’ve already searched for your preferred routing and have those flight numbers in mind. Helpfully tell the agent that you know that flight 123 works for you, and he’ll change you to the more desirable option for free. I’ve moved my flight up by four days, and I’ve eliminated connections all for free with this simple trick.
Tools? So many. Top three:
1) Flyertalk Mileage Run Deals forum – I’m not interested in mileage runs at all. I don’t like airports, I’m not productive on planes, and I value my time too highly. But if I know I have a trip in mind that I want to buy with cash, or if I’m thinking about taking a trip, but I don’t know where to go, the forum is invaluable. The fares listed are so low- I’ve snagged Los Angeles to Atlanta roundtrip for $152 and Los Angeles – Guatemala roundtrip for $170- that the miles earned almost cancel out the price paid, leaving me with basically a free vacation.
2) milevalue.com Mile Value Calculator – There are so many times when you need to know the exact value of an AAdvantage mile or Mileage Plus Mile or Ultimate Rewards point to decide if a deal or award is a good deal or to choose between two award or sign up bonus choices. This calculator lets you plug in four numbers and get an exact answer to the question “How much is this frequent flier mile worth?”
3) evreward.com – If you’ve decided to buy a certain laptop from target.com, you can go to evreward.com, search target, and it lists how many miles or points you earn from every possible shopping portal. Since you’ve already figured out the value of points in those different programs with the milevalue.com Mile Value Calculator, you can easily figure out which portal gives you the best deal.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Every time I get a few miles added to my account from a dining program, it’s a pleasant surprise. I sign up all my cards, forget about the programs, and never read the participating restaurants’ list, but I occasionally dine at one by accident. It’s a nice few free miles.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
2008 Scott: Don’t sign up for 25,000 mile bonuses at the airport. Don’t earn miles the slow way, one per dollar for spending. Earn them the fast way, 50 per dollar for clearing bonuses. And get a hair cut, geez you look silly.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I’m a couchsurfer. I use couchsurfing.org to meet and stay with locals on most of my trips. Not only does it cut down on costs, but it takes you out of the touristy area of the city and gives you a friend to show you around. It’s incredible- especially in off-the-beaten-path places like Kampala, Uganda. While most members are young, it’s open for all ages.
Any parting words?
Use your miles to fly friends and family to see you! They would love a vacation, you’d love to see them, and experiences make better gifts than things.
Scott – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!