“That trip would not have been possible without miles and points.”

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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: Reward Ingenuity

Jonathan Futrell is a frequent commenter on the miles and points blogs and goes by the screen name Fewtreezy.  He also writes the Reward Ingenuity  blog, so I was looking forward to our Friday chat.

Reward Ingenuity - Interview with Jonathan Futrell
Jonathan & Esther
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?

My first credit card was a Citi Premier Pass.  I mean, how posh does that sound?  I got it when I was in high school.  I knew it earned rewards but tracking them was difficult (now I use AwardWallet) , so I rarely took advantage of what I was earning.

My first mileage card was a US Airways Mastercard.  My wife and I signed up for it on a flight from St. Thomas in order to earn points from all our wedding expenses.  At that time, I thought my 25,000 mile sign-up bonus was practically stealing…little did I know!

The credit card game is just another of the many deals I’ve been interested in over my lifetime.  It started when I was in elementary and middle school with Beanie Babies (very lame, I know).  My mother and I saw that there was a craze and we started buying and selling them outside my grandmother’s house.  She lived on a fairly active road, so I caught people in the afternoon as they drove home.

As an 11-year-old boy, I was making thousand dollar transactions for plush toys!  During college, I took advantage of the same buyers rage over PlayStations and Air Jordans. I view miles and points as another way to get ahead by taking full advantage of the current state of the consumer market.  I feel right at home in this game.

Why did you start Reward Ingenuity?  What’s special about it?

Everyone has heard of a sign up bonus and has probably done one but taking full advantage of the additional promotions companies have during the year can be just as lucrative but takes a little more initiative.  Reward Ingenuity is about taking the credit card points game a step further.

During the AMEX Gift Chain promotion, I stayed up until 4:00 am buying J.Crew and Toys’R’US gift cards.  After statement credits, AMEX “cash” gift cards, and cashback/miles through portals, my effective cost was less than $400 for $1000 worth of gift cards.  I wish I had 4 more AMEX cards to put to use in the Gift Chain!

I want Reward Ingenuity to be a place where people can learn about deals that may be extremely lucrative, but that they have to work a little bit harder for the points.  Anyone can get a sign-up promotion – the real deal is finding value in the cards AFTER you get the sign-up bonus.

What’s your most memorable travel experience?

I have many great traveling memories, but the one that comes to mind is a trip Esther (my wife) and I took to Italy last September with two of our best friends.  On this particular trip, we knew that our friend was going to propose.  This was not only a vacation but also a fulfillment of what we had seen them becoming over the years – a great match!

Reward Ingenuity - Interview with Jonathan Futrell
Jonathan & Esther

The trip was built around visiting Lago di Como so he could propose at Villa del Balbianello.  It pretty much rained the entire time we were there!  We kept waiting for it to clear, but it continued to rain every day.  Finally our friend just decided to go for it.  Through the rain we walked (more like hiked) up the long, winding paved road to the villa.

When we got there, we hustled to the spot he had researched to propose.  At the same time we found the spot, the rain stopped – and it turned into a perfect day!  Esther and I played professional photographers for their engagement photographs (emphasis on played)!

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

Many in my family suffer from the “too good to be true” syndrome.  It usually starts with “that sounds illegal.”  After explaining that these are legitimate offers, the criticism usually becomes “that isn’t worth my time” or “that will ruin your credit score”.  Like many other people, they don’t understand credit cards or the deals that exist – they’re thrilled just to receive their 1% cashback each year!

Kicking Back

My friends, on the other hand, are great.  They participate in the deals with me and trust my judgment.  For most people, it just takes that first deal.  Once somebody experiences for themselves how lucrative this game can be, they come around pretty quickly!

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

Before making an online purchase – or really any large purchase – I go to www.NerdWallet.com/discounts.  It’s an easy way to find the best portal to shop through.  Compared to the basic credit card point rate, this often nets 2 to 4 times the miles and points – sometimes more!  It’s important to note that most portals allow shoppers to use any credit card.  For example, you can use an AMEX card when shopping through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.

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

Back in August, I had a lot of difficulty getting the 30,000 bonus for the Starwood AMEX.  I applied through the public link on the site, but somehow the 30k promotion wasn’t linked to my application.  I called AMEX, and the rep told me that the promotion would probably post in a few days – but it never did.  I was then told that it would require an 8 week review by marketing.  But the first two reps to submit my application for review did it incorrectly – each time resetting the 8 week review!

After the first 8 weeks, I began to call weekly to check in and voice my disappointment over how long it was taking.  Each rep apologized and credited 3 to 5 thousand  SPG points to my account as a courtesy.  After four of these calls, a rep finally put in a manual override and linked the 30,000 bonus promotion to my account – after about 3 months and 5 hours on the phone!

Shortly after that, I received a request to fill out a survey regarding my experience with AMEX SPG.  I gave pretty bad reviews and briefly explained my situation.  A few days later, Rosa from the AMEX Executive Office contacted me.  After listening to my story, she credited me an additional 10,000 SPG points as a courtesy.  She also suggested that my wife, who is in the midst of a battle with Membership Rewards for her 75,000 bonus points, give her a call.

All in all, my 30,000 bonus became 60,000 SPG points.  I really didn’t expect them to give me courtesy points every time I called, but they really did go out of their way to reward my patience.

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

Don’t believe everything you read in mile and point forums.  People have an experience with a CSR or reconsideration line and post about it.  Next thing you know, everyone is stating it as fact.  The truth is that each time you call customer service or a recon line, you are going to get a different person who has different opinions.  All it takes is getting the right one to get what you want.

If an issue is important to me, I almost always escalate it to a manager.  Managers are usually the only ones who can do anything substantial.  If that doesn’t work, take to the company’s Twitter or Facebook wall.  I find companies will respond quickly to this.

Lastly, ALWAYS take note of the identification of the CSR you are speaking with.  Companies identify their employees either by name or an id number.  Get it and write it down.  This little detail can save you a lot of hassle in the long run.

What would your readers be surprised to know about you?

I have a shoe problem.  I collect shoes; particularly Jordan basketball shoes…lots of them.

Any parting words?

I have found the most joy in giving some of my miles and points to friends and family.  My most recent story is going to see Duke win at Madison Square Garden, giving Coach K his record-setting 903rd win.

Just the day before the game, I decided to start looking for tickets for my wife and me.  I found a guy in Durham, NC, with three tickets on the 16th row in the Duke section.  I told him I only needed two tickets, and he said he’d just throw in the third because he couldn’t use it anyway.

I called my dad, purchased a flight to NYC for him with miles, and booked hotel rooms for us with SPG points.  My wife and I used points to purchase Amtrak tickets, and we met my dad in NYC for what became a very special memory.

Jonathan and Dad

That trip would not have been possible without miles and points.  The plane ticket and hotel would have cost well over a thousand dollars because it was so last minute – instead, it was nearly free after miles and points.  Life is about people – if miles and points help me experience it with great people, then they are worth the effort!

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

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