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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: Rachel Talks Travel
Rachel writes the Rachel Talks Travel blog & loves traveling the globe while eating delicious food, so I was looking forward to our Friday chat!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
I started collecting miles even before I first stepped foot on an airplane. I was 15 years old, and I used every dime of my savings to go on a class trip to France because I was so obsessed with the idea of traveling abroad.
I had always heard about the seemingly mystical currency of frequent flyer miles, and I signed up for Air France’s old program with the gate agent at Detroit while we waited to board. Who could’ve known that collecting miles would’ve turned into such a serious hobby?!
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I started my blog because I figured it was about time I had a repository for all of the travel-related knowledge I have acquired over the years. I found myself writing the same emails to friends over and over again, so I decided to put the info out there for the universe to read.
It’s been a very rewarding experience so far–every time I get a reader from a new country (100 countries and counting!), I get as excited as a kid in a candy store.
What makes my blog unique is the eclectic mix of content. There’s obviously a strong focus on miles, points and other travel deals, but I also bring in destination highlights, quirky travel news, geography quiz challenges, and lots of photos, videos and info graphics. In my opinion, the best way to inspire people to get out and see the world is to actually show them what they’re missing.
If someone can’t locate Bali on a map or identify Petra in a photo, what is the likelihood they’re ever going to choose to go there? There are 206 sovereign states and almost a thousand World Heritage Sites on this earth; the more people I can get out of the house to check them out, the happier I’ll be.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
The obvious and most lucrative answer choice here is credit card bonuses! But instead I’d like to go with something for the non-expert: make sure you actually sign up for miles & points accounts in the first place.
I don’t know how many people I encounter every week that don’t accrue miles simply because they perceive signing up and actually keeping track of your account numbers to be such a hassle.
Hearing about a colleague who just returned from a long trip without earning so much as one mile is worse than finger nails on a chalk board, in my opinion. Admittedly, maximizing your earning can be tough (yet enjoyable!), but there’s absolutely no excuse for putting your butt in a seat and not coming back with some extra miles in an account.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
This one is a no-brainer. My wonderful husband proposed to me during a gondola ride in Venice back in 2009 just as we had turned onto the Grand Canal. And that was only the first full day of the trip!
It was then followed by 8 cities in 8 days throughout Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Lazio. Other travel experiences have come close (roaming around Delos, Greece and riding elephants & visiting Angkor Wat in Southeast Asia, specifically), but it’s hard to beat the most romantic engagement ever.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
My friends and family are split on what they think of my hobby. I have some friends that think I’m absolutely crazy. One of them will never let me forget the time I was standing in line at a fast-causal Mexican restaurant frantically debating which combo of credit cards, points cards and promotions I could use to get the maximum value out of our evening.
I’d say the vast majority of my social circle thinks my obsession is fantastic and very much enjoys reaping the benefits of my research. My parents just got two free flights to Vegas for their 30th wedding anniversary trip thanks to the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and they still have another 50,000+ left for next time.
My Grandmother and I are currently gearing up to redeem for cruise vacation flights this fall. Even those who started off thinking that the miles and points game is too good to be true eventually come around once I show them how quickly and easily they can put few hundred thousand miles in the proverbial bank. If my Grandma can get in the game, anybody can!
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Although there are a ton of fun tricks out there that can either earn or save you good money, the most useful tool I’ve ever found for this hobby is AwardWallet, hands down.
Not only does it keep track of (almost) all of my account numbers, passwords, points balances, status levels, and expiration dates (curse you, American Airlines!), but I can keep track of my family and friends’ accounts that need monitoring as well. I use AwardWallet almost every day, and I can’t even begin to estimate how much time (and nearly-expired miles) it has saved me.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Right before I graduated from undergrad I stumbled across the United CollegePlus program. United offered a number of benefits for college students, but the biggest, by far, was 10,000 free miles upon graduation from each degree program (bachelor’s + master’s + professional = 30,000 free miles). It seemed simply too good to be true, but I was intrigued.
Despite never having flown United, I opened a MileagePlus account and submitted my transcript upon graduation. One postage stamp and a few weeks later, I was was 10,000 miles richer. To this day I’ve never put my butt in a UA seat for even a mile, yet I’ve got well over 100,000 burning a hole in my pocket waiting to take me somewhere. Unfortunately they ended CollegePlus a few years ago, but it was great while it lasted.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
This is a tough question–we learn so much as we go along! I’d probably have to say that I wish I had a better understanding of how the alliances work and the importance of consolidating your earning into a few accounts. I have an awkward amount of miles scattered across a bunch of programs that I’ll probably never get to put to good use because of my novice days, and I wish I could have avoided that.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
Readers would be surprised (and I am terribly ashamed to admit) that I once won two free nights at any Hyatt from one of my favorite bloggers and they went to waste. At the time, I was finishing up law school, planning/saving for a wedding, and gearing up for the bar exam, and for every trip I had planned during that time (including our honeymoon) there were absolutely no Hyatts to stay in.
I tried to hold out and see if anything changed, but then it got to the point that no one I knew could even use the free nights. I cannot even explain my disappointment, and I will undoubtedly obsess over that loss for a very long time.
Any parting words?
Plan your miles and points strategies with specific goals in mind. If you know you want to use them to travel to X location, you should try your best to come up with an earning plan that will get you there as easily and for the least amount of miles possible.
Each program has its own complexities to grapple with, and they take time to learn. Don’t hesitate to ask for help! Between FlyerTalk, MilePoint, and your favorite bloggers, you will find the answers you need to build a winning strategy.
The ability to travel (especially big travel for small money!) is a fantastic luxury. Never take it for granted, tread lightly, wander safely, and prepare yourself for the inevitable addiction 😉
Rachel – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!