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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: Rapid Travel Chai
I’m extremely jealous of Stefan at Rapid Travel Chai. He not only travels smart and fast and has experienced more of the world than me, but he also writes the wittiest and wisest blog filled with short punchy prose.
You certainly won’t find him writing about a not-quite-so hot towel on a plane so I was really looking forward to our Friday chat!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
Flying between the US and Asia for school and work I found that I could redeem (online!, R.I.P. nwa.com) 20,000 miles on Northwest and its Asian partners for economy roundtrips within Asia, from Palau to Turkmenistan. These are typically monopoly or duopoly routes with fares $500-$1,000.
I eventually started browsing FlyerTalk, though was chased away from posting by the “Welcome to FlyerTalk…” hazing. I never have had the time to reach the quota of posts necessary to be able to “+1” or rhapsodize on Sky Club cheese without snarky rejoinders. But I learn a tremendous amount, including early on from a guy in South Korea that would string together trips of a dozen or more Asian cities, each stop less than 24 hours, all for 20,000 miles.
Having exhausted nearly all of China Southern and Korean Air’s Asia route networks, the end of my time in China coincided with the party ending in the Northwest-Delta merger, so I have not had the pleasure of paying triple or quadruple for the same flights by phone booking.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I attended the Frequent Traveler University in 2011, meeting blogging legends and great travelers. It was eye-opening to discover this dynamic community of people enjoying life and helping each other. Hearing Rick, the Frugal Travel Guy, was heading to China I wrote an itinerary for him that he published, at which point pressure from my family to share my experiences reached a head, so I decided to give blogging a whirl.
My credo is travel fast and smart…linger only in memories. Having a full-time job and family commitments, I found I could not relate to most travel writing that assumes European amounts of vacation time. Friends and colleagues always make excuses that they do not have enough time to see the world and I try to show how it can be done, even with only a weekend to spare.
The farthest I have gone on a weekend from the US is the United Arab Emirates, leaving Friday night after work, landing in Dubai on Saturday night and driving to Abu Dhabi. Sunday I drove to the other five emirates of the UAE, pulling back into Dubai just in time for my flight back to the US, thankfully with a shower in the Air France lounge. I arrived Monday morning and rolled into work, 17,000 miles flown, 545 miles driven, 7 ‘countries’ for the Traveler’s Century Club and indelible memories. Would it have been better to have more time? Sure. But I don’t have more time.
I can only write a small amount of what I want, and I constantly bounce around topics, but every post I try to share something that I find interesting, educational or useful. I succeed when readers feel they are better travelers for having spent time with me.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Earn the trust of spouses, partners, family and friends, help them earn, and share the wealth. There is a huge community multiplier-effect. One of the first lessons I learned was from Frugal Travel Guy, “If it is worth doing for yourself, it is worth doing for everyone in the family.”
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
I have spoiled myself in visiting fabulous, challenging places. I (ignorant American!) learned how to drive a manual transmission to get around Tunisia. The trip started inauspiciously at the Avis in Carthage, exiting to a steep hill with me panicking, smoke billowing out, and cars honking ferociously behind. The madcap days I spent racing around Ancient Rome, Islam, and Star Wars sets was thrilling, picking up countless hitchhikers, and not a scratch on the car.
On occasion friends and family have traveled with me, usually once is enough for them because I am relentless on the road. These trips, often the only time I repeat destinations, are the most meaningful to me. One time in China my good friend and colleague from the US had a free hump weekend on his business trip. Friday night we changed into travel clothes at the office and dashed to Chengdu, Sichuan, my favorite destination in China.
Normally I would say to spend four or five days in Chengdu but we had two, starting it overnight at a bath house with cupping, gua sha and foot callus feeding fish, then visiting the Giant Panda Research Breeding Base, ancient hydraulic masterpiece Dujiangyan, the Leshan Giant Buddha, and the monkeys and temples of Emei Shan, before flying back to Beijing Sunday night. We were utterly exhausted but a few months later he was back and we were off to the red flags and braised pork bellies of Chairman Mao’s early stomping grounds in Hunan Province.
Sharing my passion with others to experience travel they thought impossible is my greatest pleasure.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
The eyes either roll back or glaze over. I am careful to manage the degree of revelation of this hobby to different audiences. Those who see me Monday mornings at work, unshaven and with brunch à la Sky Club know to come to me with questions but I do not evangelize.
I am most conscious of my wife. She sees this hobby very differently than I. Years ago we were walking in Shanghai and I picked up a one jiao coin from the street, exclaiming, “My lucky day!” She ran off in horrified embarrassment. She had been taught growing up in Shanghai that picking up found money was stealing from society.
She takes a dim view of the ethically gray area schemes and is a good ethical bellwether for me. If an endless stream of Nordstrom boxes had arrived at our house solely to earn American Airlines lifetime status, with me abusing Nordstrom’s customer service policy and wasting tremendous amounts of their money and attendant environmental costs in processing orders and returns, she would have rightly changed the locks.
I use many more miles and points on friends and family than for myself. Sure I have my fun trips, but emergencies, family events, job interviews, these are times when people need to travel and often do not have the budget. I am happy to contribute miles and expertise where they are needed.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Be disciplined and set limits. Don’t let it take over your life in a way that is more costly than the benefits. The best tool might be an egg timer set next to your computer.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Award flights on partner airlines incorrectly coded at check-in as revenue fare classes – an advantage of flying in places like Kathmandu!
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
The email addresses of people who know vastly more than me. Go to events, meet-ups, ‘DOs’ and make friends. FlyerTalk and MilePoint both have listings for frequent community events across the world. I am going to three in the next two weeks.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I have never redeemed a hotel point. On my own I usually travel in places where the big chains are not available or poor value, and rarely know in advance where I will stay anyway. There are opportunities when my wife and I travel to more tame destinations but it always seems I find a better deal on Priceline. My balances keep increasing so I need to figure out how to use them.
Any parting words?
Decide if miles and points are a means or an end for you.
If they are a means to you, use miles and points to afford travel otherwise unobtainable, but don’t let them be a hard constraint on your imagination. Time is too precious to compromise just to earn or burn miles. You can’t get to Bhutan or North Korea solely on points (though Star Alliance member Air China might have availability to Pyongyang – that would be a legendary award booking!), but you can get to Kathmandu or Beijing and then pay cash for the final leg.
Or stay in a village in the Kathmandu Valley or by the side of the Great Wall for a pittance. Those experiences can be a lot more meaningful than stopping short just because there is a Starwood property in the city with bonus offers. I can’t imagine that a flight or stay at a chain hotel will ever be the highlight of one of my trips.
If miles and points are the end for you, meaning that the personal reward is in the accumulation, then watch A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life annually to remember to be generous to those around you. You don’t want to be known as a miles miser. 😉
Either way, I hope you have a blast.
Stefan – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!