“This Hobby Provides Me the Equivalent of a $20,000 per Year Raise”

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Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers. Welcome to the next installment of our interview series where folks share their thoughts about Big Travel with Small Money!

Miles & Points Interview:  Travel Miles 101

Alexi Zemsky and Brad Barrett write Travel Miles 101 to show folks how to earn and redeem miles the easy way.

They offer a free 15-day email course to get you up to speed on the basics of both earning and redeeming travel miles & points.  And as part of the course, they offer members access to a private Facebook group community with over 2,000 members.

And they say the combined knowledge of their graduates in this group is an excellent resource for crowdsourcing answers to specific questions.  It’s a safe place for people to ask questions and share successes and frustrations as they learn more about travel rewards.
Travel Miles 101 - Interview With Alexi And Brad
View from the Infinity Pool at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess in Bermuda

How and when did you start collecting miles and points?

Brad:  I started in 2011 with the British Airways Visa Signature® Card when it had a 100,000 Avios points bonus.  We live in Richmond, Virginia, but we’re from Long Island, New York, and fly to New York City to visit family a lot.

So we used the miles from that one card to book 11 round-trip flights from Richmond to New York – LaGuardia on US Airways and American Airlines.  That card saved us over $4,000 in flights!

Alexi:  I started playing ‘the miles game’ in 2013 when my youngest son became old enough to require a purchased ticket for our yearly visits to my in-laws in Japan.  Purchasing 5 full-price tickets set me back about $8,000.  I just figured there had to be a better way.  Sites like Million Mile Secrets quickly taught me that there really was!
Travel Miles 101 - Interview With Alexi And Brad
Enjoying a NEARLY Free Vacation with Friends

Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?

Alexi:  It’s funny that the seed for our collaboration was actually planted back in 2013 when we were both featured on the Million Mile Secrets Friday interview series in back-to-back weeks!

Since we both had personal finance blogs focused on early retirement and travel rewards, we naturally made a quick connection over social media, and really just nurtured a collaborative professional relationship and friendship from there.

We both contributed to each other’s blogs and constantly bounced ideas off each other, and at the end of 2014 we decided to create our one-of-a-kind, friendly “zero to hero” course for people who wanted an organized way of learning the ins-and-outs of this hobby without having to personally deconstruct all of FlyerTalk and the blogosphere.

What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?

Brad:  This is pretty easy and will be of no surprise to Million Mile Secrets readers:  Open rewards credit cards with large signup bonuses.  Simple as that.

What’s your most memorable travel experience?

Brad:  While it’s hard to choose between trips to Hawaii, Bermuda, Japan, backpacking across Europe and all that good stuff, I would actually pick the trip where we took our two young daughters to Walt Disney World.
Travel Miles 101 - Interview With Alexi And Brad
Brad and Family on Vacation

It was amazing to see them experience the wonders of Disney for the first time.  And being able to do the entire trip for nearly free on points made it that much better.

Alexi:  It’s funny, for me too, the best vacations are not always the most lavish or exotic (though those are great too).  Sometimes a family car trip up to Vancouver to eat Shanghainese soup dumplings day after day is about as good as it gets!
Travel Miles 101 - Interview With Alexi And Brad
Dumplings at Alexi’s Favorite Spot in Vancouver

One thing I will say, though, is that having a nice stash of miles and points is never more valuable than when there is an unexpected family emergency requiring last-minute travel arrangements.  Last summer my wife needed to fly home to Kyoto, Japan, twice when a family member got sick.  Being able to book those flights without worrying about finances was the ultimate luxury.

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

Brad:  They love it because of all the free trips they are taking thanks to the information I share with them!  Like most people, even my close friends were skeptical at the outset, but as they’ve seen the list of trips we’ve taken for nearly free grow, we’re converting more people to this way of life.

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

Alexi:  One tool I love to use (and which is perhaps a surprising confession from someone like me) is award booking services.  Fortunately, as a perk for our Travel Miles 101 students, we were able to shop around and find an amazing miles expert and award booker.  He gives our graduates access to his services for an astonishingly low price per ticket booked.

It’s such an amazing deal that honestly, I rarely book my own international tickets anymore.

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

Alexi:  It’s always a nice surprise to see that you’ve earned some extra miles by using your enrolled credit card to buy a meal at a restaurant that participates in one of the airline dining programs.

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

Brad:  One thing I have learned about from Alexi since we started this course, was how to use creative spending techniques to transform items that could not be bought with credit cards (such as mortgage payments) into items that could be purchased with credit cards, and for minimal cost.  This lets us put nearly 100% of our expenses on credit cards so we can earn even more miles.
Travel Miles 101 - Interview With Alexi And Brad
Alexi and Family on Vacation in Vancouver
Alexi:  And the one of the many things that Brad has really taught me in the past couple of years was the importance of utilizing award chart “sweet spots,” such as using British Airways Avios points to book short haul flights with Alaska Airlines on the West Coast, which have saved me quite a number of miles on redemptions.

What would your readers be surprised to know about you?

Brad:  I think readers would be surprised to know that although I still keep extremely busy with entrepreneurial activities, like running my website and our Travel Miles 101 community, I resigned from my day job as a CPA last year; years of frugal spending habits and aggressive saving have moved us close enough to financial independence to pursue this type of early “retirement” from the corporate world. Alexi:  And I think that readers would be surprised to know that I am very much not retired!  I work full-time as a cardiac electrophysiologist (a heart doctor who specializes in arrhythmias).

Any parting words?

Brad:  I think the main thing is that this hobby is one of those things that appears complicated at first glance, but is actually quite simple once you get into it and understand the mechanics.  We’ve made it our goal to use our online course help people to systematically overcome their fears and start booking the travels of their dreams for nearly free. Alexi:  That is 100% true, and another thing that people often miss is just how valuable this hobby is.  For moderate-income people, leveraging smart credit card spending can allow you to travel places that would otherwise be completely out of reach.  And for high-income people, a detail that is often missed is just how tax efficient using miles for travel really is.  I calculate that this hobby ends up providing me the equivalent of a $20,000 a year raise pretax.

Both Brad and I feel incredibly lucky to be using our online course to help people to add such value to their life, and for free.

Alexi and Brad – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!

If you’d like to be considered for our interview series, please send me a note!

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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