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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: Traveling Well For Less
Debbie has been collecting miles since 1994 and writes Traveling Well for Less, so I was looking forward to our Friday chat!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
We spent two weeks in Australia and Tahiti in 1994; the travel agent enrolled us in the American Airlines AAdvantage program. Once my credit card became linked to the account, my obsession with AAdvantage miles began.
During the Kellogg’s cereal days (250 American Airlines miles for each box) after the 20th box of cereal my husband banned me from buying any more cereal. I couldn’t convince him that the cost was worth it. No one I knew shared my obsession with miles and I didn’t find Flyertalk until 2009.
When I started collecting I focused exclusively on airline miles, primarily American, but I’ve dabbled in United, Delta, and US Airways. I’m late to the points game.
I’ve only been collecting points since 2009, I met another FlyerTalker on a mileage run to Dublin (Los Angeles – Dublin was $325 roundtrip, all inclusive) who convinced me to get an American Express Starwood card and quit writing checks to Costco.
Now I have points coming out the wazoo. Or is it wazaa because I’m a girl?
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I created the travel blog for my published travel articles which need to be reworked before posting on Traveling Well For Less.
Friends and family were always asking “You’re going to Europe for the weekend?” “Where are you traveling now?” “How do you travel for so cheap?”
One of my cousins would love to travel more. She pays cash for everything. The blog is my way to show her how she can travel for “free” from mile and point earning credit cards.
Since accumulating miles played a large part in how and why I can travel as often and inexpensively as I do, I decided to add that content to Traveling Well For Less.
Traveling Well For Less isn’t special. Let’s be honest, my travel blog is just another travel blog talking about miles, points and travel. Naturally, I hope people, other than just friends and family, will read and enjoy Traveling Well For Less for my writing.
Unlike the other travel bloggers: 1) No one is bankrolling my travel. While I can write-off some things, a write-off doesn’t equate to a tax credit so there is still a cost involved. 2) In addition to traveling alone, I also travel with my family. My kids are teenagers so we have to travel during the summer and school holidays aka peak season.
Traveling during peak season can be done quite frugally, even to Hawaii in July. (Watch for these posts in the upcoming months on Traveling Well For Less.)
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Stop using cash. Put all your spending on mile and point earning credit cards.
I put everything I can on credit cards, even if there is a fee involved. But the fee has to be minimal. For instance, my water company charges a $4.95 fee to pay by credit card. Our water bill is about $150 every two months. This breaks down to a cost of a little over 3 cpm (cents per mile) to earn 154 miles every two months.
I haven’t used Chargesmart to pay my mortgage because with the fee it would bring my cost per mile to over 10 cents. The cost per mile is not worth it plus I’m too paranoid about paying my bills on time to chance a late payment.
With the exception of those 20 boxes of Kellogg’s cereal, a failed attempt at American Airlines shopping when it was first launched (my miles never posted), and linking my American Airlines number to rental cars and hotel stays, I didn’t manufacture spend to earn miles.
In 2007, I reached Lifetime Gold status with American Airlines with less than 20,000 miles flown each year.
Last year, I crossed the 2 million miles threshold with American Airlines and earned Lifetime Platinum status. But by that time I had been reading Flyertalk for two years and started doing mileage runs to earn Executive Platinum status.
And it won’t be long before I reach 3 million miles with American Airlines.
But I’m ready to stop being monogamous and have an affair.
Having all my miles in the OneWorld basket limits my travel. So I’ve been actively earning miles in the Star Alliance. Sssh, don’t tell American…
How did I do it? I’m not a trust fund baby, nor do we have an outrageous lifestyle, and I hate wasting money. I simply put all my spending for my both personal and my businesses on AA linked credit cards.
While the glory days of earning lifetime miles on American Airlines from credit card spend is gone, you still earn miles. It doesn’t make sense to spend cash when you can earn miles and points by using a credit card.
Why leave miles and points on the table?
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
My most memorable travel experience using miles was taking my mom on a cruise in 2005.
In early 2004, my mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Small cell Lung Cancer that had metastasized (spread) to her brain. After brain surgery she was given a 4 months to live.
We sought a second opinion and transferred her care to M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. While they would not give us a life expectancy, their care and treatment allowed us to have 2 years post diagnosis with my mom.
It was a lifelong dream of my mom’s to take a Mediterranean cruise. However, by the time she was able to travel so far it was out of season for Mediterranean cruises that the two of us went on an Eastern Caribbean cruise instead.
I surprised my mom and used miles for First Class tickets to Florida. She thought we were boarding early under the “people who need extra help” and was completely shocked when I pointed to our seats in row 3.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
My friends think I’m crazy:
“You’re flying to Shanghai by yourself?” (A mileage run to Shanghai last year coincided with the Shanghai DO.)
“You’re meeting a bunch of people you’ve never met over the internet? This is like the stories you hear where someone winds up dead.”
But they have no qualms coming to me when they want advice on traveling.
My family says they are embarrassed:
When I did my first mileage runs in 2009, my husband would do trades so someone was home with the kids. “How am I supposed to I explain that I need a trade so my wife could fly to Munich for the weekend?” Now I just book mileage runs on days he’s not working.
My oldest was “completely embarrassed” when I picked him up in a new car every day for the first two weeks of school. (I rented for a little over two weeks straight during this summer’s 3,000 American Airlines miles for a one day car rental from Avis.)
“My mom made us drive six hours to Fresno so we could sleep in a hotel.” My youngest was explaining to his soccer coach why he wasn’t able to play in a game one weekend.
But they love traveling. Although, the kids think they should fly in First instead of coach.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
The tool or trick that I’ve found useful is being organized. Of course if you looked at my office you’d think, “What? She’s organized?” Yes, piles can be your friend.
I put everything in my calendar on my Mac and iPhone such as payment dates for credit cards and when to pull a credit report (in California we get a free credit report from each credit bureau every year so I pull one every 4 months from each credit bureau).
I use a simple Excel spreadsheet to track my miles and points.
Know the terms and benefits of your miles and points earning cards. Example, 5x at office supply stores with Chase Ink Bold and 3x on travel with American Express to name a few. Strategically use the card that will give you the most miles or points when you make your purchases.
It’s like the mantra “work smarter, not harder.” I look at it as “earn miles and points smarter, not harder.”
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
This is a hard one because I’m kinda anal or as I like to call it “particular” about my obsession and I can’t recall a time that I’ve unexpectedly earned miles or points.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I don’t like to think about the dumb things I did or didn’t do, but it would have been:
a) Nice to have known about Flyertalk long before 2009.
b) More lucrative had I not been afraid of the “deals”.
1) I hesitated on the coins and lost out on a tremendous opportunity.
2) Last year I applied for a credit card strictly for the sign up bonus. I wasn’t sure what the impact on my credit would be so I was hesitant to do so in the past. But I met someone at the Shanghai DO (Thanks, Ray!) who convinced me that signup bonuses were the way to go.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
Despite outward appearances, I’m an introvert. I’m shy and reserved until I get to know someone. In social situations I have to really push myself to go up to someone new. Either that or be fueled by liquid courage and then all inhibitions are gone.
Among the miles and points community, I’ve only told two people that I blog: I met another blogger at the first FTU in April and when he showed me his blog, I shared that I too had a blog. The second time was at the Chicago Seminars this year. Either I’m not big on self promotion or it’s a fear of rejection.
So, if we’re at a DO together and I don’t introduce myself, please do me a favor and come up to me and introduce yourself. Especially if you will be attending the FTU (Frequent Traveler University) in November.
Any parting words?
While sometimes the content will be the same, there might be a different spin on it. Or one blogger might add more details. But remember, you don’t have to read every post on a blog. It’s ok to skip posts. We know you do…
Attend DOs, whether it’s the Chicago Seminars, Frequent Traveler University (FTU), or a city DO. You’ll meet others who share your passion and learn more than you can imagine both in the sessions and while networking with others during meals and after hours.
Don’t be afraid to maximize your miles and points, but only do the things you feel comfortable doing.
Sometimes deals come around again. Be patient. Don’t live your life with regret for not having done something. There’s a reason why you didn’t participate the first time. Take advantage of those opportunities when it’s right for you and not because everyone else is doing it.
Debbie– Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!