I’ve decided to add a feature to my blog where I occasionally interview readers. I honestly think it’s beneficial for our tiny “Miles for Family” community to see how various folks are navigating this crazy hobby. I’ve said before that most of my readers are way smarter than me. Well, Erik is definitely one of those! He has contributed a lot of valuable insights over the last few years. And this interview is no different.
Erik’s travel style is a bit different from mine. He mentioned before that he likes it when hotels have L’occitane and Cremo Cream brands, which I can only assume refers to some fancy yogurt? 🙂
Image courtesy of Aduldej at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Sometimes I think he reads my blog just so he can feel better about his own travel choices! All joking aside, there is absolutely nothing wrong with splurging on nicer accommodations and spending more to make sure your family is having a good time.
Without further ado:
1) What motivated you to research miles and points hobby?
I was a corporate road warrior for a little over a decade. Nearly all of that travel was flying to transatlantic or transpacific destinations in business class, so consequently I was earning butt-in-seat miles by the bucketload, faster than I could reasonably spend them. Seriously, there was one destination that I visited 5-7 times per year that earned me around 40K miles per trip, due to class-of-service and elite status multipliers. Promos were just icing on the cake.
Delta had a couple of promos around 2003-2005 where they gave you a free economy ticket voucher good for “anywhere in the world where Delta flies” (on Delta metal) when you bought a business class ticket. I earned 6 of them and ended up giving 2 away to family because I couldn’t use them all within the defined redemption period. I stayed in nice hotels too, so I had top status and reasonably healthy balances, but it always seemed like hotel points had a higher burn rate.
Like any multiple elite member with good credit, I was constantly showered with offers for miles and points credit cards. But I ignored them because they didn’t make sense to me – why pay an annual fee to get more miles/points when I already had more than I could use? I was a cash-back guy and quite happy with the old no-fee Amex Platinum Cash Back (which became old Blue Cash) and Discover. Using those cards to pay for reimbursable business travel expenses gave me tons of extra cash that I could use towards the non-award areas of my leisure travels.
Then a couple of things happened during the last few years of my corporate travel period. We had two kids. Then the business travel started to slow down – and when I mean slow, it went from 150K-200K average miles per year to something around 100K. I discovered View from the Wing, which introduced me to the miles/points hacker world and convinced me that paying an annual fee could make sense to acquire miles that would supplement what I had lost from reduced butt-in-seat flying.
Obviously, his blog also led me to more blogs with other perspectives on the hobby. I realized that I needed a different strategy to continue earning miles/points if I had any hope of showing my new family around the world. About 4 years ago, the business travel effectively stopped.
2) How has this hobby benefitted your family so far?
We have taken some pretty amazing family trips and so far it has probably worked out better than I had expected. My kids are in grade school and they have already visited four continents. They do have a greater awareness of the world and some of the wonderful differences (they encountered their first Asian-style squat toilet last month, LOL). They also see international travel as normal behavior – why can’t we go see the Great Wall tomorrow or next week? – and I’m like, “That will take a bit of effort, we can add it to the family bucket list for some time in the future.”
3) What’s your favorite trip that was made possible solely due to miles and points?
I view miles/points as more of a discount mechanism that allows me to reallocate my vacation budget money to other areas (i.e. activities, attractions, unique experiences, more luxurious or spacious accommodations, nice restaurants, etc.) It’s rare that we have a trip that is 100% “free” due to miles/points. Most of the time I will use miles for the airfare, unless I score an inexpensive or mistake fare.
Our lodging might be fully or partially covered by points, but it depends on the options and destination. I’m not the type of person to restrict myself only to places that have chain hotels bookable on points. Even when hotels are available, I may choose to pay cash if the point prices for a family of 4 are outrageous. For example, in Paris we rented a 2 BDR apartment rather than waste a bunch of points on two hotel rooms for 5 nights.
Probably our closest “nearly free” miles/points trip was a 2.5 week vacation that we took to visit southwest England, London, and Spain’s Costa del Sol. I booked 4 economy award tickets on Delta for 240K SkyMiles and used the stopover feature (now gone) to fly from London to Málaga, Spain on the return flight. We used several Marriott Megabonus free night certificates for properties in Swindon (base for exploring the cute towns in the Cotswolds) and Portsmouth (visiting areas near the southern coast – including Peppa Pig World!).
I used an IHG free night certificate at the Holiday Inn Express in Bath, which ironically had no bathtub – only a shower! I burned 290K Marriott points for a “nights & flights” redemption which gave me 50K miles back plus 7 nights at the excellent London Marriott County Hall during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Since I was also a Gold Elite, we had lounge access and that saved some money due to free breakfast, drinks, and evening snacks/desserts. However, the “free” streak was broken in Spain when I booked a studio apartment for 4 nights at a timeshare property. For only €53/night, that was too good of a deal, and we could save the points and use them somewhere else.
It is unlikely that our family would have visited Australia and SE Asia without miles. The one-way door-to-door travel time from our home is 24+ hours and the transpacific segments alone were over 15 hours. We usually travel in economy, but for those trips, I booked business class. Remember those Delta “anywhere we fly” vouchers that I earned? My younger self had this brilliant idea (not!) to pick somewhere far away to maximize the value but forgot to consider flight duration.
One of our flight segments was Atlanta to Tokyo. Even though it was a brand-new 777 and we had economy exit row seats with a few feet of legroom to stretch out, my wife and I still felt it was not a comfortable ride for 15 hours. That flight was 12 years ago and I vowed never to fly that long in economy again.
4) How often do you think about miles and points?
Besides planning trips? When I’m making a purchase. I’m always thinking how I can maximize the miles/points/cashback using a particular card and figuring out how to make it even better by stacking other discounts/promotions. That is one skill that I significantly improved after reading miles/points and deal blogs.
5) What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done to earn miles or points?
Paying medical bills – yes, having a baby can earn you miles/points. If you have an HSA or FSA account, most programs will allow you to file a claim to get reimbursed for medical expenses made with other forms of payment besides the HSA/FSA vendor’s own debit card.
I knew the related bills for childbirth after insurance payments were going to be a few thousand – perfect for meeting the spend requirements for a signup bonus! I was approved for some card with a $2K or $3K bonus requirement. Received/paid the bills and filed the claim for reimbursement. I had my money back before the first credit card bill showed up!
6) Did your wife ever threaten you with divorce if you make her switch yet another card?
No, she’s cool with the game because she enjoys the end result. I basically rotate the cards in her wallet depending on the current goal and label any card that should be used for a specific purpose (i.e. “Use only at Costco and Restaurants”).
7) Do you ever wish you’ve never found miles and points hobby? Why/why not?
No regrets. It does make it difficult to share your experiences with local people who are not into the hobby. They ask you about your vacation and “how did you do that”? You start to passionately explain and then most of the time their eyes just glaze over.
8) I’ve noticed that your kids are quite young, yet you take them to faraway, exotic places on a regular basis. Any tips for families who have the miles but are too nervous to do it?
Before we leave, we try to find some children’s books relevant to the destination that we are visiting to get them interested. Bring things to entertain them on the plane – we take iPads and coloring materials. Don’t make a heavily structured itinerary and make sure you factor in jet lag. Instead, prioritize a list of things to see/do and then go with the flow depending on their daily mood.
Accept that you may not hit everything on your list (that’s why you prioritize). Increase your chances of success by incorporating kid-friendly activities (research the attractions’ web sites or search local mom sites at your destination for ideas). Or invent your own – when we visit art museums, we try to find a brochure or guidebook that has pictures of the “greatest hits” – show those to your kid and let them hunt for the art.
Make sure you pack band-aids, children’s pain reliever (we prefer chewable), and maybe some PediaLyte (get the single serving powder packs to put in bottles of water). Of course, you can find this stuff in most countries, but when your kid scrapes their knee, do you really want to spend time locating a pharmacy?
9) You’ve been reading my blog for a few years. What is one piece of advice I regularly give that you strongly disagree with?
Strongly disagree is a little too strong. We agree on a lot of points. I will say that I’m not a fan of Chase Sapphire Preferred, since I don’t think the value proposition is there for the average person after the first year, even when paired with the old Freedom (I think it only makes sense if you can consistently max out the 5x quarterly categories). I’m also not a fan of second-tier hotel programs like Club Carlson, Choice, Wyndham, etc. Most of their properties and programs just don’t appeal to me, based on past experience.
10) If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is just starting out in this hobby, what would it be?
Have a realistic goal, but be flexible in your options to achieve that goal and know your financial limits. By realistic goal, I mean “A week in Hawaii for Christmas” might be a bit harder to achieve than “A week in Hawaii when the kids are out of school.”
If you are not highly disciplined with your spending habits, you can get yourself in trouble. I’d recommend starting a vacation fund if you don’t already have one – you never know, a flash sale or mistake fare could occur and maybe you can achieve your goal with a cheap ticket! Follow @airfarewatchdog, @theflightdeal, and @secretflying on Twitter and enable notifications to hear about airfare deals.
First of all, huge thanks to Erik for agreeing to this interview! I do have an objection, though. How did I become an apologist for Chase Sapphire Preferred? I’ve always said it’s worth getting for the sign-up bonus, but whether or not one should renew it is debatable. Just ask Gary Leff from VFTW blog, he’ll tell you. Also, am I the only one with a spouse who hates miles and points?
Click here to view various credit cards and available sign-up bonuses
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.
Great tip 🙂
“I basically rotate the cards in her wallet depending on the current goal and label any card that should be used for a specific purpose (i.e. “Use only at Costco and Restaurants”).”
Great interview! I admire you for traveling with your kids to distant places–I’m not quite there yet!
Using the birth of a child to maximize miles and points earning.
You, sir, are my hero.
It’s interesting how different our approaches are. I opt for the Northern portion of the Western Hemisphere while you keep the entire globe in the consideration set.
It sounds like work travel is a spark we share as far as what got us into thinking about redeeming points for travel. What % of your miles/points are from actual flying?
Oh no, you wouldn’t want to eat Cremo Cream. It’s a concentrated shaving cream that is great for travel…you squeeze a dime-to-nickel sized amount in your hand, massage it into your beard/face (which you’ve already prepped with hot water), and it magically lathers up.
On the labeling, I use the top 1/4 inch of a sticky note. That is sticky enough to stay flush with the card, but removes easily after quarterly categories have expired. I do it for myself too, for those times when I’m not working on a signup bonus and just want to pick the right card that is beneficial for a specific purchase. I need to do something similar with Amex offers, since have several of their cards, but sometimes forget which card has the particular offer. Then I use the wrong card (or forget to use an offer when I should) that leaves free money on the table. The challenge is that the Amex offers are constantly appearing and expiring, so you need to keep it updated – maybe the “note” feature on a smartphone is better suited for that task.
I “retired” from corporate travel with about 700K in Delta SkyMiles and almost 600K in a European program. When Delta started down the path to the dark side of loyalty programs in 2013 – the first devaluation – I felt (correctly, in hindsight) that one of my dream trips was in jeopardy. Literally days after the announcement, I booked the trip to Australia. Because my travel dates straddled the before/after devaluation, it cost me 620K Skymiles (vs. the 600K it would have cost if I had a booked a week earlier). The funniest thing is that the international business class segments from LAX to/from Australia were readily available on Virgin Australia. The toughest part was finding Delta domestic availability to LAX – we ended up finding economy seats from a nearby city. In my opinion, 4-5 hours in coach was OK for me to connect to the transpacific segments in business.
I still have the butt-in-seat miles and status (!) in the European program, The interesting part is that I have definitely earned more than a million miles since my “retirement”, via signup bonuses, spending, and shopping portals. I don’t have the spare time to do MS, I only take advantage of the occasional promo opportunity when it makes sense for my personal ROI. This year I burned 440K AA miles to get 4 roundtrip business class tickets to SE Asia and none of those miles came from butt-in-seat. Ironically, while this trip was on my radar, I had not planned to do it this year. But when AA announced their devaluation and they magically opened up award space in February, I jumped on it. I am a very opportunistic traveler. If award space or a cheap/mistake fare appears for a place that I’d like to go, and I can make it work, I’ll probably go for it.
I used to use a label maker. My labels usually said “spend $3000”. I don’t worry about removing the label bc once we hit spending requirements the card went into a file cabinet! But Sharpies worked well also! No label or post-it required!
@Leana – I imagine it’s the hobby he loves to hate right? ;).
@Amanda Yup, my husband loves to hate on the hobby. But he isn’t as vocal about it anymore. He kind of gave up! It’s just not his thing.