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Recently, I met a local miles and points enthusiast who lives in my same town. She also happens to be a professional travel award booker. I had so many questions for her, and I think our lunch lasted 2-3 hours since we both enjoyed talking about travel so much. I hope you enjoy this interview with Sarah from PointsPros.
When did you start collecting and using miles and points?
I started back in 2012. My first cards were a Southwest Personal and a Southwest Business card to earn the Companion Pass. When I booked my first award flight, and my daughter as a companion, I went through the Dallas Love Field Airport, expecting any second that they would pull me out of line and tell me “No!” that I was mistaken and that there was no such thing as a free flight! I literally could not believe that this could be real! Little did I know how many more times I would be getting on yet another award flight. And to this day, I still have this “is this real?” thought when I walk on the jet bridge onto the plane.
How did you get into this hobby (and line of work)?
I got into the hobby because I desperately wanted to travel. My husband had to travel pretty often for work and all he wanted to do was be home, so we were kind of on opposites ends there. I thought if I just go, he’ll end up wanting to go too, and that is exactly what happened. None of his work travel was luxurious and it was all just on Southwest for the most part. He had earned the Southwest Companion Pass and didn’t even know what it was! By the time I figured it out from reading a million blogs, it had expired.
I learned to book award flights by reading blogs. Lots and lots of blogs. Most of the blogs I liked to read were geared towards more advanced routing and they are all now defunct. I did enjoy just playing on airline websites to see what was possible, too!
From 2012/13 I took a ton of mother/daughter trips all over the US. We went to San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Orlando, etc…And my husband definitely came around to wanting to travel and wanting to earn more points. But it wasn’t until he experienced his first lie flat seat to Europe that really got him hooked and willing to jump through the hoops I laid out as far as our card strategies.
In early 2017, while perusing social media, I saw there was a position available at PointsPros. As part of the application, I had to demonstrate how I would find award space for several different trips with a certain number of points. I had just one day to find the space and make the best use of the points possible while still selecting options that would be comfortable and luxurious. I submitted my search results. A couple of interviews later, and I was hired!
Describe your job as a travel award booker. How does it work? Who are your typical customers? What is the cost?
Our typical customer is not really in the points and miles world per se. They are usually business owners who earn plenty of points but don’t really have the time to figure out how to use them. Usually they are referred to us by their friend or co-worker and often they are using just one card. But, we also offer card consultations and recommend a card strategy based on their future travel desires.
Clients submit a request specifying a date range and destination along with a list of their points/miles totals. They also specify if they would prefer to use fewer points but have more connections, or if they would prefer to use more miles but have a more direct routing. Our cost varies based on a number of variables, but it starts at $200 per passenger.
Our clients are busy, and they really want us to handle the details from start to finish. We offer very “turn key” service, as I have literally arranged for wheelchairs to be at the ready at the airport for elderly parents for several clients. It’s actually a lot more than just finding the award flight availability. We handle ticketing confirmations, seat assignments, point transfers, etc.
What is the easiest type of awards to book for your clients?
I’m always excited when clients have multiple points/miles currencies to work with because I can make pretty much anything happen when I have options to work with. East coast to Europe is usually pretty easy. I tend to like booking anything that can be put on hold as that is a real issue for us as award bookers. The time lag between clients responding and flights getting away can be really frustrating, so I’m always pumped when there are options that allow me to put it on hold!
What is the most challenging award to book?
New Zealand and Australia can be tough. Also, West Coast to Europe direct or with only one connection is so, so hard. Especially during certain times of the year, like in May around the Cannes Film Fest, going from LA to France can be tough. And in September and October, getting to Germany for a reasonable number of points can be a bit tougher when Oktoberfest is happening. Of course, all that is a bit different in a Covid world, but normally those have been tough.
What is your favorite miles and points currency and why?
Man that’s tough, too because I kinda love them all! For nostalgia, I am still grateful to Southwest for getting me started, and given that I live in Dallas, they are often still a good fit for some of my travel needs.
For partner awards, I love AA miles. The partners are excellent and they can be put on hold. But, I wish they had a real (permanent) transfer partner as far as earning flexible currency points goes.
I love Alaska for the super fun awards you can book with them, but they’re not always very practical for booking clients with as a lot of the availability is so last minute.
For hotels, I’m in love with Chase UR points, because I’ve enjoyed Hyatt so much and my husband has Globalist status.
What advice do you have for newbies looking to book with miles and points on their own?
My advice is to read a lot. But don’t be like me and read blogs for a year before actually believing in it enough to jump in.
Be organized from the beginning. Back when I started, there weren’t rules for applying for cards, so keeping up with dates of when you got what wasn’t that important.
Figure out what flights exist at your local airport, and figure out a few trips you might want to book in the future.Chase the points and miles that work best for those trips.
The key is to be flexible. I have several trips in mind at any given time. If I can’t find the award availability that I need, I either pivot to another trip on the list, or I look for availability from another city. I’ve booked plenty of trips from Houston and Chicago that had better and cheaper award flight availability in lie flat seats for international itineraries.
What are some of your personal favorite trips that you’ve booked with your own miles and points?
I’ve enjoyed them all honestly! But a crazy one that I did in 2019 was Dallas to San Francisco on Alaska, then San Francisco to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific in business. We got off the plane at like 8AM, stored our luggage at the HKG Airport luggage storage area, toured Hong Kong for the day and then got back to the airport at like 5PM, took showers in the Cathay Lounge and took another business class flight on Cathay Pacific to Auckland, New Zealand. We enjoyed 3 days in New Zealand that were just incredible! Then we took a quick flight on Qantas to Sydney. Spent several days in Sydney and tried out the Intercontinental Sydney (meh) and the spectacular Park Hyatt Sydney!
We then took a Japan Airlines flight in business class to Tokyo! Enjoyed 3 days there and flew Japan Airlines business class back to San Francisco. And then the luxury came to an end and we took good ole Southwest back to Dallas. We flew over 28,000 miles in like 10 or 11 days, and half our nights were spent in lie flat business class! It was intense, a little impetuous and so so fun!
Another special trip was an epic 40th birthday trip around France that I did with my BFF a few years ago. We spent 9 days driving and flying all around the country and stayed at some amazing hotels. Air France business class was wonderful! Actually, that’s a great example of booking from Houston instead of Dallas because Houston required a third as many points as the same Air France product out of Dallas. So we took a one hour flight on AA for $75 to get to Houston, gave ourselves plenty of buffer time and hung out in the lounge for several hours until it was time to board.
Without points and miles, I could have never jetted off to Europe on a full luxury trip with my best friend or jumped around Asia and Oceania with my husband or have done so many of the incredible trips I’ve been on with my kids. I am forever grateful to this “hobby” for all of the special experiences and memories it has afforded me!
Thank you, Sarah!
Nancy lives near Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three kids. Her favorite vacations include the beach, cruising and everything Disney.