Update: These offers for the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® and the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express have expired. Learn more about the current offers here.
Update: Hilton has revamped their co-branded credit card products, and the cards mentioned in this post are no longer available. You can find information on the new Hilton credit cards here.
Probably the question I’m asked more than any other is “how do you afford to travel so much?” That’s a reasonable question, and I tend to think I’m fairly transparent as to how I pay for each individual trip.
Anyway, early last year I wrote a post entitled “How Many Miles Did I Earn In 2013?” and by popular demand I figured I’d write a similar post for 2014, hopefully to give you guys some insight into what my earn/burn rates look like.
Background info and disclosures
First some basics, since the below seems to cause quite a bit of confusion for some…
My travel is self-funded
On the very rare occasion that I am on a press trip or other type of “comped” event it’s fully disclosed.
Beyond that, I disclose how my trips were paid for even when they’re self funded. In the introduction post to each trip report I provide an exact breakdown of how many miles each award ticket costs.
I spend a high percentage of my income on travel
And I always have. I love airports, flying, new cities, etc., and travel-related costs have always eaten up much of my disposable income.
Beyond that, in 2014 I traded the sixteen or so weeks a year that I was actually in my apartment for living in hotels full-time. Previously I wasn’t splitting costs with a roommate or anything, so by giving up paying rent, utilities, my car payment, insurance, etc., I’m conservatively saving $20k per year, which gives me much more leeway than I’m used to having.
Not to mention having access to much better gyms
I also think I’m pretty transparent about not having real expenses outside of travel. If you’ve met me in person more than once I was likely wearing the same outfit both times — I live out of a carry-on and just don’t spend much on non-travel items nowadays.
I don’t earn and burn at the same rate
I certainly try to, and one of the ways I hedge against devaluations is by trying to never have more miles in a single account than I could reasonably redeem with six months notice.
But I only have so much time, and I’m not going to redeem miles if purchasing a flight would make more sense. I also have a stockpile of miles from previous years when I wasn’t in a position to travel as much as I do now.
I have a lot of reimbursable expenses
This isn’t uncommon, but seems downright magical to some. I generally charge between $100k-$150k of airfare for other people each year. That typically translates to around 400,000 additional points split between Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards.
I know many other small business owners that charge much more than that each year between inventory and vendor expenses, but understand not everyone is in the position of having reimbursable expenses. But it’s a good thing I do, given my only “fixed” expenses nowadays are health insurance and my season pass to Real Housewives.
I’m “traveling” not “vacationing”
I’m incredibly fortunate to have the flexibility to not be limited in the amount of time I can spend traveling, so my hope is that by sampling as many different products as possible, I can help those of you with limited vacation time make the most of your trips.
I’m also not suggesting anyone travel at the pace I do. It’s not sustainable, even for me. I’ve flown an average of 1,500 miles a day for the past eight weeks, and can’t tell you how excited I am to go to be at my mom’s house this week and sleep.
But blogging about airlines/hotels is also my absolute favorite thing I’ve ever done. The most relaxing part of my day is when I put my phone on silent and close all my internet browsers except the WordPress one, and just start writing. I pinch myself every day for the fact that the “core” of my job is also the highlight of my day and what I enjoy doing most.
Writing this blog is one of the ways in which I make a living
The two things I do for a living are blogging and travel consulting. My goal is to review as many products as possible so that I can dish out the most useful/educated advice.
I’m not creative enough to write about destinations I’ve never been to or flights I have no intention of taking. So in order to generate content for this blog, I travel. I fly amazing products (and products that are a different kind of amazing). I stay in great hotels, and in some not-so-great ones. And sharing my thoughts on those experiences is what drives traffic to this site, which is what pays for more travel.
As an example, when I posted the first pictures of Etihad’s inaugural A380 flight, that blog post received ten times more traffic than any other post I’ve written in the past seven years. I spent actual money to get on that flight, and it was absolutely worth it.
Travel isn’t free. Period.
Unlike others I’m not making a claim that travel is “free” or costs “just pennies,” though I certainly respect that approach.
At the absolute minimum you’re paying airline taxes, and in reality you’re probably sometimes paying annual fees on credit cards, airline fuel surcharges on award tickets, and airline ticketing fees. Beyond that, it’s often not practical to cover all aspects of a trip on miles, because it’s simply not an efficient redemption.
So I’m not trying to lead people to believe they can consistently travel the world for free; it’s not something I believe to be the case, and I hope it’s not an impression people get.
I certainly do believe you can travel the world at a great discount compared to what other people pay, or my preferred method is paying less for a first class and five star vacation than most people pay for a “budget” trip. That’s what I’ve been helping myself and my family to do for nearly ten years now, and I truly believe it’s possible for everyone to experience luxury travel with a bit of commitment and creativity.
Rather, my hope is that every trip I take is attainable to anyone willing to put in the effort to earn the miles and spend a bit on taxes, cash co-pays, etc.
I (sorta) have a life outside of this blog
I realize I’ve set myself up for criticism here by being relatively transparent about my life and travel (and by openly sharing my love of Hello Kitty). It seems some people think that I write about every minute of my day — which is sometimes true.
But when I travel, particularly when traveling solo, I spend every spare minute I have outside exploring. For me, that’s my free time, the time where I can relax.
I do work a lot, because I love what I do, and my passion for this hobby impacts much of my routine. So unlike every other aspect of my trips, when I’m outside wandering a city I’m not taking notes, I’m (mostly) not taking pictures, and I don’t have an agenda. What’s relaxing to me is how mentally freeing it is, that I’m not having to document and review every moment.
Sunset from a beach in Bali
So I’m never going to write a ton of destination-focused posts. And if I have a really meaningful local experience I might not write about that either, as having to “review” the moment might take some of the magic away for me.
And unless something absolutely nuts happens en route, I’m not going to write about economy flights on an MD-80 between Dallas and Chicago. I suspect most of us know what that’s like, and it’s just not something I find interesting to write (or read) about.
Really though, I actually appreciate that people seem to be so concerned about how I fund my travel or what I do while I’m there. You don’t see comments like that on bigger “corporate” blogs, and I’m grateful that people care enough to call me out. I wish some people would read a post or two prior to doing so, but you can’t have everything. 😉
With all that out of the way:
Where the heck do my miles come from?
The answer is pretty much the same as last year (and every year); a combination of credit card churning, flying, strategically purchasing miles, and taking advantage of every promotion out there.
I’m going to give round numbers in the interest of keeping things more simple, and because I know the peanut gallery will have a field day
if I try to be specific and make an arithmetic error regardless.
In round numbers, I accrued just shy of three million miles last year.
600,000+ from credit card welcome bonuses
I applied, was approved, and earned the welcome bonus on the following cards last year:
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card (three personal, one business)
- Citi Executive® / AAdvantage® World EliteTM Mastercard® (x2)
- The US Airways® Premier World Mastercard®
- Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa Card
- IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card
- Ink Plus® Business Credit Card
- Ink Bold® Business Charge Card
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express OPEN
Beyond that, I earned another ~100,000 miles from anniversary and threshold bonuses on cards I kept from the previous year. This includes 40,000 anniversary points from my Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature® Card, a 10,000 point rebate on my Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® (unfortunately, no longer a benefit of this card as of 2019), etc.
That’s not even counting the value of the free hotel nights from my Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, Hyatt Credit Card, or IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card.
650,000+ from purchases, promos, and portals
Some will probably laugh at how low this number is, but the reality is I don’t have time to travel and triple-dip on every purchase. I do try though.
As I mentioned above I have about $150k in reimbursable expenses each year, which combined with my own spending shakes out to about 650k points, once category and threshold bonuses are factored in. The bulk of that spending is split between my Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, which gets 3x points on airfare, and my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which earns 2x points on travel with no foreign transaction fees.
So nearly half of my miles come either directly from credit card bonuses or by leveraging my spending on said cards.
550,000+ from actually flying
People seem to think all my flights are paid for with miles, or that American comps me Executive Platinum status.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and I credited enough flights to American last year to earn over 450,000 AAdvantage miles, factoring in the various promotions and elite bonuses.
I earned another ~100,000 from the flights I credited to Alaska, and then had a handful of flights credited to other programs as well.
500,000+ from hotel stays
This has truly been the greatest perk of living in hotels, in that the points are adding up very quickly on the hotel front.
What many people don’t realize is that many of the major loyalty programs offer elite benefits on award nights, and in some cases elite members can select additional points as a type of “welcome amenity.” This means that even on award nights I’m earning at least a few points.
Hilton is a great example of this, as I haven’t had a single paid stay with them all year. I have Hilton HHonors Diamond status through spend on the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, and stupidly transferred a ton of points to Hilton just before their big devaluation a few years ago.
So almost all of my Hilton stays have either been free weekend nights from the credit card, or Points & Money stays — I’ve spent maybe $750 at Hilton properties this year. However, I’ve earned over 25,000 Hilton HHonors points through elite bonuses, which is more than decent for my backup backup hotel chain.
Living in hotels I’ve also paid for numerous hotel stays, of course, so have earned plenty of points here.
650,000+ in purchased points
In many cases it also makes sense to strategically purchase miles. I’ve done more of that this year in order to finance my premium cabin travel, and this is a tactic that is especially useful for those who can’t take advantage of credit card offers in the US.
This year I purchased the following:
- Alaska Mileage Plan miles
- AviancaTACA LifeMiles
- Club Carlson Gold points
- IHG Rewards
- US Airways Dividend Miles
I generally wouldn’t make speculative purchases unless it’s just a phenomenal deal, but it’s a good option to have under the right circumstances.
I used some of those Club Carlson points in Iceland, for example, and got the second night free by nature of having the Club Carlson credit card. I paid about 0.35 cents each for those points, so spent roughly $77 a night when revenue rates would have otherwise been over $325 a night.
This year so far
The first two weeks of January are actually a great example of how my travel has been lately, and I don’t mind sharing the details.
I’ve flown just over 30,000 miles since the first of the year, with the bulk of that being paid travel from my first mileage run of the year. I also paid for my ticket on the Qatar Airways A350 inaugural, and had a few awards mixed in as well:
Paid travel in red, award travel in blue
I’ve also earned over 50,000 miles from my CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard approval, which combined my other travel, elite bonuses and transatlantic promos means I’ll be earning well over 200,000 AAdvantage miles this month.
I redeemed 40,000 miles for my flights between London and Cairo, and then another 50,000 for my flights from Frankfurt to Tampa, which will still be a net gain for January.
It probably doesn’t matter how many times I say it, but there’s no real secret to how I travel. I certainly don’t expect anyone to want to fly as much as I do, but there is a certain momentum to earning points. Once you get the ball rolling, they accrue much faster than you might expect.
I’ll be sharing more details and my overall plan for 2015 a bit later on, but I do try to be as transparent as possible, so I hope this helps clear up any misconceptions, and maybe inspires some of you to accrue miles in different ways!