First of all tell us the short version of your story.
I’ve always enjoyed traveling, but while I found trips to the Texas Gulf Coast to be affordable, trips to more exotic distant locations were not. Many years ago a friend sent me a link to sign up for Citi’s American AAdvantage MasterCard. Once we got that card my wife and I used it for all our purchases and, before too long, had enough miles for a trip to Hawaii. It may have been in coach, but it was still Hawaii. That was when I first learned the power of building up my miles and points.
A few years later we used Hilton points to spend 10 days at the Hilton Waikola on the Big Island, something we could not have paid for without the points. I was in the swimming pool and overheard two men talking about using miles to travel around the world and one said, “I look at FlyerTalk.com every day and have learned so much from it.” FlyerTalk.com? Never heard of it, but knew I had to check it out. I visited the site that night and that was my introduction to mileage runs, credit card churning, affinity programs, etc. Fabulous vacations were suddenly possible for me. In the past few years we have visited Ireland, Germany, Italy, Hawaii (several times), Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia
What motivated you to start your blog?
I had never given it any thought, but every time I got home from a trip I sent a friend long emails about where I had gone, what I had done, etc. He suggested I start a blog – I said I had no idea what to write about. He replied, “Just write what you are putting in the emails to me!” And that is how Happy Flier began. I never realized where it would go, I even ended up on an episode of Nightline!
What advice do you have for someone looking to apply for an airline miles credit card?
The person needs to be able to answer the question “Why are you applying for this specific card as opposed to any other card?” If they can’t answer that question, they don’t need to be applying for the card. I no longer apply for cards so that I can charge items; I apply to get the specific benefits (usually airline miles or hotel points) that the card offers. Some cards are better than others, offering a larger bonus or greater flexibility. The two cards we use the most are the Starwood American Express and the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
What are your views on the churn and burn tactic where people are mass-applying for credit cards to get the bonuses?
It’s appropriate that “churn and burn” contains the word “burn.” This tactic is like fire which does wonderful things for you like providing light, helping to heat your home, cooking your food etc. But if you abuse it, it can destroy your home and everything you own. This is not something that one should casually do.
Unless you have a high credit rating and are able to pay off all of your purchases at the end of the month, stay away from churn and burn. There are several blogs, such as The Frugal Travel Guy and Million Mile Secrets that offer great suggestions on how to do this the right way such as when you should apply, which cards to apply for, the benefits you will receive, and the affect it can have on your credit rating. If someone does their research, knows what they are doing, and use their cards responsibly, churn and burn can be a great tool.
With many airlines struggling financially, do you think that they will eventually scale back their rewards card offerings?
As the airlines reduce the number of flights, increase their passenger load per flight, benefit from a reduction in fuel costs, and start to use more fuel-efficient aircraft, the bottom lines have improved greatly. Delta Airlines had a net profit of $281 million for the 1st Qtr FY 2014. American Airlines earned over $400 million for the same period. So, the industry is looking much better than it did a few short years ago. The airlines are paid a huge sum of money for the miles they sell to the credit card companies, so they will continue to milk that cash cow as long as they can. The problem is fewer flights result in fewer award seats for the card holders, while the airlines are, at the same time; making it more challenging to earn status (United now includes revenue as part of its elite status requirements instead of just miles). This makes it more difficult for the customer to take advantage of their miles. It used to be easy to get an award seat, but that is no longer the case. See my article on what I went through to get award seats for an upcoming trip to Bali. People will still be able to get their reward card offerings, my concern is whether or not they will be able to use them.
Do you feel that airline credit cards offer superior rewards compared to cash back or other rewards credit cards?
That all depends on the individual and what kind of rewards they want. Some are happy with cash back, I prefer miles and points.
Do you have any tips regarding earning more airline miles?
I believe you need to have a target number of miles in mind and not be earning miles just for the sake of earning them. Some people earn them to acquire airline status; I earn them so that my wife and I can fly in the front of the plane to exotic locations that we would otherwise never visit. Once you have that target in mind it becomes easier to figure out what you need to do to reach it. Maybe you need a few mileage runs or an additional credit card bonus. With its many forums, Flyertalk.com offers many suggestions for people to earn those miles.
How does it feel to fly around the country without ever leaving the terminal?
I just look at it as part of the process and something I need to do to reach my target number of miles. I’ve made connections several times in New York and Boston and really wished that I had had enough time to go into town, but the schedules would not allow it. On the other hand, I have visited Seattle so many times and gone into town (A Mariners game, the Boeing plant) that if I have to sit at SeaTac for a few hours it’s not a problem for me. I already know which airport restaurant to visit for great seafood. I am Admirals Club member, so can relax at the Club if need be. I bring my iPhone and tablet so I always have a way to stay busy (reading books, listening to music, playing games, etc.). It’s just not a big deal to me.
I made a recent trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. I know people who flew all the way there, never left the airport, and flew back later that day. That’s a 22,000 mile trip without leaving the airport and that just didn’t make any sense to me, how many chances would I have to visit that area? So I scheduled it as an overnight trip, giving us enough time to relax, see the area, and take advantage of being in an area that is so different from where I live in Central Texas. I am very glad we did that!. On the next trip we had a long enough layover in London that we were able to go into town
Of all the places you traveled to, what was your favorite?
That’s easy, Bali, Indonesia. We went there two years ago, and will go back for a few weeks later this year. We liked it so much that we actually talked about moving there permanently once I retire. It’s a beautiful area, the dollar is strong against the Rupiah, we never faced a language barrier, and appreciated the less-hectic lifestyle. My only suggestions for visitors from North America are;
- DON’T drink the water (I learned that the hard way after I drank a Coke with ice cubes in it) and
- DON’Tt even think of driving a car there, get a cab.
Do you have any major travel regrets?
I wish I had started collecting miles years earlier. Years ago I made several trips to Germany for work and never bothered to join the airline frequent flyer club. Dumb on my part. I also worked in retail for many years and remember people paying for their purchase with an airline credit card and bragging about the miles they were earning – I wish I had listened to them.
Aside from traveling, what’s the best general advice you want to pass to people?
YOLO! You Only Live Once! Make the most of it. Today will never come again, life offers so many opportunities. Travel. Go back to school. Volunteer to help a charity. Learn to cook Italian food the right way. Open your life to the many opportunities around you; you’ll be glad you did.