It’s been a while since we’ve had a Travel Hack Thursday feature, but today I’ve got a real treat in store for you with an interview with Lee from BaldThoughts.com. His motto is to ‘Travel More. Spend Less. Live Better’, a philosophy I wholeheartedly agree with. I’d much rather spend my money on travelling and creating memories than on things that collect dust or take up space in my ever cluttered garage!
Lee works full-time for a bank in finance and writes his blog to chronicle his family’s adventures and share strategies so that you, too, can travel more, spend less, and live better. His favorite hotel chain is Kimpton, where he gets spoiled as an Inner Circle member. He loves the domestic airline Southwest because of their low-priced flights and their Companion Pass, which allows his wife to fly free wherever he goes. Who can blame him? I am green with envy at the thought of the Southwestern companion pass. If only a European airline would hurry up and do something similiar!
Here’s Lee and his family enjoying dinner at Kimpton Tideline. Aren’t they cute?
So, let’s pose the usual questions to Lee and hear what he has to say.
Are you rich?
I am fortunate to have a good paying job with four weeks of vacation, but I’m not rich. Regardless of income, I’m frugal and love being able to use miles and points to travel. The strategy is to use all extra money to pay down mortgage, student loan, and auto debt with the goal of retiring from the 9-to-5 job in 10 years so I can spend more time with my kids [Timmy, six and Scarlett, two) as they reach their teenage years. Anne: oh boy, I hear you. It’s amazing how sexy saving gets the older I become!
How did you discover travel hacking?
About 15 years ago, a travel agent client at the bank advised me to get a co-branded airline and hotel card and stick with them. So, for a long time, I really focused on Southwest and SPG (Anne: one way to earn more SPG points in the UK is with their AMEX credit card by the way). I thought I had everything all figured out, until my wife told me she wanted to visit Paris. My reply was “But Southwest doesn’t fly there!” That’s when I dove into the deep-end of travel hacking… because there was no way I wanted to pay for flights and hotel to Paris.
Anne: ha ha I’m pretty sure I’ve said something similiar to my hubbie! British Airways really need to launch a New Zealand flight so I can use the companion voucher to fly business and go back to one of my favourite places on the planet.
Where did you go on your first long haul trip using rewards, and how many points did you use?
Our first major trip using miles was our trip to Paris in April 2013. We flew LA to NYC, with a stopover to catch a New Jersey Devils’ game, and a layover in Madrid on the way to Paris. Going there was in Economy because I knew we’d be excited and would put up with the discomfort.
On the way home, I knew we’d be tired, so we flew Business Class. We routed through Madrid on Iberia rather than Heathrow on British Airways to save $600 a person in taxes and fuel surcharges. In all, it was 70,000 and $300 per person (20,000 in Economy and 50,000 in Business), or 280,000 AAdvantage miles and $1,200. While in Paris, we used our timeshare and hotel points to further reduce the out-of-pocket expenses.
How long did it take you to accumulate the points, and using what methods?
I used the old double-browser trick to get two Citibank cards in January 2012, transferred points from SPG, and cycled many $8,000 deposits with Fidelity to reach $100,000 in deposits in Q2 2012 for all of the miles. I was able to accumulate enough miles to book tickets for me, my wife Anna, our son Timothy (26 months at the time), and my mother-in-law at the end of the American Airlines off-peak schedule. Brownie points with the MIL for that one!
Overall, from start to finish, it took about eight months to earn all of the miles and book the flights.
Your tips for others wishing to do the same?
The best advice I can give is two-fold. First, be as flexible as possible. The exact dates or locations may not always be available when you want them. If you can adjust your schedule a little, you have a better chance to get the itinerary you want. Also, pay attention to airports that are nearby the preferred destination. I live in Los Angeles and sometimes the flights I want aren’t available from LAX, but if I am willing to fly out of BUR, LGB, SNA, ONT, or even make the 90-minute drive to San Diego. That way, I can usually find award space that works for me.
As a side note, I usually keep a top 10 list of places that I want to visit. If I can’t hit #1 this year because award space isn’t available, I’m totally fine with crossing off #2, #5, and #8. Flexibility and an open mind.
The second bit of advice is to have a focused strategy. Having little bits of miles and points across multiple programs will do you no good. (Anne: check this beginners guide out for some great advice on this very subject!) Collect the miles and points into one or two preferred programs to accelerate your free travel awards! And know which partners you can earn miles with or transfer points from. When you can take advantage of these relationships, your miles will accumulate so much faster.
What’s the best think about travel hacking in the US?
There’s a big part of me that likes “winning” the game. But, even more important than that is being able to explore the world with my family. I love introducing them to new architecture, cultures, food, languages, etc. across the US and internationally.
They’re too young to really appreciate it now, but I’m really proud as a father to know that they’ll grow up thinking travel is something worth doing and that it’s ok to step out of your comfort zone and meet new people that aren’t just like you. I think they’ll be better humans for it.
Anne: What a great note to end on Lee. Thanks so much for sharing your insight and if you would like to connect with Lee, check out his website BaldThoughts.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
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