Ben Schlappig is a master of the miles.
Since giving up his apartment in April 2014 to spend all of his time traveling, Schlappig now flies around 400,000 miles a year, nearly all of it in first or business class. If that weren’t amazing enough, he only pays for a small fraction of his flights out of pocket. Instead, he relies on airline miles and credit card points.
How does Schlappig — a 25-year-old travel consultant and blogger who runs the website One Mile at a Time — do it? And can ordinary people like us capitalize on credit card points and miles, even if we can’t make such a task our full-time jobs?
IndependentTraveler.com: Must you be a frequent traveler to be able to take advantage of mileage or points programs?
Ben Schlappig: Absolutely not! In the U.S. nowadays, more than half of miles are issued through non-flying means. Mileage programs have really gone from “frequent flier programs” to “frequent buyer programs,” as the possibilities for earnings miles are endless. You can earn miles through credit card spending, online shopping portals, car rentals and more.
IT: Is it better to spend credit card points on free airfare or free hotel stays?
BS: The loyalty program landscape for both airlines and hotels has changed considerably, especially over the past couple of years. Ultimately there are pros and cons to both airline and hotel credit cards. Which type of card makes more sense for you depends on what you value most out of your travels.
What I recommend doing is accruing points in a “transferrable” points currency (such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Starwood Preferred Guest), which allows you to transfer points to either airline or hotel transfer partners. This way you have a lot more flexibility with your points.
IT: Most people hoard their points, saving them up for a special occasion. Why is that a bad strategy?
BS: I have an “earn and burn” philosophy towards miles. That’s because miles devalue over time, as the number of miles needed for a given ticket creeps up. “Saving” miles long-term would be the equivalent of keeping cash in a checking account not accruing interest for decades on end. The best thing you can redeem your miles for is memorable travel experiences, and you’re generally best off doing that sooner rather than later.
IT: Do you tend to use airline miles more for free tickets or for upgrades?
BS: In general I try to redeem my miles for award tickets in international first and business class. These are the awards that tend to have the most value to me, given that the tickets would be disproportionately expensive if paying cash.
For example, if you’re redeeming American miles for travel to Asia, a business-class ticket costs less than two times as much as an economy ticket. However, if you were to pay cash, that ticket could cost five to 10 times as much.
IT: How much you’ve spent on travel in a year? And what’s the estimated the value of your free travel?
BS: Over half of my travel has been using miles and points. Given that many international first-class tickets retail for $25,000 or more roundtrip, I’d estimate the travel I’ve taken this year has probably retailed for somewhere around a million dollars. I spend a tiny, tiny fraction of that.
IT: What were some of your favorite destinations you’ve visited in 2015?
BS: This has been a great year for travel for me, and I have a hard time picking just a few. I’d say Egypt, the Maldives and Austria rank up there.
IT: Where haven’t you been yet that you really want to visit?
BS: I have a bit of an island obsession at the moment, as it’s not something I’ve focused much on previously. I’d love to visit Fiji, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Tahiti.
IT: The wanderlusters among us have been salivating recently at the exploits of frequent traveler Sam Huang, who scored a five-continent, first-class trip on Emirates Airlines for very little money by finding a (now-closed) loophole. Were you as jealous as we were?
BS: Every couple of months there seems to be a story that goes viral about someone redeeming miles for an incredible international first-class experience. Rather than the loophole as such, what I ultimately take away from these situations is that the general public really has no sense of how easy it can be to redeem miles for some amazing products. Most people never get to experience these products because they assume they could never afford them. But with miles it’s much more feasible than they think.
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— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma