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?
We caught up with Schlappig via email while he was in flight between London and Los Angeles to ask.
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.
Having taken three weekend road trips in a row, it’s no wonder my back has been tied up in knots. And an autumn cold came on during this last trip, giving me lots more downtime at a West Virginia Airbnb cabin during the height of fall foliage season than I wanted.
I take good care of myself at home, but traveling requires a different set of healthy habits — ones I need to pay more attention to, even during long weekend getaways and small trips. Here are the articles I’ll turn to next time, and the best tips, from head to toe:
Avoiding Airplane Colds: We’re constantly lectured to stay hydrated on airplanes but rarely told why. It’s because humidity is lower at higher altitudes. This dries out the throat and nasal passages, which are the first lines of defense in preventing colds, explains IndependentTraveler.com’s Ed Hewitt. Best tip: Sip water throughout a flight to stay hydrated and you’ll be better poised to prevent a head cold.
How to Travel with Neck Pain: Best tip: Pack disposable heat wraps, or bring an empty resealable bag on a plane and ask a flight attendant for ice.
8 Expert Tips to Prevent Backache: If you must lift a heavy bag into an overhead bin, first lift it to seat level, then lift it to the bin. Don’t lift it from floor to bin in one fell swoop.
Preventing Traveler’s Diarrhea: Don’t be embarrassed — we’ve all been there. You probably know to tote hand sanitizer, but another good tip is to pack your own bar of soap and keep it in your daypack. Then you can use it at restrooms where soap isn’t provided. (For more advice, see our own guide to warding off traveler’s tummy.)
Shoe and Foot Care During Travel: I tend to travel with two pairs of shoes — one set of walking shoes and the other a nicer set of flats for the evening. But based on advice from experts, I’ll be switching over to two pairs of super-comfy kicks and alternating them by day. Best tip: Clean your shoes frequently. Clean shoes breathe better.
We’re already used to destroying bank statements, tax forms and other sensitive documents when we need to get rid of them; now it turns out you should add your used airline boarding passes to that list.
KrebsOnSecurity, a computer security blog, recently reported that the bar and QR codes on your boarding pass can easily be decoded, revealing not only your name and itinerary but also your frequent flier number and any other information associated with it (such as your phone number or future flight bookings).
The blog points to this website as a free online resource for reading bar codes. Anyone who finds your boarding pass could snap an image of it, upload it to the site and access your information. He or she could theoretically make changes to your frequent flier account and even cancel your future flights.
How likely is this to happen if you accidentally drop your boarding pass into a recycling bin? It’s hard to say — but I’m not taking any chances. I’ll be shredding my boarding passes from now on. Will you?
Confession: I’m a habitual under-packer. On the surface that seems like a good thing — I never have to worry about lugging a heavy bag or paying checked baggage fees. But this seemingly good habit attracts other problems: I end up cold because I refused to pack a sweater that I declared too bulky, or I run out of hair conditioner midway through a trip and look like a fuzzy-headed mad scientist in half my photos.
Most people aim to pack less. I aim to pack smarter.
Thankfully, I discovered a smart woman who’s helping me: Sonia Gil, an online travel expert with an array of practical packing videos on her YouTube channel. After nearly two decades spent researching travel packing tips, I thought I’d heard it all. But I actually learned some new things from Gil, a spunky 34-year-old from Venezuela.
For instance, she doesn’t merely parrot rules about liquids needing to be in 3.4-ounce bottles — she actually recommends specific bottles, such as ones with wide mouths and made of ultra-squeezeable materials. (One of my biggest travel pet peeves: When half the lotion or shampoo remains lodged in an already-tiny bottle.) Check out her thoughts on “How to Achieve Carry-On Perfection” below:
Other great tips from Gil:
– A hotel hair dryer can do an adequate job of de-wrinkling clothes. No need to whip out the iron and ironing board (if your room even has one).
– If you’re traveling to a cold-weather destination, put a pair of insoles in your shoes. They’ll help keep your feet warmer.
– Use masking tape to seal toiletries so they don’t leak. Seal the opening itself and run a loop of tape around the lid seam. Before learning this tip I had put my toiletries in individual zipper bags, but that often left me with a mass of sticky bags that ended up going to waste.
– Tuck a few Band-Aids in your wallet. I always pack them in my toiletry bag, but how’s that useful when you’re out touring and end up with a cut or a blister miles away from your hotel? A no-brainer.
Chris Chesak is the executive director of the Family Travel Association, a new coalition that aims to simplify the sometimes dizzying complexities of planning a family trip, among other goals. Chesak has more than two decades of experience in the travel industry, including stints with the Adventure Travel Trade Association, the American Hiking Society and the American Alpine Club. As the father of two school-age daughters, he has now turned his career to focus on family vacations.
IndependentTraveler.com: Many grandparents talk of wanting to spend their money with their grandchildren, rather than leaving it all to them. Is this a trend you are seeing? Chris Chesak: There is an overall trend within our population of people starting to shift their vision of personal wealth away from the acquisition of inanimate things to more experience-based wealth. Instead of purchasing more and more “stuff,” people are valuing experiences. And as older generations are entering the wealth distribution phase of their lives, they are using their wealth to facilitate creation of deep, lasting memories rather than just a larger pile of money to leave to the kids when the grandparents pass on.
IT: Have you ever traveled with grandparents? CC: Just this summer I had the amazing opportunity to travel to China with my wife, 8- and 10-year-old daughters, and mother-in-law. What an incredible thrill to stand on the Great Wall of China. But standing on that icon with your kids and their grandmother? Absolutely amazing! And while we were able to take a gondola to about mid-mountain, we still had to then climb 299 steps to get to the wall itself. What a great achievement for our little girls and their grandmom to be able to do that, and do it together!
IT: Which destinations would you suggest for independent travel for family groups?
CC: My wife and I are outdoors people and there is so much for families locally with state parks, Forest Service land and national parks. We recently went to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and had a brilliant (and literally “cool”) time exploring the caves. Cities like Boston and Washington D.C. are iconic destinations with a wealth of museums and history for kids and adults alike, but also great lodging and food and shopping. For the adventurous, there is always big, beautiful Alaska. Quebec is excellent and readily accessible from the U.S. but a very European experience. For the more adventurous, I’d suggest Iceland and Namibia.
IT: What tips do you have for an independent multigenerational group to ensure a successful trip?
CC: Independent travel offers the greatest amount of flexibility and spontaneity, often at the best possible price. However, it does take quite a bit more time to research and plan. I would certainly do as much research as possible, leveraging some of the great family travel blogs out there like WanderingPod.com, MyFamilyTravels.com and CiaoBambino.com. (Editor’s Note: Our sister site, Family Vacation Critic, is another useful site to check out.) Also, the destination’s own websites can be great resources. Visit Costa Rica has a good example of this, with an entire page devoted to family travel. VisitMaine.com has some great search options for family travel too.
I will say, while I love independent travel, booking family travel with a small, independent tour operator can come in very handy, while still providing a true, authentic experience for small groups. We planned a trip to the interior of Costa Rica through JourneysInternational.com, which has been running family trips for more than 30 years and is family owned. The itinerary was perfectly balanced, with just enough activities to keep us all engaged, but also with the perfect amount of down time for naps, reading books and playing in the pool.
IT: How do you balance the travel needs and interests of younger generations with older ones? In other words, how to keep peace, so that, say, the teens get their screen time yet the grandparents get real face time too?
CC: During the trip, the key thing you need to do is respect the pace of your itinerary. You can’t run your grandparents or smaller children ragged with an aggressive, “let’s see it all” itinerary. While we generally like to limit time spent on devices with our kids, when we are in transit or in a hotel room, the kids can use the devices as much as they like. I will say that for long-haul flights, devices like iPads and the seatback entertainment systems are a godsend. Teens can be a bit more of a challenge, as they tend to be more aloof and get bored more easily. But the beauty of multi-generational travel is that it naturally brings about face time, forcing it actually. When you are stuck on a train or bus, there’s so much to watch, talk about, etc. that it naturally breaks down barriers and brings people together around their shared experience.
IT: Where are you and your family planning to go next?
CC: We’re looking at Panama for early 2016 and starting to plan a trip to South Africa too. I can’t wait to take my girls on safari — it will blow their little minds!
All great vacations must come to an end sometime, but the feel-good aftermath of a trip doesn’t have to.
The New York Times’ Stephanie Rosenbloom suggested in a column this summer that surrounding yourself with tchotchkes, receipts and photos can help ensure your post-trip satisfaction lasts longer. My travel memory-extending tricks go beyond that:
Use a linen spray during your travels, then resurrect it when you’re home. I won a travel tip contest on Rick Steves’ website almost 20 years ago with this tidbit, and I still use it today. When I travel, I bring along a small bottle of scented linen spray, such as the five-ounce aromatherapy pillow mists that Bath & Body Works sells. I use it to spruce up two-day-old clothing, stale-smelling bed sheets and musty rooms.
When I get home, I tuck the bottle away for a couple of months — this is key, because the scent won’t hold trip-specific memories if you continue to use it on a daily basis. After time, I bring it out and give it a spray, and I’m suddenly taken back to my week on the beach on the Costa del Sol in Spain. I can even recall the breeze coming in my hostel window — smell memories are that powerful.
Mail yourself postcards. Okay, so postcards may be passe in the big bad Digital Age, but that doesn’t make them any less nice to receive. When I first arrive in a city, I buy a few and tuck them away in my bag. When I’m having a relaxed moment — one time, it was while polishing off a no-name red table wine in a side-street taverna in Rome — I take the time to jot a postcard.
Usually I’ll merely describe what I’m doing in that moment. At the time it might feel ordinary, but later it becomes a special memory, full of detail I might not otherwise remember — the weather, the people at nearby tables, how thankful I was to be wearing a dark sweater when I dribbled half a glass of wine on myself.
Continue to follow the social media feeds of your destinations’ tourist boards. Before a recent trip to New Mexico, I started following the Facebook feeds for Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos’ tourism offices. The pages were useful for building ideas for my trip.
But I’ve found it even more enjoyable to follow them in the months since. Oh, the band I saw perform at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, NM, is there again this weekend! Look — the chef who made that fabulous green chile cheeseburger we devoured late one night just won a cooking contest! Snow is starting to fall on those mountains we hiked!
This is a great way to stay connected to the places you fell in love with.
Buy yourself gifts at a grocery store. I usually blow all my money on gifts for other people, but lately I’ve started buying meaningful foodstuffs and ingredients that I can bring home for myself.
En route to the airport in Nairobi for my departing flight, I asked my taxi driver to stop at a supermarket, where I bought several boxes of Ketepa Pride tea bags. Even today, when I prepare a cup, I always remember the afternoons on safari when all the other guests were napping and I stayed up to caffeinate myself and watch the zebras and wildebeests grazing on the savanna just across a ravine from our camp.
It’s hard to admit you might never be back — standing on the shore of southern India at sunrise, staring down into the faces of the Terra Cotta Warriors, even sitting in the lobby of a local beach club. Whether it’s due to distance, financial/unforeseen circumstances, health or simply a lack of time, there’s no telling when we go someplace new whether we’ll ever make it back. That’s why traveling in the moment (much like living in the moment) is so important — especially with screens and lenses constantly competing for our attention.
From a family’s trip to the World Trade Center weeks before the 9/11 attacks to the beaches of my very own New Jersey, standing with a wedding party days before Hurricane Sandy destroyed the venue, sightseeing and celebrating would mean so much less if I didn’t take the time to appreciate my surroundings. These are both extreme cases where the destination will never be the same whether I am there or not, but for many places we visit in a lifetime, who can promise we’ll get to experience them all over again? Do you want to collect memories or likes on your Facebook account?
Traveling through Vancouver on my first real solo trip this past July, it could have been devastatingly easy to tap my smartphone mindlessly over a meal or while sitting alone in a park, but I didn’t. Call it a test, call it a conscious effort, but from the first breakfast at the cafe counter downstairs from where I was staying, I tucked my phone away and did anything else — read a paper, looked around, focused on how my food tasted — without taking a photo and posting it to Instagram. This might sound ridiculous to those who haven’t been initiated into the demanding universe of social media, but to me it was a whole new world. Having a picturesque cocktail and multicourse feast in an underground Lebanese joint reminiscent of Casablanca — and not posting a thing about it — was like sharing a delicious secret with myself.
I constantly struggle with a strong yearning to document my travels, but capturing the moment to look at it later isn’t always the best option. There’s so many times I look back and wish I had simply been present in that instant without any other distraction — a community center performance in South Africa, any cathedral in Europe. Pictures and videos can be a poignant way to share an experience, capture a memory to look back on, create something artistic, but there’s a time to put the camera down. In an oversaturated, media-sharing-obsessed society, that time is increasingly difficult to gauge, but the instinct should continue to live in the guts of travelers who do so for the pure reason of savoring the experience; listen to that instinct.
Which place do you wish you could go back to and be more “present”?
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to buying airfare. The good news: It is possible to time your flight for the lowest possible price. The bad news: That time will almost never be summer. According to a recent analysis of airfare data by Hopper, a flight search app, seasonal travel price drops can be predicted and taken advantage of — just start planning trips for fall, winter and spring.
Using the drop-down of the 15 most popular U.S. origin airports on Quartz, the cheapest time to fly to major worldwide destinations can be determined by seasonality, but also based on your domestic airport. We all know Europe is generally cheapest to travel to during winter, but for Dallas, a flight to London is actually cheaper in the fall.
Don’t believe prices can fluctuate that much outside of holidays and peak times? If you’re looking to head to Istanbul, you might want to reconsider that notion. Of all the major flight paths analyzed, three of the five with the largest seasonal price difference are en route to Istanbul — starting at a 50 percent price difference originating in Washington D.C. and totaling as much as 57 percent more on flights from Chicago in the summer. Flights from Los Angeles to Barcelona and London are 52 and 53 percent more, respectively, in the summer season.
If you’re set on one of the elusive flight paths that are actually cheaper in summer, Dallas is your best bet followed by the capital of Taiwan: Boston to Dallas, Houston (Bush) to Dallas (and reverse), Houston to Taipei, New York (La Guardia) to Taipei and D.C. (Reagan) to Toronto all run low in the summertime. (Think of the heat.)
Maybe this is a concept we always knew about air travel, but finding my familiar home airport, and watching the lists of destinations appear in conjunction with the cheapest season, is reassuring. With everyone already bemoaning “the end of the summer season,” it gives me three more seasons (and potential trips) to look forward to.
There’s little more frustrating to a diehard traveler than being sent on a packed business trip that leaves little to no time for actual travel. Especially in iconic tourist destinations, it’s difficult to watch as others excitedly get ready for their fun day of sightseeing as you double check your laptop bag to ensure you’ve got everything you’ll need.
But clever travelers don’t let a busy schedule of meetings get in the way of fitting some tourism into their business trips.
Here are five tips for getting your travel on. Give one (or more) a try the next time your company sends you away on business.
Add On Time
The easiest way to fit travel into a business trip is to tack on a day or two before or after your trip. (Especially if that includes a weekend!) Even if you can only fly in the day before, arrange your flight for early in the morning, drop your bags off at the hotel and head out ASAP. You might be surprised how much you can fit into three-quarters of a day if you’re motivated enough.
The best way to make the most of what little time you have is to know exactly what you want to do and where those attractions are located in relation to where you’ll be. By having already mapped out a plan of action before you arrive, you won’t waste valuable downtime trying to figure out what to do when you find yourself with free time.
A great way to get the feel of a place you’re visiting is to hit the streets, either by walking or, if you’re a runner, on a jog. Jogging might only be doable in the morning or late evening, but if you’ve got lunch free why not go for a quick walk? Look for a nearby park, hit the downtown area or choose some streets at random. (Use common sense though; if it doesn’t look safe, don’t go.)
Skip the Hotel Restaurant
No matter where you travel for work, you should try to get in at least one meal at a local restaurant. If you’ve got business colleagues in the area ask them for a recommendation, get them to take you out for a quick bite or, best of all, wrangle an invite to their home for dinner.
Skip the Conference/Airport Hotel Altogether
If you can, skip the generic conference/airport hotel altogether and opt for an extended stay hotel (if you’re staying long enough), an Airbnb location or, if you’ve got friends in the area, someone’s guest bedroom. All of these will give you the chance to see a part of the city you might not have gotten to see, force you out to buy your own groceries from a local shop and maybe even mingle with the residents.
How have you found ways to fit travel into your business trips? Share your advice in the comments below.
As a couple of street cats look on, we ascend a narrow staircase until we reach a ledge overlooking the whole of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. There, at the somewhat precarious top, our guide has placed pillows for our small group to sit; we’ll be picnicking in the open air, with the spectacular Yeni Cami (New Mosque) behind us and the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in front.
“Welcome to the best view in Istanbul,” said Benoit Hanquet, his longish gray hair blowing in the breeze. Our group of eight murmured appreciatively as Hanquet passed around slices of pide, a pizza-like flatbread created right before us a few minutes earlier.
If you’re tired of tours that bring you to the same old places, it’s time you gave culinary tourism a try. Food tours are about more than stuffing your face with local specialties. Rather, the good ones give you an insight into a city’s culture, allowing you to see how local people eat, drink and spend their free time.
Food tours have taught me more than a typical city stroll. For example, on a walking tour with Frying Pan Adventures in Dubai, I learned how diverse the emirate really is by eating Palestinian falafel, Egyptian pastries and Syrian ice cream as we walked through the Deira district. Many of these foods are cherished by foreign workers, who aren’t allowed citizenship, we were told — which made what we were eating seem far more compelling.
In Istanbul, I took on the Grand Bazaar with Culinary Backstreets, a food tour company that has now expanded to 16 cities. Founded in Turkey, the company originated as Istanbul Eats, a food guide that first came out in book form, Benoit told us. The authors received so many requests from tourists to help them find the small mom-and-pop stalls and stands in the book that they decided to start offering tours.
In Istanbul alone, Culinary Backstreets runs six tours a day. Topics range from a cooking class held in Kurtulus, a neighborhood well off the beaten path, to an authentic meyhane, or night out on the town, complete with raki (Turkish liquor) and live music. While the company keeps the skeleton of the tours the same, the guides do some of their own improvising; Benoit tells us that our picturesque ledge is one that only he visits.
Taking a food tour can require some fortitude, both on your feet and in your stomach. Both my tours in Dubai and Istanbul stretched out over six hours; in Istanbul, we left Benoit after being together 7.5 hours (the Belgian expat was still going strong; he informed us that our “early” departure would keep us from coffee at a restaurant with another great view). Come hungry and pace yourself!
Food tours are not for the squeamish. Although Benoit told us that customers with food allergies or preferences are given options, many of the world’s cities aren’t well suited to picky eaters, particularly when you’re visiting places that specialize in just one thing. In Istanbul, we were coaxed into having kokoretsi, lamb sweetbreads that have been roasted for hours. Served on a toasted piece of French bread, the pieces of offal were melt-in-your-mouth delicious — and even those people on our tour who questioned the stop ended up liking them.
Culinary tours also tend to be bonding experiences. Our Istanbul tour included three lively Australians, three Americans (my husband and I included) and a couple from Pakistan. We listened, enthralled over our bulgur and lentil soup, as Shireen from Islamabad shared the hardships of being an art critic in Islamabad. I still follow the Frying Pan Instagram feed, posted by Farida, a University of Pennsylvania grad who returned to the U.A.E. to start her business. Turns out breaking bread together is an intimate act around the world.
At the end of our Istanbul tour, we exchanged email addresses with our new friends and headed back to our hotel. We were tired and full, but also upbeat; suddenly the streets seemed friendlier and more familiar, now that we had drunk the same sweet tea as the Turks. At the hotel I called up the website for Culinary Backstreets and immediately booked another food tour for next week, when I’m in Athens. I’ve visited there before, but I know that by exploring the city through its bakeries and markets, I’ll come away satiated.