Miles Away Episode 23: Backpacker Q&A Takeover

Jun 10, 2019

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We cover lots of premium travel here at TPG, but in this episode of Miles Away, I, Brian Biros, am guest hosting for Zach Honig and taking your questions about budget travel.

From long-haul economy survival to military packing hacks to the best time to buy flights, I’m showing you how to stretch every point and dollar just as I do in my weekly Points & Miles Backpacker column. I even talk about how to spend a million points in case you find yourself with such a stash as I did. (Hint – it doesn’t involve flying first class.)

You can play this episode of Miles Away above, or listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, including:

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Be sure to follow me (@biruvia) on Instagram to see how my budgeting strategy lets me live a life of full time travel. And check out my weekly Points & Miles Backpacker column every Monday morning.

If you have any questions, thoughts or topics you’d like us to cover, please email Zach at milesaway@thepointsguy.com, tweet him at @zachhonig or find him on Instagram — He’s @zachhonig there as well. And please don’t forget to subscribe!

Full Transcript

Zach Honig: 00:03 Welcome back to Miles Away. I am your host, Zach Honig. As you know by now, Miles Away is all about the destination and how to get you there. For this episode, we’re doing something a little bit different though. As your trusty host, I’m letting someone else take the reins for a bit while I fly overseas for a special TPG project. I’m passing the mic over to our very own TPG backpacker, Brian Biros, for a Miles Away takeover. We asked for your burning questions related to solo travel, backpacking and general points and miles information, and Brian is going to answer them on this episode. So safe travels everyone and I’ll see you next time.

Brian Biros: 00:36 Thank you, Zach, and hello to all of our Miles Away listeners. I am Brian Biros, TPG’s points and miles backpacker, and as the points and miles backpacker, I have a weekly column where I talk about all things budget-travel-related, strategies for extending points, miles, dollars for as long as possible, backpacking tips, everything related to backpacking and budget travel.

Brian Biros: 00:58 Like Zach said, Miles Away is all about destinations and exploring must-see spots, but on this episode I’m going to be answering your questions about budget traveling, packing right, how I use my points. I’ll be talking about how to travel to these destinations and exploring these must-see spots.

Brian Biros: 01:14 Let’s hear our first question. Lauren from Alabama.

Lauren: 01:17 Hey Brian. This is Lauren from Alabama. I’m curious: What’s your strategy for getting through long-haul flights in economy? Thank you.

Brian Biros: 01:27 Thank you, Lauren. Yes, of course, the dreaded long-haul flight in economy. I know here at TPG we cover a lot of premium travel and it looks lovely, but I personally don’t do premium travel. I’ve never had the pleasure of comparing Dom to Krug at 35,000 feet. I have actually never compared Dom to Krug at sea level. I don’t know what airline pajamas feel like. I don’t know what Saks Fifth Avenue bedding feels like. My Saks Fifth Avenue shopping is limited to $50 twice a year to use my Amex Platinum credit. I am one of the 80 percent, the 80 percent of us that travel in economy and I’m going to remind you all that traveling economy is perfectly fine. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I travel economy because I choose to. Often, I have the miles to book premium but I don’t because I personally would rather go to a destination twice in economy than once in business class.

Brian Biros: 02:29 So, I’ve had to develop a strategy and what I do is I’ve found a way to make economy travel tolerable. So my personal requirements: I would like to have a window seat I can lean up against and sleep.  I bring a neck pillow, eye mask, a book, inflight entertainment or I’ll bring my own movies, and just average leg room with enough room to use my laptop, and I can get through any long-haul flight. I personally don’t find a middle seat to be tolerable so I won’t risk booking basic economy on an international flight. I also prefer the red-eye flights because I tend to sleep well on airplanes and I find that arriving to a new city or destination in the daylight gives you a much better first impression of the place.

Brian Biros: 03:14 So, generally speaking, I find the economy products on international airlines such as Thai Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Air Canada, Lufthansa, they provide a better product in economy than United, American and Delta for the long-haul international flights. I think if you have the opportunity to use your United miles on a Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore as opposed to United, you should do that.

Brian Biros: 03:40 I have my minimum requirements for making travel tolerable, but I also have some tricks that could perhaps even enhance the experience. One is what we call here poor man’s business class, which, as a flight approaches, I tend to keep an eye on the seat map and I look towards the back of economy or economy plus or whatever the cabin that I’m in and towards the back, if the cabin looks to be somewhat empty, you might see some empty rows and I will take a window or an aisle seat in an empty row and hope that the other two seats in that row stay empty, and then I will have lie-flat three seats to myself as opposed to one, which also means three pillows, three blankets, and so yes, you can fly lie-flat in economy, if you get lucky with poor man’s business class.

Brian Biros: 04:29 Another strategy I have is if you are traveling with a friend, if there’s three seats in a row, I always book myself in the window seat and the aisle seat leaving the middle seat between us free or if it’s the middle section, the two aisle seats, and I always leave the middle seat free between us, because if there is a solo traveler, they are more likely to book themselves in an available aisle seat or window seat as opposed to a middle seat, so you’re more likely to have that middle seat end up vacant for your flight as opposed if you leave a window or an aisle open. Now if someone does take that middle seat, you can just swap with them. They would happily take an aisle or a window over the middle, so it doesn’t ever end up being a problem.

Brian Biros: 05:14 Another trick is the airport lounges Priority Pass. Make sure you have Priority Pass. It’s actually more important in economy. When traveling premium, airlines like to wine and dine their passengers on the ground and then wine and dine them in the air, as well, and it ends up being a whole lot of wine and dine. So for economy passengers, if you want to get some good food and good drinks, show up to the airport a little early, head to a Priority Pass lounge and get some good food and drinks and a little bit of comfort before your long-haul flight.

Brian Biros: 05:45 OK. Next up we have a question about packing from Riley in Miami.

Riley: 05:50 Hi, this is Riley from Miami, Florida. What’s the best way to only pack using a backpack that you would be able to use on a low-cost airline, if you were planning to go on, maybe, a one- or two-day weekend trip? Thanks.

Brian Biros: 06:04 Yeah, so these days with basic economy and with Spirit Airlines and even international Ryanair — so for some of these low-fare airlines you’re limited to just one personal item. My advice is, you need to maximize that personal item. Find out what the dimensions are for the maximum-size personal item that you can bring on these flights.

Brian Biros: 06:26 For Spirit Airlines, that happens to be 18 inches x 14 inches x 8 inches. Ryanair is 16 x 10 x 8. Basic economy for United is 17 x 10 x 9. Find out what your maximum dimensions are and find a bag that is that size. Now you’ll have to fit everything into this one bag. For clothes, the technique that I just discovered in the last year that has been an absolute game-changer is called the ranger roll technique. You can’t see me, so I can’t demonstrate this for you, but essentially what this means is you roll clothing into itself and it stays compact. A T-shirt, for example, you would flip up the bottom of the T-shirt, fold it into thirds and then roll it into the flipped-up portion of the T-shirt and fold it into itself and then it stays compact and it doesn’t come unrolled.

Brian Biros: 07:16 If that just confused you, just Google The Points Guy ranger roll. The first article that shows up will say this Army technique could save you money on baggage fees. The ranger roll actually comes from a YouTube channel from an old Army guy who demonstrated it for all these different articles of clothing and any time I’m traveling now and I have the time to pack, I will ranger roll all my clothes. The great thing about the ranger roll is everything stays intact, so you can take one item out of your suitcase and everything that is rolled will remain rolled and remain intact until you actually unfold it.

Brian Biros: 07:53 So once you have all your clothes ranger rolled, I would also put them in a packing cube because you’ll likely be sharing the same compartment for your clothes and anything else that you’re traveling with, so keep all your clothes in a packing cube, wear the same clothes. You can wear the same jeans, you can wear the same jacket. Socks and underwear are the only thing that you need to be changing every day.

Brian Biros: 08:13 Also, pick out exactly what you’re going to wear beforehand. Don’t bring options, because when you bring options, you’re bringing too much. Bring exactly what you plan on wearing, check the weather forecast so you know you packed correctly, and then also pick compact clothing. I travel a lot with Tom’s for shoes because they are about the size of a slipper and they can also pass for any type of setting. Also, they cost about $50 at Saks Fifth Avenue, so I use my Amex Platinum credit. Every six months, I get a new pair of Tom’s.

Brian Biros: 08:46 For your bulkiest clothes, wear your bulkiest clothes on the flights. So jeans, jacket, if you have a pair of regular shoes, wear all of those for the flights, the space in your personal item is going to be at a premium. So you can wear as much clothing on you as you’d like.

Brian Biros: 09:02 Then you’ll have to sacrifice some bulky items. When I go on a short, couple-day weekend and I have just a personal item, I normally don’t bring my DSLR with me. You’ll just have to prioritize what you’re packing.

Brian Biros: 09:14 Next question is about booking flights.

Tom: 09:17 Hi, it’s Tom from San Francisco. When is the best time to book a flight to get the best price? How many weeks or months in advance? Is there a particular …  I’ve heard things about certain days of the week being better. When’s the best time?

Brian Biros: 09:31 Thank you, Tom. Yes, that is a very common question. There’s plenty of myths around this. I actually have some data to back up my answer here. The website CheapAir.com conducts an annual study on the cheapest day to buy flights. What CheapAir.com found was that, for domestic flights, the best day to buy flights was 76 days in advance. Last year they said it was 70 days. They compiled data from hundreds of millions of flights and this was the average.

Brian Biros: 10:00 Also, there is no difference depending on what day you purchase your ticket. A lot of people like to say you should book it on Tuesday, Saturday, whatever the day is. They found no correlation behind the day of the week and the price of a ticket. But there is a very general trend that prices spike 21 days in advance and then they spike again 14 days in advance. Also, they found that the cheapest day to fly is on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Brian Biros: 10:24 For international flights, the further in advance, the better and also the further you’re traveling to, the further in advance you’d like to book. So if you’re traveling to Africa or Asia or the Middle East, you want to book those several months in advance, maybe three, four months in advance. But that tends to work well with the logistics of advanced planning of international trips anyways.

Brian Biros: 10:44 For domestic flights, though, the 76-day-in-advance is just an average and the price fluctuates greatly. The study actually said that prices change on average 61 times from when a plane ticket is released until the flight departs. There’s 61 changes in the flights. Even though on average, 76 days is statistically the best to book a ticket, I would say, don’t book your ticket that far in advance because a lot can change with your plans. Airlines have expensive change policies. If you’re confident in your plans and you know when you want to fly, just use the track-prices function on Google Flights. Then if you see something good, book it and remember you always have a 24-hour cancellation window, if you need it.

Brian Biros: 11:29 A couple exceptions to this: On holiday time you want to book that as far in advance as possible. Southwest Airlines has very flexible cancellation policies, so with Southwest you can book that as far in advance as possible. If the price goes down, you can get that difference back. If you book with points on Southwest and the price drops, you can get those points back to your account.

Brian Biros: 11:48 If you find yourself within the 21-day window, what I like to do is use miles and what I end up doing quite often is using miles on international programs to book domestic flights. For example, I’ll use Avianca miles on United flights because Avianca doesn’t have a close-in booking fee like United does. Likewise, I’ll also use British Airways Avios on American Airlines flights, because again, they don’t have a late-booking fee and the redemption chart for British Airways on American flights within the US is better than what American offers. Likewise with Avianca. Avianca has cheaper options. Using Avianca LifeMiles on United Airlines flights within the US actually costs less than using United miles on those same flights for much of the routing within the United States.

Brian Biros: 12:37 One thing I’ve personally found is I see better prices and availability in the morning, so whenever I book anything, I actually, next morning, first thing in the morning, I check to see if prices have dropped or award availability has opened up. I don’t have any data perhaps to back that up, but that’s something that I’ve always noticed personally, so I would say look in the morning as well.

Brian Biros: 13:02 Final question is from David from Atlanta on how I use my own points.

David: 13:06 Hey, Brian. My question for you is: Since May 2016, when you won the one million TrueBlue points in the JetBlue contest with your sister, what have you done with the points? Do you have any left? Looking forward to hearing the answer.

Brian Biros: 13:18 My million JetBlue points. Yes, the story of how I got the million JetBlue points, it’s actually how I started with The Points Guy. Three years ago, The Points Guy reached one million followers on Facebook and they had this big contest. They called it the “Into the Blue: Marathon to a Million Points” and it started out as a photo contest. You had to get votes, photos were judged. Then they picked five finalists and I was picked as a finalist. I took my sister as my team partner, flew us to New York for a nice big dinner and they flew all five teams to San Francisco and then in San Francisco there was a big scavenger hunt all over the city. It was almost like an episode of the Amazing Race. My sister and I just dominated.

Brian Biros: 14:00 The answer is I still have half of those points. The first thing I did when I won a million points was I signed up for the JetBlue credit card. Because of the 10% rebate, one million points then became 1,111,000-plus points. I’m not hoarding them. I use them when I can, I use them for flights to New York, but I tend to find flights for 5,000 to 10,000 points each because I have flexible flight schedules.

Brian Biros: 14:25 I did do one big redemption. This past January I took my family for a trip to Puerto Rico. I combined my JetBlue points and my dad’s points from his small business. I got him on some Chase credit cards to maximize points earning through his business expenses and between he and I, we each used roughly 300,000 to 400,000 points and we flew 24 people to Puerto Rico over New Year’s and just had this fantastic experience and it was a lot of work to put together, but it was far more rewarding to send my whole family to Puerto Rico than to take a couple JetBlue Mint trips across the country. Most of my nieces and nephews had never traveled, never been on a plane. A lot of them had never left the continent of the United States, so it really paid to know the whole points and miles and to be able to pull this off. That was about 300,000 of my points.

Brian Biros: 15:20 I’ve sent my sister and her — my little sister who partnered with me on the contest — I sent her and her husband on their honeymoon, but I still have half of them left and I’ll use them as the opportunity comes up, but I’m not looking to use them on some big premium redemption. I imagine I’ll still be using them for a couple years.

Brian Biros: 15:41 The other thing that came from that weekend was — the prize of the weekend was just supposed to be the million points and that was very nice, but I had this plan before it even started — was that I wanted to meet The Points Guy. I wanted to make my pitch and I had done travel writing before, and I wanted to tell them how they could expand into more budget-travel appeal and so during the whole weekend, I was putting the bug in Brian’s ear and some of the other TPG staff saying the content that I thought I could provide. At the end of the weekend, they asked me, “Hey, do you want to come and write for us as well?” The million points was nice, but getting the opportunity to actually be here talking to all of you right now, that was the best thing that came from it all.

Brian Biros: 16:21 That’s all for our questions. Thank you again to Zach Honig for letting me take over the Miles Away podcast. I am Brian Biros, and you can keep up with my travels on Instagram at Biruvia, that’s B-I-R-U-V-I-A, and my column, The Points and Miles Backpacker, comes out every Monday and can be found at thepointsguy.com/backpacker.

Brian Biros: 16:41 Thanks to our producers, Margaret Kelley and Caroline Schagrin, and Alex Schiff for our music. Safe travels everyone.

Zach Honig: 16:49 That was fun. Thanks again to Brian Biros for taking the reins on this episode. If you liked this episode and want us to answer more of your questions, go ahead and send us an email at milesaway@thepointsguy.com. Again, that’s milesaway@thepointsguy.com. Safe travels.

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