10 years of points and miles: A look back at the trip that started my journey
You know those iPhoto or "on this day" alerts that send you reminders of important memories you've made in the past?
Well somehow, technology and algorithms missed reminding me of the 10-year anniversary of the trip that changed my life.
On June 14, 2011, I traveled back to Afghanistan for the first time since my family left during a civil war in 1989. It was a trip that I had wanted to take my whole life and when it finally happened, it impacted every aspect of my life in the most unexpected ways.
Back in 2011, I was two years out of college, deeply miserable at work and in life.
I was depressed, my world seemed small and I was afraid to make a move in a different direction. My dad saw this and called me at work one day, telling me to take time off because we were going on a trip in two weeks.
"Where are we going?" I asked him. His response? "Home." It turns out my dad had booked us a trip to Afghanistan (where I was born), Dubai and Germany (where we lived until I was about 10-years-old).
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I was excited but anxious: What if I'm miserable there? What if it’s not everything I had built up in my head?
As soon as we stepped off the plane, all of those fears disappeared. I felt a sense of familiarity that I didn't expect, having left the country at two years old. I felt like I knew this place. I recognized it. It felt like home.
The time we spent there was precious, eye-opening and life-affirming.
I met family members for the first time. I got to see the house where I was born, the 150-year-old fortress my great-great-grandfather built in a tiny village outside of Kabul. I met high-ranking government officials, a family that inhabited a tent in the gardens of Darul Aman Palace, veterans of the Afghan-Russian war who spoke of the David-vs.-Goliath battle in the most nonchalant way while displaying relics of old Soviet tanks. I took in the most beautiful, rugged lanscape that I couldn't quite capture in photos.
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Throughout all of this, I felt a sense of ease that I didn't expect. I'm very sensitive to other people's suffering and thought it would be unbearable for me. But even the poorest people displayed a remarkable lightness and resilience that put me at ease.
At one point during our trip, a large city market became victim to a suicide bombing. We went to that market two days later and everything had gone back to normal. Seeing how people moved on with their daily lives and adjusted after such a horrific event was eye-opening.
I took stock of my life: The things that made me unhappy (work, a lack of direction) and compared it to the young people around me who were born in the same place, at the same time but through nothing but sheer luck, I ended up with better opportunities and a life that they aspired to.
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I returned to my home in the U.S. with a new perspective. The world seemed bigger and the things that I wanted felt possible again. I was determined to change my life.
I wanted three things: a different job, to write for a living and to travel more. All of these goals that had seemed daunting months before suddenly felt within reach.
The travel part seemed easiest to tackle first, so I began googling “free travel.”
Rather than getting scammed, I encountered a group of people who did strange things to earn points and then spent them on incredible trips. I became obsessed. I read every blog out there and scoured FlyerTalk for all the tips and tricks I could find until I eventually had a document on my computer filled with notes that I would share with friends and family.
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Eventually, I got so tired of explaining this hobby to people, that I started my own blog in 2012.
That same year, I also replicated my trip to Afghanistan using points and miles. It was a stressful experience, but I learned so much about award availability and routing rules.
I decided to write about that trip, even though I wondered if anyone would read it. All the other bloggers at the time were writing about first-class trips to Singapore and here I was, writing about a non-glamorous trip to an impoverished place that didn’t garner the most positive reaction from most people. The night before my trip report went live, I had such anxiety: Would people read it? Would the ever-hungry internet trolls be out in full force?
To my surprise, people responded with warmth and curiosity. They expressed how much they valued a perspective that was different from other blogs and points-and-miles focused writers that were out there. The thing that I assumed would be most unappealing about my story ended up being what helped me stand out.
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The story caught the attention of Million Mile Secrets (also now owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures) and the site interviewed me for a featured piece. After the article was published, I was flooded with new readers.
Frugal Travel Guy, one of the original large points and miles sites, came next, asking me to guest blog and then run the site, along with the editorial side of FlyerTalk.
It all happened so fast. Just a year later, I had my dream job writing for two sites that taught me everything I knew about points. I had a hobby that was fun and rewarding. I found a community of like-minded people and formed friendships that I still have to this day. And, I met my other goal and got to travel to incredible places all over the world that had seemed out of reach before.
I've now earned millions of miles, had countless adventures and connected with family, friends and strangers around the world.
A decade later, I’m still chasing points and my life has changed drastically. I owe all of that to this trip and hobby. It’s been a catalyst for all the good things that came my way over the last decade.
Travel is powerful and, in my case, it helped me connect to the world during a time when it seemed scary and progress seemed out of reach. With the help of points and miles, I was able to not only travel more and escape that dark place I was in, but I found a new career and a new way forward.
Here's wishing that the next decade will be as rewarding as the last.