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How TPG's points and miles team first got into cards and loyalty programs

Dec. 24, 2020
12 min read
Travel Diversity Market Shopping
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With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to rage across the globe — and new variants creating even more restrictions — most TPG staffers in 2020 haven't been able to travel the way we do in a normal year. However, our points-and-miles team has been busy building up our loyalty program balances in anticipation of a return to travel next year.

As we wrap up a difficult, challenging year, we wanted to look back at what first got us into the world of travel rewards credit cards and loyalty programs. Now may be a great time to get into points and miles, and we've seen unprecedented levels of award availability in recent weeks. If you've been mired in the world of fixed-value rewards and are ready to take the next step, read on for some potential inspiration to get yourself started.

Nick Ewen, Senior Editor

I first started collecting points and miles in college, mainly with Delta SkyMiles and US Airways Dividend Miles while flying back and forth between North Carolina (Go Deacs!) and my home state of New York. This continued after graduation, when I moved to Las Vegas to join Teach For America while my girlfriend at the time (now wife) attended law school at the University of Florida. These programs came in handy for taking nonstop Delta Song flights to Florida and utilizing the large network out of Las Vegas created by US Airways' merger with America West.

In 2007, I took a job that required extensive travel, and I began racking up a ton of points and miles. However, what really cemented my love for travel rewards came in 2011. I had just discovered a website called The Points Guy and one day, I read an article about a way to sign up for two American Airlines credit cards in a single day to take home 150,000 AAdvantage miles after meeting the minimum spending requirements. I went ahead and applied for both, as did my wife.

Screenshot courtesy of Citi

At the time, you could book a round-trip, first-class flight to Southeast Asia for just 135,000 miles — though sadly, that price is now 220,000 miles. So exactly one year (to the day) after getting approved, my wife and I sat down in the first-class cabin of a Cathay Pacific 777-300ER in New York-JFK for a flight to Bali and back.

Needless to say, I was hooked.

I began contributing to The Points Guy in May 2012 and joined as a full-time editor in March 2018, and points and miles have helped me visit nearly four-dozen countries with little out-of-pocket travel expenses.

Read more: I have over 2.1 million points and miles — and I’m in no rush to redeem them

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Ariana Arghandewal, Points and Miles Editor

Like Nick, I first got into points and miles back in 2011, after a three-week trip to Afghanistan, Dubai and Germany. This was my first proper international trip (not counting Canada or Mexico) since I moved to the U.S. in 1997. It completely changed my priorities and way of thinking. When I returned home, I began googling things like “how to travel for free” and came upon an NPR article about people who were buying U.S. Mint coins with their credit cards to earn frequent flyer miles. From there, I came across FlyerTalk and fell down a rabbit hole of points and miles blogs.

I began consuming every bit of information I could and got myself a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, along with a few others. All of the research paid off about seven months later when I finally redeemed my first award: Four tickets to Europe and the Middle East using AAdvantage miles and Delta SkyMiles — during the summer too, which is no easy feat. I think if I’d known what a hassle booking those flights would be, I would have thrown in the towel right away.

Still, using my miles to fly business class for a fraction of what I’d paid for in coach just a year ago was a thrilling experience. It gave me a small inkling of what’s possible and reinforced my dedication to this hobby. Almost a decade later, it has seeped into every aspect of my life and changed my career trajectory. I couldn’t be more grateful for this niche little segment of the travel industry I stumbled across back in 2011 and the ability to share it with TPG readers.

Read more: 5 devaluation-proof rewards I’m stocking up on in 2021

Andrew Kunesh, Senior Reporter

Visiting family in Prague was a key goal that led Andrew Kunesh into points and miles. (Photo by Frank Chmura/Getty Images)

I got into points and miles when I was 18 and looking for ways to save money on international airfare. Most of my mom’s family lives in Prague, Czech Republic and I wanted to visit them more often. However, I didn’t have the funds to do so as a college student.

After some poking around the internet, I found a message board dedicated to points and miles. This inspired me to open a United Explorer Card and earn the welcome bonus by paying my rent through Plastiq. I used the miles to fly from Chicago to New York City to visit a friend, and then continued on my first solo international trip — one that included stops in London, Paris, Prague and Berlin.

After this trip, I dove head-first into points and miles. It quickly became an obsession and — more recently — a career.

Read more: Making up for lost time: How I’m booking my biggest trip of 2021

Katie Genter, Reporter

Almost every summer since 2010, my husband JT and I have traveled to a different international city for the RoboCup robot soccer competition. My university paid for my travel, but JT was looking for a cheaper way to get to the 2015 contest in Hefei, China. So, in 2014 he signed up for a Chase Ink Business credit card with an elevated sign-up bonus. After meeting the minimum spending requirements, he transferred the bonus' Ultimate Rewards points to United. Then, he used United miles to book two one-ways that included economy on Air China’s 747-8 and economy on Lufthansa's A380.

This redemption showed us the value of points, miles and credit card sign-up bonuses.

At the end of our trip to China in 2015, I visited Guilin, China. I redeemed online travel agency rewards to book a train from Shanghai to Guilin. Meanwhile, JT transferred some of his points to British Airways to book me the short Cathay Pacific business-class flight from Guilin to Hong Kong. This business class flight was a wonderful experience that further sold me on the value of points and miles — especially for premium-class awards.

Once I got back to the U.S., I dove into learning about points, miles and credit cards by reading articles, browsing message boards, attending Chicago Seminars and listening to the now-discontinued Abroaders podcast.

Read more: Low fees, stopovers and open jaws: The best airline miles for flexible travelers

Victoria Walker, Points, Miles and Deals Reporter

A friend's picture of Etihad's First Apartment spurred Vikkie into investigating the world of points and miles. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/TPG UK)

I’m a part of a Facebook group for travelers of color, and I saw a member post a photo in Etihad's First Apartment. He said he only paid $30 for the ticket, and I had no clue what he meant. I was familiar with mistake fares and cheap deals but didn’t know much about earning points.

I soon learned that he booked the flight using American Airlines miles from a sign-up bonus (the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard). So I looked up the card and saw that it had a low annual fee. The bonus was also easy to earn, as it's one of the few cards with a welcome offer that requires just a single purchase. Then I started learning about other travel cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express, Chase Sapphire Preferred and American Express® Gold Card.

The information for the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

That was my first introduction to points and miles — I figured everyone just paid cash to fly in premium cabins and stay in luxury hotels. Now I can do the same (albeit with some changed priorities), and I can't wait to get back to traveling after the pandemic.

Read more: I’m taking advantage of 2 retention offers. Here’s how I’ll spend 27,500 points

Benji Stawski, Strategic Travel Reporter

TPG is the reason I got into points and miles. I initially came across the site through a YouTube video and knew right away that I wanted to learn more about how I could travel for (nearly) free. I quickly became hooked and started following TPG religiously.

Since I was 16 at the time — and you need to be 18 years old to open your own credit card — I told my mom which credit cards to open and had her add me as an authorized user so that I can reap the benefits. Our first card was the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card (now known as the American Express Gold Card), so we were earning a decent amount of points on popular categories like restaurants and U.S. supermarkets — though looking back, we should have probably applied for a Chase card first due to the issuer's 5/24 rule.

Whenever dining out with friends, I would offer to pick up the tabs in exchange for Venmo payments. Then, when moving to the other side of the country for college, I became loyal to American Airlines so that I could earn AAdvantage elite status and enjoy perks like free checked bags and upgrades when flying home. And now, I can share my strategies with TPG readers, helping them get the most out of their cards and loyalty programs.

Read more: All of the elite qualification changes you need to know about for 2021

Here's how you can do it too

There's one thing the above stories all have in common: Each one required no special access or insider tricks. You can get yourself into the world of points and miles and replicate the same strategies that we employ daily. Yes, it takes time to do so, but why not make this a New Year's resolution for 2021?

Here's a list of simple, tangible steps you can take now to unlock similarly-lucrative travel rewards:

  • Sign up for loyalty programs: Just about every loyalty program is free to join, and many currencies no longer expire. Now, that doesn't mean you need an account with China Airlines' Dynasty Flyer program. However, one with the major airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United) and hotel programs (Hilton Honors, IHG Rewards, Marriott Bonvoy and World of Hyatt) is a good starting point.
  • Upgrade your credit card portfolio: If you're still using that one card you've had for years, consider upping your game with a foray into the world of transferable point programs — like Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards. These can offer decent value for direct travel bookings but also have some of the best sweet spots through their array of transfer partners, a key step to unlocking incredible value for your points and miles.
  • Earn, earn, then earn some more: Finally, take some time to learn the incredible number of ways to earn as many points and miles as possible. Some simple methods include leveraging online shopping portals, joining a dining rewards program, maximizing bonus categories on your credit cards, and checking your Amex Offers and Chase Offers for extra points (or discounts) on your purchases.

The world of travel rewards has many layers of complexity, but starting small can still pay massive dividends when the coronavirus pandemic fades and we can get back to traveling. So take a page out of our books and start digging in. Soon, you'll be traveling the country (or world) at a fraction of the cost.

And that's a reason to look forward to 2021.

Featured image by GETTY IMAGES
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.