Meet the Points and Miles Backpacker
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With this post, we introduce The Points & Miles Backpacker, a biweekly column appearing every other Monday. TPG contributor Brian Biros, who has 15 years of experience traveling all over the world with a backpack, will look at how you can use points and miles to fund this increasingly popular way of seeing the world.
I never had dreams of being a backpacker. I don’t have any crayon drawings from grade school of a stick figure hauling a backpack through a train station from when my teacher asked me what I want to be when I grow up. And maybe that’s because I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But in the meantime, the term “backpacker” describes me best — a title earned unknowingly while living a life of worldwide adventures fueled, at least in part, by points and miles. It’s a constantly evolving game, and one that you can play, too.
Keep in mind that there are two main versions of backpacking, which can overlap. One refers to wilderness trekking — think “backpacking the Appalachian Trail.” The other, which will be my focus, refers to highly budgeted urban travel with lodging in hostels and meals of street food — think “backpacking across Europe.”
For me, it started with an IT consulting job just after college that put me on a plane from Chicago to Washington every week. Soon after, United launched its “Around the World” promotion, one of the greatest frequent flyer promos of all time. After a few months of ORD-IAD, I had a free ticket to circle the globe.
18 months into my career, I took an early retirement for a five-month around the world trip. That made me a bit of a celebrity at home, but I did not stand out when I stepped into my first hostel full of Aussies and Brits who were in the midst of something called a “gap year.” Apparently, this was a thing. Taking a year in your late teens or 20s to backpack the globe was completely normal in other developed countries. But inexplicably, Americans were largely absent from the backpacking culture. And while my trip may have lacked in duration or ruggedness compared to some of the other backpackers, it stood out in one major category — it was free.
Needless to say, that trip was life-changing. Not only did it open my eyes to cultures and places I was oblivious to (Angkor… what?), it showed me the mind-boggling fact that these flights all over the planet could be free. Eventually, I went back to my IT consulting job, but this time I took full advantage of the travel benefits. Liberties such as using my weekend flight home to go somewhere else meant a weekend hop Los Angeles – Tokyo – Los Angeles wasn’t unusual. And after a weekend of bunking in hostels I’d be back at work in business casual on Monday morning, ready to crash at the Marriott by Monday night.
I lived this dual life for years, amassing over a million hotel and flight points: traveling IT professional by week, backpacker by weekend, with at least one extended backpacking trip per year. I also had two more mini-retirements which totaled three additional years of backpacking the globe. The consistent theme to all of these travels was that I wasn’t paying for them.
While I took full advantage of these opportunities, the area where I lagged behind was credit cards. We all have our regrets, but I was far too conservative, avoiding annual fees and never taking the time to learn transferable points programs. That is, until I started following The Points Guy. My points no longer come from client and company-sponsored flights, they come from credit cards. My international lounge access doesn’t come from United 1K status, it comes from Priority Pass. My total credit card annual fees used to rarely rise above $0, and now push $2,000. But the value I get makes it all worth it.
As I continued to pack my wallet with more plastic and study award-chart sweet spots, I started to notice TPG lacked content specifically aimed at the budget traveler, the backpacker… me. I had written previously for a backpacker magazine and website — even co-authored a travel book for the young, sexy, and broke — and I knew our demographic could benefit from free travel, so I wanted to meet The Points Guy and make a pitch. Coincidentally, TPG also happened to hit a million followers on Facebook around this time (that’s all of you! thanks!), and ran a promotion to win one million TrueBlue points from JetBlue. This was my golden ticket, and after a photo contest and a crazy weekend in NYC and SF, I found myself one million JetBlue points richer and with a new writing gig.
And today, we are launching my own column, tailored for backpackers and budget travelers with a focus on how to maximize points and miles to travel further and longer. A lot has changed in the backpacking world since my first big trip in 2005. Americans or travelers over 30 used to be a rare sight in a hostel. Not anymore. Couples, specifically American couples, in their 30s and 40s backpacking for a year seems to be a new trend. And while backpacking has made its way into American culture and is shaking off its stigmas around age, it’s still not quite seen as normal. We should change this. Not only do Americans have the same means of other countries where backpacking is the norm, we have one big advantage over them: A lucrative credit card market with generous points and rewards programs.
So after 15 years of serious backpacker travel, I might as well sit in a rocking chair smoking a pipe in the corner of the hostel lounge. I have wisdom to share, with tales from almost 100 countries and 300 hostels. I’m evidence that this can all be done with much of it for free. I hope my story will inspire you to make fresh footprints on your own off-beaten path.
Now check out the first post of the series, which looks at how you can get started seeing the world for cheap as a savvy points & miles backpacker.
Follow along every other Monday for more posts on how to make backpacking on points and miles work for you, and if you have questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org !
Featured photo by Pascal Kiszon/Getty Images. All other photos by or courtesy of the author, unless otherwise noted.
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