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A Frequent Flier's Pro Secrets to Saving Money With Travel Points
The Venue Report
by The Venue Report

Allow us to introduce you to Ian Agrimis. A millennial traveler, adventure enthusiast AND a whiz when it comes to how to use his air miles and points to their fullest potential. Ian's travel experience originally came from years of working with Go Pro and using their products while on his excursions (seen below in most recent European adventure). Now, Ian specializes in helping others get the most bang for their buck using his very own trials, errors and successes. 

Obviously, we had to tap this mastermind's brain! And don't worry, if you are still a tad confused on how this all works, you are not alone. But you'll have to keep scrolling to see how you can get one-on-one custom assistance from the expert himself. 

 

GoPro Travel Experience: Switzerland and Prague Edition

Cover Image: Félix Bossé

 

 

What prompted this trip? 

Ian: My girlfriend was finishing her last semester of physical therapy school and had a five week break before starting her residency so we knew it was going to be prime time for travel. We had never traveled out of North America together and I had started her on the points and miles hobby several months earlier, so we thought it was the perfect opportunity to cash out our miles and have a great experience!


What did your itinerary look like during your trip?

Ian: We first headed to Zurich, Switzerland from San Diego on Turkish Airlines. This meant a layover in Istanbul, but it was completely worth it for the incredible amenities we experienced on board and on the ground as a passenger with Turkish. We took a “Cheese, Chocolate and Mountains” tour that left from Zurich and also rented a car and did a day trip ourself from Zurich-Kandersteg-Lucerne-Zurich. After 5 days in Switzerland we flew directly to Prague for five more days of fun before flying home through Frankfurt with United on our way back to San Diego. 
 

Top three fav moments during your trip?

Ian: Unequivocally, our favorite experience was the Rodelbahn Alpine Slide in Switzerland. To get there, we drove a few hours to Kandersteg and then took a gondola up into the mountains. It was so fun we did the course five times…highly recommend it . It was hard to top that, but it only took us a few hours to come close. Later that same day we drove to Lucerne and had dinner at Hotel Des Balances on their outdoor terrace that literally hangs over the Reuss river. The food was incredible, the views of the Swiss alps were stunning and it was a perfectly warm evening to enjoy a meal outside. Finally, in Prague we took a driving tour of the city in an old stagecoach style car. We got to see a ton of the relatively small city very quickly, people gave us funny looks everywhere we went, and our driver was hilarious.


Lets chat about how you made this trip happen... We hear you are a whiz when it comes to points! 

Ian: When I redeem my miles, I’m always looking for the redemption that provides the most value. In this case, traveling to Europe I knew I wanted to find a carrier with flat-bed seats, great food, service, and entertainment. I also wanted to find a flight that was long enough to truly enjoy all of these amenities, which means 8hrs or longer, in my opinion. We flew San Diego-San Francisco-Istanbul-Zurich on Turkish Airlines, which provided all of the aforementioned services and provided the opportunity to visit the best business class lounge in the world in Istanbul.

We had 5 days/nights at the Zurich Marriott, which was in a fantastic location and had been recently redone. We were upgraded to a room with a great view of the city and had access to the hotel lounge, which included free breakfast for two as a result of my status with Marriott. We used 160,000 Marriott points for this five night stay, but the fifth night was free, which is a benefit Marriott offers to those who redeem points for stays of four nights or longer. The nightly rate would have been $485 plus taxes for our stay had we paid with cash, which meant we were getting a tremendous amount of value out of our points on this stay. 

We then flew to Prague for 4 days/nights at the Barcelo Old Town Praha hotel. This hotel was in an even better location than we had expected, just a few minute walk from the popular Prague Old Town Square and Astronomical Clock, though no views. We used cash-back points my girlfriend had accumulated for years on a Bank of America card for this stay, but didn’t get as much value as our stay in Zurich. Cash-back point redemptions usually work on a 1 point=1 cent basis, so 60,000 points got us an exactly $600 credit towards the rate of the room, covering 3/4 nights. The hotel was quite nice and the staff were very attentive, offering evening turndown service and leaving chocolates on our pillows each night after we returned from dinner (though the chocolate was not nearly as good as what we had just encountered in Switzerland).

The flights costs us 280k miles roundtrip plus taxes and fees of roughly $150. The hotels cost us 160k Marriott points plus the 60k cash-back points. Total cash paid for 10 nights in Europe at 4.5-5 star hotels was $125.


Give us the rundown step by step. What does your point process look like? 

Ian: My strategy for acquiring points is a (relatively) simple three step procedure. 

The first is to make sure you are using the right card for the right purchases. If I’m buying airfare, I want to use the card that gives me 5x on airfare (Amex Platinum), if I’m buying food at any kind of restaurant I want to use the card that offers 2x, 3x, or in certain months of the year, even 5x on dining (chase freedom), and if I’m buying gas or groceries I’ll want to use the card that offers 2x on both of those categories (Amex Premier Rewards Gold). The first step: maximize the spending you already do to make sure you’re getting the largest return on your purchases.

Take advantage of great sign-up offers for cards as they pop up. Everyday these offers are changing and some cards may increase their sign-up bonus by as much as 250% during certain times of the year. This makes bringing in huge numbers of points in short periods of time much easier, but don’t over do it because this can hurt your credit score. The second step: Know when to take advantage of a good sign-up bonus.

Making sure you are always crediting the miles you fly to an account with good options for redemption. Delta offers notoriously bad value with their miles, so much so that their “Sky Miles" are sarcastically referred to as Sky Pesos in the points and miles community. When I fly Delta, I credit the miles to my Alaska Mileage Plan account which makes redemption easier and cheaper. The third step: Make sure your points and miles are going to the right account.

(I would be remiss not to add a disclaimer which is that the only way this strategy works in your favor, is if you can pay off the entire balance you charge every single month. This means $0 due at the end of each month. If you don’t do this, the money you pay in interest to the credit card company will negate the value of the points you earned so this is a must and if you can’t make this happen, these credit cards are not for you. Yet!)
 

How do you make the most of your points? 

Ian: I try to redeem my miles exclusively for international business or first class seats as this offers the greatest value for my miles. While it might cost me 30k miles to fly in economy on the same flight that could cost 55k miles in business, if I were to buy with cash, the difference would be much greater. For example, if the economy ticket is $500 and business costs $2500, I only spent double the miles cost of the economy seat for a ticket that would ordinarily be 5x more expensive. Couple that with the fact that I can sleep well on the plane (in a bed), eat great food on board and in lounges that I don’t have to buy at an airport or on the plane, be transported to or from the airport in a car service that is a perk of my class of service, and the additional value I get out of using those additional miles seems to me like a clear choice.

At hotels, it’s more difficult to get the same value out of your points, but it is easier to find rooms to book with them. Being aware of fifth night free perks like Marriott offers on points redemptions, or free breakfast for two options that are offered through certain credit cards and hotels, can really help you add a lot of value to your redemption.

Finally, knowing how and when to redeem is the most enjoyable part of this hobby for me, but also what takes the longest to learn. Because the companies and airlines that hand out these miles and points have a goal of being profitable businesses (understandable), it means that they must devalue their points programs every few years. For the consumer, this means you want to accrue as many points as possible in as short a time as possible and then spend them as quickly as possible before their value decreases. That may sound stressful, but bare with me, it doesn’t happen that quickly. I have certain redemption levels that I keep in mind, specifically International business class redemptions, which usually fall anywhere from 100k-150k miles/points roundtrip and when I get close to that amount, I book a flight. I avoid using my miles for domestic economy travel unless I need to travel somewhere last minute and the ticket is exorbitantly expensive, and I rarely use my miles to “purchase” upgrades to a higher cabin class, because the value of doing so is typically not great and it usually comes with a cash fee.

Ultimately what I love most about traveling on miles and points is being able to go anywhere in the world in considerable comfort and luxury for almost $0 out of pocket so I can spend money on the experience once I arrive. Not to mention, having a stockpile of miles is a small insurance policy in the case that you would need to travel somewhere unexpectedly and can’t afford to buy the ticket with cash. At times I feel goofy with 8 or 9 credit cards in my wallet, but when I’m stretched out in a first class pod drinking fine wine and eating delicious food on my way towards adventure, it all seems worth it!
 

Any advice for someone who has never used points before? 

Ian: The first thing is to make sure you do not try and finance your travel with credit card points/miles unless you can pay off your balance in full every month. If you can, you’re good to go! Start small, don’t apply for 8 cards in a month, but maybe one card every 6-8 months as you continue to build credit and learn how to manage a bunch of different cards at one time. I also recommend getting cards with transferrable points currencies as it gives you the most flexibility and freedom in your quest to travel. Cards with American Express, Chase and Citi earn points that can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio to dozens of popular frequent flyer and hotel programs. This means that one Chase point equals one airline mile, the major difference is that the Chase bank card earns points faster than an airline card. For example, if we’re at dinner and we split the $100 check and I pay with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card and you pay with a United Mileage Plus card, I will earn $50x3pts/$ on dining = 150 points, while you will earn just 50 points as that card only earns 1pt/$ on dining. Over the long term, this will make a big difference. In the points and miles hobby we like to say, “every point counts,” because I can not tell you how many times I have been just 1000, 100, 50, or even, yes, 3 points shy of enough points for a redemption. 

 

For more help on using your points and air miles, Ian created a website where he offers that exact service. Capture Unlimited walks you through your budget, you dream destinations and does not require a credit card until you decide to book. It's like we've struck gold! 

 

Cover Image: Félix Bossé

 

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