If you are into travel hacking, then you've probably heard of Chris Guillebeau before. If you haven't, you're in for a treat. Chris is seriously talented at earning frequent flyer points and knows how to get the most value out of them. If you follow him on Twitter (you should), you'll see that he walks the walk too: he has visited every country in the world and barely spends more than a month in one place. We caught up with him just before he set off on another round-the-world trip, booked with frequent flyer points. Enjoy!
Q. A lot of people outside of the US won’t know you. Who are you and how did you get to be a writer, travel hacker and entrepreneur?
I’m an author and traveller. I began these adventures because I wasn’t good at anything else. I liked travel, writing, and I was somewhat decent at cobbling together a livelihood along the way. Over the past ten years I visited every country in the world. I now write for a global community at ChrisGuillebeau.com and host events with readers wherever I go.
Q. You’ve said before that Sydney is your favourite city. What is it about it that you like so much?
Indeed it is! Or at least it’s near the very top. I love Australia in general and spend as much time as possible there. Every time I’ve come, I’ve always found it to be a very engaging place, yet also relaxing. It’s rare to have the two in such close proximity. Tokyo is a huge, engaging city, but it’s not very relaxing. Islands in Southeast Asia can be relaxing, but there’s not much going on. For me at least, Australia—and Sydney in particular—is the best of both worlds.
Q: Where are you headed on your next trip to? Who are you flying with? Was it booked on points?
Later this week I’m going around the world. The itinerary is as follows:
My positioning flight is booked with AA miles (First Class Japan Airlines to Tokyo), and then another award to Hong Kong and Johannesburg (First Class Cathay Pacific).
From there I’ll begin a OneWorld Round-the-World ticket in Business Class. By beginning in South Africa, I’ll save several thousand dollars on the price of the ticket compared to beginning in the U.S. (or in Australia, for that matter). These arbitrage opportunities aren’t as lucrative as they used to be, but there is still often a good savings opportunity if you can head over to another part of the world before officially beginning a trip.
Q. Who flies business class anyway?
A few people who pay full price (or at least, work for companies that are willing to pay full price) and a lot of people who are smart. This is the beauty of using miles and points—it allows you to experience things that you wouldn’t otherwise pay for. My Japan Airlines flight on Wednesday comes in at more than $6,000 one-way. I’d never pay that, of course. But for 62,500 AA miles and $30 in taxes, I’ll take it every time.This is the beauty of using miles and points—it allows you to experience things that you wouldn’t otherwise pay for.
Q: Usually I sit next to people who can’t speak a word of English, but one time I remember sitting next to a Franciscan monk on a flight which made for really good conversation. Have you ever sat next to anyone famous, important or infamous?
Yes, on a number of flights I’ve sat next to minor celebrities and athletes. I think the really famous people fly private, though. More interesting to me are the regular people, like the monk on my Thai Airways flight.
Q. The 2009 movie ‘Up in the Air’ made a big deal of George Clooney’s character reaching 10 million points. Is that really all that uncommon when there are so many credit card signup bonuses available?
I earn about one million miles and points every year. About a third of this comes from credit card bonuses, but there are plenty of other opportunities as well. A couple of years back I earned 800,000 miles from buying useless stickers. This opportunity was available worldwide, by the way.
Other times I’ve gone in for a hair loss consultation (20,000 miles!) or purchased $30,000 worth of dollar coins from the U.S. mint at face value, then immediately depositing them at the bank and paying off the credit card bill. There’s always something new.I earn about one million miles and points every year. About a third of this comes from credit card bonuses, but there are plenty of other opportunities as well.
Q. Credit card churning is the easiest way to earn a lot of points quickly, but there is always speculation about banks tightening conditions. Do you think there is a limited lifespan? Will the banks eventually pull back, or is it still an effective and profitable way to acquire new customers?
It’s funny; I’ve often thought that surely this would end or otherwise be greatly diminished at some point. But I’ve been thinking this for five years and the bonuses continue to grow. New offers come out almost every month, and it’s a real battle between banks to see who can be the most generous or innovative in an attempt to reach consumers.
So is there a limited lifespan? Sure, probably. But for the time being it seems likely to continue.
Q. How many cards do you have open at any given time?
At least a dozen. I use maybe half that number on a regular basis. I have some cards for business expenses, some for personal, some specifically for travel (the Chase Sapphire Preferred card earns 2x points on all travel expenses, for example), and some just to meet the minimum spend and receive the bonus.
Q. Are you ever concerned about the possible impact on your credit score of opening and closing cards?
No, because I manage my credit responsibly. I pay all balances every month. I’ve kept an eye on the score throughout five years of opening and closing cards. A flurry of activity does generate a slight decline, but then it goes back up a few months later. No harm done.
Q: Ever been upgraded for free? If so, how did it happen?
Yes, a few times. I’m not sure if it was the luck of the draw or some mysterious factor. These days, however, most domestic upgrades are assigned by a computer system based on elite status. International upgrades, at least free ones, are hard to come by except in cases where the flights are oversold. Qantas, for example, is notorious for not upgrading anyone on their long-haul flights unless absolutely necessary.
Q. If you were down to your last 10,000 points, what would you do with them?
Well, 10,000 isn’t that many—so I’d try to get back up to at least 50,000 as soon as possible. But actually, there’s one great use for them. As your readers are probably aware, domestic flights within Australia aren’t always cheap, especially on Qantas. Booking last-minute can be especially pricey. However, you can use either AA miles or British Airways Avios points to book on Qantas, and the rates are especially advantageous. In some cases it’s just 7,500 miles for a one-way flight.
I’ve used miles for this purpose while at Melbourne airport. There’s no penalty for booking late, and because there are so many intra-Australian flights between the major cities, availability isn’t usually an issue.
Tip : The value of frequent flyer points varies a lot between airlines, an issue which we've analysed before with the assistance of Steve Hui from iFlyFlat.