Skift Take

Kelly's approach both explains why getting miles via flying is one of the least effective ways to build loyalty, as well as why the business of points has become a big enough business that airlines are spinning them off as independent companies.

He’s the travel equivalent of the frugal lady who stuffs her pillows with dryer lint.

Brian Kelly, otherwise known as “The Points Guy,” is so savvy about using travel points and miles that he rarely pays for an airline ticket or hotel room.

When he was 13, he figured out how to use his father’s miles and points to take their family of six to Grand Cayman on vacation.

In his job as a Wall Street human resources manager, he parlayed his frequent flier miles into cushy trips to the Seychelles Islands and other exotic spots.

So many people asked him how he did it that two years ago, he quit Wall Street and turned to educating the bumbling masses (us) full time at ThePointsGuy.com. True, some of his complex mile-building strategies on the site read more like calculus problems, but it is all simple logic to him.

We caught up with Kelly, 30, at his Miami home to find out more.

Question: How many miles and points do you have?

Answer: That’s a very personal question. I don’t even know, but definitely seven figures. I do a lot of credit card bonuses. I have about 20 active credit cards … so it adds up pretty quickly. With so many points, you’ve got to use them.

Q: You have seven figures of points? Like more than a million points?

A: Yes.

Q: How much do you travel?

A: I try to do one big trip every quarter. This year I did South Africa for 10 days, which was maybe the best trip I ever had in my life. I used 110,000 US Airways miles because they are Star Alliance partners with South African Airways. It cost me \$100 and 110,000 miles for business class, which got me an \$8,000 ticket.

Q: What is your main message?

A: I want to teach people you can be sitting on hidden treasure. It’s kind of like extreme couponing, but more relevant. … When you use miles, it is cheaper in so many different ways.

Q: Why don’t credit card companies hate you? You game the system. You get the British Airways card with a 50,000 miles bonus on it, then cut up the card a few months later.

A: The credit card companies love me. That is how I basically function. As much as it’s gaming to an extent, I also teach people how to be a good customer. I am able to educate customers about the Chase Sapphire Preferred card better than Chase can. … The credit card companies already paid the airline for the miles. They want their cardholder to be happy and use the miles and get the value so they spend more on the card, and everyone is happy.

Q: So credit card companies support you because you get people to apply for credit cards.

A: A lot of credit card companies approach me about promoting a card, but if I don’t believe in it, I won’t do it.

Q: How are you connected to the airlines?

A: You would think the airlines would fight me. I don’t care about the airlines. I don’t take free trips from the airlines. I have cordial relations with them. I know their frequent flier programs better than they do.

Q: What do you see happening with frequent flier miles?

A: They lose value over time because airlines are pumping more and more miles into the marketplace, but there aren’t more airlines. In fact, the opposite is true — airlines are merging. When more people have points and there are fewer flights out there, it’s becoming harder to book awards. However, I am by no means a doomsayer. There still are ways.

Q: What is a good card or deal right now?

A: The Chase Sapphire Preferred. The sign-up bonus is 40,000 points. Conservatively, that’s worth \$500, and the \$95 fee is waived the first year. Even if you are an absolute beginner, you are going to get a single ding on your credit report, but you make \$500. It’s a no-brainer. You can transfer miles to 10 different partners, including United, (whose miles) I think are most valuable.

Q: Delta is the big airline in Michigan. Are Delta SkyMiles good for award travel?

A: You are lucky if you get 1 cent a mile out of Delta.

Q: Is it more valuable to use points and miles for flying, hotels or what?

A: In general, airline miles are best redeemed on flights and hotel points on hotels.

Q: If you have 20 credit cards, how do you keep your credit score up?

A: I don’t use all the cards. I keep some open only for the perk. The Hyatt card is \$75 a year, but it gives me one free hotel room a year, so I get a \$250 hotel room for \$75.

I also auto-pay everything. Remember, 35% of your credit score is just how many balances you are running every month. … And yes, I put every single dollar possible on a card. I only use cash kicking and screaming. (And he doesn’t use debit cards either.)

Q: Do you travel alone?

A: I am single, but I just took a group of three friends to Milan, and we went to the Beyonce concert.

Q: What trips are you planning?

A: I’ve got Australia-New Zealand planned for next February. I’m planning a cruise to Antarctica, at least if I can get my flights to the southern tip of Argentina fully paid for in miles.

Q: Are credit cards offering more or fewer bonus miles offers these days?

A: Most bonuses, at least the good juicy ones, aren’t after first purchase anymore.

Q: Is someone going to buy your site so you can retire?

A: To be completely transparent, I do a lot with Bankrate.com. All my credit card links and advertising are through Bankrate, and I kind of am a preferred affiliate of theirs. But I’m living my dream. I just turned 30. Almost every time I fly, people thank me for helping them travel. This is my dream job, and I don’t want to quit it anytime soon.

(c)2013 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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Tags: loyalty, money