In our Bank Bonus podcast episode 2, Grant Sabatier interviews Brian Kelly, also known as “The Points Guy” from ThePointsGuy.com.
Brian offers some great suggestions on how to maximize travel rewards and credit card points, such as:
- The importance of being smart with credit cards and paying off debts before getting into rewards.
- The best ways to keep track of travel rewards and how to optimize travel experiences.
- The importance of using credit cards for purchases, as they offer protections and perks that debit cards do not.
Overall, Brian encourages our listeners to start collecting points and miles and to take advantage of the rewards and perks that come with them.
Interview with Brian Kelly: The Points Guy
In this episode, Grant Sabatier chats with Brian Kelly, the Founder and CEO of ThePointsGuy.com.
Today, Brain gives our listeners an intro to travel rewards and credit card points.
Bank Bonus Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript
Grant Sabatier (00:25)
Hey, everyone. I’m really excited today. On the podcast I have, man, a guy that I’ve followed for years and really learned the travel rewards and travel hacking game from. He’s the OG travel rewards guy, none other than Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, ThePointsGuy.com. Man, it is a true honor to be chatting with you.
Brian Kelly (00:48)
Thanks for having me.
Grant Sabatier (00:49)
So let’s dive into travel rewards. It’s something certainly getting more popular. Everyone wants to travel for free or travel for less. Can you talk a little bit about what travel rewards are and how have they changed?
Brian Kelly (01:06)
Well, I think actually last week was our ninth anniversary of hitting publish on my first blog post. So it’s been a whirlwind nine years.
But I think the biggest thing is travel rewards are currency. And I think when people put that in their mindset that by accruing miles and points, you can pretty much do anything these days.
You can get amazing experiences, you can take fabulous trips. And as the millennial generation really values experiences, I think that’s why we’ve seen so many people get in on it. Because if you’re smart with your credit card, you spend, you really can live a better life and save a ton of money while doing it.
Grant Sabatier (01:50)
For the person that’s listening to this, that’s just like, “Gosh, that sounds so complicated. How could I even begin starting?” is it really that complicated to optimize your travel rewards and where can someone start if they haven’t started yet?
Brian Kelly (02:07)
Yeah, definitely it can be tricky as you get more advanced. The thing is this, miles and points, like I said, are currency, and the more you mine your knowledge in them the more value you get.
So unlike the US dollar which will fluctuate or Bitcoin which goes crazy, points and miles, you can make more valuable by investing and learning more about them.
So I think, and you’re totally right, if you are in credit card debt or can’t manage your monthly finances and getting a credit card might throw you out of whack, absolutely do not get into rewards.
Focus on paying off your debt and getting it to a place… The way you win is by getting the right credit cards, putting everything you can on your cards, and then paying it off in full every month so you avoid the interest.
If you’re paying interest, it’s going to negate the value of any of the points earned. So the real key is getting into a groove where you’re paying off your bills in full, but then you’re reaping not only the points but also the perks. That’s the biggest trend.
There are so many different issuers and ways to get points, but people really need to start paying attention to the different perks that cards can give you, which can save you tons and tons of money.
Grant Sabatier (03:20)
Are travel rewards getting more lucrative or less lucrative in your opinion?
Brian Kelly (03:25)
So here’s the deal. In general, airlines and hotels, because so many people are getting more and more points through credit cards and other ways, yes, there’s a sort of inflation that’s happening in the marketplace where five years ago it was easier to get a 25,000-mile domestic economy award. That was kind of the standard.
Nowadays you’re looking at 40 to 50,000 or even more depending on the route. However, that’s not all doom and gloom because what’s happened on the earning side is that there now are more really lucrative credit card offers out there.
So not only do you get signup bonuses, which today are 50 to a hundred thousand plus points or miles for getting a single card, but the game is really all about perks now too. So whether that’s lounge access, these things add up.
So you’re getting the points for the signup bonus, you’re getting points for the category bonus to 5X on airfare on certain cards, and then also you’re triple dipping and then you’re also getting the platform perks as well. And there’s also a ton of other protections as well on purchases that really add up.
So yes, while points and miles have been devalued to an extent, the rate at which you can earn them and the value of the perks has increased substantially.
Grant Sabatier (04:43)
How can someone keep track of all of this?
Brian Kelly (04:46)
It can be confusing. Yeah, some platforms will make you sign up for different perks and promotions and they rotate categories and it’s really dizzying, but different issuers are different. Sometimes you need to opt in for rewards.
But what I would tell people is the first step, look at what you spend your money on, the companies that you… And what your goal is.
If you want cash back, get a Citi Double Cash Card. It’s zero annual fee and it’s essentially 2% back when you pay your bill on time, plus you get all those different perks because it’s a MasterCard.
So whether you want cash back or you want to travel in first class like me, which is my favorite way to use points, there are cards out there for you. So take a look at your finances, and what you’re spending money on every month, and then align it to a credit card that’s going to reward you for those purchases.
Grant Sabatier (05:34)
Can you talk about how you use travel rewards to travel first class? Is that something that someone can do just by signing up for a card? How long does it take to accrue those miles?
Brian Kelly (05:45)
Especially if you’re flexible… So the airlines want to fill every single seat in a plane. They don’t want seats to go out empty. And the old adage was that for award seats, they would release two seats 11 months in advance and whoever gets those seats first then gets the first class seat.
But the airlines have actually gotten pretty sophisticated. So they’ll release awards randomly throughout the year based on how well the plane is selling.
But the airlines make billions off of these rewards. They sell billions and billions of dollars worth to credit card companies who then give them to consumers. So the thing is they actually want you to use your miles.
A lot of people think there’s this myth that, “Oh, I’ll never be able to use my miles.” You absolutely can and especially for first class.
If you go to Asia, a first-class ticket is going to be $10,000. But once you learn how to use your credit card points, transfer to different partners… That’s one thing I would say. If first-class travel is what you want, I would get a credit card that offers you the ability to transfer to a number of different partners. So we call them the transferable points programs. And what that does is it allows you to transfer based on where you want to go and what airline has availability to book those awards.
But especially last minute, airlines will open up a ton of space within two weeks of departure because they can’t realize the value of the miles that they’ve sold to the credit card companies until you redeem them. So there are more ways than ever to redeem. And even if your company books you in premium economy, you can use miles and points to upgrade.
And sometimes up to a hundred thousand points signup bonus, getting a single credit card can get you a free flight. So it is a little bit tricky. Sometimes you’ve got to figure out which partners, but that’s what… At The Points Guy, we have a team now of 60 writers and if you Google anything, about how to use X American Airlines miles to go to Asia, our team of experts has already done all the hard work. So we definitely make it easy.
And we actually just refreshed our beginner’s guide this week to help bring you through step by step because there’s more than credit cards too. Online shopping, you can get free airline miles or credit card points by going through certain portals.
So it’s a whole strategy and I guarantee you, it sounds confusing, but once you get into this points world you will get hooked.
Grant Sabatier (08:10)
Would you go as far as to say that it’s never been easier to travel for less?
Brian Kelly (08:16)
Absolutely. With so many different credit card companies and the perks and the points… I’ll say, and this is pretty US-focused, points earning is much less lucrative in the UK and most other countries.
It’s really rich here in the US. There’s a lot of different competition for consumers so there’s no better time for consumers to get in and get these really lucrative credit cards.
Grant Sabatier (08:39)
So let’s talk a quick bit about travel. You have the unique vantage point of having… You’ve been to just so many incredible places all around the world.
One of the challenges that I’ve seen as I’ve traveled more is that places are just getting so crowded. And even something that’s off the beaten path, within a couple of years, it starts getting crowded.
What are some of the tips that you found to make the most of the experience of travel? Are you going on off-peak times? How have you optimized your travel?
Brian Kelly (09:14)
Yeah, over-tourism is a huge issue. We see it a lot in Venice and Amsterdam. Barcelona is kind of waving their hand and saying, “No more.”
Airbnb is great, but it also puts out locals. So the travel… It’s amazing. I do believe we’re currently living in the golden age of travel in that it’s still really cheap to fly. You can get flights to Asia from New York for under $400. That’s crazy. So travel more than ever is accessible.
Yes, in the back of the plane are airlines jamming more seats in coach? For sure, but that allows people to travel cheaply. Now, what I would recommend is to push yourself outside your comfort zone. That’s what travel is all about.
So yes, everyone’s going to Europe in the summer. But actually, my favorite time to go to Europe is February, March in Paris is beautiful. It’s generally not that cold, but it’s put on a coat and walk around one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
And don’t just go to the Caribbean, push yourself to go explore. Instead of skiing in Aspen in February, go skiing in Chile in July. So I don’t know. I think as easy as it is to get in the habit and go to the same place over and over, I highly recommend exploring new destinations.
And that’s the fun of miles and points. When you have a huge stash, let your miles and points take you where you want to go. Go last minute and redeem points to go somewhere you’ve never been.
I actually just got back from Ghana this weekend. I’ve been eight times. Unbelievable country, people, food. So yeah, I highly recommend exploring new destinations.
Grant Sabatier (11:01)
Do you just travel all the time? Is that your life or do you ever get tired of traveling?
Brian Kelly (11:03)
People think that, and if you follow me on Instagram @briankelly, it may look like I’m just on planes all the time, but actually we have almost a hundred employees now and growing rapidly.
So the boss has to be in the office now. So it’s kind of funny that as the site has gotten more and more successful, the less I get to travel. But I am making no complaints. I get to travel quite a good bit, but I usually do one big trip a quarter.
Grant Sabatier (11:30)
What’s the favorite place that you’ve been in the last year?
Brian Kelly (11:33)
I’m a huge… Well, I guess I’m going to go two. So my number one all-around favorite is South Africa. It’s just an absolutely beautiful, physically, country from Cape Town… Have you ever been before?
Grant Sabatier (11:46)
I haven’t, no. I’ve been to Uganda and Tanzania, Ethiopia, but never South Africa.
Brian Kelly (11:52)
South Africa, you’ve got Cape Town, which is this beautiful city on the beach. You go in the water, there are penguins. Wine country right outside of Cape Town blows away Napa in terms of physical beauty, and then safari. So I’ve been on a bunch of safaris across Africa, but Kruger and Sabi Sands is my absolute favorite.
But I would also recommend Guatemala. Guatemala is so stunningly beautiful and I think a lot of people think it’s dangerous for sure there are pockets of Guatemala City that you probably don’t want to go to, but go an hour outside to the town of Antigua and it is the most charming, colonial, really, really cool city.
Lake Atitlan is like Lake Como times a million. It’s so spiritual. You feel that Mayan energy. So I’ve been to Guatemalan now five times so it gets better each and every time.
Grant Sabatier (12:47)
You made a comment about how Points Guy is growing. You have over a hundred employees. As you were growing the site, were you able to leverage the miles that you were getting from your business cards as well before or is that something that you were able to do?
Brian Kelly (13:05)
Yeah, for sure. Actually I launched a vlog a couple of months ago called Being the Points Guy, and our first-ever episode actually was very vulnerable and I take viewers into my Amex and other different accounts and that’s really how I earn most of my points.
I actually sold the company years ago, and part of my deal when I sold the company was that I would still get to put all the company expenses on my credit cards.
Grant Sabatier (13:31)
Brian Kelly (13:32)
And that’s how we fund a lot of our travel. So yeah, so we’re making millions of points a month based on airfare purchases, and social media marketing.
Now there are cards out there that’ll give you bonuses for Google Ad spend. So when you look at what you’re spending your money on, get cards that reward for that.
And even in our offices, I put all of our expenses on a MasterCard because I’m still maximizing, nine years later and as we’ve grown, but I’m still looking at every single dollar, how can I get the most value back and not just points, but also perks?
Because it really does add to the bottom line.
Grant Sabatier (14:11)
No, absolutely. When I hear over and over people saying, “Oh, I just used my debit card, or I just use cash,” they don’t realize that they’re missing out on not only incredible perks but the opportunity to literally travel the world.
Or even if you don’t like travel, there are so many other benefits just to using cards. It’s just such a remarkable time.
Brian Kelly (14:34)
And it kills me when I see people using debit cards. Okay, yeah, you’re not earning points, but you’re not… Protections, like the credit card companies, add a huge layer of protection.
These days, it’s so easy to… People will steal, especially in foreign countries, they will swipe the strip in an ATM machine. And if you’re using a debit card and someone drains it, they may reimburse you, but it might take weeks or months for that claim to go through.
You put something on your MasterCard and you’ve automatically got that protection and you have that peace of mind and they’re not going to lock up your cash as you go through a dispute.
Those protections really give peace of mind, especially when traveling around the world. And also a lot of debit cards will charge crazy fees when you’re abroad, foreign transaction fees.
So it’s important you get a credit card if you’re traveling internationally, that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees and there’s a ton of them out there.
Grant Sabatier (15:32)
Is there truly one best travel rewards credit card? There’s always this debate about this card is better than that card is better than this card.
It sounds like you use Amex and Citi and you’re diversifying. Can you talk about is there one best card, and if not, why do you diversify?
Brian Kelly (15:51)
Yeah, there’s no one best card because it depends on what you spend your money on. There are so many different category bonuses. It depends on what airline miles you want.
If you want American Airlines miles, there’s no Amex or Chase card that’s going to give you AA miles. You have to have a Citi card. So it really just depends on what you want.
And also really look at the perks as well. Free checked bags on airlines can save tons of money. So yeah, I highly recommend putting it together… I personally have about 20 credit cards because this is my business and I have to but I don’t recommend everyone getting 20 credit cards.
But interestingly, how FICO works, you can go to FICO’s website and they will tell you there is a two to five-point ding when you open up a new card, but it’s temporary.
But your credit score actually goes up with the more available credit you have. So if you get a new card that say has a $20,000 limit and you’re not using it, you’re paying it off in full every month, your score goes up over time.
So that’s what I love, educating people on how credit works and having available credit with several issuers so that no matter where you go, you’re accepted actually helps your credit score.
Grant Sabatier (17:07)
Whenever you go to buy something, do you have one of those wallets that has all 20 of your cards?
Brian Kelly (17:13)
The George Costanza wallet that’s like jam-packed?
Grant Sabatier (17:15)
Brian Kelly (17:15)
No. No, I’ve got three cards that cover my everyday expenses. The Citi Prestige has 5X on dining, which I eat quite a bit and do a lot of entertaining. So 5X points on all my dining, that’s outrageous.
So yeah, it just depends. I have a lot of cards. I store them on an online One Pass so when I’m shopping online, I can just select which one I want.
Grant Sabatier (17:41)
So it’s the golden age of travel, you said it yourself. How long can this last? Is this something… You’ve been doing it for nine years, and it seems like it’s not only gotten more popular but it’s grown.
If you’re into it and do a little bit of study, it’s kind of never been easier to use travel rewards to have incredible experiences.
Do you see an end in sight or is this just something where you think it’s going to be around for a while?
Brian Kelly (18:06)
This is going to be around for a while. If you look at the airlines, it’s selling… Their loyalty programs are their profit centers. A lot of airlines make more money with their loyalty program than they do actually flying planes.
And the credit card companies, they charge merchants for every transaction that you buy. And the fact of the matter is, we’re not going to cash. It’s the other way around. More and more retailers are actually not accepting cash at all, because when you use cash at a store, they’ve got to worry about employee theft and accounting.
When you use a card, they get paid much quicker. They can run analytics. It’s all about data these days. So we’re not moving back to a more cash society. And what I love about points is that everyone can benefit, the travel companies that have their co-branded credit cards, the credit card companies, merchants.
Now people will generally spend more on a credit card because they have that peace of mind. So my goal is making sure that consumers, once they accrue all these points and have all these perks on their cards, get the most value.
But in an ideal… Everyone can win. And frankly, it’s the people not earning points that are kind of paying for it for everyone else. So the only real big impediment to points and miles would be if we passed legislation like they have in Europe which highly capped the interchange rate. So it’s not nearly as lucrative to use credit cards there.
Grant Sabatier (19:35)
Anything that I didn’t cover?
Brian Kelly (19:37)
No, I think just back to the original point, miles and points are currency. They’re all around us, every purchase, and you should be collecting them. If you’re not in the points game, start. Get the right credit card for you that’s going to reward you.
At The Points Guy, we’ve got our whole beginner’s guide that’ll take you through step by step. We’ll even link to sign up for loyalty programs that are almost all free to do. Do a little bit of research and the rewards… I will say we have about 10 million monthly readers now. I get the joy of people coming up to me, “This changed my life.” People are able to visit family.
Because miles and points, if you have a death in the family last minute, those flights are crazy expensive. So once you have a stockpile of miles and points like you do, it changes your mindset on life. It’s a pretty freeing feeling.
And who doesn’t like to not give the airlines any more money than they have to? So it’s a fun game. Take it slow in the beginning, don’t get overwhelmed. But I have never in nine years gotten an email saying, “Hey, I got into points and I wasn’t able to do anything cool.” I have never… Or, “Hey, I got a credit card and my score went down over time,” as long as people are paying their bills.
So it takes a little bit of responsibility, but the rewards and the perks that you can reap are well worth it.
Grant Sabatier (20:55)
It’s a real honor, a real pleasure, and I appreciate you taking the time to be on the podcast. Where can people find you, Brian?
Brian Kelly (21:02)
I love the helping people live better lives through being smart about their finances. So congrats and safe travels.