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A million miles goes a long way
PEDRO Pla and Grace Cheng are a fascinating couple. They make their living telling people what credit cards to sign up for, being credit card geeks themselves. The duo are the husband-and-wife team behind GET.com, a credit card comparison site that they founded in 2011.
The couple's preoccupation with getting the most out of their credits cards is rivalled only by their passion for travelling. In 2007, they set out on a year-long journey around the world, during which they toured five continents (excluding Antarctica and Australia/Oceania), while running their startup full time. Come January, they will embark on another Round The World trip, this time with their two children - ages two and four - and with air tickets completely paid for (well almost, they only had to pay taxes and fees), using air miles earned from credit card spending in the past year.
Over tea one rainy morning in Sentosa (the island on which the couple lives), Ms Cheng tells me wanderlust had hit them again late last year. "We got the idea to travel the world with our children, but knew it would be very expensive. So we wondered how we could do it for free."
Accumulating a million air miles then became the couple's goal for 2016. Ms Cheng says that in the past, the couple had redeemed their credit points more frequently for short-haul flights as they accumulated, and sometimes for cashback and shopping vouchers. But for this year at least, they resolved to put them all towards air miles.
Mr Pla, a Spaniard and now a Singapore permanent resident, reveals that it took a lot of "military-precision" researching, planning and executing. As the couple did not belong to the top rungs of frequent flyers who would routinely fly every other day or do mileage runs (that is, buy a ticket, board a plane, and then fly across the country solely for the purpose of obtaining frequent-flyer miles) as some travel bloggers do, they maximised their credit card usage to collect the most points and miles possible.
Ms Cheng calls the operation a classic case of "travel hacking" - earning a million air miles solely through the strategic use of credit cards, and, without spending more than they had to. I ask which cards they had used to bring home the points. Mr Pla replies "a mix", which included cards by Citibank and American Express.
The couple reached their goal in September, taking only nine months. By then, they had obtained over a million air miles, of which 960,000 were redeemed for four Round The World tickets on Business Class with Star Alliance, to travel to the same five continents they did in 2007. Mr Pla says that's some S$76,000 worth of air tickets! Taxes and fees, which they had to pay, came up to about S$8,000.
But celebrations were not yet in order, as Mr Pla recalls the thoroughly tricky ordeal the couple had to endure next: sorting out their redemption of air miles, and itinerary. "It took us a month of planning with Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Star Alliance . . . we realised you can't always get what you want."
For instance, they had hoped to start their round-the-world journey by flying from Singapore to New Zealand, but there just weren't available tickets. Their hassle is also unsurprising. An SIA customer representative in fact told them that they had "hit the jackpot", being the first to use miles to redeem Round The World tickets on Business Class, and for a party of four, no less.
Mr Pla says, laughing: "We actually did up a full itinerary and e-mailed that to SIA, which then came back two days later with revisions. In the end, we completed the whole redemption booking with them via the phone. It took us a total of five hours of talking on the phone to finally sort out our routes."
Their itinerary goes like this: Africa, Europe, then South America, North America, and finally Japan and South Korea. Ms Cheng and Mr Pla will be taking their children out from school for that six months of travelling. How's that for cool parents?
Now that they have achieved the unprecedented, the couple has tips for the aspiring travel hacker:
Mr Pla says, firstly, that it makes better sense to redeem miles for Business Class rather than Economy tickets, as a Business Class ticket usually costs three to five times that of an Economy one if you purchase it with cash (for example, S$4,440 versus S$1,250 for a round-trip ticket from Singapore to Cape Town), but can be had for just twice the Economy-class equivalent or less when you redeem with miles (for example, 240,000 versus 120,000 miles).
He doesn't recommend First Class tickets however, simply because First Class award seats are limited and typically unavailable for a travelling group with more than two people.
Ms Cheng adds: "What we are doing shows that it's possible to derive value from using credit cards. If you are already going to spend, why not spend the money wisely? By using credit cards, and paying your bills in full every month, the cards become a mode of payment, not a line of credit."
Ever the credit card geek, she says: "You use cash, you lose cash."
Of course, the husband-and-wife team also recommends that travel hackers use GET.com to get the latest scoop on credit card promotions, and discover which cards best suit their lifestyle and travel needs. One has to be diligent about it; if one is lazy and uses an inferior card that gives "lousy miles" for instance, it's throwing away miles, they say.
Mr Pla has one final piece of advice: "It's better to own more credit cards in most cases. Just don't overspend, or ever carry a balance. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of getting more for your money."
Travel hacking - a thing this couple has mastered - is proof that hacking (an act that usually brings to mind someone malicious in a dark room, breaking into websites) can be used for good. Lifehacks, for example, are low-budget tricks, skills or shortcuts that help people manage their time and daily activities more efficiently - such as putting your straw through the can tab to keep it from rising out of your drink. They're little things that make our lives easier.
In what may seem counter-intuitive, companies could encourage employees to uncover and propose hacks to make their products better, and their companies safer, disruption-proof and future-ready. Already, tech companies offer hackers bounties for reporting flaws in their systems; Nintendo recently launched a new initiative that pays hackers up to US$20,000 to find major vulnerabilities in its Nintendo 3DS system. I guess if you can't beat them, you can always get them to join you.