Swim Upstream: Identify That Which Makes You Unique & Find Your School

Warning: I’m still feeling some residual grumpiness, so humor me a bit today.

There’s a lot of really bad advice out there. Advice on traveling for “Free,” advice on what credit cards we “all should get,” advice on the best programs.

And then there is your personal best.

I’ve long advocated that we be the best individuals we can be. To borrow a phrase from Robert’s recent post that sometimes means doing the opposite of what the herd is doing.

Make Mistakes and Learn From Them

I’ve made some really, really stupid mistakes in my days. I’ve booked flights in the completely wrong month. I’ve schlepped my family through airports on way too many connections. I’ve thrown money away on stupid schemes that never really panned out.  I’ve spent way too much time on certain schemes and way too little time on ones that could have been much more lucrative.

But the biggest mistake I made was reading about someone else’s travel and trying to emulate that. It just never worked out for me. I’m me, you’re you, and we’re both very different collections of 100 trillion cells. Add your family in the mix and you’re a unique travel unit, unlike any other.

Learning what you like and what you don’t like cannot be done on Twitter.

I’m stressing that sentence the most here because I think there’s a little too much of this being done.  Reading what people *think* and reading what people are doing are two completely different actions. And one thing I’ve learned from the reboot of the blog is that there’s not as much actual “travel hacking” going on with some bloggers (myself included, more on that later).  You might be traveling more than the writers of the blogs you read, yet many of you are putting more into what blogs say than your own experiences and intuition.

In that respect these past few months I’ve been a pretty horrible blog writer, as I’ve taken just 1 trip so far this year.  I need to push back against my default that defines me but also creates the very thing I hate–a writer who says to do things they’re not actually doing.  This post is partially written for me, in an effort to get me traveling more, and partially for all of us to be better at what we love to do: Travel.

What Makes You Unique?

Do you know what makes you special? What’s unique about yourself?  This seems like an easy question to answer, but I would bet that if I asked you to write three things that make you unique you’d struggle (don’t worry: I struggled with it too, we’re a lot alike in that respect?).

Some questions to consider about yourself:

  • What are your travel goals? And I mean your own personal goals here. If you’re unsure where to start with this, look at what you’re interests are. Wine? Food? Music? History? Fashion? Beaches? R&R? Silence? Research topics that interest you and see what places those topics take you.
  • What is your core competency? Do you know makeup brands, stores and trends?  Kids clothes and trendy baby gear? Those are two areas I know ZERO about. But if that’s your niche why not try to turn that into something big. And maybe along the way earn some miles?
  • Do you have time for any of this? A whole lot of you don’t, which is completely fine. If that’s you then consider your options and how best to maximize your earning from your regular spending. Cashing out points is not taboo, and for some of  you might actually be the best idea for your financial health.
  • Do you have a yearly travel budget? This is one I really think we all need. There’s an appropriate amount of “FREEEEE!” travel for every household, and for you that might mean a lot more, or a lot less than someone else. Over spending on “Free travel” is a really terrible way to do long term damage to your financial well being.
  • What are you weaknesses? Mostly with respect to travel, but in general as well. Two, or three young kids? That’s going to be a struggle. Math is pretty important in a lot of what we do, if you struggle with it be upfront about that. If you’re risk averse that’s fine too. Be as honest in your weaknesses as you are in your strenghts.

You can do what everyone else is doing, but I would suggest you use at least part of your free time to do something unique. This is the ‘swim upstream’ I’m asking you to do.  Keeping one foot in the now and one in the future means you’re ready to continue stepping forward, making progress.

When everyone is moving with the current swim against what’s current.

The days of open and honest sharing online in places like Flyertalk seem to be somewhat long gone. This shouldn’t be a surprise here–sharing information has led to that information being published online in a little too visible way. Perhaps this blog has been guilty of that as well in the past. But there are others which are certainly still doing this, and whole packs of people hanging onto those blogs and working as a group to pick the field bare before average users have a chance. That won’t change, so you’ll have to change and find something else that works for you.

Follow Local Blogs

Did you know that there are entire parts of this country without a Chase branch? Seems impossible? And yet for those of you in those areas without Chase branches you’re thinking to  yourself, “duh.” I only bring this up because if you’re not reading local blogs you might just assume that the entire country has Chase branches, American Express credit cards are in everyone’s wallet and we’re all doing everything the same way.

There’s no one that will be a direct mirror image of you. Find people who are similar enough. If you’re determined to travel and you can’t see yourself spending for anything but coach travel you’ll probably want to focus on flexible bank point cards. Finding a blogger who travels the way you do is a great way to get actionable information.

I’m going to throw a whole lot of small, local bloggers under the bus here: EMAIL/TWEET/DM us. We’re more than willing to talk with you. I’m constantly surprised by the LACK of people who reach out to Robert and Myself. Leaving comments on blog posts is great as well because others can learn from those comments. If you notice your comments/questions are going unanswered you’re probably asking them on a blog that’s too big. (I call these National blogs)

Find Your School

You network when it comes to jobs and your career. That same networking is critical in miles and points. Finding your school means grouping with people near you. Not seminars, not large groups of people. Small, organic groups of local people who are like minded. This can be done to some extent online, but it really works best in person.

Try to make your school the pack of people who closely represent your risk tolerance, travel patterns, budget, and lifestyle.  I think it is important for those blogs you read to tell you if they’re independently very wealthy and seeking first class travel at a highly discounted rate. Again, there is nothing wrong with that, but if you aren’t in search of that you’re being pushed the wrong direction.

Finding your school also means figuring out what you don’t know enough about and focusing your attention on that. This is not as easy as you think it is. Because we default to what is easy, repeatable and current. But everything in this game dies eventually, so if you’re not learning you’re eventually going to be sitting on the sidelines as the current passes you by.

Can’t find a school in your area? Be the schoolmaster. You might have nothing more than coffee once a month and invite a few people you barely know.  Share what works and what doesn’t, learn from each other; but don’t forget what your travel dreams are.

And don’t let anyone sell you on their dreams.

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About the author

- Written by Sam Simon. All ideas are my own, but I encourage you to see my point of view and I promise I'll try to do the same. Connect with me on Twitter @Milenomics.


  1. ?

    It took me too long to figure out that the blogs that were reviewing first class travel and luxury accomodations were not aligned with what I valued (the destinations themselves).

    (Likewise, it took me far too long to understand that these same blogs were primarily sales sites and using my passion, travel, to keep my attention.)

  2. “Do you have time for any of this?” or Does this time you spend take away from other things that might benefit you? Last year I suffered some major bank shut downs. This resulted in me no longer using my lunch hour to buy and liquidate gift cards. I needed a new lunch routine, so I started walking each day at lunch. 5 Month in and I’m down 40 lbs. Secondary benefit is that coach seat on our returns from Europe just got a little roomier.

    Thanks Robert and Sam for keeping up the blog with great new content

    1. Particle: An extra few inches of seat space? Talk about BYOE! 🙂 I like that you replaced it with something positive like walking. Great advice for other readers!

  3. YES. I’m so tired of travel bloggers talking about the PH Vendome and the Maldives and using 215k MR to fly two people to Asia one-way. These aren’t my travel aspirations; not even close.

    You raise an interesting point about looking for local bloggers. Some deals really are specific to certain regions or airports, and it is worthwhile following them to find useful, relevant information.

  4. As a UK resident my lack of ability to play the higher level games I feel has rapidly smashed me through the WOW and OMG phases of a newbie to this game and the selling blogs.
    The only “wow” redemption I am still interested in is EK a380 first; but because of where I actually want to fly it will be achieved from a one way points upgrade out of business *not* an award ticket.
    My only other interest in this game is now so I am holding points across programs as a get out of jail free when shit hits the fan for short notice redemptions. I think this is the only universally applicable take away from the game.
    Throughly endorse the you do you message.

  5. I still remember the feeling of reading posts breathlessly noting that US Airways points were on sale, probably for the last time, and how it offered the amazing opportunity to acquire them for. . . $.011. . . and then thinking, wait, I am trying to save/make money… why would I go buy miles I might one day use? I knew so little!

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