Brian Kelly, aka: The Points Guy, has become a staple in the travel industry. He’s a guru of redeeming frequent flyer miles and making your credit card points work to your travel advantage. From his humble beginnings, Kelly has managed to turn The Points Guy into a business empire. I was recently invited to stop by his stunning Manhattan office to have a chat and get to know the guy behind the points.
By Keith Langston
The Points Guy has turned into a huge operation, but it originally began as your blog. How did all of this get started? What was the inspiration? And how did it turn into a huge website with its own office in Manhattan?
Well, actually, it didn’t even start as a blog. It started as a Google Form. I was always really great at using my credit card points, and my friend was like, you should really set up a side business and help people use their points for travel. So, I set up the form that people could fill out, then I’d have them pay me $50, and I’d tell them how best to use their points. Then another friend said I should start blogging as a way to promote the service. I started that in 2010. It only took a couple months for the community to build. In 2011, I started making money off the blog itself. And then it just kept growing from there into what it is today!
Travel has obviously been a huge part of your life. What makes travel so special for you? Why use points for travel, and not something like cash-back?
Well, travel points are just worth way more than cash-back and others like that. You get more bang for your buck. Plus, there’s such a joy in being able to sit up front in business class. And to know that I didn’t have to pay for it makes it that much better. But obviously, you need to make sure you can pay your balance…otherwise, you will end up in a lot of trouble.
So, how many credit cards do you have right now?
I think I have 25 cards right now…But I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone. The more cards you have (if you pay them off) the more lines of credit you have, and so your score goes up. But only if you’re paying them off!
You’re a pretty big deal in the travel industry. What’s it like being LGBTQ in the world of travel and business? I mean, you’re a CEO, and I don’t think we have many openly gay CEO’s yet. Do you ever find that daunting?
In travel, there are a few others. The CEO of Qantas is openly gay, and I think travel is pretty open in general. In the beginning, when I was first starting to get big though, I wasn’t sure. Some people were saying don’t come out. Some people said things like “Your sexuality has nothing to do with travel.” And I thought about that a lot. But, the more you come out, the more you help change culture. So, I decided to be me, and show myself and who I was. And I think it’s really helped my business. People like connecting with others, so I think being authentic helped my company a lot.
There are some countries in the world that are still very anti-LGBTQ. And as someone who has traveled all over the world, I imagine you’ve probably been to some. How do you handle being in a country that might be hostile towards you?
I do a lot of work with Rainbow Railroad, so I went to Jamaica with them…and Jamaica is actually pretty horrible to LGBTQ people. I think most people’s first thought is always to boycott or avoid those countries. But you know, when there, someone said to me, “Don’t boycott the hotels here. Chains like the Marriott are the safest places for gay people in the country to work.” And they have a hard enough time as LGBTQ people to find jobs, so these American chains are some of the only places they can find employment. Having said that, I did partake in the Brunei boycott, and it embarrassed them so much, that they even changed the laws, so boycotting does work at times.
As far as travel, I’ve been to countries where it’s illegal to be gay. I don’t ever flaunt it or anything because I understand the culture, but yes, I’ll go. I think it’s important to experience and help communities around the world, and you never know, people can surprise you…like, I became a village chief in rural Guyana, which, I never thought would happen in my life. But I’ve definitely had awkward moments in cabs and stuff. One thing I’ll never do is go to countries where my safety is at risk. For example, I’ll never go to Saudi Arabia.
Have you seen all their ads lately? They are all over YouTube right now!
Yeah, I’ve banned the company from dealing with them. We won’t review anything with them. Not only are their ads on YouTube, but they’re also paying off all these social media influencers to take these beautiful trips to Saudi. Personally, I’m not going to a country where they’re going to brazenly kill a journalist. Always do your research before you go somewhere. That would be my advice to people before they go anywhere.
What about airlines? Will you fly Emirates?
Yep, and you know, I’ve had a lot of LGBTQ people yell at me for that. But you know, as far as the Middle East goes, they’re pretty progressive.
But don’t you see it as hypocritical? They only liberalized when they saw it brought in a ton of money from Westerners.
I see that as breaking down barriers. If my money can help liberalize a country, great! But you know, again, be safe. They have some draconian laws and the country definitely has its issues. It’s always important to research these things before going to other countries. But look at America right now. We’re still asking if companies can fire trans people. I think we shouldn’t judge others until we’ve fixed ourselves.
Can you tell me what we can expect for travel in the coming year?
The first trend is CLEAR. Pre-Check is getting crowded, so you’ll see that more and more airports are going to go for biometric scanning with CLEAR to help get people through faster.
Also, I think the a biggest threat we’re seeing is a lot of the discount airlines are going under, like WOW Air and Thomas Cook. I fear that we might lose more airlines in 2020. We had a golden age of cheap flights, but I think that’s going to be gone soon. Some credit cards offer flight protection, which will reimburse you if you’re flying on an airline that goes out of business, so make sure you check if your card has that.
Why do you think we’re losing so many low cost airlines?
Because it isn’t sustainable with current fuel prices for a long-haul flight to only cost $300. The prices were simply way too low.
Any tips for someone looking to get into the game of using credit cards to gain points?
Well, the sign up bonuses right now are amazing. So, now is the time to jump in. The biggest thing is that you don’t bite off more than you can chew. Get a juicy card that rewards things you’re already spending money on.
You work with so many companies now, have you ever had a business that has come to you with a partnership that you’ve turned down because it wasn’t helpful for your readers?
Oh yeah, the VISA Black Card is a great example. It just isn’t good for consumers. They came to me, and I said no. Also, our readers are smart. If we were to ever promote something bad, they’d know…and that would look really bad for us.
Let’s finish this interview off with a lightning round. I’m going to ask you some questions and you have to answer with the first thing that comes to your mind, ok?
Let’s do it!
Ok, favorite destination you visited within the last year?
One unexpected travel item you always carry with you?
My Bose noise-cancelling headphones, because, no matter what cabin you’re in, there’s always a baby somewhere nearby.
Most embarrassing travel moment?
I recently got a new iPhone, and I had forgotten to pair them with my Bluetooth headphones. I also love Celine Dion, she’s my spirit animal. So, I’m blasting Celine Dion through my phone’s speakers as I fumbled trying to get my headphones to connect, and the entire place got to listen to “My Heart Will Go On.”
Someplace you haven’t been yet, but really want to go to?
I want to go to Palau in the South Pacific to scuba dive, and Machu Picchu. Believe it or not, I’ve never ever been to Peru!