WORK THE SYSTEM

The “Points Guy” made a career of gaming credit-card rewards to get luxury travel

Brian Kelly, also known as “The Points Guy,” booked his first trip using credit-card points at the age of 12. His father was a health-care consultant who traveled for work and Kelly found on the internet that he could use the points—then a relatively new invention—to book a family vacation. He rented a house, using the travel site VRBO, in the Cayman Islands, which Kelly had just read about in the John Grisham legal thriller The Firm, and booked the flights for the family of six online.

It ended up being the most amazing trip—basically bonding for my dad and I because he wanted to try and figure out how to use his miles,” Kelly reminisced. “I was kind of this precocious 12 year old.”

When Kelly got older, he turned his obsession with points into a full time gig as a travel hacker. He started ThePointsGuy.com, a travel site that reviews credit cards, where he helps readers get the most out of their credit-card rewards and even use points to book luxury travel on the cheap.

Kelly honed those skills during his days as a campus technology recruiter at Morgan Stanley. He wasn’t making a lot of money—during the recession he said his wages were either stagnant or decreased—but he traveled extensively, earned millions of points and hotel promotions, and took advantage of them. At Morgan Stanley, Kelly was allowed to transfer the points on his corporate card to a personal card.

In lieu of a real cash bonus, points were my consolation prize,” Kelly said. “I learned how to work the corporate-card system.”

In 2010, he started blogging about points and answering travel questions on a frequent-flyer forum called FlyerTalk, always referring users back to his site. A year after his first blog post, he quit Morgan Stanley to pursue the site full time.

Kelly became an “online influencer” before influencer marketing was a thing. He attracted thousands of readers by writing a few blog posts a day, and was regarded as something of an expert. He was featured in the New York Times and gave interviews to CNN and other TV networks and news outlets.

The site was also bringing in real money. With the help of an affiliate marketer friend of his, Kelly added links to credit-card offers to his site in 2011 and would get paid if readers signed up through them. At first, Kelly didn’t know if he’d ever see a dime. But then a post that linked to a British Airways Visa promotion went viral, and he estimated that if just 10% of his roughly 25,000 readers at the time signed up he could make six figures. From then on, Kelly started writing more and more posts each day, tapping out at about 15—a responsibility he now shares with his 8-person editorial staff. Many of ThePointsGuy’s most popular posts are also the most profitable, he said.

“We create content that makes people’s lives better and give it to them for free and in return they get credit cards through our site,” Kelly said. “People travel smarter, people see their families more, people save thousands of dollars because they came across ThePointsGuy.com. And, in turn, if you’re going to get the credit cards that we talk about anyway, use our link.”

Today, The Points Guy brings in more than 3 million unique visitors a month, Kelly said. It also has 1.5 million likes on Facebook and hundreds of thousands of followers on both Twitter and Instagram.

Kelly has strict rules on how he deals with marketers and credit-card companies to keep the site’s credibility intact. He pays for all of his own travel, covers his employees credit-card fees, and doesn’t do exclusive credit-card deals.

“The credit-card companies, all of them pay us and its up to us to decide which ones we want to use,” said Kelly. “My integrity is my number one asset and you can’t buy it… I think our readers respect that.”

Kelly has about 30 credit cards, 10 of which he uses regularly—some for business and others for different bonuses like travel rewards—and a credit score of over 800 because he pays off the balances in full each month.

While Kelly said there’s no typical day for him, he did give Quartz a glimpse into his schedule for one particular day:

  • Woke up in New York
  • Interview with Fox News at 7:30am about “The Best and Worst Airports in the US
  • Spoke at a breakfast at the Soho House at 9:30am
  • Conference call with executive team
  • Interview with the New York Times
  • Interview with Quartz
  • Negotiated a deal with a credit-card issuer
  • Soul Cycle class
  • Charity dinner followed by a benefit for Miami’s Perez Art Museum

The best part for Kelly, he said, is that he gets to travel for a living. Kelly said he splits his time between Miami, New York, and traveling. As of this November, he had spent 100 nights in hotels during the year. “That’s probably more than I really should,” he joked. “But at the end of the day I’m a natural born traveller.”

Every trip is a mixture of business and pleasure. He went to Africa twice this fall for charity work, spent Christmas in the Maldives, where he tried out two different resorts and spent time filming and writing reviews. He’s spending three weeks in Indonesia over New Years.

In 2017, Kelly hopes to travel a little less while he continues to grow his business. He’s preparing to move the company into a new office in New York’s Flatiron District, and says a global expansion may be on the horizon.

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