Like a lot of millennials, Jared Kamrowski graduated from college in 2008 with loads of debt, ample social-media experience and a thirst for adventurous travel. Unlike a lot of millennials, though, he also landed a well-paying job straight out of school — which he then gave up eight years later.
“It’s amazing how one thing led to another,” said the 33-year-old founder of the in-demand website and newsletter ThriftyTraveler.com whose initial job was working as a CPA for the FDIC. Talk about LAME. But being a bank examiner put him in other cities 150 or so nights a year, and that’s when he started to apply his nerdy inclinations toward something a lot more fun.
“It was kind of a perfect mix, where I had a financial background, I traveled a lot, but I was relatively broke. So I had to figure out how to maximize the reward points I was getting, and find every deal I could.”
That’s how Thrifty Traveler came about, a brand that has earned more than 200,000 followers in three years between the website, Facebook and Instagram. Many of its devotees eagerly await each day’s latest deals, and almost a third of its audience is from or near the Twin Cities. Which makes sense when you consider that Kamrowski and his partner, Nick Serati — a childhood friend from Fargo, N.D. — run their site and do their personal traveling out of Minneapolis.
“The more we’ve gotten to travel, the more we’ve stuck to our mission of trying to find ways of doing it on a pretty average income, because we want to take advantage of all this, too,” said Serati, who posts many of the site’s tips on maximizing credit-card offers while blogging about his own travels. But the daily flight deals have been the jet behind Thrifty Traveler’s engine.
“It’s a little selfish,” admitted Kamrowski. Meeting at the south Minneapolis coffee shop where he frequently grinds away on his laptop — they’re opening an actual office near the end of the year — Kamrowski offered a peek behind the curtain of Minnesota’s 21st century version of a travel agent.
What has happened to facilitate your popularity?
The decrease in oil prices brought down the prices of flights. At the same time, there’s been an increase in competition. There are so many budget carriers now, and not just Spirit and Frontier but Iceland Air, WOW Air, Norwegian, many others, and they’re all competing and bringing down prices. It wasn’t too long ago that [nobody] would have believed you could fly to South America from Minneapolis for $200 or to Europe for $380. There was also the confluence of social media and e-mail taking over our lives. It’s easier than ever to spread the word on these deals.
Why was the Twin Cities the right place to launch Thrifty Traveler?
It makes perfect sense. Let’s face it: We need to get out of town a lot more because of our long winters. People here are always looking for cheap flights to Mexico or the Caribbean. Also, being in a Delta hub helps. I’ll go ahead and say I think Delta is the best airline in the U.S., so travel out of Minneapolis is usually pretty reliable. And we have a very nice, almost Scandinavian-nice airport.
But isn’t it somewhat of a disadvantage that MSP is so heavily dominated by Delta, almost like a monopoly at times?
Without a doubt. In one of the most recent Delta quarterly calls, one of the executives said they can charge more because they know people here are willing to pay a little more of a premium to fly with them. We’re definitely Delta hub hostages living in Minneapolis, but if you fly enough, you realize that’s not entirely a bad thing.
I always tell people: If you can, just fly Delta. I might sound like a parrot for the company, but the truth is they are the on-time machine. The metrics prove that. You don’t get stranded somewhere if you’re coming from Minneapolis on Delta, because they’re so large, there’s so much flexibility in their IT system. The sheer size of Delta means they can more easily recover when something goes wrong.
Meanwhile, the newly sold Sun Country Airlines has gone from another mainstay locally to almost free-fall status. What’s going on?
It’s really been sad to see. We broke the story when they abandoned all those people from MSP in Mexico [in April from Cabo San Lucas], which became widely reported. Their story has really been a textbook case of everything not to do on the PR front, transitioning a well-loved, locally owned airline into a no-frills, low-cost carrier.
JetBlue has come into MSP with the kind of beloved reputation Sun Country used to have. How will that change things?
Having JetBlue move into Terminal 2 has already driven prices down. They only fly to Boston from here, but from there that opens up deals to Bermuda and the East Coast. Hopefully we’ll also soon get JetBlue flying from MSP to Fort Lauderdale, and that will unlock the Caribbean and some of Central and South America. And we like JetBlue because they’re pretty transparent.
Where else can we expect to find good deals from MSP over the next year or two?
On the Delta front, they announced nonstop flights in 2019 to Seoul, South Korea. That’ll be huge and really open up Asia more. Another one: The CEO of Delta announced in a Strib article another partnership with Aeromexico, which will then lead to nonstop flights to Mexico City in 2019 or 2020, and that, too, should eventually lead to good deals.
What’s the best travel experience you’ve personally ever had?
I went with my wife to Thailand in the spring, and we flew first class on Emirates using points and miles. It was the first time I’d taken a shower on a flight. I just kind of stood there in the shower and giggled the whole time. And they had a bar with free champagne, seats that folded all the way down, all things that were really the peak Thrifty Traveler experience because we got it all for free.
On top of that, we took a nonstop from L.A. to Dubai and got a stopover out of it, so we spent five days around Dubai as a bonus. The government essentially owns the airline, so they want you to do a long stopover in Dubai and spend your money there. And then we continued on to Bangkok, where everything is pretty cheap once you get there, so that also fit the ultimate Thrifty Traveler mold.
Does traveling overseas and flying first class really still fit the idea of “thrifty traveling” though?
That’s the point: We figure out how to get that stuff for free.
What are the biggest mistakes people make with their credit card points or air miles?
One of the worst things you can do is to simply not use your points. A lot of people get what we call points paralysis, where they sit and think about whether or not it’s worth it to use their points on this or that. They contemplate it too much. Just use the points!
Do you have insider connections with the airlines, or how do you stay on top of finding deals every day?
We don’t have any insider connections. The airlines are off in their ivory towers. We do have automated tools that we’ve developed ourselves. Beyond those, though, it’s a lot of brute-force searching on the internet.
We’ve gotten good at knowing how the airlines are going to act, which cities they’re going to have fare wars in, which airline is pushing into which city. We pay attention to United, for instance, because sometimes their revenue structure is just insane. They offer deals that just don’t make sense, and frankly their lack of profits as a company pretty well prove that.
But what works for those of us who don’t want to spend hours scouring the internet?
If you don’t have the flexible dates that are sometimes required for the deals we offer at Thrifty Traveler, Google Flights is the way to go. It’s better than all the other tools, and it takes you directly to the airlines; there’s no booking through a middleman, and an airline allows you to cancel a flight within the first 24 hours. Google Flights is great for when you know you have to go to Grandma’s house for Christmas, so you set up price alerts for those specific dates.
Did you travel a lot as a kid, or how did you get the bug?
Traveling abroad was a dream of mine throughout college, but I never got to do it until after college. Once I finally did, I wanted to do it again and again.