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Putting the Bucket List First: On the Road with Austin Church

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

I’ve known Austin for years, and I appreciate his perspective on combining a number of different interests: travel, startups, teaching, and more—all viewed through a filter of gratitude. Here’s more.

Introduce yourself!

A couple of study abroad semesters in college gave me wanderlust and a chance to write about my experiences. Thinking I was going to be a college English professor, I got an M.A. in English. Then I realized I didn’t enjoy teaching in traditional academic environments. Now I make mobile apps and invest in startups. Life is funny like that.

I don’t want life to get away from being contemplative. I value slowness, balance, generosity, fairness, hospitality, and humility. My superhero power is encouragement. What makes me tick is helping people figure out what they love and then helping them tap their potential—sometimes by building profitable businesses around what they love—so that they have more freedom in their lives.

Tell us about one of your recent, memorable trips.

This happened in St. John in the US Virgin Islands last year:

The Hawksbill turtle had large, cartoonish eyes, the kind that swivel around and miss nothing. His shell was butter yellow, cappuccino creme, and the warm brown of coffee grounds. The colors were streaked like water spilled on watercolor paper.

This one in particular had probably watched thousands of people watch him, and this latest spectator was less interesting to him than, say, lunch. With a sense of gravitas, he ducked his beak into the aquatic plants and stirred up clouds of sand. He was not unfriendly, but he was not overly curious either.

He lacked the attentive nervousness of the island’s deer and the shaggy resignation of St. John’s wild, white donkeys. Sea turtles carry about them a certain serenity that only animals with no fear of people possess. I wanted to touch him because the boy in me still believes that touching things makes them real.

But I didn’t touch him because I would be adding to the problem. Hawksbill turtles are endangered. All I can hear is my own breathing as he pumps his flippers and sails away into the green.

I’m not trying to make a point about wildlife conservation by telling you this story. I’m making a point about your bucket list. Watching beautiful creatures in their natural habitat is on mine; it does something good to my soul.

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What inspired you to make travel part of your life?

The Little Harpeth River runs behind my parents’ house outside of Nashville, Tennessee. From about the age of five, I explored every inch of that river for a mile in either direction. I got to know a lot of my neighbors. Mrs. Culp would give me stale Girl Scout cookies from her freezer and tell her Jack Russell named Bitsy to stop barking at me.

It was only a matter of time before I traded rivers for oceans and backyards for countries. I like what traveling brings out of me. Waking up in a new place fills me with an itchy kind of joy. Unfamiliar people, customs, languages, and landscapes teach me to have a more expansive, more hospitable heart.

How do you save the money you need for your trips?

Usually with a mix of points, rewards, and cash. Over the past several years, my wife and I have racked up nearly 900,000 miles and points. We primarily earn points and trips with credit card sign-up bonuses.

We use BetterBidding.com to book cheap hotels on Priceline and Hotwire, as well as cheap car rentals. We’ve also found that manufactured spending in the form of Vanilla Reloads and gift cards also brings “smaller” perks like much cheaper gas at the grocery stores where we buy the cards.

A conservative valuation for frequent flyer miles is $.02 for each mile, so since early 2011, I’ve used travel hacking to add approximately $15,300 to our travel budget (765,000 x $.02). On occasion I pay annual fees on credit cards or activation fees for Vanilla Reloads, which I use to quickly meet the minimum spend requirements on credit cards. But the ROI is still through the roof.

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How many miles and points do you have banked right now?

We proactively earn and burn, racking up somewhere between 850,000 and 900,000 miles and points. Our favorite programs are: British Airways Avios, AA, Chase Ultimate Rewards, SPG points, Frontier, U.S. Airways, and Southwest. We still have banked approximately 575,000. Last year, we booked 10 plane tickets for a total of $496.30 out of pocket.

The great debate: aisle or window?

Window; I fall asleep easier when I can lean my head against the window.

Best travel tips. Go:

Pick a bucket list destination first.

Then plan backwards. Book your airfare first so that you can’t afford to not follow through even if you get busy.

Never pay full price…

Unless paying full price frees you up to focus on something you care about more than saving money. Reframe paying full price as a convenience rather than an imperative.

Try to speak the language…

And laugh at your mistakes. People will appreciate the effort, and they’ll be happy to help you. You’ll leave behind friends, not strangers.

Tell us something interesting about you that hasn’t been covered already.

This year, I will finish my first storybook called Grabbling, and once I finish launching and funding a Kickstarter campaign, I plan to organize a book tour via one of my startups, Closeup.fm, and travel around the country in an RV with my wife and daughter reading my book at public libraries.

Where are you headed next?

Vermillion on Lake Erie; Indianapolis, Indiana; Portland, Oregon; Carillon Beach, Florida; Greece; Nashville, Tennessee; and Boulder, Colorado.

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Follow Austin’s adventures at his website or via Twitter @austinlchurch

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