Sally French: Writer for NerdWallet & Drone Expert


Angela Tuell  00:05

Welcome to Media in Minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those reports on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes. Today we are talking with Sally French, travel rewards expert for NerdWallet. She previously wrote for The New York Times and Wire Cutter. Aside from journalism, Sally is a world-renowned expert in drones. She also loves fitness and competes in both powerlifting and weightlifting. Welcome, Sally. How are you?


Sally French  00:48

Good. Thank you so much for having me, Angela.


Angela Tuell  00:51

Yes. Thank you for joining us. You know, I have to say there are so many cool things to talk about with you. But I’m not really sure where to start. But I guess we can start –


Sally French  01:01

I’m not sure where to start either.


Angela Tuell  01:03

I was gonna say I guess we could start with NerdWallet, though. So for those who aren’t familiar with the outlet, how would you describe it?


Sally French  01:11

Yes. NerdWallet is a website that helps you make clarity on all of life’s financial decisions. So whether it’s applying for a new credit card, finding a mortgage, or figuring out how to pay off your student loans. NerdWallet has advice on all of those things. So I am a content writer for NerdWallet. I cover credit cards and the travel industry. So in particular, if you want to know you know which credit card can help you get a signup bonus. So maybe you can get a free trip or make that trip a little cheaper. Or just you know, in general, want to know the best way to spend your points. Maybe you’ve been spending money during COVID buying all those COVID locked-down purchases, and now you have points to spend figuring out the best way to spend those. That’s how I spend my time at NerdWallet.


Angela Tuell  02:00

Okay, so what is your best advice on credit cards?


Sally French  02:03

Ooh, what is my best advice? Well, I have so much advice. I will say the one kind of piece of advice that maybe as an intuitive is, you know, of course, always save money we always talk about you should save money. But there’s one thing you shouldn’t save, and that is points. I’ll hear people who are like bragging about how they have 500,000 American Express points and points inflation is more real than real inflation. And I’m sure we all know what real inflation is like right now. We’re all feeling it. But points inflation is rough, you’ll see a hotel room that used to be 20,000 points, suddenly, it’s 30. Suddenly, it’s 40. So don’t count your points. If you have accrued a pile of points during COVID from all your spending and you haven’t been traveling. You know a lot of people are traveling this year. Definitely look into your points balances and spend them down.


Angela Tuell  02:54

That is great advice. Can I ask you what travel credit card you have personally?


Sally French  02:59

I have a bunch of travel credit cards. I’m one of those people who, who you know, is always holding on to a bunch because I want the signup bonuses or they have various perks. And you know, it’s funny, my parents are very frugal people. And they always say, you know, why would you pay money for a credit card annual fee? I have a couple of credit cards that have annual fees in the many hundreds of dollars range, which kind of sounds bonkers. And you know, definitely don’t apply for an annual fee on a credit card that you can’t pay for. But for some of these cards, the perks that go with them are incredible. So like the Hilton card Aspire card, which is issued by American Express, that card has an annual fee, that’s many hundreds of dollars. But as a benefit, you get a free night certificate. And you can use that at nearly any Hilton Hotel and so I was just looking at the Grand Wailea in Hawaii, and their room rates are easily over $1,000. And that’s not just like on the popular Fourth of July weekend like any weekend can easily be $1,000. So you know, you figure like the annual fee is actually half the card of cost of that room. In some ways, it’s bonkers to be paying the cash price for the room when you could be paying for it with a free night certificate from your credit card.


Angela Tuell  04:23

Yes, I love that. That’s such great advice. And in your role, what have you learned that has surprised you?


Sally French  04:30

OOOO – what has surprised me? Um, all kinds of things. I mean, you know, I did say a lot of people get proud about you know, hoarding their points. But that is really not the thing to do. Um, you know, I will say that a lot of people are averse to applying for credit cards, because they think, you know, it can hurt your credit. It’s just a lot of money to spend on annual fees. And that’s certainly not untrue. But there are some misconceptions. So you know applying for a new credit card will have a temporary dip on your credit scores because a hard inquiry is initiated on your credit report. To make sure that you can, you know, actually handle that credit card. And that can temporarily dip your credit scores. But the thing is that assuming you get approved for the credit card, your line of credit would be increased, which is actually better for your credit scores. And so, you know, I would always recommend, if you’re someone who can pay down your balances every month, you definitely want to be paying for those purchases on credit cards, and it doesn’t hurt to get new ones or apply for new ones. To continuously get new signup bonuses. Of course, I you know, always caveat that if you do have credit card debt, you don’t want to be applying for new credit cards. But to continue accruing more debt, make sure that you pay down that day. And NerdWallet has lots of great content on strategies for paying down debt. So do that first before applying for new credit cards, especially these credit cards that have a ton of rewards, which is the area I cover, they have really, really high-interest rates in the 20s 30s percent. So if you’re holding on to an item for a year, and you’re still paying it off a year from now, you’re paying 30% more for that item. Great. So I rarely recommend carrying a balance. Of course, I realized there are certain circumstances where you have to. But I would avoid doing that, especially if it is on cards with annual fees and cards that have a really high-interest rate.


Angela Tuell  06:41

Yeah, that must be tough, or something that’s a little challenging about your role is trying to help people and not hurt them or not encouraged them to do something bad for themselves, you know?


Sally French  06:53

Exactly. Yeah. So definitely these things can be great. And you know, it’s like anything, any item, you know, is going to cost me money and might risk putting you into greater debt. But you know, ask yourself is this I’m actually going to help you? And you know, what’s crazy to me is I never or rarely ever pay for travel, just because of these sorts of perks. And so you know, you see these people who are posting on their Instagrams about them staying at the Grand Wailea in Hawaii. And you know, you wonder, are these people, millionaires? Are they super in debt? How does this person afford this? Like, I know what their job is like, there’s no way this person can afford $1,000 A night room. But the reality is like that person might be able to get that through a perk another Hilton-branded credit card.


Angela Tuell  07:41

So were you an expert in this area before you got the job at NerdWallet?


Sally French  07:46

Previously, I was covering credit cards for Wire Cutter, which is part of the New York Times. So the New York Times acquired Wire Cutter, which is a general product recommendation site, they recommend, you know, mattresses and microwaves. And they did a project where they wanted to recommend credit cards. We also worked really closely with the New York Times travel team, since credit cards do tend to really go hand in hand with travel. Unfortunately, the New York Times decided to cut that team during COVID. Because they said you know people aren’t traveling, people aren’t applying for credit cards. This isn’t gonna work for us. And you know, what’s great about NerdWallet is that they saw this amazing opportunity. Insane, like, yes, a lot of people aren’t traveling right now. But the people who are traveling are experiencing something that’s drastically different. And when people do come back to travel, which is now in the year 2022 experience is still drastically different. And so NerdWallet wanted to be on the cutting edge of letting people know what to expect about travel now. And we still see, you know, so many countries have entry requirements, even, you know, the US still has entry requirements, even if you’re a US citizen traveling abroad. And so NerdWallet said, you know, we really want to be on the forefront of that. We want to be covering, you know, all the changes that you notice in hotel rooms, that they’re not doing housekeeping as frequently as many hotel rooms, you know, there’s a period that airlines weren’t doing middle seats, and then they did fill middle seats. So NerdWallet was very proactive, wanting to cover all of these changes in the travel industry that I’m sure you’ve all experienced.


Angela Tuell  09:31

Yeah, that’s awesome. How do you like to find your stories? I mean, just as new credit cards come out, or what, you know, how do you find your stories?


Sally French  09:38

Yeah. So luckily, you know, when new credit cards come out it there’s only a handful of credit card companies out there. So we don’t have to do a ton of digging on that end. You know, it’s largely, you know, Chase or American Express and we know it’s coming from them. But I think you know, what I like is sort of those interesting stories that are either something really quirky and offbeat, or just sort of like a trend that you might not piece together and NerdWallet is there to piece together that trend. And so you know, it is really important to have great pitches coming from PR people. And the reality is I get a lot of really bad pitches, but then I get really good pitches. And my favorite sorts of pitches are ones that aren’t just saying, you know, hey, write about my product, or, you know, I represent this city or this hotel and just write about this hotel. But I like the pitches that sort of wrap their product or their company that they represent into a broader trend. So an example of that is I was writing about, you know, is interested in changes to room service. And so Hyatt actually pitched me about a product that it was a partnership with a food delivery company called Go Puff. And they deliver, you know, little toiletries, and little snacks, and then some foods that can be microwaved in your room. Okay, yeah. And the way it was pitched to me was really well done as like, this is a replacement for room service. The Go Puff partnership is primarily happening in hotels that might not necessarily offer room service. But also, you know, there is this changing landscape of hotels isn’t providing the benefit anymore.


Angela Tuell  11:28

Yes, we’re seeing that with our clients. And they’ve said that they might not ever bring it back.


Sally French  11:33

Right, right. And so it was nice to kind of write about this trend. And then from there, I dug into like, this one Marriott hotel now has ramen vending machines that will make like, actually like a fresh piece of pork and the ramen, and serve that to you. And then like in Las Vegas, there are cake vending machines that someone actually fills every day with fresh cake. So you know, it’s a nice piece, because you get to promote your company, we find about this trend changing room service. And we also find out why it’s better like even room service might not necessarily operate at 3 a.m. But the cake vending machine will and so that’s a service to travelers.


Angela Tuell  12:15

Yeah, that is great. So did you always want to be a journalist?


Sally French  12:19

Yes, I did always want to be a journalist. And, you know, it starts back to like seventh grade when we had a magazine project. And I really ran with it and made my magazine. And then eighth grade, I was the editor of the middle school newspaper. In high school, I was on the newspaper. And what was awesome about that, is I applied to be editor-in-chief my senior year. And so, the application happened my junior year, and I really felt confident, and I ended up not getting it. Yeah, I was really disappointed that I wasn’t going to be the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper. Yeah. So you know, that spring of my junior year, I was like, oh, man, like, what am I going to do? I feel ruined that I didn’t get this, like, quote, dream job. So I started seeking out internships. And I grew up in Orange County, and the Orange County Register was offering an intern program. And I said, you know, I’m gonna apply to that. And I did, and I ended up getting it and I was a summer intern for them. And actually, they just randomly assigned me to cover travel for them. So that’s where it all started. Yeah, it’s great. Yeah. And I fell in love with it. And I ended up continuing to stay on with them as an intern, even through my entire senior year. And then I ended up working for them my first job out of college, and I continuously interned with them during summers in college, which was just like a really great place to learn. I’m so grateful for my editors at the OC Register, even you know, putting up with a high school intern, probably an adventure for them. But you know what, that was so much better an experience than being a high school newspaper editor. And, you know, it just constantly reminds me every time you have a setback, there’s something better and you know, it was great, you know, a great reminder when I got laid off from the New York Times in 2020, there’s something better. Yeah. And so it’s just a continuous theme.


Angela Tuell  14:23

It’s such a great learning experience. I mean, I’ve experienced that throughout my life as well. But it’s always something better.


Sally French  14:30

Right, right. Exactly. So you know, it’s okay to be sad for you know, a couple hours after that bad news. But then you just look for the next best thing and you’ll find the next best thing is often better.


Angela Tuell  14:42

Yes, yes. So true. So talk a little bit more about travel before we go on to some other topics, but I’ve seen through social you know, you’ve done quite a bit of traveling and much of it involves fitness like biking over the sea ice in the Arctic Circle. And hiking 25 miles through Italy in one day. So what have been some of your favorite adventures?


Sally French  15:04

Yes, I’m all about fitness. And I love when I can incorporate it into traveling. I know a lot of people, their ideal trip is just like drinking a Mai Tai on the beach all day. And I’m happy for people that they like that, but I cannot do that I need to be always moving. And so the sea ice was wild. I did a multi-day camping trip in the Arctic Circle. And it was on a place called Baffin Island, which is completely barren. Nobody lives there, just these tents, you can only stay there in the summer, because during the winter, I mean, I guess you could stay there during the winter, but it would be dark all the time. So the sun never sets in the summer. And so I did just you know, a bunch of hiking, riding ATVs, and awesome was riding these fat bikes. And I went in July, and we were just riding over the sea ice. It’s the only place really where you can bike on ice safely like that over the ocean, not necessarily a lake. And it was pretty cool because we actually did it the last day before the ice melted for the summer. And like kind of got out far. And then the ice was like melting on the banks. And we ended up having to like, throw our bikes over to the bank, and like kind of wading through the ocean water. So that was pretty awesome.


Angela Tuell  16:31

How cold was that?


Sally French  16:32

It was – I mean, it was ice water. So I love those kinds of experiences. And you know, the cool thing about the Arctic Circle is if you’re thinking about going absolutely. I – there’s no one there. And so you know, you want to respect the landscape. But it’s not like Antarctica where Artica is extremely regulated. In terms of whether can you even sleep overnight there? But the Arctic is, is like totally free. Um, so we had an amazing time there. Other awesome trips I’ve taken, I’ve done a number of biking trips across countries. So I’ve biked along the coastline of Vietnam. I’ve biked from Chiang Rai to Chiang Rai, and I love biking as a way to see a place when you’re just in a car or you’re on a bus, you get on the tour bus, you go see the tourist attraction and you get back on the bus, you go see the other tourist attraction, and it’s nice, but you feel like a tourist you don’t feel like you’re part of the landscape. And I love that about you know, walking or biking or running is that you really see how things flow together. So you see how this market flows into this tourist attraction and you pass by the places where, you know, the actual citizens live. See how they mesh with the tourist areas. And I definitely, you know, encourage people to go to the tourist areas, they’re popular for a reason I have no problems with tourist attractions. But I think it’s really important to kind of experience the way that people live. And I think you know, walking is a good way to do it. If you can’t bike then then maybe you walk but walking is just maybe not efficient, like walking can see as much – Ching Rai hope you have a lot of vacation days. So biking is like a really, really efficient way to still move through the landscape and see so you know, like when you’re in in Vietnam, you’re like biking through rice paddies is awesome. So I highly encourage if you know, have the capability to bike through a country or part of a country. I think it’s the best way to really get to know that place.


Angela Tuell  18:49

Yeah, you know, every time we travel and we do like even a short bike ride one day that’s always one of our favorite parts.


Sally French  18:55

So yeah, absolutely. I even live in San Francisco and my favorite thing to do as a tourist is to bike from San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. As you can either take the ferry back from Sausalito if you’re too tired to bike home or you bike home. And it’s just an incredible way to see it much better than just you know, driving and looking out the window.


Angela Tuell  19:18

Right, right. So speaking of fitness, you are a power lifter and can lift three times your body weight. How did you get into that sport?


Sally French  19:29

That’s correct. So now everyone’s like, you’re a powerlifter but you do cardio you do all this biking. That stereotype that powerlifters don’t do cardio, but I’m a weirdo like that. I like both. Yeah, so fitness has always been a part of my life. I’ve always you know, I was a dancer growing up. You know, in high school. I worked as a professional dancer. And I think powerlifting is and I also do Olympic weightlifting. Two very similar sports although they are different sports. And it’s a very encouraging way to see progress because you’re constantly lifting up more weight every time. And you know, I know a lot of people look at themselves in the mirror and you know, never feel like they’re good enough, never feel like their abs are defined enough or never feel like they’re thin enough, or whatever it is. And what I like about lifting is that you can see this progress that in a lot of ways doesn’t matter what your abs look like, or what your body fat is, because you go into the gym, and you know, last time you squatted, 150 pounds, so this time you squat 160 pounds, the next time you squat 170. And then there’s the point where you stop making those increases in weight, because you know, it is ultimately going to taper off, but your form gets better. So you can do you know, more sets, or you can squat faster. So you can get the bar up faster. And I think it’s a really empowering way to really see clear progress. And you know, especially women, it’s really, really important for your bone density to be lifting heavy weights, and I work part-time at a gym right now. And I see a lot of women do a ton of cardio. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s the strength that is going to help prevent injuries. And last with you throughout your lifetime cardio is going to burn calories. You know right now, but having that strength basis is going to help you when you’re 90. I actually went through early menopause when I was 20. And I found out that I was basically one step away from osteoporosis or osteopenia is sort of the beginning step. And then I started lifting after that. And my bone density has increased dramatically. I’m in like, 90 percentile of bone density now. Ah, that’s true. Lifting really, really makes a difference. And it’s so good for your physical health. So good for your mental health.


Angela Tuell  22:06

Yeah, oh, my goodness, that is, that is so fascinating. What is your what are you most proud of in the lifting world?


Sally French  22:13

Oh, I work as a coach. And I will say my proudest thing is definitely teaching people how to do a lift for the first time, how to squat for the first time. So it’s definitely fun to coach the athletes who are making national teams for sure. I love them. But I sort of think, you know, at NerdWallet, I work in an office. And you know, so many people work office jobs and just don’t move a lot during the day we sit in chairs during the day. And people, a lot of people struggle to get into a squat. And that’s a position that’s going to help you in the future. So if you need to lift up a heavy box, you need to move a couch, you probably want to start with a squat position. And a lot of people can’t get into that. And so purely from an injury prevention standpoint, teaching people how to squat for the first time and seeing those beginners who maybe are afraid to put a plate on the barbell because it is scary. Seeing them start with nothing. And then you know, a few months from now they’re squatting 135 pounds, maybe they’re squatting 205 pounds. That’s just amazing to help. Because I think, you know, healthcare is so expensive. We’ve all been to the doctor and like had some wild doctor’s bill and you’re like, why am I paying hundreds of dollars for this? And you know, even if you feel like a gym membership is expensive, or it’s a lot of time, I think, you know, fitness is one of the purest forms of health care for so many aspects of your physical health. Not all of them, but many of them. And so I think that fitness is just an incredible way to ensure that you’re healthy now and long into the future.


Angela Tuell  23:56

Yes. Do you foresee that you’ll be lifting for a long time?


Sally French  23:59

I hope so. I go to meets and there will be like these people who are 80 who are still lifting and I really hope that’s me.


Angela Tuell  24:07

That’s great. We’ll be watching for sure. You are also known as Drone Girl, a world-renowned expert in drones and was named one of Fortune Magazine’s four top women shaping that industry. So tell us more about this.


Sally French  24:22

Angela, I’m chaotic. We’ve talked about NerdWallet. We’ve talked about fitness. Now we’re talking about drones. Yeah, yeah. So this was like another side project that I worked on in college. I went to the University of Missouri, and I was a journalism major there. So for starters, they said, you know, everyone needs to have a blog. This is just a journalism assignment, a good assignment. And you know, saying, you know, what am I passionate about? I’m passionate about fitness, but there are a million fitness blogs out there like cooking but I can’t compete with all these cooking blogs. And so what had happened is I needed one more class to graduate, and basically the only thing that fit into my schedule, it was a drone journalism class. And I didn’t even know what drones were. I was like, Is this something from Star Wars? I just signed up basically, because I just needed to graduate. And we use drones, as you know, now the flying robots for journalism purposes. So we did things like showing a prairie fire, and we flew a drone over that. And I got super into it, that I decided this is going to be, you know, my senior project is I’m going to make this blog about drones. And it kind of just started with this, this class that I was in. And then I realized, like, I’m really into this blog, it’s a great place to post my own drone videos because I started taking those videos. And at the time, it was 2013. There wasn’t a lot of information about drones. So I was just kind of blogging about my own learnings and posting my own videos. And people started writing to me, asking for recommendations, asking me questions, and trying to figure out what the rules were. And I realized there was such a need for this kind of content that I was like, Okay, I’m going to I’m going to start building up this blog. So I started writing more frequently, then, you know, one of my friends was like, Are you monetizing this? And I was like, no, how do I do that? And they taught me about like, Amazon affiliate links. And I was like, Whoa, like, I can do this, like I can. Google ads, like, I can make money off of this. I was speaking at conferences, and it was getting to be crazy, someone was like, You should charge money to speak at conferences. And so that was awesome. And so now I have this blog is like the other part of my life. And I have a new piece of content on there every single day, covering every aspect of the drone industry.


Angela Tuell  26:57

So how do you do all this? That’s what I’m wondering.


Sally French  27:00

Yeah, it’s chaotic. I don’t – I work a lot. But I think what’s important is all of these things are things that I love. And so, you know, I hear a lot of people talk about burnout, if you’re if you’re working more than 40 hours a week, you know, don’t you’re gonna get burned out. And, and, you know, in a lot of levels, that is fine advice. But also, I think it’s really important to do the stuff you love. So even though when I’m teaching a group fitness class, I’m working out myself. You know, when I’m when I’m, you know, reviewing drones, it’s like, I love to do that. That’s fun to do. Writing about travel for NerdWallet is, you know, I love writing about travel because I love it and sharing that with other people. You know, so much, even of NerdWallet is a lot of content around you know how to maximize your points. And it’s like, I want to learn how to maximize myself. So it’s research, I wouldn’t be doing myself. And now I’ve just found people willing to pay me for it. And like, willing to give me an official platform to do it. And so, you know, it’s so cliche, but you know, they always say, you know, find a job that you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. And I do truly believe that.


Angela Tuell  28:16

Yes. What do you hope the future holds?


Sally French  28:20

Oooof. Well, I try not to think too far ahead, because I want to be open-minded to anything. Yeah. Currently, as far as lifting goes, I have been to powerlifting nationals three times. But I would love to qualify for weightlifting nationals. So that’s sort of my lifting goal right now. And then, you know, as far as NerdWallet goes, we have a ton of really exciting things in the pipeline. But we’re just building up our Tik Tok and our YouTube channels. So I’ve been doing a ton of work on that. Speaking at a lot of conferences on behalf of NerdWallet is a great way to get to travel myself and learn more about travel. And so really expanding the travel footprint for NerdWallet is exciting. As far as drones, there are new drones that come out like every six months, and as soon as you think you’ve seen the best drone, another one comes out that’s even better. And so I can’t even begin to predict that but it’s always fun to review new drones.


Angela Tuell  29:22

Yeah. Okay. What do you do with all these drones? Do you have a million of them? Or?


Sally French  29:26

I do have I have many drones. Honestly, there are so many and I can’t afford to buy all of them. But I do get tester units from a lot of companies.


Angela Tuell  29:38

Right. How can listeners find you online and follow all of your great adventures and work?


Sally French  29:43

Yes, probably as far as NerdWallet goes, I’m best found on Twitter. You can find me at backslash S A F media, SAFMedia. They’re just my initials plus media. And honestly drone girl you can find me on Twitter too. At drone girl.


Angela Tuell  30:03

Well, thank you so much. We appreciate all your insights.


Sally French  30:06

Thank you, Angela.


Angela Tuell  30:09

That’s all for this episode of Media in Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined. Please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe to our show. We’d love to hear what you think. You can find more at I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.

What do travel rewards, powerlifting and drones have in common?  They are all things Sally French loves to research and write about. Listen to today’s episode to hear what top tips Sally shares with Angela. 

Follow our guest