John Nielsen's friends call him "the coupon king" because he uses coupons wherever he goes.
Although he gets teased for his frugal ways, Nielsen has the last laugh. His faith and thrifty way of life have turned him into a successful business owner.
Nielsen's Brainerd-based travel agency, Friendship Tours International, primarily makes travel arrangements for missionaries around the world, finding them the best rates available.
"I love saving money whether it's for me or someone else," Nielsen said.
It's that attitude and a love of traveling that got him into the travel business in the first place.
In 1974, Nielsen became a Christian and found himself intrigued by the missions field. He went on mission trips while attending Western Michigan University. In 1982, Nielsen moved to Vienna, Austria, working as a missionary and assisting with Friendship Tours.
FTI began as a cover story when missionaries needed an excuse to travel to then-communist Eastern Europe. Simply stating "missions work" as the reason to enter Eastern European countries wasn't enough. In 1979, a missionary in Vienna and a businessman in Michigan decided to create a travel company to organize "tours" to Eastern Europe, thus allowing missionaries to gain entrance.
What started as merely a coverup, FTI has been booking trips for missionaries around the world for the past 25 years.
Eventually, Nielsen turned his mission work into a career. he now owns and operates FTI out of an office in Brainerd.
Currently FTI serves 300 missionary families around the world, and is not taking any new clients. Nielsen said he and his assistant, Kelli Sanguma, have all the work they can handle right now.
"I don't want to get too big, where all I do is manage employees," he said.
Tips to find cheap tickets
John Nielsen, owner of Friendship Tours International, specializes in getting cheap travel fares for missionaries. He gave the following tips on finding discounted trips:
For domestic flights, check fares on travel Web sites. Sign up for "fare watchers" on travel Web sites, so you get an automated e-mail when a fare changes. Plan in advance, and keep an eye on the price, because it varies each week.
Go through a travel agent when buying a vacation or tour package. They often can get better deals.
When possible, break up the fare. Switching flights may take longer to travel from place to place, but it's usually cheaper.
After all, finding the cheapest fares is what Nielsen does best.
Nielsen describes every booking as a new challenge, often finding flights to remote countries in Africa or central Asia for his clients.
"It's fun to figure out how to get to those places," Nielsen said.
There aren't many travel agencies that work primarily with missionaries, Nielsen said, because it's a lot of work. A large percentage of his workload involves changing flights for his customers, for one reason or another. Many missionaries travel every other week to faraway destinations, keeping Nielsen busy.
"Some individuals travel intensely while I hear from some once every two years," he said.
It's the low fares and attention to detail that keep customers coming back to FTI. Nielsen described some travel agents as mere "order takers," while he prides himself in saving money for his clients.
"I just like helping the people," he said. "Without me here doing this (missionaries) couldn't be out in the field."
HEIDI LAKE can be reached at 855-5879 or email@example.com
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