This is an excerpt from a recent Q&A session with Randy Petersen on the new USA Today travel Web site. For a complete transcript go HERE.
Q: Do the airlines really go out of their way to avoid letting us use frequent flier points or does it just appear to be a conspiracy?
RP: Ahhhh, the conspiracy theory. Actually it’s all to do with supply and demand and good karma. I know people who redeem dozens of awards a year and never have a problem and others who redeem only once a year and can’t get what they want. One is luck — go away from the maddening crowds — and the other is proper planning. Let’s be fair, when it comes to using awards, all major programs have “anytime” awards that have no restrictions which allows any of us to go whenever we want to go using a free award. The other is that not all programs are equal. Most of the time we want these programs to be what we want. Well, if you want to never have a problem using an award, then use the Southwest Rapid Rewards program since it has no restrictions. The rule of thumb is there is no conspiracy and all programs are not the same. Shop around and compare notes with other flyers to find out which programs have the friendliest policies. You can also look over WebFlyer’s Award/Upgrade Index HERE.
Q: Which airline is easiest to upgrade on and how can you get upgraded?
RP: Well, it won’t be Southwest because they don’t have a first class cabin — but seriously, the two airlines recognized as having the most generous upgrade policies are Continental (OnePass) and Northwest (WorldPerks). American West has a pretty good policy but they have way too many ‘express’ flights to make upgrading worth it and Alaska while having a great policy isn’t ‘national’ enough yet to get the nod. Currently Northwest is the champ upgrading their elite members almost 81 percent of the time.
P.S. Why Continental and Northwest? They have unlimited upgrades — space available — for their best customers.
Q: What frequent flyer program do you believe to be the best and Why?
RP: Although I don’t fly them, I’m a big fan of the Southwest Rapid Rewards program for a few reasons. One is that the program is very simple. Second is that you can earn a free ticket from them by flying as few as 4 times and finally I love the fact that I can use my free ticket with them whenever I like without regard to “no free seats available.” True, they have some expiration periods which can really be a problem if you are looking to save for free flights rather than ‘use or lose’ but you can’t deny they are easy.
Now, for something a little more exotic (Hawaii, Europe, upgrading, etc.) I’m personally a big fan of the Continental/ Northwest alliance programs (fly one and earn miles on the other). If you know what you are doing, these two programs together are pretty tough to beat, especially for upgrades. While they (Continental and Northwest) do have some goofy fine print and Continental seems as of late to be wishing and hoping, nonetheless they offer a good frequent flyer program — choose one or the other. I’m also a pretty big fan of American and especially with their credit card — Citibank Visa — which gives members special award charts on a quarterly basis which means you can fly for free for only 20,000 miles instead of 25,000 miles like all the other frequent fliers. Now, on the frugal side of things America West and US Airways still rank high since they each have awards available for only 20,000 miles as does Alaska.
Bottom line: I have many faves for different reasons and I choose programs to fit a certain situation. I think the best advice i can ever give anyone is to start backward — choose a program based on how good that program is for the type of award or benefit you want out of it. If you only fly occasionally and only domestic and really just want to go to Florida for free — then Southwest is best (you can always get free seats to go there). If you like to be pampered with upgrades, then Continental and Northwest are best. If you like to earn miles by not flying, then Northwest and American may be your best bests. An easy question to ask — an almost impossible question to answer, but i hope this helps a little.
Q: My 11 year old daughter will be traveling to and from Vancouver B.C. and Tucson at least 3 times a year. I will join her at least once a year. Have one Visa card. Would we qualify for frequent flier discounts?
RP: It is important to get children enrolled in these frequent flier programs as soon as they aren’t sitting on your lap. From visits to see the grandparents to the family vacations it’s amazing how soon they can earn their own free tickets. You daughter can earn a free ticket within two years of this type of travel, so go for it. As for you, while not flying more often, using the ‘correct’ Visa card can put you both in a seat for free. Once choosing an airline (I suspect it might be United), stay with it and use the Visa card issued by that airline. If it is United, they have a good First USA Visa card to earn more miles with. The secret for you is using the card to earn miles — grocery stores, gasoline stations, etc. The miles do add up and it is also important for you to learn to use other airline partners such as MCI and Safeway (if United) to earn even more miles than flying.
Did you know that on average, some 53 percent of all the miles you’re likely to earn will come from non-flying transactions? Good luck and also think about enrolling your daughter later on in the College Plus program that United offers for college kids. It offers a lot of bonus miles and travel savings.
P.S. Vancouver is one of my all-time favorite cities. Cheers.