Brancatelli on Travel – Miles and Sense

Brancatelli on Travel – Miles and Sense

Now that we’ve all figured out whether we’ve made elite status in our preferred airline and hotel programs for 2004, we can turn our attention to the really important question of the moment:

What the hell is the value of our miles and points right now?

I could hit you with a brilliantly reasoned strategic treatise on the state of frequent-travel programs in general, but I think we’d all be better served by thinking tactically and very specifically this week. So here are four items of immediate miles-and-points importance. You’d be well-advised to take appropriate notes and act accordingly during the next few weeks.

HISTORY AND US AIRWAYS DIVIDEND MILES
Many frequent flyers are in an understandable tizzy about the fate of their US Airways Dividend Miles. My advice: Cash out as soon as it’s practical. You’ll get maximum value for the miles right now.

Do I think US Airways is going to disappear tomorrow? Of course not. Badly run, chronically dysfunctional airlines such as US Airways can operate for years even while the financial handwriting is on the wall. TWA, for example, limped along the entire decade of the 1990s without making a profit and was still flying at the start of the 21st century.

But US Airways, by its own admission, is headed down the road of asset sales and no airline that has ever sold assets has survived for long. Check the history books. In their desperate attempts to survive, carriers such as Braniff, Pan Am, TWA and Eastern all sold off parts of their route networks before collapsing. And the reason why airlines collapse despite the sales is simple: They always sell the most desirable assets first, leaving them with a collection of routes and services that no other carriers wants.

So if US Airways starts selling assets to keep the financial wolves from the cockpit door, that inevitably reduces the value of the Dividend Miles program. You may wake up one day soon to learn that US Airways has sold off the hub through which you fly. Or that it has sold off its international routes. That leaves you with a lot of miles in a shriveled program that no longer flies where you want to go.

So burn your Dividend Miles as you can in the coming weeks and months. US Airways still offers a decent number of Caribbean routes and will be beefing up its seasonal Bermuda service. It has announced plans to fly to Glasgow this spring and resume Pittsburgh-London flights. Or you can use Dividend Miles on United or Qantas.

AMEX MEMBERSHIP REWARDS VERSUS DINERS CLUBREWARDS
The 2004 American Express Membership Rewards catalog hit my mailbox within days of the 2004 Diners Club ClubRewards catalog. So I pulled out my calculator and tried to figure out which frequent-spending program offers the most value for the money. Leaving aside the related issues–card acceptability, membership fees and the like–a head-to-head comparison on exactly the same merchandise indicates that Diners Club generally offers a better value.

Diners Club offers two ClubRewards points for every dollar charged and wants 34,000 points for a Callaway White Hot 2-Ball Putter. Amex, which awards one point for each dollar charged, wants 23,000 points for the putter. Which means you’d have to charge $17,000 on Diners Club to earn the putter, but $23,000 to get it from Amex. Want a Bose Wave CD/Radio? Diners Club will give you one for 85,000 points, which requires $42,500 worth of spending. Amex wants 60,000 points, which requires $60,000 worth of spending. However, Amex and Diners Club are dead even in two categories: shopping certificates and dining gift cards. Regardless of whether you throw in with Amex or Diners Club, you’ll have to spend $10,000 to earn $100 worth of dining or shopping certificates.

NEVER USE POINTS FOR MERCHANDISE
All that said, you should never use Amex or Diners points for merchandise. Unless you are absolutely awash in frequent-flyer miles that you can’t use, the very best value you’ll get for your card points is premium-class airline seats via a conversion into frequent-flyer miles.

Consider: Diners will give you a Bose Lifestyle 18 DVD Home Theater System in exchange for 332,000 ClubRewards points. Amex will give you the same Bose system for 200,000 Membership Rewards points. Bose doesn’t discount, so you can take it to the mileage bank that the retail value of the system is $1,999. But those 332,000 Club Rewards points can be converted to 166,000 Delta SkyMiles. With that cache, you can claim an unrestricted BusinessElite roundtrip from New York to Paris. The retail fare: $6,355. Those 200,000 Membership Rewards points work the same way.

A GOOD WAY TO USE HOTEL POINTS THIS YEAR
The U.S. dollar is at or near recent lows against many foreign currencies. Although the parlous state of the greenback versus the euro (1=$1.29) gets all of the publicity, the dollar has also plunged against yen ($1=Yen106), the British pound (#1=$1.84) and the Australian and Canadian dollars.

All of which means that cashing your frequent-guest points for free hotel nights in overseas destinations would be a great idea this spring and summer. You might even look at claiming Amex and Diners Club points as hotel rewards, too. Especially in Europe, the weak dollar is really beginning to inflate hotel costs. A guestroom that cost $200 a night in France early last year is likely to cost about $260 now after inflation and the currency-exchange losses. So why not use hotel points for free rooms overseas? It’s a great way to maximize the value of those points–and to husband your cash so that you can afford all those suddenly expensive international meals, taxi rides and souvenirs.

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