So you’ve got some frequent flyer miles, or you need some frequent flyer miles? With all that’s happening with frequent flyer programs, you need a strategy and effective tactics to take advantage of free travel offers and the benefits of loyalty.
One of the most popular books of all time for business people is the New York Times best-selling, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Given that this guidebook has become so popular as a means of learning principles of personal effectiveness, rather than mere practices, we thought we’d examine our own code for frequent flyers that we’ve developed through the years.
We’ve noticed through the years that whether you have over a million miles, no miles, or are somewhere in between, there’s always a struggle to keep up with the ever-changing world of miles and points. You have to adopt strategies and change old habits from time to time. And while it once could be said that your success in any frequent flyer program depended on being loyal, we found that this idea has become dated.
No matter what type of frequent flyer you are, it is important to understand that these habits are not quick fixes, but rather a guide to getting on top of the miles game. What makes the effective frequent flyer different from other travelers? Well, we looked at the notes we’ve collected through the years when chatting with travelers. Some traveled domestic flights only, while others traveled worldwide. We combined our notes and experiences with the experiences of our readers to come up with what represents a true blueprint for the frequent flyer. Some of the suggested habits will be as familiar as your browser bookmark for award redemption, while others will require you to read and re-read to get the point we’re trying to get across. We’re convinced that the following habits can be applied to frequent flyers at all levels and can help you understand what makes the effective frequent flyer stand apart from others.
1. Prioritize Your Goals
When was the last time you thought about what it is that you want from your frequent flyer program? If free flights are what you want, some awards are becoming overpriced for the infrequent flyer and it might be time to switch programs. In this past year, both American and United had short-haul awards for only 15,000 miles and Continental now offers short-haul awards for 20,000 miles on destinations less than 1,500 miles. If it is discounts you want, look no further than the Alaska Airlines program, which offers a 50 percent discount,
up to $250, when redeeming 15,000 miles (one of their most popular awards).
Frequent flyer programs are changing. No longer are they able to be all things to all members. As a result, you’re going to have to decide what it is you want from a program and pick a program which can support your goals. Some of you will still want to go to Hawaii. If so, you had better forget belonging to the Southwest Rapid Rewards program in the short term — at least until they have their alliance with ATA straightened out. If you want upgrades, you should take into account which programs do not allow upgrades from the lowest fares. It’s these program restrictions that make prioritizing your goals so important. And you’ll often have to compromise. For example, savvy members know how many weekly flights to Hawaii an airline flies and divides it by total membership of the program. Obviously the lower a percentage is, the higher the odds are on getting to that destination. Is it Hawaii you want, or are you saving miles for a rainy day?
2. Turn Award Redemption into a Plan
You are not alone in the quest for miles. The American AAdvantage program now has over 50 million members, and when it comes time to redeem an award to a popular destination from a major market, you’re going to find that you’ve got some competition. Frequent flyer programs in the U.S. alone gave away nearly 30 million free airline tickets last year.
Developing a plan for award redemption is very important for new members of programs or those with relatively low mileage balances. In fact, among those who voice concern over their inability to use awards, more than 87 percent are base members of programs; that is, they haven’t traveled enough to earn elite status and it’s often the first time they’ve ever redeemed an award. Redeeming an award is a combination of timing, knowledge and luck. Learn more about award options. Become familiar with the award schedule. Did you know that United has discounted awards to London right now? Did you know that American AAdvantage and Continental OnePass have weekly awards available on the Internet with domestic awards sometimes available for only 10,000 miles? Did you know that there are often dozens of limited time awards available from virtually every program (see Special Awards, page 29)? An example is the Point Stretcher awards from Hilton. Every year in the spring and fall Hilton offers a selection of room night redemptions at select properties that represent savings of up to 79 percent of the normal points required. Knowing in advance when these become available and matching them to airline award availability may make the use of miles and points a “low-point” of your vacation.
Furthermore, travelers should be aware that all major airlines have standard awards available which have no restrictions. A reader shared a story with us of an associate who didn’t have an affinity credit card because he says that the has “too many miles.” However, the same person has trouble using the miles he has. He is obviously not aware of standard awards without restrictions, because he would never have a problem claiming an award. Given he has more miles than he’ll ever use, he wouldn’t miss the extra miles.
3. Set Realistic Goals
Most programs have miles or points that expire. And most travelers wait too long to use the miles and run the risk of losing them. Set up a calendar of what miles and awards you have earned and when they expire. Never let miles go into the last three moths that they are valid. Also, set up deadlines to reach mileage goals. If you can have a redemption plan, it makes sense that you should also have an earning plan. Just as you save for college expenses or an addition to your house, a good habit is to save for an award. Decide which award you want to use, know how many miles or points you’ll need and establish deadlines for achieving that goal. Set deadlines for signing up for an affinity credit card, switching credit cards or for enrolling in one of the dining programs. Turn these deadlines into miles and points.
4. Reward Yourself Frequently
Frequent flyer programs were originally viewed as “Travel IRAs” — awards that you could save for a rainy day. These days award redemption is an ever-increasing problem, so it might be wise to reevaluate. Consider rewarding yourself often and keeping just enough miles to use on upgrades on your next paid vacation flight. It might be a better idea to purchase that ticket to Europe this summer and use the miles you have for weekend getaways. In the words of one of our readers, “Be willing to use miles on an upgrade to first class rather than see them go to waste. Treat yourself like the frequent flyer you are.” A full 35 percent of advice requests that InsideFlyer receives are from readers asking for help redeeming an award. The bottom line is, “Never redeem tomorrow what you can redeem today.”
5. Find a Program That Fits Your Travel Style
Merely joining a frequent flyer program doesn’t guarantee a free trip; choosing the right one does. Many travelers simply join the first program they hear about, and then take years to earn anything of value. Then there are those travelers who boast about having miles in many different programs. But having miles in too many programs can become a problem. The primary rule for any frequent flyer is to concentrate on a single program (but always be prepared to switch allegiance temporarily for the right promotion), but as you will read elsewhere, this line of advice might be outdated. Getting the most from your frequent flyer program works best if you go out of your way to fly on a particular airline, stay at a particular hotel or rent from a partner car rental company. Many booking Web sites keep profiles of their regular customers, so take the time to ensure that your preferred airlines, hotels and car rental companies are in your profile along with your chosen membership number and window or aisle seat preference.
6. Find an Effective Solution for Earning More Miles (or Points)
Most people do not realize that 30-60 percent of their total miles and points can come from program partners. Every time you travel and use a partner airline, hotel or car rental company, you increase your chances of earning an award. For example, on a flight from Chicago to Denver, you will earn 1,500-2,000 miles (roundtrip) depending on your airline program. An affiliated hotel partner can add 500-1,000 bonus miles. Using this method, you can simultaneously earn miles and points toward numerous separate awards during a single trip. These tie-ins aren’t limited to hotels and car rentals, but include affinity credit cards, magazine subscriptions, referrals (read about the Northwest WorldPerks referral program in this month’s Best Bets) and more. When investigating program partners, look for those that allow points and miles to be earned without a flight or stay in conjunction. That way, even a casual stay at your local Holiday Inn for a special celebration will help you accumulate the miles and points necessary for your chosen awards.
Other effective solutions for earning more miles are to closely examine hotels programs such as Hilton HHonors, which offers double dipping, allowing you to earn points in the hotel program and miles in an airline program at the same time.
However, be aware that this double dip offer may not be the best any longer. We have been advising for some time now that more points is better — not more miles. With hotel room rates rising, points have become more valuable, and the good news is that hotel redemption charts have not been changed. A stay at a discount will often earn you only the hotel points.
Another way to earn more miles is to qualify for elite-level memberships. This advice was unanimous among all the readers we talked with. Not only do you earn more points or miles per stay, but elite-level membership leads to additional upgrades and even the voiding of blackout dates on awards, and special award offers.
We find that the number-one advantage of elite-level membership is the mileage bonuses. For example, Continental offers a 125 percent bonus on all Continental flights as part of their Gold Elite membership. That’s more than double miles on each flight. Another way to look at these bonuses is that awards are less than half price if you’re earning miles only from flying.
Also, know the differences between the elite level tiers. One reader points out that sometimes, “The second best elite level is no use. An example is that American AAdvantage Gold only gives a 25 percent bonus whereas Platinum gives 100 percent. Do extra vacation, cheap or out-of-season fares to qualify at a higher tier level.” Program members have been known to make an end-of-the-year trip to Europe (off-season) just to earn enough miles to re-qualify for an elite level knowing that the cost of the ticket is small compared to all the bonus miles that will be earned the following year. And remember, these days miles come from sources far beyond the typical. You can even earn frequent flyer miles for renewing the office copy of The Wall Street Journal.
7. Earn the Smart Way, Not the Hard Way
It really doesn’t matter if you have belonged to programs for years or are a new member; learning to earn the smart way is the most difficult task facing any member of a frequent traveler program. Just as in your corporate environment, the idea that “you’ve always done it that way” doesn’t mean it’s the “best way.”
Here’s an example of earning miles the smart way: The first is flight routing. For example, if traveling to Hong Kong from Toronto, there are many choices. But it usually means having to change planes at least once, except for Cathay Pacific. If the airfare is about the same price from Toronto to Hong Kong for almost all airlines, you might consider choosing United Airlines, as they partner with Aeroplan. Flying Air Canada involves changing planes in Vancouver, but buying a discounted airline ticket means a member would only earn 50 percent of the miles within Canada. (In Canada, flights with Air Canada earn less than one mile flown when flying on a discounted ticket.) A 8,500 mile one-way trip becomes 7,500 miles because of the initial 2,400 mile trip from Toronto to Vancouver. Whereas on United, members would change planes in San Francisco and get full mileage value for the whole trip, which become Aeroplan miles as a partner.
This is a strategy that works for one reader when flying to Phoenix on business. Flying American (company policy), he always chooses to change planes in Dallas rather than Chicago. The first reason is that he ends up with more miles routing through Dallas by going YYZ-DFW-PHX than YYZ-ORD-PHX. The second reason is also just as smart — flights through Chicago are often delayed.
Another way to earn miles the smart way is by purchasing tickets to Europe rather than using your miles. You earn greater rewards later on, and may not even need to make a mileage run.
The basic principle is to get the credit you deserve. While technology is getting better at tracking the various credits for partner activity, the mere expansion of ways to earn miles and points has made this task even more daunting. Even making sure your membership numbers are in with a transaction does not mean that later on it will not have been deleted or never have reached the processing point. We can never emphasize enough the need for all members learn to manage their miles and points.
An example during a recent promotion makes this clear. British Airways promised that members flying transatlantic would earn at least 50,000 Executive Club miles when flying on a business or first class fare. The promotion was open to all members and required registration. However, their registration system had not been programmed for the promotion, and many of those registering at the start of the promotion were told by a screen that they were not eligible for the promotion. Smart members printed out the screen message, and later on, when this problem was described here in InsideFlyer, the “smarter” members were able to prove to British Airways that they did in fact try to register and thus should have been credited for the extra bonus miles. This very same situation happened to our editor, and as it turns out, he was practicing what we preach — he’s 50,000 miles more loyal to British Airways.
Another part of the “earn the smart way” is staying informed. It is very evident among those readers we interviewed that a habit among the effective frequent flyers is to stay informed. With electronic newsletters and email it is more difficult but the smarter members have adopted and still skim through all the news about their frequently traveler routes and look for things that may fit their vacation plans.
The secret of frequent flyer programs is to make each action you take earn miles. For those that pay attention to the details, the next trip is free — from a financial and hassle perspective.