As David Letterman once said, “Everyone has a purpose in life. Perhaps yours is watching television.” Or, perhaps, earning miles and points. If you are reading this article, chances are earning miles and points is a priority for you and you will continue to earn and spend miles and points for the remainder of your days. Being a frequent flyer has its ups and downs, and a beginning, middle and end, just like life.
Come along with us as we take a look at the life stages of a frequent flyer. From hatchlings, to fledglings, to high flyers — fully-feathered road warriors — and finally to snow birds (retirees seeking the sun — we were tempted to call this last stage “old coot” but didn’t want to offend anyone). In the spectrum of life on the road, where do you fit in?
It’s not unusual these days for children to get a frequent flyer card before they get their social security card. Most programs allow travelers to become members at the age of two (when you are required to buy a separate seat for your child) and some actively cater to the youngest flyers — no doubt hoping to groom them from an early age to be loyal customers. A recent online poll we conducted revealed that 17 percent of those responding joined a frequent travel program when they were under the age of 16 with nearly 26 percent responding that their children under the age of 18 are members.
Frequent flyer Sharon Kochmit had this to say about flying on an award ticket with her family: “My first award was enough miles for award tickets, on American, for my family of four — myself, husband and children aged three and eight. We flew from Cleveland to Colorado Springs to visit my husband’s sister and family. Then, on the way back, the gate attendant, for no reason whatsoever, upgraded all of us to first class for the first leg back (we had a layover in DFW). Well, our eight-year-old loved it, he remembers to this day ‘drinking OJ out of a glass while other passengers walked by’. He’s soon-to-be 24 and recently graduated from college and started the first job in his new career. Sometimes I wonder if just that little taste of first class helped him to realize how important it is to stay in school and beyond!” First class can certainly make you aspire to greatness — no doubt her son is also a frequent flyer program member today.
Overall, airline programs overseas seem to have made a bigger effort to court the youngest flyers than most airline programs in North America. Take for example, Czech Airlines. Czech OK Plus has the Jetsters Club for children 2 to 15 years old. The program features a dedicated Web site and a Jetsters badge and passport where members can collect flight stickers when onboard Czech Airlines flights, gather pilots signatures and record their flight experiences. Members get three stickers (one sticker = 10 points) for flights up to 3.5 hours and six stickers for long haul flights. The program has elite levels based on the number of stickers/points that have been collected that reward members with bonuses such as Jetsters’ flight goggles or a Jetsters’ belt, and at the highest level, 900 points, a member will be able to visit the Czech Airlines Training Center with its B737 flight simulator. Jetsters also get toys or games during flights plus children’s magazines. And for pre-Jetsters, there is a baby kit available with disposable diapers and rattles or other baby toys. Children aged two and up are also welcome to join the Czech OK Plus frequent flyer program to earn miles just like adults.
Czech Airlines is not the only airline that caters to the youngest flyers. El Al Airlines welcomes children on its flights with bassinets for infants, diapers in several sizes and baby food upon request. Bottles can be warmed and lavatories are equipped with changing tables. Parents traveling with children 10 to 23 months old are assigned bulkhead seats to allow more room. Complimentary writing paper, crayons, children’s magazines, activity booklets and toys are given out and a special kid-friendly in-flight audio channel is available. Children’s meals are also offered. Children who are two years and older may enroll in the Matmid Kids frequent flyer program and earn the same number of points as any adult traveling with them, even though the airfare for children is up to 25 percent less. Matmid Kids members also receive a booklet containing coupons for discounts and two-for-one offers for events, children’s attractions, shopping, restaurants and more throughout Israel.
Emirates has offered the Skysurfers program for 2- to 16-year-old frequent flyers since 2003. Skysurfers have a dedicated Web site and can earn miles toward elite levels just like adults. But even if they don’t fly a lot, members can redeem for awards starting at just 5,000 miles such as a gift voucher for Magrudy’s, a popular bookseller specializing in educational toys and books. The Web site features full program information, screensaver downloads, a sneak preview of in-flight movies, city guides and a “Day in the Life” series that gives members a behind-the-scenes look at being a pilot, cabin crew member and more.
We’re not the only ones who have noticed the tendency for overseas airlines to be more kid friendly, “My perception is that flight attendants on non-U.S. carriers are more sensitive to baby related needs,” said PhlyingRPh [FlyerTalk]. “I have traveled on certain Asian airlines where heating up baby formula, holding children for bathroom visits, serving three meals and two beverage services is done cheerfully.”
The next life stage sees the children leaving the nest and starting to make their own travel decisions. Our poll showed that over 60 percent of those responding joined their first frequent travel program between the ages of 16 and 29. Several programs have special programs aimed at college-aged customers and Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards has one of the best. The College Rapid Rewards Program is open to students between the ages of 18 and 23. You get four bonus credits when you enroll in the program and four credits for each roundtrip in the following 24 months — so, for only three roundtrip flights you will have enough credits for a free roundtrip ticket. And you will continue to receive one bonus credit for each one-way flight booked at southwest.com as a College Rapid Rewards Program member.
United College Plus is a program offered by United Mileage Plus for students where they can get 10,000 bonus miles upon college graduation. You must be a member of United Mileage Plus and a full-time student to join the college program. Upon graduation, you will need to mail a copy of your final college transcript that shows you graduated, along with your email address and United College Plus account number to United to get your miles. This offer is also available to those who earn a post-graduate degree.
AirTran Airways has a dedicated Web site for students at http://www.airtranu.com
Filled with fun-spirited college-humor content, the site lays out the AirTranU program where members of AirTrain Rewards Plus can pledge to “TAKA CHEEPA PHLITE”. You must be between the ages of 18 and 22 and can take flights for only $69 per segment, or $99 per long-haul segment (plus applicable taxes and fees) on a standby basis; some blackout dates apply. As A+ Rewards members, you will earn a half A+ credit each way and after earning 16 full credits, can claim a free roundtrip flight. An AirTran Airways A+ Visa Card is also offered to students where you can get three credits for using the card the first time and up to 10 credits for balance transfers. You will earn one point for every dollar spent on AirTran Airways travel and one point for every two dollars spent everywhere else — 1,000 points equals one A+ Rewards credit. And to help parents teach their children about the proper use of credit cards, there is information for students, including the following advice, “Only charge as much as you can afford to pay back…” Good advice.
Delta SkyMiles has a program through Chase where students can earn miles when taking out student loans — you will earn one SkyMile for every dollar borrowed, and recently there was a bonus offer of 2,500 miles when applying within a certain timeframe — students could earn up to 42,500 miles with the offer. On an ongoing basis, you can earn up to 40,000 miles.
Lufthansa has a dedicated Web site for students at http://www.generationfly.com because “Everyone knows that being a student means being on a budget.” The site features a social network Web portal — http://www.GenFlyLounge.com — special sweepstakes, reduced flight fare specials for students only and links to help students plan their travel. And if students enroll in Miles & More, they get 2,000 bonus miles. Only those with a valid college email address can register for the fare promotions, but the site is worth a visit for any traveling student.
The airlines are not the only ones catering to students. Students who are Student Advantage cardholders will get 1,000 bonus Guest Rewards points when enrolling in Amtrak Guest Rewards. And as a Student Advantage member you also get a 15 percent discount on rail tickets to any Amtrak destination. You can try Student Advantage free for 30 days and can become a member for a $20 yearly fee.
Janice Schulz discovered just how important a frequent flyer account can be to budget-minded students: “Just after graduating college, I was having a tough time financially and then my grandfather passed away. I did not think I could make it home for the funeral and to be with my family. Luckily, my award ticket arrived just a few weeks earlier. I called and the airline got me a ticket on a flight out the next day. I would not have been able to be there without the free ticket.”
A final note about being a student frequent flyer: When flying on discounted student fares, it pays to check with your frequent flyer program to find out if the fare you plan to fly on qualifies to earn miles. Some of these fares do not earn miles or earn at reduced amounts.
The high flyers are the members that the programs cater to the most — the men and women who spend almost as much time in the air as in their home. At this stage of life, many travelers earn more miles and points than they have time to spend, and most of the news that InsideFlyer covers relates to these members.
Travel programs can figure prominently in life’s milestones, such as marriage and career choices. “I purchased my wife’s engagement and wedding rings online through an airline portal, just to get more miles,” confessed FlyerTalk member seoulmanjr. “She loves it, thinks it’s perfect and I was amazed at the customer service, quality and price that I got. But still, when I first went looking, I was mostly torn between crediting American or Continental, and dismayed that I couldn’t credit Northwest from bluenile.com.”
A pleasant hotel stay is certainly an important aspect of most honeymoons and we’re sure that many honeymoons have been funded in part by frequent guest points. Starwood Preferred Guest has a Web site with a link to hotels that would be especially good for a honeymoon such as The Westin St. Maarten, Dawn Beach Resort & Spa where members can redeem 10,000 Starpoints for a night’s stay.
Hilton HHonors members who find themselves a few points short of their dream honeymoon can set up a HHonors Point Registry where friends and family can transfer their points into another HHonors member’s account. You can give points in increments of 10,000 points, at a cost of $.0025 per point, or $25 per 10,000 points. There is no limit to the number of points a member can transfer or receive and after transferring 200,000 points in a calendar year, any subsequent transfers that year will be free. The Point Registry program allows you to send up to 50 emails to friends and family for five different events in one calendar year.
Marriott has a Honeymoon Gift Registry where couples can select gifts from four Marriott categories: hotel accommodations, food and beverages, activities and merchandise, and where friends and family can purchase the various items for the couple. Marriott GiftCards are also available in denominations of $50 to $9,999 and can be used for services at all Marriott brands worldwide. Points are usually not earned with GiftCard purchases, but during mid-November through the end of the year for the past two years, Marriott has offered 10 Marriott Rewards points per dollar spent on gift cards.
Northwest WorldPerks has on online gift registry where individuals or couples can receive cash contributions to be used toward airline tickets on Northwest and partner airlines, including all airlines in the SkyTeam alliance. WorldPerks members can create a gift registry Web page and include a personal photo, travel plan description and the amount needed to meet their goal. You can also send email announcements or printed announcements and electronic thank you notes. There is no limit to the amount of money received and friends and family can contribute between $25 and $10,000 dollars per contribution with a major credit card. WorldPerks flight miles may be earned on tickets purchased with gift registry funds.
Continental has offered a gift registry since 2005. The minimum amount that can be given is $25 and the funds are deposited into a Continental TravelBank account that can be used to purchase tickets. You will earn miles on the tickets purchased with TravelBank funds.
The biggest factor for getting vast amounts of miles/points for most frequent flyers is whether or not they travel for work. Most road warriors do not pay for their flights — the company pays — and they get to keep the miles. And if you ask them, most business travelers will say it’s the least they should get for the trouble and inconvenience of a life spent in the air instead of at home with their families. Many have been lured by these words on a job description, “travel involved,” but soon find out it’s a bit of a sirens’ call — sounds great on paper but can be a bit of a pain in real life. The miles and points make it more bearable.
In a recent poll, we found that some travelers elect to take the family with them to lessen the pain of constant separation. Over 40 percent said that they take family members with them on business trips one to five times a year. Still others elect to give or transfer miles to family members so they can travel with them on free tickets. See “Miles for Your Flock” for more information.
But once flyers become accustomed to the relative comfort of traveling as an elite member, it can be quite a shock to lose your status when your travel slows down because of work or other life changes. When this happens to flyers, they have several options. They can either accept their lowered status, take advantage of programs such as the United Mileage Plus fast-track program which costs $299 and requires you to fly 6,250 miles within 90 days of resuming membership to regain your status or communicate with your program directly to try to get a similar deal. If you decide to contact the frequent flyer program, write to an individual high up within the organization explaining your circumstances and how your travel will once again be increasing — a little hint that another airline can fill your travel needs just as well might not hurt. And with most things in life, be polite but persistent (to a point!), and you just might find yourself back as an elite.
When road warriors no longer travel for business, many continue to take to the skies on the miles and points they’ve earned through the years to fund their retirement travel. With recent changes to the expiration policies of programs where miles will be deleted from accounts with no activity, quite a few seniors were caught unaware and found their stash of miles gone when it came time to search for award flights. Road warriors that are currently in the skies know that they need to keep their account active to keep their miles, but they are also of the mind that they should think seriously about spending the miles they have before devaluation takes its toll. A recent poll we conducted showed that 22.5 percent plan to use their miles/points to fund most of their retirement travel with 62.7 percent saying that they do not (14.8 percent said that this does not apply to them).
Seniors have traditionally been offered discounted flights or hotel stays because of their age but with the looming threat of baby boomers reaching retirement age, these programs have been slowly disappearing. Last year United Airlines discontinued the Silver Wings Plus membership-fee-based travel program for customers 55 and over. Silver Wings Plus offered savings through zone fares for the members and their traveling companion plus other perks such as bonus miles. Jeff Kovick, United’s Public Relations, said that discontinuing the program was part of the company’s efforts to control costs, optimize revenue and to focus on services United’s customers find most valuable. “We thoroughly analyzed customer response to this program and found that less than one percent of our customers were affected by this decision,” he said. Lifetime members of Silver Wings Plus will continue to have unlimited access to zone fares and members who joined before September 2005 will retain access to zone fares.
United is not the only program to discontinue a senior program. Hilton HHonors discontinued its Senior HHonors program that offered, among other perks, fast-track to Gold VIP status with half the required stays. The official end date for the program is July 31, 2008. In a letter to Senior HHonors members, Hilton referenced “declining membership” as the reason for discontinuing the program.
Not all discounts have disappeared, Priority Club Rewards members who are 62 years of age or older or have a valid membership ID of a retired persons organization are offered discounts on the non-discounted room rate at participating hotels in the U.S., along with a complimentary newspaper delivered each weekday morning at Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts.
Regardless of where you are in the Life Stages of a Frequent Flyer, you can make the most of the stage you’re in by being informed before you earn the miles and points and flexible when you spend them. And along the way, you just might find your purpose in life.