Life in the Air

Life in the Air

We recently caught up with four high-flying frequent travelers and asked them several questions related to life in the air and how they view frequent travel programs. We asked the same questions to all of them in the hopes that with their combined experience, our readers might learn something new about the world of miles and points. They have different perspectives on how to maximize the value of miles and points and don’t pick the same programs as their favorites, but they all agree that collecting miles and points is a worthwhile pursuit, despite some of the complications of figuring out how best to take advantage of a promotion and redeem for awards. We thank all of our travelers for taking the time from their busy schedules to answer our questions and share their knowledge. So now, let’s hit the road with our road warriors: Carol, Steve, Seth and Gary. We will continue our cover story next month and include interviews with Nathan, an expert mileage runner, and Tom, United Airlines most frequent flyer.

Carol (SanDiego1K) is the Community Director for FlyerTalk. During her international business career, she was out of the country almost as much as she was in it and she continues to fly 200,000 miles a year. She has 30 years of loyalty program experience, having joined the American Airlines, United Airlines and Marriott Rewards programs when they launched, and she holds top tier status in several hotel and airline programs.

Steve Belkin (pictured with daughter Nikki) has accumulated over 28 million miles through a wicked combination of mistake fares, buying consumer goods mileage promotions in bulk, recruiting ‘surrogate flyers’ and other ‘fly low cost, redeem high value’ arbitrage opportunities buried within frequent flyer programs. Belkin owns, a team travel competition trip where your vacation is a mystery trip of Europe accomplishing a series of surprise challenges in pursuit of a cash prize. Belkin also is COO Sunflower Solutions, supplying manual solar tracking systems for the burgeoning Indian market.

Seth Miller is an aerophile and a wanderlust. No trip is too short or too long and no destination too near or too far. In addition to closely following the travel loyalty program industry, Seth works to help educate others on the opportunities these programs offer in a number of online travel communities and writes about his travels in his blog, The Wandering Aramean.

In addition to blogging about miles and points at his View from the Wing blog, Gary Leff is Chief Financial Officer for a university research center. He was a founding Senior Moderator of FlyerTalk and was also the longest serving TalkBoard President, from 2005 until he stepped down from his volunteer roles on the site to focus on the launch of milepoint. He has been cited or profiled in numerous publications and was also named as one of the world’s top 135 travel specialists by Conde Nast for his award booking service,

Which programs are your favorites, both airline and hotel, and why are they your favorites?

Carol: I’ve been loyal to the United program since its inception. I’ve had lengthy flirtations with other carriers, including the sadly departed TWA. United works for me. It has good service from my two home airports, San Diego and Carlsbad. It has superb partners for award redemption, including Lufthansa, Swiss and Singapore. I bought a lifetime Red Carpet Club membership for just $250 when I first began to travel. That makes my airport transit time more comfortable.

As for hotels, my loyalty is more transient. I’m currently loyal to Starwood and Hyatt. Starwood has a great range of aspirational properties throughout the world. I often get a suite as a top tier member, which really makes my husband happy. I’ve been playing the Hyatt game the last few years. Last year, they upped the loyalty stakes by being the first to offer free Internet to all top elites. I like the confirmable upgrades they offer, free breakfast at all properties and redeeming points at their luxurious Park Hyatt properties.

Gary: As someone who likes to use their miles for premium cabin international awards, it’s hard not to have a strong preference for a Star Alliance airline mileage program (though if I were redeeming primarily from North America to South America I would prefer oneworld).

My favorite airline program currently is United Mileage Plus. For a long time they were at the bottom of my list because they were purposely blocking their members from booking award seats offered by their Star Alliance partners, when the program didn’t want to pay those partners for seats. But that hasn’t been much of an issue for the better part of a year. And they’ve made other real improvements.

I believe that United offers the best combination of a reasonable award chart, access to premium cabin award seats on partners and generous routing rules for putting together a great award ticket–along with the best benefits for top-tier elite frequent flyers, mostly generous upgrades–both domestic and international–but also economy plus for those times when elites sit in the back of the bus.

My favorite hotel program is Hyatt Gold Passport. Now, Starwood Preferred Guest was the first hotel program to offer standard hotel room redemption without blackout dates or capacity controls. But Hyatt has matched that benefit. They were the first major chain to offer free Internet to their elites, and they offer it even at the first elite tier. For their Diamond members they offer confirmed suite upgrades four times a year. No more hoping at check-in, at the mercy of the check-in clerk–Gold Passport is offering the benefit their elite members want the most when those members most want it. And Gold Passport has been the most generous on the promotion front as well. Recently they’ve scaled back the free nights and points bonuses, but I’m hoping that’s temporary.

Steve: Depending on the snapshot in time, different programs were my favorites.

From 1985 to 2001: I flew exclusively United which earned me elite for life status. United had a program called Pass Plus whereby for $15,000 upfront, they supplied a bank of 50,000 miles to be used over two years … essentially each paid mile flown cost three cents with no advance purchase requirements and unlimited changes at no cost. But they also comped me 1k status, so every mile earned was doubled. I used this program for short-haul travel between Cleveland and Wisconsin via Chicago. Each roundtrip was four segments with a 750 mile minimum plus 750 mile 1k bonus. So, I earned 6,000 miles per roundtrip–all status miles in those days. And the actual flown miles deducted from my Pass Plus 50,000 balance was about 900 miles or $270. So, I was earning consistently EQMs at 4.5 cents–long before fares were squeezed by low cost carriers.

From 2001 to 2005: Air Canada had the best top-tier Super Elite program in the world–by far! No capacity controls, no blackout dates and no double miles awards using AC metal. Europe in business, 80,000 miles; Asia/India/Israel/Australia, 100,000 miles for anyone you wanted–in a three-minute phone call. And if you flew over 70,000 EQMs, you got a coupon that let you upgrade to a business class award for economy miles (50,000 Europe, 75,000 Asia/India/Israel/Australia). And if you flew over 100,000, 150,000 and 200,000 EQMs, you were gifted threshold bonuses of 50,000, 100,000 and 150,000. So, when I had Thai surrogate flyers plying the ‘Baht Run’ routes for me, they flew 100 roundtrips earning 200,000 EQM (minimum 1,000 miles per flight) plus 165,000 of elite bonuses, 300,000 of threshold bonuses for 665,000 of total miles and the free upgrade cert of an economy award, so about seven international business class awards for about $2,000 of spend. All those shweeeet Super Elite benefits slowly but surely eroded down to nothing over the next four years.

From 2002 to 2007: KLM Flying Dutchman matched the mileage balances of all customers of bankrupt Sabena for flying 20 KLM/NWA segments, but for some reason they opened this promotion to all comers. So, in 2002, my 2.5 million United miles were matched and about a year later, a NWA/KLM merger of mileage currency jacked that balance up to 4.6 million. KLM was amazing because they had 50 percent off award sales every other month from select U.S. cities to select cities worldwide and a reasonable award chart–Europe in business 80,000, Asia/Africa, 90,000. So, for a mere 45,000, I could fly in business to far flung places like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh and Delhi. And because KLM didn’t have a first class award, they simply charged you a business class rate of 90,000 to fly first class on Malaysia to Bali. Plus members got 200 percent EQM class of service bonuses for paid business on SkyTeam and partners like Malaysia Airlines and a low 70,000 Platinum threshold made this a welcoming program to keep top-tier status. Then came the Air France merger and the program is now a shell of its former self.

2006: My favorite program during this time was Swiss Air. Two months before being absorbed by the Lufthansa Miles & More program, Swiss Air’s last hurrah promo was a 5,000-mile bonus for every one way flight intra-Europe. With a 1,000 minimum-mile earning, the promo came out to 6,000 miles per one way. I figured out the ONLY routing strategy possible to squeeze eight segments into a day (start and end in Stuttgart!) and proceeded to earn 48,000 miles per day. I flew via ZRH to/from VCE, MXP, VIE, BRU, AMS, LUX, FRA, TXL, MUC, CDG for a week straight and recruited four college students from Germany to do the same and earned more than 1.2 million miles, for under 1.5 cents per mile.

From 2006 to current: BMI (British Midland) is a darkhorse in the Star Alliance. But it has unique earning and burning qualities. Earning–once you fly 55,000 EQMs, every mile you earn, EQM is doubled and with a generous COS bonus program 200 percent for business class and 300 percent for first class and a 25 percent elite bonus, a paid first class ticket earns 625 percent for each mile flown. So, finding super cheap first class fares became my quest, which was realized with ex-Colombo, Sri Lanka to U.S. fares for under $2,800 which, with strategic routing (remember, every small segment would earn 500 miles x 625 percent) like CMB-SIN-ICN-NYC-PHL-DCA-SFO-LAX-SAN roundtrips, would earn about 28,000 EQMs or 180,000 RDMS for a cost per mile of about 1.5 cents. Burning–BMI has a Cash and Points program that allows one-way travel, and terrific redemptions like U.S.-Europe/South America in business for 37,500 miles plus 210 GBP plus tax or U.S.-Asia/India for 60,000 miles plus 305 GBP plus tax.

Seth: My current favorite airline program is Continental OnePass. Sadly, it will be disappearing in the merger with United, but it had a great balance of flexible award redemption, a tremendous partner network (Star Alliance plus others) and it was the easiest U.S.-based program on which one could qualify for top tier status. I’m keeping an eye on the Mileage Plus program as the merger progresses but I’ve also got my eye on Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program. A pretty good partner network and some fun redemption options make earning there a solid investment.

My current favorite hotel program is the Hotels.comWelcome Rewards plan. I rarely stay in western branded chain hotels, particularly in my international travel, so having status with Starwood or Hilton doesn’t do much for me. The Welcome Rewards program has a pretty reasonable redemption rate and it is incredibly simple to understand. Plus, it covers all the off-brand hotels that I’m often staying in anyway.

What were some of the rookie mistakes you made when you were new to frequent travel programs?

Gary: Rookie mistakes? Too numerous to mention. And even now I still ‘make mistakes’ though perhaps just not as big, I miss out on offers or opportunities. The biggest mistakes are not jumping on opportunities and seizing moments, deferring experiences until ‘later’ because if there’s anything I’ve learned from miles and points is that the world isn’t as big as it seems and it’s possible to experience just about everything it has to offer! As I once told a group of frequent flyers, ‘people tend to underinvest in peak experiences.’

Perhaps my most embarrassing mistake, though, was that as a teenager after I made my first trip to Australia I … let the miles in my American AAdvantage account expire.

Steve: With GREAT trepidation and the risk of sounding like a totally arrogant bastard, when I was new back in the mid ’80s long before FlyerTalk, I made NO mistakes.
– Before you had to show IDs at the airport, I would recruit people to fly under my name when there were triple and quadruple mileage promotions.
– I would have people include my name on their hotel reservations to help me get top-tier hotel status.
– I would never fly nonstop, to ensure top tier status using segments, flying crazy routings like CLE-ORD-NYC/MIA/DCA (this is before IAD was a hub).

Seth: The most significant mistake I made as I started to travel a lot was to not focus my airline loyalty. For the occasional traveler odds are that better value can be had by just buying whatever is cheapest, but as the volume of travel increases the value of that loyalty grows significantly. Focusing on just one or two programs can magnify that effect, ensuring the biggest reward for your travel budget.

Ironically, my biggest mistake on the hotel side was to focus my loyalty. When someone else is paying the tab it is easy to always stay at the same hotel chain and accrue all the points and benefits. But for my travel habits and patterns it turns out that I was paying a ton more for the stays and never really getting the value from the points or status to make up for that investment. By simply booking on the cheap for hotels I found that I generally got way better value over the long term.

Do you think the programs are becoming
more valuable, or less valuable through the years? And how have they become more
or less valuable?

Carol: The airline programs have been less valuable, while the hotel programs have become more valuable. Let me give an example of a bonus and a reward in the early days. About 1977, several of the major carriers had the same promo: fly five flights and 5,000 miles; get a first class domestic ticket for free including Hawaii. I figured out a way to turn a San Diego to NYC trip into five segments and roughly 5,100 miles. My favorite redemption was a TWA award. For 50,000 miles, I got a free first class international ticket plus an upgrade to first for my husband. He then earned miles on his ticket. We saw Istanbul and Cairo thanks to that award. Airlines can’t afford those kinds of giveaways any more.

These days, miles required for airline awards ratchet slowly upward. Even more troubling are the fuel surcharges. Two years ago, British Airways offered a special promo where you could redeem miles for one and get two awards. I had sufficient miles for two first class and two business class awards. Free, right? No, not really. The fees were over $3,000. Certain airports now impose hefty fees. I just flew my niece home from London. One way, coach–27.5K miles on UA and the precise flight she wanted. Great. But the fee was $165.

On the other hand, hotels have dramatically improved what they offer to their elite guests. I’ve given examples above of the improved Hyatt offerings. Hotels also offer promotions from time to time of a free stay for a certain number of paid nights. Starwood launched its new promo on May 1 where for every three stays at their hotels, you can have one free night in one of their resort hotels. Priority Club had a great promo the last two years where for just two stays, you can earn one free night. Hyatt has done the same the past several years. These promos are excellent for the not so very frequent traveler who might not get status but can still earn some free nights.

Gary: Programs are definitely more valuable than they were 10 years ago, though they may not be as valuable as they were two years ago.

At the depths of the Great Recession, bonuses were flying out of programs like never before, and since international premium cabins weren’t selling, securing awards was really easy. I doubt we’ll see anything like 2009 again any time soon.

But it’s hard to say that the era of great value is over when there are more opportunities than ever to redeem your miles, and in better ways. When I redeemed United miles to go to Australia in business back in 2000, the Mileage Plus agents offered me the chance to fly Air New Zealand and then I could fly United in coach to California to catch that flight “as a courtesy.” Now I redeem my Mileage Plus miles for awards that include Lufthansa, Thai Airways, All Nippon, and Asiana–all on one award–and my United segments are in first class, too! The partnerships are expanding and becoming better integrated, improving the award experience all around.

Sure, mileage charts have become more expensive. That Australia trip I took is a lot more miles now. But earning miles is easier, too.

Steve: For the vast majority, far less valuable for BURNING miles–due to award redemption inflation, upgrade redemption inflation, qualifying fare basis restrictions and the advent of co-pays, crazy taxes and fuel surcharges (for sure on European based programs) and perceived frustrations in award lack of availabiliity.

EARNING–due to reduced earning on non-highest cost fares and reduced minimum mile earning for short haul travel.

Grizzled veterans who already have high balances from the gravy train days, who know award booking strategies like flying into secondary instead of primary airports or staying away from peak periods or booking long-haul segments first, THEN tacking on feeder flights to/from hubs will be fine.

Seth: There has only been one instance in recent memory (Continental joining Star Alliance) where points gained value rather than losing it or holding steady. Upgrade awards have become significantly more expensive over time, dramatically reducing the value there. Regular award redemptions have gone up in cost in many cases and, even when they haven’t, deals on business class revenue tickets have somewhat eroded the value of the points versus just buying the tickets. There is no doubt that the loyalty programs and points still allow for some incredible redemption opportunities–experiences that I’d almost certainly never be able to pay full price on–but the overall trend is definitely one of stagnant to decreasing value.

Can you share one tip with fellow travelers about how to get the most value out of their miles and points?

Carol: Pay attention to hotel free night promos. Otherwise, focus on one airline and one hotel chain in order to maximize your status and the benefits that come with it.

Gary: Use your miles to give yourself life experiences, to open a door to travel you wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience, instead of just as a substitute for the travel you’re going to do anyway. Miles are at their best as a gateway to aspirations. Might as well take the programs up on what they promise!

But three specific tips are as follows:
1. Always sign up for programs, don’t ever leave miles on the table “because you don’t think you’ll fly X airline enough.” Airlines have many partners, perhaps there’s a way to credit a flight to an existing account you have?
2. Keep track of all of your points, using a service like Mileage Manager or Award Wallet.
3. Pick a program to focus on, with an award goal in mind. When you have enough miles for your award, focus on a second program. It’s always better to have miles in more than one place, for more chances of success when it comes time to redeem. But not to spread yourself so thin you never reach your goal.

Steve: Anytime a program offers to sell miles for under two cents per mile net cost, jump at it. Anytime a credit card company offers you a bunch of sign up bonus miles and the cost of those miles after paying the annual fee is less than two cents, jump on it. Anytime an airline mileage mall partner offers a bonus for a product at 50 miles or more per dollar, jump at it.

Think beyond yourself. If there is an amazing offer, get your friends and family to let you sign them up. If they are not interested, have them give you permission to sign them up anyway, and you can pay them a small stipend–and YOU control their accounts and redeem their miles. Hopefully, people you know and trust won’t mind giving you their social security number and income!

Seth: Know your program partners. Understand the rules that the program has for redeeming points using partners and how that will affect the redemption value of those points. By leveraging airline partners there are more flight options and often better service options available to redeem for a trip. Why pay double points on a “rule-buster” award for the airline that you earned the points on when a partner might have seats available at the lower rates? Similarly, why settle for a mediocre product when the partners might offer something better for you?

You do not have to always travel in first or even business class to find the best value for travel awards, though that is certainly a quite comfortable way to fly. By leveraging the partners you can find award options that hold tremendous value, even on coach tickets.

Also keep in mind that the points you are accruing have a somewhat finite value, depending on the program. Going out of your way to earn points through a particular merchant is only smart if you’re not paying a ton extra for that benefit. When you get so obsessed with the idea of earning points that you forget about the cost of accruing them versus the redemption value you’re missing out on the main purpose of the “game” we’re playing. Paying extra for something is rarely the smart move.

How have frequent flyer miles changed
your life?

Carol: I’ve traveled in ways and to places I would never have expected as a girl growing up in a small Midwest town. My family drove and tent camped for free in national forests. I flew for the first time at 16, and didn’t fly again until I was 24.

As an adult, I’ve seen many of the great wonders of the world, from Easter Island to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. I’ve gotten to fly up front on a wide range of carriers, including Emirates, British Airways and Cathay Pacific. I’ve stayed in luxury hotels around the world, from the Park Hyatt Vendome in Paris to an over-the-water bungalow in French Polynesia.

Gary: I’m just a simple country boy. Well, okay, I grew up in New York, not very country. But I’m not a wealthy man. But my wife and I have had opportunities to see the world that are just incredible. We’ve flown to Barcelona for dinner, to London for lunch and we’ve met friends in Macau. We stayed in fabulous ocean villas, had our own pools and been treated royally, even though we’re simple folks and I work for a non-profit. I’ve gotten to experience life in a way that I never thought possible before beginning the chase for miles and points–and how best to leverage them.

Steve: I was out of North America twice in my life before Randy Petersen and FlyerTalk, and in the last 11 years, I have earned over 27 million miles with various plotting and scheming (and flying!) which has allowed me and my family to visit fascinating destinations (in the comfort of business class!) like China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Sri Lanka, India, Dubai, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, most of Western Europe, Argentina, Brazil, Belize, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Morocco, Tanzania, Kenya, Nepal, Thailand and Cyprus. Irreplaceable experiences, memories and appreciation of the diversity of people on earth … and how damn lucky we are in America with our incredible standard of living.

Seth: I travel more. Lots more. It is something of a positive feedback loop that has me earning more miles and traveling more on award tickets because of it. By focusing my loyalty and travel spending I’m able to see more places more often for the same amount of money. Hitting 20 countries in a year just for fun has become my regular plan, not a crazy stretch goal. Okay, a little crazy.

I’m also able to enjoy the travel more, thanks to being able to afford travel in the premium cabins that I would definitely never be able to pay the cash fares for. So not only am I traveling more, but I’m traveling better, too.

What is your travel philosophy in relation
to getting the most benefit from memberships in frequent flyer programs? And hotel programs?

Steve: Accumulating miles: Under two cents, you’ve got my attention, under 1.5 cents I am prepared to scale up my involvement to friends and family, under 1 cent, I am sequestered until I come up with a business plan to earn at least two million miles!

Are you a hoarder or a spender? If you’re a spender, what do you like to spend your miles/points on?

Gary: Award charts will never be as favorable as they are today. The price of awards in miles will almost always go up, not down. So take the opportunity to use your miles, and then earn more. You won’t be the victim of inflation, and you’ll have the experiences to boot!

Surprisingly to some, I don’t spend my miles for international upgrades. Those are rarely as good a deal as they used to be, with minimum fare restrictions or cash co-pays.

I spend my miles on premium cabin international awards–the kind of travel that I could never afford otherwise. In that way, miles offer me an opportunity to live a travel life that wouldn’t otherwise be open to me.

Steve: Until 2006, I was a net earner even with some redemptions. Since 2009, I’m definitely a net spender as I don’t see value proposition getting any better except for the occasional freak sale or mistake fare.

Seth: You may like to see that balance grow bigger and bigger over time but the purpose of the points is to redeem them, not to hoard them. Having a million points may look really cool on the balance sheet but until you’ve redeemed them you haven’t realized their value and odds are that they’ll never be worth more than they are today. There are certainly some exceptions–100,000 points can generally realize more than four times a 25,000 point award–but at the end of the day the goal should be to redeem the points, not to hoard them.

I redeem for air travel. Not always in business/first class, though I do like being spoiled in the big comfy seats on longer trips. There are a number of other destinations where fares are simply never particularly inexpensive that award flights can be very useful for. I try to redeem two to four trips each year to keep my balances from ballooning out of control and to make sure I’m still seeing more of the world.

Are the glory days of frequent flyer
programs over?

Carol: Yes and no. My frequent flyer accounts give us aspirational travel I wouldn’t afford otherwise. We have to keep our eyes on more opportunities to earn than simply getting into the sky. There have seen stunning credit card offers this past year. For example, my husband and I both got BA credit cards with 100,000 bonus. We then spent $30,000 on one card and got a 2 for 1 award. We can combine our miles in a household account so that the 200,000 plus are available for that award. Yes,we will have to pay the fuel surcharge, but we’ll be flying up front in great comfort. The game evolves and it continues to be worthwhile to play.

Gary: Hardly!

Steve: If earning miles based on flying on your OWN dime, I would say, regrettably yes. If you are a business owner that can leverage credit card spend that you had budgeted anyway to earn big mileage balances, then you will enjoy pleasant days, but not a glory day!

Seth: The loyalty game is certainly changing, but it is hardly over. The programs exist in a state of confusion that serves to limit the redemption options for their members. By paying attention to those rules and investing a bit of time to understand how they work and where the loopholes are, it is still possible to benefit from the programs well beyond the investment being made to accrue the points. That’s not to say that it is easy or trivial, but the challenge of finding that perfect award seat is one of my favorite parts of the game.

It is also interesting to see the “loyalty” concept of these programs changing so rapidly in the past few years. When the programs launched they were an ancillary effort to drive ticket revenue. Today they are more and more focused on bringing in revenue to the airline from non-travel sources. Credit cards and other partners are a much more significant factor in points accrual, especially when you’re looking for a huge lump-sum payoff that the enrollment bonuses provide.

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