Some musings about my frequent flyer life

Discussion in 'General Discussion | Miles/Points' started by Steven Schwartz, Feb 8, 2013.  |  Print Topic

  1. Steven Schwartz
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    Steven Schwartz Gold Member

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    We had dinner last night with a friend for whom we had helped get two Business Class tickets to Asia for MUCH less than AMEX wanted him to pay. He wanted to know how I gained all this information and it made me think back over the last ten, wonderful years. So here goes my rather long answer to his rather short question!

    My wife and I purchased a Marriott timeshare in 2003 - an emotional purchase that was clearly a mistake on many levels. We were staying in an attached Marriott hotel. Now my wife, God bless her, can sleep while I tend to get up very early. In this Marriott hotel, I got up about 6:30 AM, couldn’t fall back asleep and ended up taking a pillow into the bathroom, sitting on the floor and reading so as not to have to turn on a light and wake up my wife. The fact that timeshares have at least one bedroom and one living room meant a whole lot to me. When the deal was signed, we got over 500,000 Marriott points and really, that’s how it all started. I would drive by the local Marriott and feel that I was a true stakeholder in the brand.

    I still felt there was some merit in the timeshare model - just that we had made the wrong purchase. Truth be told these 10 years later, I still feel that it can be a wonderful and viable alternative - especially at the prices now available on the resale market. But I digress! I had a patient who went to the Westin Mission Hills, loved it, and agreed to sit through a timeshare presentation. They decided to push the idea of him buying TWO weeks. He’s a pretty successful guy and smart enough to not succumb to much pressure. When he told them that he and his wife wanted to discuss it over lunch and then come back, they panicked at the thought he was just bolting. But he did, in fact, return after lunch and told the salesman that two weeks just wasn’t right for them. He told them that they decided to buy EIGHT weeks! The salesman probably fainted, recovered and gratefully wrote up the sales contract.

    For a number of reasons, we decided that we wanted to purchase a week at the Westin timeshare at the Kierland resort in Scottsdale, Arizona and I was able to negotiate a deal where I ended up with over 150,000 Starwood points when there was no Level 7 and when 10,000 points could get you most wonderful hotels. I immediately became a Starwood guy (albeit with a huge stash of Marriott points!). Then got the Starwood AMEX and I never looked back.

    A year or two later, someone I’m cordially friendly with mentioned that he had just gotten the AMEX Centurion card and raved about the Elite level memberships that included, but none more than Starwood Platinum. He went on and on about the suite upgrades he was getting and I was hooked. Called AMEX and discovered that the requirements back then were much more defined - $150,000 per 12 month period. I was a bit short but moved much of my office expenses to AMEX and within 3 months, we got the card. Hard to fathom what the benefits were back then (they have sadly retreated considerably) but it included Continental Gold, Delta Platinum, Starwood Platinum and even Hyatt Diamond.

    I got hooked not only on the free stays that my points got me but also the upgrades that status got me. Looking back, I can truly say that it was like an addictive narcotic. Once you’ve been upgraded from a regular room to a suite, once you’ve gone from Coach to First, well, don’t like to sound like a prima donna but it’s hard to go back! I found myself having hotel stays that even a successful dentist would not pay for!

    We then decided we wanted to travel to Europe and go back to Paris for the first time since our honeymoon. My late father had imported men’s slacks for many years from different part of the globe and convinced us to bypass a week in the Caribbean that most of our friends were doing for their honeymoons and go to Europe - and he said we could do it cheaply. So with Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day (really) we spent 45 days in Europe for a total (including flights and a car for 3 weeks ) of $1800!

    I had found FlyerTalk. There were no blogs back then. I knew that we could move miles from Starwood to a host of airlines. On FT I learned that it would take 150,000 miles per ticket to get First Class, NY to Paris, if we transferred the miles to BA, but back then, it would only take 90,000 Cathay Pacific miles for the very same seat. This did not make sense and didn’t seem possible but what the hell - called Cathay to confirm it was true and reserved two seats on BA. They said I had 30 days for the points from Starwood to post in order to ticket the reservations.

    Starwood gives a bonus on airline transferred and in order to get the total of 180,000 miles we needed for two FC tickets, we need to transfer on 145,000 Starpoints to Cathay. I actually did take almost the full 30 days but we got ticketed. I was ecstatic and could not believe my good fortune. I was no longer a virgin in terms of booking partner awards and we have never looked back. Nowadays, read the blogs and the postings on MP and FT and people talk about the benefits of various FC cabins and express their upset if their flight is not on a plane with the newest variation. I can also get caught up in this but I can also tell you that this flight in what is now considered the old BA First was the one that created the monster - I LOVED IT!!! It was clearly something I could never have paid for, most friends refused to believe this could really be done and we felt like the cat who swallowed the canary! All of a sudden, First Class airfare was within my reach and regular hotel stays, even free ones, were now spent in suites rather than rooms. As I wrote in my opening paragraph, having a living room to go to when I woke up really made a big difference in my life but not one I could have or would have routinely paid for!

    FT was my go-to source for a number of years and while the site can be very unfriendly at times, it was worth it back then for the information I was able to gain. Nowadays the user-friendly Milepoint and the many blogs make it much easier. While years ago, my friends felt that these lessons did not apply to them since they did not have businesses that could generate as many points as mine did, the generous sign-up bonuses we have seen in the last few years have made some of these experiences open to many people. That said, it still surprises me that so many of these friends refuse to take advantage of this and still feel it is a scam!

    Since that wonderful trip on BA to Paris in First, we’ve been fortunate to experience numerous Business Class long-haul flights and some wonderful First Class flights on BA, Swiss, Lufthansa, Air France, United and, in the last month, Cathay Pacific and Thai. We have experienced ridiculous suites in Starwood, Hyatt and Ritz Carlton hotels around the world. It still seems unfathomable that with a little effort, we are able to live Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!

    As a friend, I tend not to broadcast these things too much since those who want to know about it already do and I don’t want to seen overbearing to the rest. However, I do get to help friends who ask (and very few who don’t!) and I find it almost as exciting as working it out for me and my wife. I’ve compared the process to my passion for the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle and the satisfaction I receive from completing a puzzle and an itinerary! Like so many of you, I do have friends who call me before making any big travel moves and consider me to be a genius! And like most of you, I know it’s no big deal! I am personally grateful to so many on this board who I may never meet and yet who I consider to be friends, generously sharing their knowledge and warmly sharing my triumphs! We know that this stuff is really something that is easily accessible to anyone who cares enough to learn some basic stuff. But I guess we should also be grateful to the masses who consider it to hard to master and, perhaps, a scam since they are the ones who don’t take up the seats we so value!

    It has been an amazingly rewardable road and it makes me laugh to realize that it all began with a timeshare purchase we wish we had not made! You just never know!
     
  2. Food Wine and Miles

    Food Wine and Miles Silver Member

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    Great story. I think many of us here probably have one that sounds similar in many ways!
     
  3. Steven Schwartz
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    Steven Schwartz Gold Member

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    I for one would love to hear some of them. I bet the newbies here who may think some of us came from the womb knowing this stuff would also appreciate hearing about the roads we've taken.
     
  4. ezb

    ezb Silver Member

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    Great info thanks.

    Yes, I'm a "newbie" to this site and look forward to gleaning info from those of you who are kind enough to share, and in return, sharing whatever knowledge I have gained.

    Here's my situation: I earn miles/points through various credit cards I use at work. I have significant miles accumulated in AA, UA and DL. As a family of 4, we travel several times annually and in the past 15 years I can't ever remember actually paying $$ for a flight. All our flights have been booked by utilizing the various frequent flyer programs we have. I've learned to start searching 330 days in advance to book our trips and secure those seats. I'm probably the first guy in town to download school calendars so I know when my kids winter and spring breaks are scheduled :)

    I'd like to get more info about getting upgrades from economy to first/business class. There is much talk on this site of "Elite Status". But as far as I can tell, if I don't actually purchase tickets conventionally, instead of booking them using my miles, I don't qualify for them. Any info on this would be greatly appreciated.
     
  5. free101girl
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    free101girl Silver Member

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    I enjoyed reading about your evolution as a fellow nut for travel deals. :)

    Since you invited stories, I'll share a few highlights of my own journey.

    I have always loved travel; when I was a college student and later a grad student, I would sometimes spend my scholarship checks on cheap-o packages to London, and then eat ramen all semester. I was lucky enough to marry someone who also loves travel, though in the early days we couldn't always find the money or the time to go all the places we dreamed of.

    I found my way to FlyerTalk in 2001 and immediately learned so much amazing stuff I thought my head would explode. Who knew you could get Gold status with Hilton just for staying 4 times (there were a bunch of "challenges" available at the time to do just that) -- and then use that status to get matching status with another chain? Who knew you could do a challenge with AA and get Gold status with just a few flights?

    Who knew you could earn thousands of AA miles by buying cereal? I learned fast. In early 2001 I managed to get 50,000 AA miles by spending $60 on Kellogg's products. (If you want the details: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/archive/t-4123.html)

    It was all very exciting. And then I started haunting the Mileage Run forum. I never really did any MRs but I found amazing deals on flights there. I was one of the lucky ones, one Saturday afternoon in November 2002, who scored mistake fares of $20 plus tax -- around $100 total -- for roundtrip World Traveller Plus tickets on BA from Seattle to Helsinki and Seattle to Paris (two sets of tickets). My husband didn't even have enough vacation time to take both trips, so he took a week's leave from work.

    The whole thing was amazing to us. We had never flown in anything higher than Economy before, so we were pretty thrilled with WT+ when we flew to Helsinki in spring 2003. We spent some time in Finland, then flew to Stockholm (on a cheap fare, of course) and stayed there. All of our hotel nights were in Scandic hotels, which at the time were owned by Hilton. Those nights were free using HHonors points I had aquired with various promotions I had learned about on FlyerTalk. And the Scandics included free buffet breakfast every morning!

    We flew back to Seattle, spent the night, and then headed to Paris. Another amazing experience, though I actually had to pay for our hotel there (ran out of hotel points). And on our way back, BA gave us an op-up to Club World on our $20 tickets! If you think we'd been thrilled with WT+... well, this was really an eye-opener.

    From there on, I was more than a convert. I was a complete freak for all the frequent flyer/frequent stay deals out there. Since then we've done so many incredible trips that I've honestly lost track, but some of the highlights include:

    * In 2006, we flew to London in Virgin's Upper Class using a bunch of old Delta miles my husband had accumulated from work trips. We didn't even know we could use them on Virgin until I learned that on the boards.

    * In 2007, we spent a week in an overwater bungalow on Moorea, on the way to Auckland (where we stayed at the beautiful Hilton Auckland on Princes Wharf) and Sydney (where we stayed at the Park Hyatt with a view of the Opera House) with flights in FIRST on Air Tahiti Nui, all done using points and miles.

    * In 2008, we spent 8 nights on Kauai, staying at the Princeville and the Hyatt, all on points. Our flights on Hawaiian were in First, using miles I transferred from Amex Membership Rewards. We then took a round-the-world trip, concentrating on Asia. We did pay for the flights (in Business on Cathay, JAL and Qantas) but it was a relative bargain using oneworld RTW tickets (which I didn't know existed until I learned about it on the boards) and we earned so many miles that I only finished using them last year.

    I could go on, but that's enough. Needless to say, our standards have really changed in the past 10 years. We only fly in First or Business, unless the flight is under 3 hours (and sometimes even then). We only stay in top hotels. I can truly say that this "hobby" has changed our lives, and it has been so much fun! I owe so much to the experts I encountered on FT, and later here on MilePoint.
     
  6. NYBanker
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    NYBanker Gold Member

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    Great to read stories like these. Thanks for sharing.

    Indeed it is all a bit of a game...but an enjoyable one for many...with the reward being memorable travel experiences. :)
     
  7. gleff
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    gleff Co-founder

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    I did enjoy the story, thanks so much for it!

    I became a frequent flyer of sorts (I sure THOUGHT I flew a lot) after college, when I got my first job. I was flying for work, and also flying every couple of weekends to see my college girlfriend.

    I quickly started to love the frequent flyer programs, I would call up by phone to check my balance after every trip (1996, 1997) using United's automated phone system. I would anxiously keep checking for my flights to post :)

    I began churning credit cards in 1997 when I signed up for a US Airways credit card for the bonus, decided I didn't want to pay the annual fee so cancelled... I kept the points, didn't pay the fee, but some months later decided it was worth paying an annual fee for a mileage credit card so re-applied and got the bonus again. And decided to try and see if I could do that again!

    Back then I would read all of the stuff the programs would send me in the mail, like I remember getting a bonus from iDine (formerly Transmedia, now Rewards Network) for maybe 10,000 miles if I ate at 4 restaurants within a limited period of time. Back then I think iDine was limited to United elites. Reading the t&c of the promotion it didn't mention minimum spend. So I went to 4 participating restaurants, including two with takeout, and just ordered a soda.

    The miles were great because I have family in Australia, I'd use them for my own premium cabin travel and even gifted United first class awards to my grandparents. Back then United had partners like Air New Zealand, but this was pre-Star Alliance. If you wanted to fly Air New Zealand you could, but your flight from the East Coast to California on United to connect would be in coach "provided as a courtesy." I flew United.

    I became really interested in the business side of the airlines and subscribed to Holly Hegeman's PlaneBusiness newsletter. I'm not sure how I found it. But it was through PlaneBusiness that I found Flyertalk, and registered there in April 2001. I mostly read, posted rarely. I even remember meeting Randy for the first time in October 2011 when he did his US Airways "Come Fly With Me" mega-mileage run and stopped at DCA. A group met him for drinks at Legal Seafoods (now Sam & Harry's). I remember introducing myself somewhat apologetically with a comment that I don't often post. At the time I found the forums a bit intimidating and realized everyone knew so much, I didn't want to sound ill-informed...

    Nice thing back then was that confirmed domestic upgrades were 10,000 miles each way on United. I used to confirm most everything every time. Otherwise since I wasn't top tier I would try to fly from DC to the West Coast at noon. Via Denver. On Wednesdays.

    Alaska Airlines used to let you confirm upgrades out of revenue inventory for 5000 miles each way! There was no capacity controlled 'U' inventory (until 2002 I think?) and no fare restrictions.



    For what it's worth, my blog started in May 2002. And from the chronology of your story I think the timeframe of your statement is after that. :)

    I started the blog to chronicle for myself what I was learning, have a place to direct people to since i was answering the same questions over and over.

    Towards the end of 2002 Randy offered to host the blog and that started in February 2003. As a result you can still see a link to my blog at webflyer.com (although webflyer.com/blog no longer redirects to it it seems).

    When Randy was doing the first expansion of Flyertalk moderators I joined Craig6z (Moderator2) in MilesBuzz and became a Delta moderator.

    Later that year I also ran for Flyertalk's TalkBoard and was elected with the 2nd most votes behind Starwood Lurker. A couple of years later I was re-elected and also ran for Flyertalk's TalkBoard President, a position I held until I stepped down in January 2011.

    In October 2009 I started an award booking service. Mine certainly was not the first one. The original AwardPlanner was Randy's, something he stopped offering I believe once LaDonna Eppler left his company. And mine wasn't the first frequent flyer-offered service either, I believe Lucky started his a few months earlier. But I was doing award booking for readers for free for years, and had to ration the time so I decided to offer it on a for-pay basis so that the folks who valued it highly enough (demonstrated preference) would be the ones I would spend time on. Although I continue to answer questions all day long for free.

    That service was secret-shopped by Conde' Nast Traveler and recognized in March 2010, when they named me one of their 'World's Top Travel Specialists'. That really transformed the business bringing it huge volume. (It's also been written up in the New York Times and USA Today as well as Town & Country).

    After Randy closed down the Freddie Awards, tommy777 approached me about helping to get an awards program off the ground, a means of continuing the tradition and honoring the programs that drive the most value to frequent flyers, as judged by the flyers themselves. So with the group he put together I took on the charge of putting together nominations for the Frequent Traveler Awards and cold calling all of the programs to get them involved and hopefully share the opportunity to vote with their members. That first ceremony was held in the fall of 2010 in Houston (we wanted to ensure continuity and that meant a 2010 program), and then quickly we turned around a second program in April 2011 in order to return to the traditional timing of the Freddies. Randy did come to that first Houston program and snuck in back of the room quietly. I think he missed it. And we managed to get him involved as a presenter in the second Frequent Traveler Awards. After that he was even willing to bring back the Freddies, knowing that he wouldn' thave to do it on his own. And so I'm honored to be able to play a role there as well.

    After Randy announced he was stepping down from Flyertalk at the Seattle moderator meeting in 2010, I remember being coaxed into getting up on a table at dinner and saying some words to Randy on behalf of the group. It was a very emotional night. And Tommy, pizzaman and I were chatting about what it meant for the community, whether we could find a way continue the tradition that Randy had started, how to do that. We even talked about starting our own forum until we managed to encourage Randy and also join in the efforts he was playing around with. So I've been honored to be able to participate here helping to set up Milepoint. And to help organize the MegaDOs and Frequent Traveler University.

    Through all of this I've benefited more than I can possible ever say. I grew up as a frequent flyer in the early 80s as a child with divorced parents living on opposite coasts. I used to board the plane and look at first class, thinking I would never sit there -- I would never pay so much more for the seat, and wouldn't ever be able to afford to. That's what 6 and 8 year old Gary thought. So my very first upgrade fifteen years ago (A United 777 LAX-IAD) was a revelation.

    Since then I've flown international first class on Thai, Lufthansa, Singapore, Asiana, United, ANA, Qantas, Air Tahiti Nui, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, to name just a few and I have an upcoming first class trip on Etihad.
    And my partner in award booking (beaubo) and I have together redeemed over half a billion miles for clients in premium cabins internationally at the saver level.

    I've been more fortunate in this world, and in my life, experiencing things I never thought would be a part of my life. I've flown to Barcelona for dinner at El Bulli, to London for lunch at the Fat Duck. I've experienced the world beyond my imagination. And I've made incredible friends who continue to enrich my life. Thank you to you all!
     
  8. Steven Schwartz
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    Steven Schwartz Gold Member

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    Hard to fathom Gary as a newbie! Great story - now if you can get Randy to write his!

    Sorry about the blog timeframe. Who knew?!
     
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  9. gleff
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    gleff Co-founder

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  10. Steven Schwartz
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    Steven Schwartz Gold Member

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  11. gleff
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    gleff Co-founder

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    How 'bout just a commodity?

    Plastics.

    Shh....
     
  12. rdudaddy

    rdudaddy Active Member

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    Thanks for sharing, great story. It can definitely be done without paid business trips as I do not have any of those. I have yet to do a big international trip like many on this board, but I did just book a trip to Grand Cayman for our 10th anniversary on AA miles. Many of our flights for a family of 3 on are Southwest, and all are booked on points from Chase (no miles from paid flights). We did about four trips last year. Also, my wife wanted to go to NY city with four friends this summer for her 40th, and we booked everyone's flights with Delta miles (thanks Fidelity and Amex!) and the hotel with SPG points. She was thrilled since it probably would have been cost prohibitive for some of her friends to go otherwise.
     
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  13. wrxmom

    wrxmom Gold Member

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    Unfortunately since you're using miles for tickets you can't upgrade an award ticket from economy to first/business with miles.
     
  14. ezb

    ezb Silver Member

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    Yeah, that's become clear to me.... oh well! Thanks.
     
  15. Traveling Momma

    Traveling Momma Silver Member

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    I just got weepy reading Gary's history and introduction to frequent flyer programs. I finally feel like I've met "my" people. People who LOVE everything to do with travel; the flights, the destination, the people, the amenity kits, the food, the smell of new airplane. Where have you all been all my life? :D
     
  16. Steven Schwartz
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    Steven Schwartz Gold Member

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    There is a famous Buddhist saying:

    When the Student is ready, the Teacher will appear.

    The Teacher has been here all of your life! When we are open to the message, it's amazing the resources that are out there for us!
     
  17. Traveling Momma

    Traveling Momma Silver Member

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    Steven, you're one of my favorite commenters on here! Your energy and positive comments are wonderful. I love reading anything you say because I know I'll feel good afterwards.

    Funny enough, my husband is a practicing Buddhist and has been for 23 years, so, I should know that saying better than most.

    You guys are all amazing. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences. They are greatly valued by me here in Chicago. And, I vow to give back as much I've received.

    Blue.
     
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  18. Steven Schwartz
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    Steven Schwartz Gold Member

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    You're very kind. Thanks!
     
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  19. Desidivo

    Desidivo Silver Member

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    I am one of those who has been traveling for business but did not know about all this. In the last year I found milepoint and have started reading.

    First, I and the other newbies would like to express our gratitude for the info you share. I hope to pass on the knowledge as I learn to others (but not too many).

    I became a 1K on united last year and will make it again this year. I wanted to do the credit card promotions to get points but could not since we were looking for a house. Now that I have the house, I am open to almost anything as I would love to take my kids and wife to see the world. As the world become more and more connected, having the experience of traveling will help them once they go out into the world.

    To all on this site, I thank you for your help and I look forward to learning and traveling.
     
  20. Steven Schwartz
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    Steven Schwartz Gold Member

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    Congratulations on the house. That's a much bigger accomplishment nowadays that First Class to Europe!
     
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