Getting the Most From Frequent Flyer Programs
Here’s an excerpt from Mileage Pro: The Insider’s Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs by Randy Petersen and Tim Winship (OAG; $19.95), ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 50 ways to improve your travels in 2006. For more information on Mileage Pro and to order, go to mileageprobook.com.
As a sneak preview, we have chosen Chapter 16: The Best Frequent Flyer Advice You Will Ever Get. This chapter goes into all the details you need to know to better manage and maximize travel loyalty programs.
The information is broad enough not to intimidate those just learning about miles and points, but advanced enough so that even the most seasoned traveler will either learn something new or be reminded of something important.
Chapter 16: The Best Frequent Flyer Advice You Will Ever Get
OK, we did put a lot of information in Mileage Pro. Information we hope you will be able to go back to time and time again. But we also know that your time is valuable and limited—especially if you are a road warrior and are out there traveling thousands of miles a year. For easy reference we’ve compiled the best pieces of advice you will ever get regarding your frequent flyer miles. Consider the following:
1. Eat out often. One of the fastest ways to a free award is to skip airline food and go straight to a favorite restaurant. In this case, your favorite one will offer from one to three to 10 miles for every dollar you spend there. Still be careful. Some require you to show your airline card, while others restrict visiting the same restaurant more than once a month to earn miles. Best advice: Join several airline dining programs such as the United Mileage Plus Dining or American AAdvantage Dining programs by Rewards Network. to stay active in airline programs that have expiring miles. Use these types of miles to “top off” accounts in your less active programs.
2. Be sociable. Chat with seatmates and others in your company to find out about new deals from other airline and hotel programs. For instance, Marriott and Hilton members standing around the water cooler have heard about the “Free Nights Faster” program from Hyatt that awards one free night after two stays (without any point deduction) when using a MasterCard for payment.
3. Carry a smaller wallet. Gone are the days of excess. Pick one or two reward programs and put loyalty back into these programs. Leave your collection of membership cards at home with your statements from other programs only showing 732 total miles earned.
4. If you can’t fight them, relax. With most major programs having miles that expire without activity over a three-year period, you must learn to manage the miles you earn. Staying active in your minor programs with some annual partner activity that will allow you to continue to save for a rainy day should that be your strategy. Don’t be fooled though. While miles may not expire, issued awards, such as free airline tickets, do.
5. Develop double vision. When one big program offers an unbeatable bonus opportunity, learn that other programs soon will match. For example, in July 2005 when American introduced 750-mile distance awards for only 15,000 miles, United matched it just a few days later.
6. Don’t be left standing inside the airport. Several programs allow you to exchange miles for airline club membership. Delta Platinum Medallion members get club membership for free allowing them, because of the SkyTeam alliance, to also visit the airline clubs of Continental and Northwest.
7. Don’t overlook the obvious. Smaller programs by Midwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines may be right under your nose. It might be time to discover the difference.
8. Learn something new every week. For instance, did you know that some programs allow one-way awards at half the mileage requirements? Did you know that American AAdvantage has a formal program where they will match your elite membership on another airline when you meet certain flight requirements? For instance, if you are Premier Executive on United, American will match that status as long as you fly 15,000 miles on American in a three-month period. This is done to prove that you are capable of American a good amount of business. Listen and learn.
9. Double dip is not just for hotels. Multiply your miles on each trip by using only your airline program’s car rental or hotel partners. Sticking with your airline’s partners means you won’t miss big opportunities. For example, on a flight from San Francisco to Denver you will earn 1,930 miles (roundtrip) depending on your airline program. The correct hotel partner could add an additional 500 bonus miles to that total, and a partner car rental could add another 50 to 250 bonus miles.
10. The real Double Dip. Opt for a hotel partner that lets you earn both miles (for the carrier) and points (for the hotel). Hilton is the best example. Their Double Dip program actually now includes three options for you to customize each stay. You can choose HHonors Points and Variable Miles in which you earn 10 HHonors Base points plus one airline mile per eligible U.S. dollar spent. Or you can choose HHonors Points and Fixed Miles that earn 10 HHonors Base points per eligible U.S. dollar spent plus 500 airline bonus miles per stay (100 miles per stay at Hampton/Scandic hotels). Or you can choose HHonors Points with an extra bonus. By choosing just to earn HHonors points without airline miles, you’ll earn 10 HHonors Base points plus 5 bonus points per eligible U.S. dollar spent. Of the three choices, we often feel this option delivers the most value.
11. Know your programs. While you might be collecting miles, we always advise choosing points over miles with Marriott and Priority Club. The reason is simple: Both allow you to convert to miles at any time. If you choose miles right away, you have forfeited your freedom of choice.
12. Building miles. You can build miles by buying a home. All major airline and hotel programs have national programs to earn you a lot of miles for mortgages. And guess what? Some if the nation’s leading mortgage lenders: Countrywide, Washington Mutual Home Loans, Chase Home Finance, CitiMortgage and Wachovia Corporate Mortgage Services participate in these programs.
13. Take advantage of special mileage-earning promos. Hotels and car rental companies, along with airlines, offer bonus miles. Triple miles with an airline’s car rental partners is a frequent promotion, while hotels often offer double and triple points by property. Become a real estate agent and find the hotel property that gives you the best bonus. These bonuses will be listed on the hotel program’s Web site and in their member newsletter.
14. Be a mileage consumer, but look closely at your credit card choices. Flexibility is the name of the game and American Express and Diners Club are looking pretty good right now. P.S. Did you know you can earn American, United and Northwest miles with the Starwood American Express card? (With the Starwood American Express card you earn Starwood points that can be converted into miles later on.) Did you know that the Diners Club card is now accepted wherever MasterCard is accepted and that it also includes redemption with American, United and Northwest? We realize that neither man nor woman will spend by one credit card alone. The best wallet has a Visa, a MasterCard and either an American Express or Diners Club card. The reason is need. Many hotel and other programs run promotions that earn extra bonus miles/points when paying with a particular type of credit card so do as the Boy Scouts do and always be prepared.
15. Be in the know. With an increasing number of incentive miles in the market, keep an eye out for free miles with the purchase of everything from dry cleaning services to automobiles. Did you know that some residential utility companies, such as Gexa Energy in Texas, now offer miles for choosing them?
16. One of the hottest leads on learning more about any loyalty program is to surf the Internet. Newsy stuff and opinions, usually not found in print, can be found via Google or Yahoo! Search term: frequent flyer (of course).
17. Capture all the points you can. For example, to make the most of choosing the best hotel program, be certain your hotel point total on your bill includes “total folio” rather than just earning points on the room rate. Who ever thought “room service” could be so tasty?
18. Study hard. It’s now fashionable to actually read your loyalty program’s newsletter. Most have changed to electronic delivery and many are now rich with special bonus offers that can up your mileage or hotel point balance. Note: This is the only place you’ll find out about the latest auction of miles that may send you to the Super Bowl for free. And most programs give you miles or points for signing up to receive the newsletter.
19. Withdraw miles. Need miles for an award this year? If so, move the exact number of miles from your Priority Club, American Express Membership Rewards, Diners Club Rewards or Starwood programs into your primary airline program. Never ever turn more points into miles than you actually need.
20. Take a second look. OK, you are a hotel kind of person who stays at Brand X. But if you haven’t looked lately, Choice Hotels may be the sleeper program of the year. Many new rewards (no blackout dates) and positive changes in their program. Our advice: Take a second look.
21. Play your points. Got points and need miles? Hold on and play the odds. Did you know that for the past five years Diners Club has offered a bonus redemption of 50 percent or greater when converting their points into British Airways Executive Club miles? Or that American Express Membership Rewards annually offers a bonus of 15 to 30 percent when redeeming into Continental or Delta miles.
22. Use points or miles to underwrite a vacation. If you’re a light traveler (you haven’t racked up anything close to what you need for a significant award in an airline or hotel program) but are a heavy-duty shopper, you can earn miles and points when shopping online at such merchants as The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Body Shop and our favorite, Mrs. Field’s Cookies. Nearly every major loyalty program has a portal for earning miles or points while shopping online. We’ll see you at the “virtual” checkout line.
23. Designate a primary airline. You probably belong to three to four airline programs. If you can fly 75 percent of your time, or more than 10,000 miles on one carrier in a year, then make that your major program.
24. Do the whole deal. Hotel programs often offer vacation packages you can purchase with points. Believe it or not, it’s now possible to earn a free hotel, airline ticket and car rental with one reward. Talk about convenient.
25. Qualify for elite membership. Nothing is as important as earning elite status in your primary loyalty programs. Verify the number of miles needed to qualify in both your airline and hotel programs. It’s well worth scheduling an extra flight or night in a hotel if that’s all that stands between you and the extensive benefits of elite membership.
26. Buy digital. Most programs offer you the opportunity to earn bonus miles if you purchase tickets directly from the airline’s Web site. Beam up those miles from United, American, Alaska and US Airways.
27. Loyalty isn’t dead. Know your major program’s partners (airline, hotel, car rental) and stick with them.
28. Rack up free nights. Once you’ve got enough miles for free air travel, start opting for points instead of miles in your hotel program. By booking enough stays you can get free lodging to use with your flight awards for an almost-free vacation.
29. Phone home? It’s true that there are not as many telephone partners as in years past, owing to the popularity of cell phone use. That doesn’t mean these programs don’t exist. Quiz your frequent flyer friends to find out who are still earning bonus miles for talking on the phone. We’d tell you here but that isn’t possible because the partners and offers change too frequently. Sorry.
30. Educate yourself. Read the fine print instead of just the headlines and become a true mileage expert. Know when you can and cannot earn miles for elite qualification. For example mileage earned on some special promotional flights, some code-shares and even some partner flights may not accrue toward elite status. Conversely, some credit card purchases now qualify toward elite status credit.
As a former marketing and merchandise presentation manager for a large menswear retailer, Randy spent much of his time flying and keeping accurate records of his mileage awards. He started his own frequent-flyer information business, which now includes InsideFlyer magazine and FlyerTalk.com. Randy’s favorite effort has been the launch of the Mileage Donation Center, which helps people donate unused miles to charitable groups.
31. Learn how to stretch your miles. If your three-year stash is about to expire, tap a small partner such as a car rental or dining program to keep those miles active. No need to fly or stay at a hotel. Just use your knowledge of how to stay “active” for another three years.
32. Listen to the music. Buy your iPod music and earn points for each dollar spent. Points can be earned for Priority Club Rewards and Marriott Rewards. Tip: No airline currently offers this option, but you do know you could convert these hotel points into airline miles.
33. Plan ahead. Many programs have raised the cost of certain fees associated with express service for an award. Plan ahead and your award will remain free.
34. Gotta have it. Capacity controls got you down? With all the miles you earn from these tips you might need to use some to get the exact reward seat you want. Capacity- free awards are available from all major airline programs and from most hotel programs.
35. Privileges. Don’t forget that in some hotel programs, elite and other members qualify for free breakfast credit. Eat for free and then run.
36. Respect others. Several programs now run employee recognition programs to reward those who provide great service. Do yourself and them a favor by participating. When a recognition program is offered, you will receive recognition cards to present to the employee who then sends them in for reward credit. Sometimes you will even get small ribbons to hand out to deserving employees.
37. Don’t forget to backup. This advice isn’t about computers. It is a reminder to always carry your complete list of frequent traveler program numbers around with you so that if you are ever bumped from a flight and end up flying on another carrier, you will have the right number at hand and will not have to send in for missing credit. The trick? Make a complete list of all your program numbers on a small sheet of paper, have it laminated and carry it in your small wallet.
38. Tick-tock. In November, don’t become the turkey by letting your miles expire. Now is the time to find out if any of your miles or points will depart this Earth at year’s end.
39. Be a savvy mileage spender. Some programs offer you the chance to use awards during the off season. US Airways allows this (20,000 miles). American AAdvantage has special awards for Citibank credit card holders, and America West, American and United give special discounted awards when you fly 750 miles or less.
40. Cash in by converting. One trend you need to know about is that more programs now allow you to convert airline miles for more than just free flights. Frontier Airlines has the More Store that allows members to cash in for dining certificates, a new car and even bicycles. Both American and United now have miles for hotel rooms. Beyond that even more airlines are expected to come up with fresh offers.
Tim Winship is a nationally known authority on the travel industry and frequent flyer programs. His 20-year travel industry career includes loyalty-marketing management assignments with Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airways and The Hilton Hotel Corporation.
41. Pool your efforts. For instance, the American AAdvantage program will allow members, for a fee, to move miles from one member’s account into another member’s account. These “pooled” miles often go to friends or family as gifts and can help a member have enough miles for a free flight.
42. These new “pooling options” require a transfer fee. It’s like in money! But for the right situation they may just be the key to a free ticket for someone else in your family. Most major airline programs now have this option either as a benefit for members or as a promotional offer several times a year.
43. Shoot for a million miles in a single program. You’ll find more airlines than ever are putting together programs that honor those who fly them the most. What is cool about earning a million miles, other than having the right to brag, is that the airline with million-mile programs also gives you lifetime elite privileges.
44. Spread your mileage around. With a large balance in your primary program, you can afford a more diversified portfolio of miles and points in several secondary programs. This allows you to grab even more awards and helps you bypass any “sold out” award situations.
45. Top off accounts. Membership in several programs means you need to diversify your earnings to maintain the balances required for the awards you have targeted. Consider adding miles earned by dining, credit card, telephone and other third-party partners. And don’t forget the sign-up bonuses.
46. Stay alert. Many international travelers must be content with changing itineraries. Keep an eye out for new airline partners in the various global alliances.
47. Suck up every bonus on international travel. Travelers who hit world capitals on a regular basis are prime candidates for bonuses. One trip to Asia in the right cabin class can earn you one free domestic ticket, as long as you register to earn the bonus. For example, in October 2005 British Airways launched a bonus for travel across the Atlantic in which members who registered could earn a guaranteed 50,000 frequent flyer miles for a single trip. It was a combination of the miles you earned from flying along with bonus miles. Referred to as a “long-haul” bonus, it is worth more than almost all the bonuses you might earn just solely within the United States.
48. Protect ALL your miles. Having substantial earnings in one, or several programs, means you have more to lose if you lose track. Note the expiration dates of any miles and awards you earned. Better yet, start thinking about using awards today that you might normally put off using until “tomorrow. Some members rely on managing their miles with their memories, while others use homemade spreadsheets, or even worse not managing their miles at all. Both we feel strongly that an investment in one of the program management software solutions can protect all your miles with no additional investment of your time.
49. Minimize mileage expiration. Many mega-milers find they do not have enough time to use all their awards and miles. If you find yourself up against deadlines, familiarize yourself with the Hilton HHonors Reward Exchange and Points.com. These nifty exchange options allow you to trade your unexpired miles from one program to another. There are restrictions as to which programs participate, but at least your miles will not expire. But frankly, with the dilution of miles or points, you might be better off keeping them.
Dilution occurs when you move miles or points from one program, through a middleman, and then to miles or points within another program. Often members will lose 50 percent to 90 percent of the miles’ or points’ original values. If you are wondering why this is, it is because loyalty programs were introduced to try and make you loyal to a single program. If you want choices, it is going to cost you.
50. Don’t lose sight of any opportunity. When your mileage balance reaches a high level, you may think you have perfected the art of accrual or you may think some promotional offers don’t merit your attention. Not so in either case. Keep reading newsletters. Periodically review all the ways you can capture miles to make sure you have covered all the bases.
51. Splurge. How about attending the British Open, the Super Bowl or any number of unique events? With a wealth of auction packages from which to choose, consider bidding on the special events and unusual vacations offered by airlines and hotel programs. United Mileage Plus even allowed members to bid their miles for a part in a TV sitcom. Auctions vary by loyalty program. Some auctions are open to all members, such as the auction in the Continental OnePass program.
Other programs like American AAdvantage, in the past only had auctions for elite members, which is something even smaller programs like Frontier Airlines EarlyReturns are doing. Auction are not only done by the airlines. Hilton HHonors sponsored recent auctions allowing members to attend the Academy Awards, and in a variation, American Express recently gave members the opportunity to redeem their points (as little as 5,000 of them) for a Mercedes Benz.
52. Donate miles. Have miles you can’t use? Give them to a charity. Virtually every airline and hotel program can funnel miles and points to a variety of organizations such as Americares, CARE, Make a Wish, National Children’s Cancer Society and the United Way. And if we can answer a question before you even ask it: We’re sorry but the IRS has determined that donating your miles to a worthy and charitable cause is not tax deductible.
53. Registered Traveler. Don’t confuse this with the government airport security program. Almost every traveler we know has missed out on collecting bonus miles because they failed to register for a promotion. These days, loyalty programs will require you to register for a bonus rather than automatically issuing you the extra miles and points. Make sure you know when registering is a requirement. For instance, members of the Delta SkyMiles credit card by American Express could have earned double miles for every purchase they made over a two-month period if they had registered their card number. Those who did not only were able to earn a single mile per every dollar spent.
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