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Conde Nast's The Perrin Post Q/A Winners: The FlyerTalk Challenge

Conde Nast's The Perrin Post Q/A Winners: The FlyerTalk Challenge

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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:41 pm
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Conde Nast's The Perrin Post Q/A Winners: The FlyerTalk Challenge

FlyeTalk recently enjoyed a great promotion with the readers of Wendy Perrin's very popular consumer travel news blog on the new Truth.Travel Web site, featuring news and blogs from the staff of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. The ten winners chosen by The Perrin Post enjoyed a sneak preview of the hot new George Clooney movie Up in the Air in which George pursues his goal of 10 million frequent flyer miles. Titled, the FlyerTalk Challenge, the winners not only got their movie tickets, but answers to their frequent flyer questions courtesy of the experts here at FlyerTalk.

Starting on Tuesday December 1, 2009, FlyerTalk will post in this thread one of the winning questions and the answer. It's all about the miles ...

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Jan 25, 10 at 6:31 am Reason: updating
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:44 pm
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Question 1

Question
I have a lot of USAirways miles. The airline seems to be on shaky ground, economically speaking. Do I need to be in a rush to use my miles for fear of the airline going under, or do most defunct airlines usually get taken over by another airline and the miles get transferred to another program? Is this likely for USAirways?
-- Ann

Answer
Ann, first of all congrats on winning the movie tickets, I’m sure all of us reading Wendy’s blog hope to hear of your thoughts on the movie.

You’ve got a question that more and more frequent flyers are beginning to ask … and for good reason. While it is true that there have been any number of airline mergers in the last several years (TWA with American, America West with US Airways and Northwest with Delta,) that is not to assume that all defunct airlines frequent flyer miles end up in happy homes. Outside a merger, the opposite is actually true; at least four airlines in the past year have gone out of business and left all the members of their frequent flyer programs with no dreams of ever using their miles and points: ATA Airlines, Aloha Airlines, Eos and Maxjet. Unfortunately no one saw it coming with these airlines. Make no mistake, these airlines were not in the same league as US Airways, but it wasn’t all that long ago that United Airlines made a run at buying US Airways and US Airways took a run at buying Delta. That is all in the past. Earlier this year Moody’s listed US Airways among those companies with the largest amount of total debt and among those with the worst probability of default ratings. Not a list you want to be on but if there is one thing we know about US Airways, it’s that they are pretty scrappy and have managed to outlive reports of their premature death. There are very few who thought they would last this long. As for the here-and-now? Last fall they were able to raise close to a billion dollars and their lean and mean approach to fees and others decisions that effect both infrequent and frequent flyers while never to be popular with the flying public has brought some relief to this airline given its successes – this is the only North Amercian airline that charges mosr members a fee to actually redeem their frequent flyer miles toward flight awards.

From all the research and opinions we’ve gathered on FlyerTalk, there does not seem to be any concensus that US Airways could find much safe harbor with another airline at the present time. Both American and Delta are locked into a battle to wrestle more control in a partnership with Japan Air Lines and thus unlikely to have additional financial resources or focus to pursue US Airways. Frankly American could use US Airways as they have been locked out of domestic alliances (except for their Alaska Airlines alliance) that can make a big difference for them competively. One would logically assume that US Airways broad north-south East Coast routes would go a long way toward ensuring that American does not get lost in an industry countdown. All other major airlines have already cast their faith elsewhere and if one were to read the headlines, it would appear that Continental and Unites are getting along just fine and have almost forgotten their other domestic partner, US Airways. This sort of limited engagement of their partnership with these two airlines tells a huge story.

So, there is some optimism for US Airways in this area, but frankly it might be a headline for someone to just imagine Southwest Airlines buying US Airways, but that’s just a rumor for another day.

At this time, we do continue to hear the Chairman of US Airways, Doug Parker, refer to more consolidation in the industry but not a single analyst can point toward an interest of any scenario involving US Airways in this area. As for ourselves, we actually continue to be upbeat that US Airways is in no absolute danger of collapse at this point.

However, having said that, we do have a few solutions that can make for a better night’s rest for you:
1) You could continue to fly US Airways and enjoy most of the benefits of their program by using a more stable partner. For instance, begin to use the Continental OnePass program to collect your miles when flying US Airways. This will give you some piece of mind and yet allow you to fly US Airways if that airline is best suited for you. This is a s simple as supplying US Airways with you Continental OnePass membership number when flying that airline. You can still redeem awards on US Airways from your Continental OnePass account using many of the same destinations and we have absolute the highest regard for Continental as a surviving airline.
2) As we previously mentioned, there’s the danger that none of us can see the potential of a collapse for US Airways at this time and to manage that, you could take a few minutes and plan out your dream trips using your current mileage balance and go ahead and redeem them for awards nearly one year out. Essentially this is considered ‘cheap insurance’ since these awards should be for partner awards on either Continental or United or other Star Alliance partners. If US Airways were to disappear at least your awards would still be there for you to use as per your reservations. Of course with this scenario, you would pay for redepositing your miles to your Dividend Miles account if (and we assume) US Airways is still here a year from now.
3) There is also the idea of why risk worrying about miles and simply move your business to a competing frequent flyer program and airline – no hassle, no hustle.
4) And that brings us to the common sense appeal of any member and that is if this airline and its frequent flyer program works for you, be happy and stay with it. There are any number of happy members of Dividend Miles and given that we see no immediate danger of collapse over the next 3-6 months (barring any other drastic changes to the industry), many of us have miles with US Airways and are adding to them -- they really have been fairly good at some imaginative promos with partners and for elite status.

So, there you have it, a look at some of the past of airline mergers with respect to your frequent flyer miles, a more recent recap of the latest situations involving the safety of your miles and as well four different things to consider based on your own level of comfort with this airline.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Dec 9, 09 at 12:04 pm
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:46 pm
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Question 2

Question
We are planning a trip of a lifetime for our son's future graduation. He has been enthralled with Egypt since he was eight years old and is even considering studying to become an Egyptologist. I have carefully planned for years, and we will have enough frequent-flyer miles one year before we travel for four business-class tickets on United from Hawaii to Egypt. Here are my questions: How far in advance should I book? Is there a specific time of day I should call when frequent-flyer seats become available? What flights tend to have the most frequent-flyer seats available? Is one city better to fly to than another for seat availability? Should we split up and fly in twos? I have often found it very difficult to get frequent-flyer seats from Hawaii and would love to get your advice on the best way to secure four business-class frequent-flyer seats from Hawaii to Egypt.
-- Denise McDonald

Answer
First of all thank you for your question. This is yet another excellent reason why the pursuit and exact use of frequent flyer miles is such a wonderful part of people’s lives. What better education could a person enthralled with Egypt enjoy than a visit to that source. A commendation to you for the idea. What we thought might be great for this is to engage the advice of not one, not two, but three members of FlyerTalk and make available general and more specific tips to make this “trip of a lifetime” a reality. I’ve asked two outstanding members of FlyerTalk to join me (Randy Petersen) in assisting you with advice. Please welcome lucky9876coins, who interestingly enough is one of the brightest college students you’ll ever find when it comes to frequent flyer miles. He pens a popular blog called One Mile at a Time over on BoardingArea and is a partner in a service to help travelers redeem their miles. You’ll find that service over at MileageManager and it is called AwardPlanner. Next up is the wiz, gleff who is a Senior Moderator on FlyerTalk and as well pens the number one frequent flyer blog on the Internet, View From the Wing also over on BoardingArea and has recently began to offer his own personal services of helping fellow flyers with their award reservations. Yes, you’ve got three of a kind and this could get lengthy but likely to serve as a helpful answer for you and many others who have similar situations. So, let’s get started.

We’ll each provide advice for you and I’ll wrap it all up at the end.

Advice from lucky9876coins:
Sounds like a great trip, Denise. In general finding four business class award seats shouldn’t be too much of an issue with good planning. If anything, the biggest challenge will be getting from Hawaii to the mainland, where premium cabin award seats can be limited.

United opens up award inventory 330 days out. While it probably isn’t necessary to book that far out, the earlier you can start planning, the better. While it would be easier to travel in twos on separate flights, that doesn’t sound ideal for such a special trip. Instead I would gamble just a little bit and stick to the same flights, even if it means temporarily only confirming someone in coach for one of the segments, with the hopes of a premium cabin opening up. If your entire award were on United you would have the advantage of being able to “waitlist,” whereby you could book coach and would receive a business class seat when award availability opens up, which usually ends up working out, but unfortunately that’s not possible when partner airlines are involved on the award ticket. As a result you’d have to closely monitor award inventory and look for changes.

Another challenge you’ll face using United’s Mileage Plus miles is the practice of “Starnet Blocking” that they engage in, whereby they block some of the award inventory released by partner airlines (such as Lufthansa, Swiss, etc.), further reducing inventory. But don’t lose hope; with some flexibility this should still be possible.

I doubt you’ll have much trouble finding transatlantic business class award inventory. It’s not uncommon for there to be four seats available on Lufthansa from one of their many US gateways to Frankfurt or on Swiss from one of their three US gateways to Zurich. From there you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding availability on their connecting flights to Cairo, assuming United isn’t blocking most of their inventory.

So that leaves the challenge of getting from Hawaii to the US. I would say that assuming you get the business class award inventory for the transatlantic flights, don’t be afraid to book just one or two passengers in first class from Hawaii to the US, while temporarily leaving the others in coach. First of all, there’s less of a difference between domestic coach and domestic first class, but more importantly, there’s a good chance availability will open up closer to departure in first class. Just check the availability every few days and as soon as it opens up, call United and they’ll confirm you in first for no extra charge on that flight.

Lastly, keep in mind that you can make certain changes for free. For example, a date or flight change on the same route with the same airline doesn’t trigger a change fee with United. In other words, let’s say you can’t get all four people on the same flight, but you can get two people in business class on one Lufthansa Los Angeles to Frankfurt flight and two people in business class on the same date on another Lufthansa Los Angeles to Frankfurt flight. You could then essentially hedge your bets, and if two more business class seats open on either flight, you could switch the rest of the party over to that flight without paying a fee. Having two flights to work with gives you a greater chance of getting everyone on the same flight.

Advice from gleff:
Congratulations on your son’s impending graduation – and from my perspective, congratulations the most on having sufficient miles for (4) business class award seats! Hawaii to Egypt is a lot of flying, it’s literally half-way around the world, and business class will make your travel much more comfortable.

It’s great that you have plenty of time ahead of you to plan. You can certainly start looking for seats 331 days before your planned return flight. Airlines open up some award availability when they load schedules into the reservation systems. And then they continually evaluate what seats they’re likely to sell for cash, and what seats they’ll make available as awards. So don’t get discouraged if the seats aren’t available right away, you haven’t waited too long, rather some flights may just see award seats open up later.

It’s always helpful to find seats on your own before calling United. While there are some agents that will go to the ends of the earth to find seats for you, many will just type in your origin and destination cities and tell you whether their computer says anything is available.

Unfortunately the United website isn’t helpful in searching for partner awards. My suggestion to you is to get an All Nippon Airways frequent flyer account, or a Continental Airlines frequent flyer account. But of those airline programs – frequent flyer partners of United – will let you use their websites to search for award availability on many of their partners, and you don’t need to have miles in your account to do it.

Your question already recognizes that there are many different flights, routes, and connections that you can use to get to your destination. You’ll want to search each segment separately and construct the itinerary you want, and then call United.

One unfortunate caveat is that United does have a tendency to “block” award seats being offered by their partners, something no other Star Alliance airline does. So while the Continental or All Nippon Airways website might show availability for award seats, United might tell you the seats are unavailable. So come armed with more than one option to suggest to the agent.

(Sometimes coming armed with knowledge will intimidate the agent you’re talking to, so I tend to tell a little white lie for the benefit of making everyone comfortable, I just tell the agent that an agent found flights that were available on a previous call and I’m hoping they’ll check those flights for me.)

Here are some routes that I’ve found great award availability on:

Starting off, make sure to check availability on all of United’s flights from Hawaii to the mainland: Kona, Maui, Honolulu, Lihue to Los Angeles or San Francisco, and Honolulu and Maui to Denver or Chicago. There’s also US Airways flights from Honolulu and Maui to Phoenix and Honolulu to Charlotte. With that many flights between Hawaii and the mainland it should be doable.

You may need another domestic flight to get from your Hawaii-to-mainland flight to a transatlantic gateway. My specific suggestions for onward flights, where availability on Star Alliance partners has been very good for four seats at a time are as follows:

New York or Chicago to Istanbul on Turkish and on to Egypt on Turkish or EgyptAir

New York-JFK to Cairo on Egypt Air

Swiss offers great award availability, and getting four business class seats together is often very doable. Chicago (or Boston, New York, Miami – but Chicago will be most convenient) to Zurich on Swiss usually has good availability. From Zurich to Cairo though you may have a long connection or overnight. Note that Swiss flights will not appear on United’s partner websites, but their flights are definitely worth asking about.

Lufthansa usually has great award availability as well, and getting four business class seats together is frequently very doable. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Miami, Orlando, and Charlotte to Frankfurt (and Munich and even Dusseldorf in the case of New York and Chicago) are all great routes for availability.

But these are only a few examples. You have the ability to use the Asian routes from Hawaii and while more limited from Hawaii than passing through the mainland, will offer you additional choices.

When people talk about the devaluation of miles, I think they really often miss just how rich and generous alliance awards have been. And those didn't exist "back in the old days."

The first time I ever redeemed an international award it was with United miles to Sydney. I could have flown their partner Air New Zealand, and then United would have flown me to Los Angeles in *coach* "as a courtesy."

And with suge broad arrays of partners, especially in the Star Alliance, international award seats really aren't that hard to find. The biggest problem is the IT systems the airlines use. Their search systems are just really poor, so they tell members nothing is available all the time when in fact there are plenty of seats available -- the computers just aren't checking the necessary routings.

Premium cabin award inventoy has opened up so much in the last year and a half, and with airlines hurting financially they've been so generous with miles to attract revenue, that I do believe THIS, NOW is a golden age.

If you’re willing to split up and fly in twos that’s great, it will open your options wide up.

If you can accumulate a few more miles such that first class awards are within your reach that will also open up a world of possibilities. While Houston-Frankfurt on Lufthansa will frequently offer 4 business class and 4 first class seats for awards on most days, that sort of availability isn’t all that common. But on many routes, like Los Angeles or San Francisco to Frankfurt to Cairo, or New York to Cairo, or New York to Istanbul, you’ll be able to find two first class award seats and two business class award seats on the same flights.

Feel free to drop me a note if you need any help finding the seats. Friends of Wendy Perrin’s and Randy Petersen’s are friends of mine, this one will be on me.

Advice from Randy Petersen:
I thought I’d break down your questions into smaller topics and address each. Because award seats wait for no one, let’s get started:
How far in advance should I book?
There are likely two parts to this answer. Most would likely assume and to a good degree, be correct in saying “as soon as possible.” In the case of United Mileage Plus, you can actually check for award inventory and book awards starting 331 days in advance but it is a wife’s tale to assume that airlines load up all their award inventory at that time – they don’t. As well, the concept of trying to book an award at 331 days in advance is full of challenges because often you won’t be able to confirm the entire award request since your return will be at least a week or more and not yet in the system. You can however work around this challenge but frankly it requires an additional amount of monitoring and changes to your reservation which can become a distraction for both you and for the airline. Egypt is not that popular a destination (it’s popular for reason but not for volume of requests) so allowing a few extra days for your return to fall within 331 days is the more practical practice. Now, having noted that, monthly research from InsideFlyer magazine actually documents that 6 months is advance (except for seasonal blips) is statistically the best time to plan your award travel. By then all the award availability is fully loaded and as well, partner inventory is acknowledged. But given this is connected with a graduation and that usually means travel during summer months, let me offer up a great tip. The busiest month for award requests is typically in January. The holidays are over and the attention often turns to planning summer vacation … which just happens to begin in roughly 6 months! My advice is to seek award seats for any summer travel plans in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This obviously is when most are preoccupied with other things and in advance of the crush for award requests starting in January. You can increase your odds greatly. As well, you can increase your odds even more by planning to begin your trip with your son mid-week. Typically most want to start award travel Friday through Monday and if we have any hope of getting your 4 business c lass seats together, then begin on Wednesday if you can and return mid-week when you like. I am a big fan of the 6-month advance theory, it gives you enough notice to have ideas on what you’d like to do (planning 331 days in advance has the highest percentage of changed awards!) and as well allows you enough time to be patient if you have to keep trying to acquire award seats if at first they are not available.
Is there a specific time of day I should call when frequent-flyer seats become available?
You are really an idea person to be working with on this answer. This type of question clearly shows you to be organized and interestingly enough this is important … as is the specific day of the week. It’s important because I don’t believe you’ll be able to complete your entire award itinerary using United’s online booking tool. They have made improvements to it and soon will announce other benefits to booking online, but I think it best to appreciate that you will be spending time on the phone with United. That means that you’ll be paying a $25 fee to talk on the phone with a reservation agent or $30 fee if you are doing this in person at an airport or other United Airlines counter. Not much considering the trip of a lifetime, but be prepared. Now, as to the day of the week and the time of the day. Because you are starting from Hawaii, your choices are fairly complicated, you can either opt to fly westward which means that all of your awards will come from “international” buckets or you can opt to fly eastward which means you’ll have a combination of “domestic” and “international buckets. Each has a specific positive and negative advantage. Changes are posted daily at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.. Weekends are posted only at 5 p.m. These are feeds of both award and price point availability. The trick is to understand that these feeds of availability don’t actually show up instantly … they run a two-hour delay typically and the 8 p.m. feed shows up at midnight. Day of the week? Monday is always the busiest as travelers talk about their plans over a weekend and do the reservations often on Monday when returning to work. Key? Just after midnight on a weekend. You have the advantage of being before the Monday rush hours and the feeds from Friday and Saturday. As well, since you will be doing this by phone, these are the slowest days for the reservation centers which means the agents can truly spend more time with you without the incessant distractions of other calls beeping in.
What flights tend to have the most frequent-flyer seats available?
Again, great question. With business class international awards, you really have no choices. Unlike domestic flights where you can have 5 or 6 flights daily, you’ll often have just one or two in the evening to make your plans with. Sorry, no tricks here.
Is one city better to fly to than another for seat availability?
Easy … non-hub flights. A small trick in planning will be to choose connection points that are non-hub flights for the airline which you are flying with. For instance, if flying United and your choice is through the mainland, avoid if you can Chicago and Denver and San Francisco in your planning. Why? This is where most of the Mileage Plus members live and as a result, there’s just too much competition for you. Sure you can get lucky, but as a practical matter, this is where most members will find that unlucky “no award seats available.”
Should we split up and fly in twos? I have often found it very difficult to get frequent-flyer seats from Hawaii and would love to get your advice on the best way to secure four business-class frequent-flyer seats from Hawaii to Egypt.
I’ve got three bits of advice for you on this one. Starting from Hawaii will give you some extreme latitude that most others seeking award redemption will not have. You are almost equal distance to Egypt whether traveling east or west which means you’ll have the ability to choose different airlines and different itineraries without having to make a sacrifice for expediency. As well, because this is an international award, you really should consider breaking up the experience of a lifetime with a stopover. Because your award will be within regions, you’ll be able to take advantage of a stopover for a day or two. This will serve several purposes: help you adjust your jet-lag clock and help the graduate appreciate and experience other things. For instance, perhaps you might want to add a stopover in London. Why? Well, if you are going to appreciate Egypt, the original Rosetta Stone is in The British Museum and was the key for understanding Egyptian hieroglyphic writing (London also has one of the orginal Egyptian obelisks). As well, a stopover in Paris will get you up close and personal with one of the largest Egyptian obelisks at the Place de Concorde. Or better yet, a stopover the other direction in Asia will bring the graduate up close and personal to another culture which may be just as interesting.

But keep an open mind as to traveling in pairs. This often can increase your chances of award availability by about 25 percent. Frankly 4 business class seats is doable and with some planning and taking advantage of the advice of the three of us can happen but I admire that you are flexible and a realist in your pre-planning.
The others advice on the ways in which you can search for award availability is more technical and I’ll defer to them as certainly United has a challenge with what is referred to as Starnet blocking.

All in all, use what you have learned from your questions and I have no doubt that your trip of a lifetime can become an experience of 4 lifetimes. Enjoy the trip and thanks again for the question. As is true to what FlyerTalk is all about, the three of us and many others on FlyerTalk stand by to offer additional help and advice – we love to fly and I hope this shows.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Dec 9, 09 at 12:05 pm
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:48 pm
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Question 3

Question
With miles and points constantly being devalued, how do programs expect their members to stay loyal? I run everything through my program credit cads, and I focus on one airline program and one hotel program to maximize my status and points. Do I start over when a program (ahem Hilton HHonors) changes its structure...again? Or do I ride out the storm and hope the program managers come to their senses?
-- Jenni

Answer
A question of common concern for members of various travel loyalty programs and this may well be the one question that most viewers can relate to.

You’ve got a question about riding out storms of change which we’ll address but would like to first address your observation – “miles and points constantly being devalued”. The reason we like to start with this is to make sure you fully appreciate the unique differences of what creates value for your miles and points and to better clarify a common misconception of gauging “value.” One way to look at devaluation is when award charts change -- meaning that miles and points accumulated in the past now have less value because it will take more of them to achieve some goal of redemption in the future. The other is the discussion of what a mile is worth and when that changes downward, that can infer that your miles have been devalued. The current buzz is that a mile is only worth 1.2 pennies as compared to a mile being worth 2 cents per mile just two years ago. Logic might indicate that over the past two years your miles have been devalued. This is a single-sided observation because the very reason that a mile is worth only 1.2 cents per mile right now on average is because airfares are at historic lows. So while we see individual mile value down, so is the cost of acquiring those miles. Truly, you really can’t have it both ways … high mile value and low cost of earning miles. The two values work in conjunction with each other. If value per mile is high, so is the cost to earn them, meaning higher airfares. And because of this, it makes it important to actually manage your accrual and redemption of miles. Most savvy frequent flyers this past year made decisions to not cash in miles for travel, choosing instead to actually pay for trips they might normally use miles for, because airfares are so low. The reason is that it is likely airfares will rise in the future which means that the value per mile will rise making it more practical to use the miles then. Buy low, redeem high. As for the devaluation of when award charts are adjusted? No argument there but measure how easy it is for you to maintain an active account and add to your miles or points on a continual basis. But even in those situations there are some advantages. Who this year did not notice several award sales from United and Delta that offered up normal awards at a discount? There are balances to these things if you learn to manage and make use of the opportunities. Bottom line: The value of miles can fluctuate both up and down and you should learn how to take advantage of both opportunities.

As for how do programs expect their members to remain loyal? It may surprise you but a majority of members become fixated with the most convenient program and don’t spend the time as you have in asking questions or seeking advice. They become loyal to the convenience, and as a result blind to the choices.

As to the Hilton HHonors changes. Like you we’re not convinced they are totally necessary at the present time. However, HHonors is a rich program and these adjustments may be an admission that it's been a little too rich. For instance, last year InsideFlyer magazine did a comparative analysis of all the major hotel guest programs and HHonors on a consistent level of spend excelled in every category clearly rating the highest in payout of awards. No member likes to see a rich program reduced to being average and only time will tell if the current feedback from the members of HHonors (which has been less than positive (just like yours)) will make any difference. Generally, it remains a fairly good program, perhaps not as rich as before but often while a program may not rescind a change like this, it does force them to re-tweek other parts of the program to at least give back some of the takeaway. We'd say to ride with this one out for right now but do some research to determine if HHonors will be no worse than the other programs and if so, why change?

Assisting with this answer is one of the most traveled members of FlyerTalk, Kiwi Flyer, who has been known to fly halfway around the world to attend a few hours meeting only to return directly to New Zealand and also helps pen the official blog for FlyerTalk called The Gate. And, we have Pizzaman who knows as much about fine wine as miles and points and that is a whole lot.

Advice from Kiwi Flyer:
Great question Jenni.
Firstly, you have the right general strategy of concentrating in one hotel and one airline program to maximise benefits. Unless you are up in the air or on the road nearly every day, or have travel patterns that a single airline alliance or hotel chain do not serve well, this is the way to go.

Back to your question. There are many kinds of devaluations and so no standard answer. What I do is take a look at how it affects my travel pattern. Based on my typical travel paid flights and hotel stays how will miles/points earning be impacted for me? Based on my typical use of miles/points (awards or upgrades) what is the impact? Do the changes introduce new opportunities for me to improve earning or redemption? I also take account of any lifetime status in the program - whether I have earnt it or are getting close to qualifying.

Some program changes have a mixture of both benefit devaluations and improvements. Different people may see the changes as positive, negative or very negative depending on their own circumstances.

I find the trickiest types of changes to assess are where earning and/or redemption rates worsen at the same time as status benefits (or perhaps ease of getting or retaining status) are improved.

Jenni, in your question you have a hope that "the program managers come to their senses". While sometimes minor program changes are quickly reversed following adverse feedback from members, I think in most cases of significant change the program changes stick. There may be further changes after a couple of years, perhaps when ownership or senior management in the program has changed, but there are very few backdowns on major program changes.

Only you can tell if, in your situation, it is worth sticking with a program following devaluation. Some devaluations still leave the benefits better than the competition - some bmi Diamond Club devaluations this year spring to mind as an example of this.

In the case of Hilton HHonors, here are a few things you may consider:

- In most places you visit which chain hotels are located there? If there aren't Starwood Hotels (for example) at most places, then it is not worth considering SPG.
- If HHonors status benefits are important to you, how easily would you replicate them at other chains? For example Priority Club status benefits are much less than HHonors, unless you have Royal Ambassador (which requires a minimum level of stays in Intercontinental Hotels & so may not be easy to achieve or maintain).
- In the new award charts what is your typical earn : burn value equation? E.g. spend $500 to get redemption worth $150. How does this compare in other chains? Don't forget to allow for promos since some hotel programs are incredibly generous with them and they can double the value you get from the program.

Advice from Pizzaman:
Right now, with all the flux in programs,I think “stand pat” is a good strategy.” What does “right now” mean? Well, it’s probably 30-90 days. But, things are very much subject to change. I believe by the time renewals hit (February to April), some programs will come to their senses. In the mean time, I think it’s prudent to stay point and keep accruing in one program. There’s always safety in numbers (especially if you’ve already accrued points there), while leaving open your options to switch when, say, SPG, makes a drastic move.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Jan 25, 10 at 6:17 am
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:49 pm
  #5  
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Join Date: May 1998
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Posts: 6,537
Question 4

Question
We have frequent-flyer miles for every airline, but the problem is that we never seem to have enough in each one for a free flight! With Delta, every flight seems to be in the "high" season...and every Costa Rica flight during the rainy season! What do we do with all of these random points which never really amount to anything?
--Jennifer G.

Answer
Jennifer, you are not alone with this challenge. If there ever were a Hall of Fame for frequent flyer conundrums, this would be voted in early.

Many members find themselves with one or two programs where the miles and activity just don’t add up. If I read your question correctly, it seems you likely have a few accounts in which you don’t have enough miles for a typical saver award (25,000 miles) and a few where you have enough for a saver, but not enough for standard, or double mile, award redemption. With those assumptions in mind, here’s some advice that will hopefully help you use your miles and collect some great Costa Rican memories.

In no particular order, here are the top 10 things to know about random mileage accounts, and a few for those rainy day and “high” season awards:

Conversion Table
Many members, when staring at a bunch of orphaned miles in a hodgepodge of programs, elect to consolidate their miles into a smaller number of programs. By converting their miles from multiple programs into fewer programs (or possibly even one program), they hope to clean up and simplify their mileage house, and increase their “buying power.”

The Mileage Converter tool on WebFlyer.com is a great tool that can show you how to convert your miles, and how many miles you’ll end up with. The results can look a little like pretzel logic at times, as you might have to convert through two or three programs before you get the actual miles or points that you desire, but it’s well worth the effort. Be aware though, generally in the process of converting miles from one program to another you would lose value along the way.

Another useful option is the GPX tool on Points.com. Points is an official partner of selected programs and the GPX tool allows members to trade miles or points among themselves legally – but with fees involved. If you’re interested in consolidating your miles and/or points, this is certainly a tried and true option for you.

Build Instead of Burn
While most members initially consider consolidation options when faced with miles in multiple accounts (thus burning miles since any conversion often means a devaluation of what you have, which is minimal to begin with), the smart ones also eventually consider building those small accounts to a usable state.

For instance, let’s say you had 14,123 miles with a program. With the build strategy you would work on adding 10,877 to this same account and get it into actual flight award redemption territory. To do this you might need to put off adding additional miles to your major programs (those in which you have earned the most miles and are comfortable with award redemption choices) to feed the smaller account.

Credit card bonuses are the easiest, most obvious, and quickest fix to this sort of problem. Most credit card bonuses these days are 25,000 miles. That plus the 14,123 miles will not only put you in the area of award redemption, but will likely have you flying to Hawaii or Costa Rica, rather than Bakersfield (Not to diminish the many attractions of Bakersfield. I have friends there).

But you can build miles relatively quickly with the everyday things as well, like shopping online. Small, frequent activities will build your stash and keep your account active so you won’t need to worry about them expiring.

I’m a huge fan of building rather than burning. Generally speaking, if you have 10,000 miles or more (but less than 25,000 miles), I suggest building your miles toward flight award redemption. At less than 5,000 - 10,000 miles, I typically will recommend that you explore other opportunities to use miles. I’m a fan of two things – redeeming them for magazines (and gift subscriptions for magazines are very cool), or donating them to charities.

Try Again Another Day
Though the “high” season and the rainy season are often the only dates you can seem to find open, the truth of the matter is other dates do become available, but you have to keep checking all of the time to catch them when they do. Of course, not everyone has time to check award availability every day in hopes of finding one of these openings.

There is, however, a solution to this and it involves the same type of consideration that you give valet parking – either park it yourself and run the risk of driving around the block a few times and maybe not even being able to find a close-up parking spot, or hand the keys over to someone else to park it and, of course, be ready to tip them. In this case, you might want to consider using a service. There’s a nifty service called AwardPlanner over at MileageManager.com that checks award availability for you. You tell if where you want to go and when, and it automatically checks for award availability every day and lets you know when something opens up. It even checks dates immediately around the dates you enter.

Given that there is ample proof that award availability is an ever-changing opportunity, this is a nice shortcut. It is inexpensive and actually does work. There are two other hands-on services that assist with finding awards, but given the extent of your needs and number of miles involved, I think the cost of those services may not be appropriate here.

For Sale
While the economy has certainly taken its toll on many, there have been a few silver linings. Several award sales this past year have placed award redemption into the hands of those that typically do not have enough miles.

Both Delta and United come to mind for 2009, though others have done their part as well. For instance, recently members of United’s Mileage Plus could redeem a round-trip economy-class ticket for travel within the 48 states, Alaska, and Canada for just 15,000 miles. And there were other award sales this year offered by United, to the Caribbean (including Belize, so getting closer to Costa Rica) for 25,000 miles rather than the usual 35,000 miles. Thanks to another award sale, Delta SkyMiles members were able to fly to Barcelona for 48,000 miles, a 12,000-mile discount off the normal award rate.

Imagine all the members who had fewer than 25,000 miles and suddenly discovered they were able to use miles they thought were of no use. With a keen eye and a little luck you can actually make use of lower mileage amounts if you are patient. Again, a domestic award for only 15,000 miles! Seems like everyone has at least that many miles.

Let Me Check My Calendar
In 2008, there was a substantial jump in the number of awards redeemed by members of frequent flyer programs. While most of the increase could be attributed to the impact of the economic woes of the country, some was the result of improvements in the award booking processes.

American AAdvantage and others have made significant improvements to their online award availability calendars, allowing members to better plan and play around with “what-if” scenarios. If you haven’t tried these new calendars for award availability, it might be worth playing with them and become familiar with how they work. Pick typical travel dates and view for yourself what award availability is like by moving one or two days to either side of the dates you have planned. As well, look at the future and move weeks or even months ahead to see where there might be additional opportunities. A lot has changed in this area and being able to visibly see where the awards are can make a difference for you.

Apples to Oranges
It may be said that a mile is a mile is a mile but one thing is clear, miles come in many shapes and sizes. If you have non-frequent flyer loyalty currencies, it might be worth exploring using these alternative currencies to “top off” your mileage accounts.

Typical among these are various hotel loyalty programs. Only have 14,123 miles with Delta? Well, let’s move 30,000 Marriott Rewards points to Delta where they become 10,000 SkyMiles. Another popular program from which to transfer is the American Express Membership Rewards program – 10,000 points there becomes 10,000 Delta SkyMiles.

Look around and check your wallet to see what other types of loyalty currencies you might have. Because you aren’t transferring from frequent flyer program to frequent flyer program, the devaluation is not nearly as onerous, and sometimes the valuation of the transfer will work to your favor.

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
When you say “we,” I’m going to assume that other family members and even friends suffer similar challenges – not enough miles where you need them. Frequent flyer programs have created opportunities for members (not just family members) to pool miles. While this option is not inexpensive, in the right scenario you can create value from what appears to be nothing.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you had 18,432 miles with United and 31,450 miles with Delta. You also have a friend or family member with 19,000 miles with Delta and 14,000 with United. It would appear you have nothing of much value other than perhaps a single domestic ticket with Delta. But wait. You could elect to have your friend or family member transfer their SkyMiles to your Delta account so that you actually do have enough to go to Costa Rica when the sun is shining. Your friend could transfer 4,000 of her 19,000 Delta SkyMiles to your Delta account (enough to get you to 35,000 miles, which is the current award level to Costa Rica), which would cost $40 plus a $30 processing fee, total $70.00. You would now have that flight to Costa Rica (providing you can find the award seat) for a total of $70, far below the cost of actually purchasing a ticket. That’s what friends and family members are for. But fair warning, at levels above this example, the fees and costs associated with this are not reasonable unless compared to a very costly air fare.

Swap Meet
Most airlines’ program rules prohibit the bartering of miles/awards. Nevertheless, there exist several places where you can do just that, which gives you the option (albeit borderline and slightly risky) of using your minimal miles to acquire something else of value.

Milehighswap.com is the miles-centric cousin to eBay and craigslist, and is for people who want to use frequent flyer miles instead of cash to barter. But they aren't the only garage sale on the block. On LoyaltyMatch.com, you can buy or trade award merchandise with members of other loyalty programs. You can search for thousands of items offered by loyalty programs across all sectors including airlines, hotels, car rentals, restaurants and retail merchants. When you see an item that you want, you can set a price or make an exchange offer. The price is the amount of money you will pay a seller to redeem their miles or points for that particular award. You can also choose to offer a trade.

Only you and your frequent flyer program can decide whether this option is right for you.

Flights or Fancies?
Today, the number of things you can redeem your miles for is rapidly increasing. Even if you have a modest amount of miles, you might actually find some award choices that appeal to you.

For instance, with the holidays upon us, there may be a need to secure a hotel room for some visiting friends or relatives, or in my case, a hotel room for a single night at a larger city nearby for the usual holiday shopping trip. United Mileage Plus has a new program that allows you to redeem any redeemable miles for hotels and car rentals. I just checked for Denver and found a hotel night for only 8,513 miles. That’s a valid and possibly worthwhile use of your fractional miles. And there are other options such as Delta’s SkyMiles Marketplace. Eight thousand SkyMiles can get you a $50 gift card to Old Navy or The Olive Garden. Not a bad deal when you consider that most members see 8,000 miles as worthless. There’s more to these programs than free flights these days and these are just a few examples of how your minimum miles can actually have purpose.

Show Me the Miles (and the Money)
A growing number of programs allow members to mix miles with money for award redemption. What this means is that for programs where you don’t have enough miles for an award, you can turn what you do have into a down payment on a paid ticket. The two most popular programs that currently offer this option are United and Delta (some membership restrictions apply).

Let’s say you had 14,123 miles. At one cent per mile (the typical going rate with these offers), that equates to value of $141.23. This means you could go shopping on the United or Delta Web site for an airline ticket and when you find what you are looking for, apply your miles ($141.23) toward the price of the ticket. This works wonders when you have miles but can’t find award availability (perhaps, for example, you want to go to Costa Rica but not when it is rainy).

I looked on the Delta award redemption calendar and while I did find award seats (early March to mid-March to San Jose, Costa Rica) the award was 47,500 miles. Assuming that’s more miles than you probably have, I then searched the Delta reservation system and found a flight for $280.20.

If you had, say, 31,450 miles, you wouldn’t have enough to book the award, but you could take advantage of the Pay With Miles program. It requires chunks of miles in 10,000-mile increments at the one-cent per mile ratio. You would redeem 30,000 of your SkyMiles and you’d have paid less than an actual award and found exactly what you were looking for.

But let’s say the fare was $419.00. The math can still work. Use 30,000 of your 31,450 SkyMiles and pay the balance of the ticket, $119.00, with cash or credit card. It gets you there and at a good price.

United’s Choices program works similarly, and both are fabulous ways to manage random mileage accounts and actually get some value out of what you have.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Dec 9, 09 at 1:52 pm
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:50 pm
  #6  
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Question 5

Question
I'm a teacher, so can only fly on weekends, major holidays, or at peak times in the summer. I manage to collect points on United, but usually can't find a way to USE those points. Do you have any ideas as to how a non-elite-level flyer can book a flight with points at peak times?
-- Kevin

Answer
First of all Kevin thank you for your part in the education of our children and if at university level, for tomorrow’s best citizens. You are correct, there are some vocations that simply don’t bode well for those trying to use frequent flyer miles. But, don’t abandon all hope since most members actually do use their miles for summer vacations and weekends. We almost never like to redeem miles during major holidays … for obvious reasons.

You are astute enough to recognize that being an elite member can and often does make a difference in your ability to use those frequent flyer miles, which is why much of any advice will often lead with suggestions as to why and how you should seek that level of membership out. I’m no different but will leave that part to answers in other questions in this series for the Perrin Post and really just concentrate on what the non-elite flyer can do as there are far more members like you that we hope we can help.

Beyond knowing which days work best, you must also known when is the best time to book an award. Given that you have a fairly rigid period of time off to use your miles, this should play into your hands since you can plan well in advance. For summer travel, the best time to book an award is here in the month of December. Other non-elite members are out shopping and won’t get around to thinking of redeeming their miles for travel until mid-January or so. Many might be surprised that January is one of the busiest months on record for award redemption (not travel, just the booking process) and if you can make your summer plans now before that big crush starts, then you’ll have increased your odds immensely.

The two most challenging hurdles for non-elites often are: 1) wanting to redeem to highly desirable destinations like Hawaii and 2) seeking multiple award seats on a single plane. These tips will even help with those situations.

1) NO does not mean NO
Airlines prefer for you to use their online booking tools for awards (it’s cheaper for you) but we do know that no airline has perfected that tool yet. Often the online booking tool does not make available all the award seats the airline has available. It often doesn’t display the entire various partner awards inventories and is often weak on international routing, open jaw travel and the inability to display the “roadblock” for you getting the seats you want. With the airline hub-and-spoke system, it’s often just a single leg of your request that prevents you from getting from NO to YES and if you were able to determine that roadblock, you might be able to fly around it with a different routing. The best thing to do if you consistently get a NO from an online booking tool for award redemption: say YES to paying a few dollars and contact the airline award redemption desk by telephone. You’ll often find incredibly helpful reservation agents whose creative booking techniques can move that NO to a YES. Costs vary by airline when contacting them directly to assist in your award reservation, but we feel it’s a small price to pay.

2) Are You Really Sure?
Compare cost per mile of redemption to buying a ticket. Use online booking engines to check prices across many carriers at once. Pricing can give you a rough guess as to whether award travel is going to be available. It is not foolproof but, generally speaking, if flight loads are low, prices go down and award availability goes up. Having said that, make sure you at least try to get full value out of your miles. Far too often we’ve seen travelers redeem their miles just because they can – with no thought whatsoever about it being a good deal. For instance, would you redeem 25,000 miles when you could purchase the ticket for $119? We know we wouldn’t. But it’s relative and if you choose to do that, as long as you have justified the use of your miles, then all is good.

Another sneaky way to “forecast” the availability of awards into the future might be to use the Farecast technology that is featured on Bing.com, the new search and travel tool from Microsoft. Here’s that link:
http://www.bing.com/travel/about/howAirPredictions.do

The way we use it is to search for a flight and look at the “predictor.” If it says, “wait,” then we have found that more often than not, it also means that award availability is still a possibility. As well, this tool now features hotel deal information and it can give you ideas when it might be a good time to use your points vs. saving them for hotels on other rainy days.

Other tools that can assist you with “predictors” are FareCompare.com and FlySpy.com. Remember, when fares are predicted to go down, then award seat availability can be predicted to rise.

3) If this is Tuesday …
Since even your students likely now belong to frequent flyer programs, you must have a plan when considering using an award to a popular destination. The best plan is to know which days offer the best award travel opportunities:
Best Days: Within the U.S. (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), To Florida (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), Hawaii (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), Asia (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), (Caribbean (Tuesday, Wednesday), Europe (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), Mexico (Tuesday, Wednesday), South America (Tuesday, Wednesday);

Worst Days: Within the U.S. (Friday, Sunday), To Florida (Friday, Sunday), Hawaii (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday), Asia (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), Caribbean (Saturday, Sunday, Monday), Europe (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), Mexico (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), South America (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

4) Open Wide! (open jaw and one-way awards)
Be flexible: Want to go to New York and there are no seats? Change your dates or fly into a neighboring city such as Newark. Just because Tuesday into JFK isn't available doesn't meant that Wednesday into EWR isn't either. Once you do get the No answer back from your award request, it’s now time to put on the thinking cap and come up with other solutions. Lucky for you more and more programs are flexing out the choices you have with your awards. For instance, a number of programs now offer one-way awards which means you can use them for what is referred to as open-jaw awards: flying into one city and out of another. This is very helpful when flying to airport concentrated cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles to name a few. It may be that you can get to a city, but just can’t return from there. So perhaps fly to LAX but return from Ontario or Orange County or other nearby airports if the award is that valuable to you. Flying into Newark and flying from LaGuardia if in and out of New York.

5) 6 months, no more, no less
After years of research and tens of thousands of actual award redemptions, we’ve figured out the best advance window for increasing your chances of getting just the award you want. Sorry, it’s not 331-days-in-advance. That has gone downhill since airlines became better at what they call “dynamic” pricing of fares and awards. Sure, you can still try to book early as some airlines release award seats one year in advance (actually it varies by airline and is often 331 days in advance), but we’ve found that about 6 months in advance of a travel date is the best overall date to start your search for awards. Any sooner and awards are often not fully released yet. Any later and you face the maddening crowd of too many members and not enough awards – at the 25,000-mile level. This means that if you want to plan for summer travel for June using awards, start your search in late December.

6) All programs not created equal
Choose your program wisely: Yes, we’ve said it before, your choice of programs is very important. Not all airlines redeem at the same level for their members. Research the airlines, some are known for being very stingy on award availability while others are fairly liberal. Among those airlines with the absolute best reputations for giving away the awards? American AAdvantage. Check out the research that InsideFlyer magazine does monthly to determine which program fit better with the types of awards you want to redeem.

7) Take two aspirin and call back in the morning
You might find this interesting: nearly 27% of all members booking their awards change some part of that award redemption before they fly. Some may never go, others may book different outbound or return and some even change the destination altogether. The facts are, things change, kids get hurt, work comes into play or frankly there are other family and economic emergencies that disrupt even the best of award plans. When this happens, it’s an excellent time for the frustrated flyer to get a hold of some award seats that weren’t available just moments ago.

8) I’ll take one from there … and one from there.
As well, you want to school yourself in the fine art of partnerships. Perhaps a flight from Denver to Montreal is not available using your United Mileage Plus miles. But, it may possibly be available if you were to redeem those same United miles on their partner, Air Canada that could be a code share of that same flight. Yes, all the seats on a typical flight are not owned by the flying airline, some are held by partners. And of course when you have a concentration of flights in and out of an airport, you might be able to fly one-way with one of the airlines and the return with yet another partner. The options are endless and while it makes for a confusing start, it can pay huge dividends when you do get the award that started with a No.

9) I’ll hire you …
There are a few services you can try that just may help you find the award seats you want and they range from low-cost to an award concierge if you wish. Let’s look at the low-cost options first. A service which includes multiple airline choices and is dedicated just to tracking awards, is the AwardPlanner service from MileageManager. This dedicated award tool allows you to search for award seats from all the programs you have miles with making it fairly easy to use. If the tool is unable to find your award seats at the time of your request, it will put that same request into a queue and re-check daily for you until it finds something and will then notify you via email. If planning in advance, you can let this tool run daily for you for several months and it has a really good track record of actually finding seats (airlines changing award inventory or other members changing their minds). And finally, you can use that same AwardPlanner service from MileageManager to engage the services of an actual person to find an award for you. They will use their special knowledge of how to work around the “No” answer to figure out how to get the award you want. It costs, but will certainly be less than buying a ticket. Outside of AwardPlanner, there is another service we can recommend as well for finding award seats. Called BookYourAward, it is basically the same as the paid AwardPlanner service in which experts of award redemption or a fee will do their best to make your miles come true for an award.

10) If you have to ask how much it costs ….
Maybe you don’t have enough miles to really get there. The facts seem to indicate that any destination is possible to get to using your frequent flyer miles, but like the sharp travelers we are – we just don’t want to pay double miles to get there. A growing number of savvy travelers have devoted their lives to becoming more adept at collecting miles, which means that in the long run, they will always have enough miles to get where they really want to go, regardless of the number of miles required by any award chart. While we don’t want to see you drop your teaching job to simply hoard miles, you just may want to make sure you are the “educated” member who does know the simple tips that you can use to easily collect all the bonus miles you are likely to ever need. Most of the savvy travelers do make a habit of looking in at FlyerTalk for everything about their miles and points.

We hope that these tips and general awareness of how award redemption works will benefit you and other non-elites. Again, thanks for being involved in the education process and here’s a tip of our collective hats to all teachers.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Jan 25, 10 at 6:24 am
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:51 pm
  #7  
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Question 6

Question
My biggest dilemma when it comes to using points and miles is knowing how to best combine points that fall within the same airline alliance. For example, I know Delta and Northwest merged their rewards programs. How do I best stay on top of airline mergers and know when I can move miles to allied rewards programs?
-- Lauren

Answer
Lauren, airline alliances while promoting exceptional opportunities for members of frequent flyer programs to earn miles, often bring some confusion. As for combining miles between programs, there have been no situations in modern times when airlines of the same alliance have allowed members to combine their miles. The last time this was allowed was in 1998, when both American AAdvantage and US Airways Dividend Miles allowed members to combine miles from the two accounts when they were claiming award travel from either airline. The two airlines enjoyed this kind of partnership then but to today, we’ve yet to see anything similar.

Having said that, there have been situations when airlines and their frequent flyer programs have merged and in that instance the members’ accounts were combined. But in those situations, one of the programs disappeared, as with the mergers between US Airways Dividend Miles and America West FlightFund, between American AAdvantage and TWA Aviators, American AAdvantage and Reno Air QQuickMiles and Delta Frequent Flyer/SkyMiles and Pan Am WorldPass. Outside of these mergers, and the exception I noted above with AAdvantage and Dividend Miles, there are no opportunities to move miles around within the framework of these programs.

Now, there are other ways in which you can move miles between programs (outside of mergers), often requiring a conduit or middleman or middle program, if you will, to accomplish this. Keep in mind that there’s a price to pay for doing this -- devaluation of the base mileage currency you are moving. But the possibility does exist for some programs.

If you are thinking of combining miles between accounts because you have a bunch of orphaned miles in a hodgepodge of programs, there are two tools which might assist you: The Mileage Converter tool on WebFlyer.com is a popular tool that can show you how to convert your miles, and how many miles you’ll end up with. The results can look a little like pretzel logic at times, as you might have to convert through two or three programs before you get the actual miles or points that you desire, but sometimes it might be well worth the effort.

Another useful option is the GPX tool on Points.com. Points.com is an official partner of selected programs and the GPX tool allows members to trade miles or points among themselves legally -- but with fees involved. If you’re interested in consolidating your miles and/or points, this is certainly a tried and true option.

Returning to actual mergers, the best advice is to invest in some sort of research. You can make a habit of reading the newsletters from the various programs you have miles in or rely on things like Google Alerts or Yahoo! Alerts to help you keep track. Since your concern is missing out on information about airline mergers, you could set up an alert with either or both of these services (they are free) and simply have it look for certain key words and it will alert you if ever something happens. For instance, United Airlines continues to say that they expect further mergers in airlines over the next two years. If you are a Mileage Plus member and just don’t have to time to really keep up with all the news, you might set up an alert for “United Airlines AND merger” or “Mileage Plus AND merge accounts”. These alerts can really assist you with knowing when to start paying more attention to the news. The key to this is also understanding that you typically have to do nothing to merge your accounts other than to have the same name and address associated with your various frequent flyer programs. Having one program registered under your home address and another under your business address will often result in mismatches or at the very least, two different accounts in merged programs which leads to more work to identify the problem. I myself ended up with an orphan Delta SkyMiles account even after merging my main Northwest account into SkyMiles. Seems there was a second Northwest WorldPerks account I did not know I had.

But mergers are not just about moving miles. Rather, they are a good time to reconsider what the new program looks like. If it is a true airline merger, then you may have no other choices. If it is a change in partnerships or a change in alliances similar to what happened when Continental OnePass moved its alliance partnership from Delta Air Lines to United Airlines and US Airways, you may want to use the moment to compare your choices. Is the program you’ve given your loyalty to the right one to continue with or is there another program that might better suit your current needs? And since during mergers and partner realignments there are often incentives to stay or leave one program or another, it’s worth your time to reconsider your options.

So, I hope that this look at airline mergers gives you just a few ideas to consider because as the airlines themselves say … the time is ripe for even more changes.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Jan 25, 10 at 6:26 am
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:52 pm
  #8  
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Question 7

Question
When traveling for pleasure my timing is very flexible. Some airline web sites are better than others in showing which days have award seats available (because availability is constantly shifting), and I know of no easy way to watch for seats, particularly at the lowest levels. Is there one? Once someone--maybe it was Randy--had a service where for a fee they would keep checking for you and because of their expertise they would know alternative routings to check. Does such a service exist today, beyond the free help and advice on FlyerTalk?
-- Michael

Answer
Thanks for the question Michael, and you have tactfully brought to life the fact that indeed airline Web sites are not all uniformly good when it comes to members being able to easily search and redeem awards online. One reason this might be is that regardless of the experience, would any of us actually change from one frequent flyer program to another just for the sake of a better functioning Web site award calendar? Not likely.

A few frequent flyer programs such as American AAdvantage have improved their user interface (UI) in recent releases to make award searches easier and more intuitive. But I think what you are referring to are simple tools that really would provide better customer service and increase the satisfaction of loyalty.

If you and I were the boss of the programs, my guess is we’d like the industry to adopt some of the following as minimal standards:
A calendar view of up to one month per screen, depending on the selected mode, which would highlight a one-way display mode +/-7 days and
a one-way combinable mode +/-15 days. It would also support all types of trips, domestic/international/one-way/roundtrip and multi-stop itineraries. In addition, you could search for multi-carrier flights to see a display of airline partner flights--and of course, and that means all their current partners, not just some. And since we’re the boss, it would display the actual miles/points necessary for the redemption (in cases such as spilt awards) and any and all taxes that would apply to the booking directly on the calendar. Furthermore, it would calculate the total miles/points based on a total redemption basis when looking for multiple awards across differing award levels. And before we have to step down, as the boss we would request that the flyer’s standby award basis would be listed as well as award wait-listing and call back (actually email/text back) with the airline system checking daily for you if the awards you wanted were not available at the time of the original request.

Since neither of us are the boss now, we’ll have to settle for the realization that over time many of these wishes will likely come about. But looking at what’s available today, there is some help available when it comes time to redeem your awards.

First of all, the easiest--watching for award seats to open up. Other than logging in daily and resubmitting your award request hoping something has changed since the last time you looked, there’s basically two options: AwardPlanner by MileageManager.com and ExpertFlyer.com.

These two options operate slightly different and let me explain.
The AwardPlanner by MileageManager service is part of a paid mileage manager service so you actually get far more for your investment since MileageManager manages your frequent flyer accounts—including help with expiring miles. AwardPlanner, a dedicated award tool, allows you to search for award seats from all the programs in which you have miles—making it a one-stop shop for watching for award seats. If the tool is unable to find your award seats at the time of your request, it will put your request into a queue and re-check daily for you until it finds an award seat and will then notify you via email. If planning in advance, you can let this tool run daily for you for several months. It has a really good track record of actually finding award seats (for when airlines change award inventory or other members change their plans). It is often preferred because it is looking at the actual awards you may be eligible for. For example, most programs set aside a differing and more generous selection of awards based upon your status with the airline. The cost is $14.95 annually and the list of programs includes most if not all major U.S. programs and several European and Asia programs.

The other option, ExpertFlyer.com is far more expensive than the other solution at $99.95 annually, but this service has one unique advantage over the other and that is that it also looks at upgrade awards in addition to standard award availability. And it also offers the same type of email notices as the other one.

So, these two services can greatly assist you with watching for award seats, particularly at the lowest levels as they search daily for changes to the award inventory.

And the final part of your question I think refers to other types of services beyond the alerts I’ve noted above. Yes, I did at one time offer a service for a fee to assist members with award redemption. It was highly popular and operated for many years with great results. But I discontinued it about two years ago to concentrate on technology solutions.

However, the good news is that at least two enterprising groups now offer services similar to an award travel agent. Both are run by extremely knowledgeable individuals who are up to the task of securing the award seats you want. Typically these services are best used when searching for multiple business and first class seats internationally. They know the partners, the odds of success and how to re-route you through the right hubs to get access to the award seats you want. Not inexpensive, but neither is having to purchase a ticket to wherever you may be going. I have seen excellent references and results for both services but like all things in life … “your actual mileage may vary.”

The first is BookyourAward.com and the second is available as part of the MileageManager.com service as one of two options of the AwardPlanner service. The good thing about this is that with the tool included in your AwardPlanner membership, you can use the AwardPlanner tool first to find and waitlist your award searches and if that doesn’t work, you can choose to use the paid service. If I were not able to find my own awards, I would not hesitate to use either service and actually have recommended them to close personal friends of mine that I did not have time to help.

Anyway, unless we both become the boss of all frequent flyer programs, these are the current tested options for smoothing the way toward your frequent flyer awards. Oh, one more thing … but don’t ever underestimate the type of help and advice you’ll get on FlyerTalk. You can’t go wrong there.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Jan 25, 10 at 6:11 am
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:53 pm
  #9  
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Question 8

Question
As a Continental OnePass member who has earned elite status this year for the first time since 2001, what is the best way to efficiently accumulate miles toward maintaining elite status? Also, at what price point does it make sense to redeem miles for a domestic coach reward ticket?
--Michi

Answer
Elite staus, the holy grail for frequent flyers. Upgrades don’t often happen without elite status. Speed through security doesn’t often happen without elite status. Chocie award redemption doesn’t often happen without elite status. Accumulating miles at a faster rate than general members doesn’t often happen without elite status. Yes, elite staus is well worth the miles and hassles you’ve endured so far. And how to maintain that status is part of the game.

It always pays to know very well all the airline partners of your preferred frequent flyer program. For many current OnePass members, most have not yet re-calibrated their profiles with the various travel booking and other systems after Continental’s switch from the SkyTeam to Star Alliance. Typically travel agents and online travel agencies such as Expedia, Travelocity, etc. store your frequent flyer number in their system so when you book a flight, the frequent flyer number you have associated with that particular airline is automatically added to that reservation. When you have airline partner changes like the recent change of Continental from Delta and Northwest to United and US Airways, it requires you to remember to go into your profile with online travel agencies or contact your travel agent and change the frequent flyer number associated with a particular airline. Several months ago, you would have had your Continental OnePass number listed under Delta and Northwest, while having a Mileage Plus number listed under United and US Airways or a Dividend Miles number listed under US Airways and United, depending on which other program you choose as your backup program. Today, those same profiles need to be edited to reflect that under United and US Airways you have listed your OnePass number and under Delta (Northwest has now disappeared for things such as this) would be your Delta SkyMiles number, this now being your backup program. Many members miss the housekeeping detials of things like this, and of course once a flight is flown, you can’t go back to have the miles recredited to another program.

Their is other task and this requires just a little extra time when you are booking tickets. If you are like most business travelers, loyalty to one airline matters, but when it comes to business flights, you may be at the mercy of a corporate travel policy that states that you must fly the cheapest flight available. In these situations, it is important to know which airline is offering the #2 cheapest airfare and sometimes the #3 cheapest. The reason is that you may find situations where Continental or one of its partners is not offering the cheapest airfare. Rather than default to the cheapest choice, you may look at and decide what the difference will be to pay more to fly with Continental or a partner airline to make sure you get the miles you need for elite status. You’ll have to decide for yourself what the threshold is to make it worthwhile. For me, I easily paid up to $30 more for a Continental flight in order to add to my elite status miles – and of course, you also increase your chances for an upgrade since not flying Continental will likely mean you’re sitting by the toilets. These decisions are yours to make but worth considering, especially when you are working with a travel agent who might just give you the “cheapest” airfare with no other flights for comparison.

Just three other suggestions to consider as you develop strategies for maintaining elite status.

What’s in your wallet? If you are just barely Silver elite, you will always be on the bubble at the end of the year and one canceled business trip could mean the difference between Silver and fools gold.

Continental has one credit card which can help maintain elite status. Called the Presidential Plus World MasterCard, this card allows you to earn what they call Flex Elite Qualification Miles (EQMs) based on your credit card purchases. For every $15,000 in purchases you make, you’ll earn 2,000 Flex Elite Qualification Miles (Flex EQMs), up to 14 times a year. These miles do not expire, and you can redeem them toward Elite status at any time in future years. This card could be a nice part of your overall strategy. Now, the card is not cheap with an annual fee of $375. But it comes with Presidents Club lounge access which doesn’t come with any of the elite tiers of Continental and it may be cheaper than having to go all out on a mileage run late in the year.

Speaking of mileage runs. Hate to break it to you but often your year end travel is not complete until you can verify that you have re-qualified for your elite status. If you’re not sure you’ve qualified, then you may have to join thousands of other “late shoppers” in hopping on just about any flight to nowhere just to earn the necessary miles you need to re-qualify. Look to FlyerTalk.com for help here by reading through the “Mileage Run Deals” thread.

And finally, part of your strategy will have to include the new R&R --reading and research. Over the past few years several frequent flyer programs have offered their members opportunities to increase the number of EQMs they earn either by flying or from participation with program partners. You really need to be aware of these special limited-time, registration-only offers. They could come at any time of the year, although most recently they have been targeted toward the end of the year. You really do need to know about these. You can do one of two things, do the reading and research yourself, or find a surrogate for this. If you aren’t a mileage geek, you’ll often know others who spend more time hanging out with their miles than on Facebook. Let them know you need a favor to let you know if they ever see anything related to earning more elite miles with Continental OnePass. If you don’t know the information yourself, then know someone who does know the information.

So there you go. Without going into the actual rocket science of all this, these tips should help you stay elite. I’m OnePass elite and I follow my own advice.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Jan 25, 10 at 6:14 am
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:54 pm
  #10  
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Question 9

Question
I fly between the U.S. and Europe in paid business class very often. I want to be able to redeem miles for business/first-class travel throughout the world. Which frequent-flyer program(s) should I concentrate my earnings on -- European or American ones? They seem to have different fee structures and award availability.
-- Plover

Answer
A very good question and one that can be complicated to answer. But there are some simple comparisons that might help.

Generally speaking, it’s best to stay with American programs -- although the best answer could be different depending on where you originate from and your most common destinations in Europe. And, how much other travel you do domestically. You might live in a metropolitan area where you can catch non-stop flights to Europe or you might have to rely on flying through hubs both in the U.S. and Europe. It might be better to be able to fly point-to-point without having to hop across the U.S. and Europe on a less desirable itinerary than to worry about the frequent flyer program.

The advantages for U.S. programs are typically in the area of domestic travel. No matter what your status in British Airways or Air France’s program, you are likely not to enjoy the same benefits of upgrades and other types of amenities when you are not flying business class to Europe. As well, and I admit this is likely not a problem for you now based on your activity, but European programs have far more restrictive rules concerning expiring miles. And they generally have more restrictive rules concerning the miles you earn from discounted fares.

Here’s some of the other differences. The American AAdvantage program will award you a 50 percent bonus when flying business class, whereas the British Airways program awards only a 25 percent bonus. And while Delta SkyMiles members earn a 50 percent bonus on business class flights, Air France/KLM Flying Blue members earn from 25-200 percent bonus for variations of business class. Moving to the other popular alliance, United Mileage Plus members earn a 25 percent bonus for business class, although when flying discounted business class they earn no extra business class bonus, just the base flight miles. Lufthansa Miles & More members on the other hand earn a 100 percent bonus on business class flights. There are additional bonuses when flying business class based on your elite status and vary from program to program.

These differences on business class bonuses can be substantial based on your flight activity to Europe, but must be balanced by other considerations. It is likely you easily achieve top elite status so let’s do a comparison. If choosing between Delta SkyMiles and Air France/KLM Flying Blue, you’ll see no difference in the elite bonus, both offer a 100 percent bonus for their top-tier members. There is a difference, however, when comparing the British Airways Executive Club top-tier bonus of 50 percent to the American AAdvantage top-tier bonus of 100 percent. The most striking difference is comparing United’s Mileage Plus top-tier elite bonus of 100 percent to that of Lufthansa’s Miles & More (Senator-level) at only 25 percent.

Upgrades generally are more generous from U.S.-based programs with all the major programs’ top tiers having some sort of unlimited upgrades, with standby or other. European programs also have upgrades, but are more limited.

And for European programs, you must consider the partner mix. Business class miles are great, but over time you’ll need to consider what the partners look like and your ability to count on their use to add to your growing mileage bank. Programs like British Airways and Lufthansa have American-issued credit cards which can add miles to those programs. But others, such as Air France/KLM don’t have a direct credit card for U.S. residents; however, you can still earn miles by participation in programs such as American Express Membership Rewards and Diners Club Rewards whereby you can convert those points into Flying Blue miles. Generally speaking, all enjoy relationships with the major hotel chains and car rental companies, something to consider if those types of partners are important to you.

Where European programs typically stand out is their lounge benefits. Most programs in Europe offer airport lounge access as a standard benefit to their top-tier elite members, whereas the U.S.-based programs do not. That may not be important to you however based on the business class travel you refer to since you will have lounge access because you bought a business class ticket. But lounge access might be important for anytime you do not travel in business class.

Another factor of comparison which is often the lightning rod of comparison is the propensity of European programs to attach heavy fees and taxes for award redemption. If you are still on the fence on the differences, then it might be worthwhile to visit FlyerTalk.com and in particular the forum for British Airways and read some of the reports of the fees associated with redemption from that program -- and compare with what you may know of the American AAdvantage program. This will often make you glad you belong to a U.S.-based program.

Honestly, I’ve only scratched the surface on the general differences. And you can continue to compare specifics based on details such as city pairs and frequency. But overall, it is likely that you will be better served by staying with a U.S.-based program.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Jan 25, 10 at 6:15 am
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Old Nov 30, 09, 11:55 pm
  #11  
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Question 10

Question
When buying a seat using miles, I miss out on so much that has value to me as a frequent flyer:
*Miles from the credit card purchase, plus bonus miles from being linked to that airline
*Miles from the flight, plus bonus based on elite status, plus bonus based on class of flight
*Miles from the flight toward elite-status qualification, plus bonus on class of flight purchased
And the airlines don't let seats go cheaply, in comparison to how much flying it takes to earn those miles. So how do you weigh all the factors that need to be considered when deciding whether to buy a seat using miles or money?
-- Sitting Tight

Answer
We’re lucky to be able to feature some advice from FlyerTalk member, Pizzaman, who personally wrestles with this question whenever he considers any award redemption. But before moving on to Pizzaman’s answer, there may be another answer to your question -- and that is to merely forget all the metrics of award redemption and treat it simply as you would the pennies and nickels you might have saved in the piggy bank. Who really cares if it’s the right value? The fact is that most members of frequent flyer programs use miles for redemption of aspirational trips.

For instance, many years ago I used a substantial number of frequent flyer miles to fly my father, sister and her husband to Hawaii in business/first class so that my father could revisit the locations in Hawaii he remembered from his deployment back in World War II. The value to my father and the satisfaction I personally gained from such an award redemption surely could not be calculated in any buy vs. save theory. Fact is, I really did not have much money at the time and my father was getting along in age. At that moment, it really did not matter what the actual financial value of the redemption was, but only the aspirational value, and that’s often overlooked. I’m all for making sure that you think things through financially when using your miles, but I also see these as “rainy day” miles, meaning that they are earned without any specific need in mind. So while you and many others absolutely should have some basic considerations in mind as to whether to buy a seat with miles or money, it’s also OK to let that fly out the door when it comes to a very high-value aspirational award redemption decision. But now, I’ll let Pizzaman have his say.

Advice from Pizzaman:
There are two schools of thought here. One way to go is to burn miles when you have enough for the award you need. The other is to look for the best value. Both have their merits.

Since most airlines devalue their miles over time (by increasing how many miles it takes to redeem an award), there’s a big camp of people who believe you should burn miles as soon as you can to avoid these devaluations. Most of the FlyerTalk members in this camp still believe you should get reasonable value for your miles, but don’t believe in a long-term “hold” strategy.

The other theory I mentioned is to save the miles until you can “earn” a good value for them. What’s good? It depends on your financial situation. If you have enough money to buy the ticket without using miles, then I’d hold out for more value. Personally, if I can get 2 CPM (cents per mile), I’m all for it. If my redemption rate is less than that, I will usually hold my miles for another time. When you consider international travel, it always seems like I can find a really good value when I need to.

As always, your mileage may vary (literally)! My advice would be to hunt for those great values. There’s enough of them out there.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Jan 25, 10 at 6:18 am
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Old Dec 3, 09, 9:24 am
  #12  
 
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great answers on thsoe first two questions. lucky winners
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Old Dec 9, 09, 11:52 am
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What happened to this?
Will the remaining questions be answered? So far, great job.
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Old Dec 10, 09, 6:38 pm
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Each answer here has been great.
Given the sheer detail given so far, I can see that these guys may not get out an answer on the schedule they originally set for themselves!

All have a day job and a life, and are co-ordinating a few opinions for each answer. That's gotta be tough.
And it's the silly season out there.
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Old Dec 11, 09, 7:11 am
  #15  
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We originally thought we'd post one-a-day but realized with input from many that most do not visit daily (and yes, the silly season, (though it is a GREAT season, happy holidays to you had some impact) and so we backed off from being so aggressive with the posts and are now posting an answer up every fews days or so but certainly all ten questions are being answered. Glad you like them. Also, appreciate that we're trying to answer based only on the information in the question without the ability to get further detail. Enjoy.

Originally Posted by Storyteller View Post
Each answer here has been great.
Given the sheer detail given so far, I can see that these guys may not get out an answer on the schedule they originally set for themselves!

All have a day job and a life, and are co-ordinating a few opinions for each answer. That's gotta be tough.
And it's the silly season out there.
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