“Last year I spent 322 days on the road. I flew 350,000 miles. The moon is 250.”
— Elite frequent flyer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in “Up in the Air”
Texas International Airline created the first frequent flyer club in 1979. Other airlines followed and soon found this the best way to create customer loyalty. These marketing offers seem committed to helping us accrue as many points as possible and yet cashing them in can seem like a distant mirage.
We can collect points by flying, using credit cards, renting cars, staying in hotels, dining out, and shopping on the internet. Then we can redeem them in an expanding array of possibilities. Besides buying flights, we can spend points on flight upgrades, hotel stays, car rentals, vacation packages, or subscriptions.
Is this a racket? Or can a person seeking value really make it work?
Frequent flyer programs differ, but the following guidelines might help you make the most of your own clubs.
- Not everyone should join. If you fly rarely or on a variety of airlines, you would not accrue enough miles to be worth the bother.
Specialize. Join clubs of only the one or two airlines whose air services you are most likely to use. Unless you travel for business, you will be very unlikely to fly enough miles to make a difference on more than two airlines in a year. If you fly airlines in the same network (Star Alliance, One World, Sky Team) join only one club so that all your miles will be in one basket.
- Fly only your airlines whenever possible. This way, you might actually be able to get enough miles together to do something with them.
- Get to know your club. Learn how best to earn miles and what it takes to buy the flight or benefit you want. Learn about expiration rules.
- Get the airline credit card. Most airlines have one or more credit card programs which allow you to earn one point for every dollar you spend on your credit card. They usually offer a new card bonus (open an account, free the first year, and receive a bazillion miles after you spend $1000 in the first three months.) In fact more miles are awarded annually now for credit/debit card plans than for flights. One can close such an account within the year before the annual fee is due, and open a new account with the same benefits a month later. The latest benefit with these cards is that if you buy your air ticket with their card, you do not have to pay the checked baggage fee when you fly. That benefit could easily pay the card’s annual fee.
- Compare “costs” before you spend your points. You should not use miles to buy a domestic ticket which costs less than $350. Each point is worth about 1½ cents of flight; that is why it takes tens of thousands of them to buy a ticket. Some of the alternate uses for points are a better value than others. Do the arithmetic so you can spend points wisely.
If you are going to pledge allegiance to one or two airlines, take control of the relationship and make it work for you.
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
24 January 2013