All posts by jfoo

A (weak) case against frequent flyer miles

There’s an interesting article from National Geographic Traveler encouraging consumers not to collect frequent flyer miles.  Gary at View From the Wing brought this to my attention, writing a strong (long, but worth reading) rebuttal of his own.

The gist of the National Geographic article is that people are spending way too much on miles, from buying more expensive airfares to going on mileage runs (disclosure: I’m guilty as charged :), having booked 9 round trip flights on AA for the month of January…and I still need to write that promised post), and making purchases just for miles.  On the flip side, these miles are unable to be redeemed for any flights, and airlines are creating a class separation amongst the elite, frequently flying, extreme mile collecting  and the regular travelers who pay increasingly more fees (e.g. baggage fees), and get less value.

I could see why someone could feel this way about miles programs.  Redeeming your miles for a flight now can cost anywhere from 12,500 miles to 100,000 miles just for coach tickets, and you often have to get creative to get where you want to go.  However, part of the deal of playing the miles game is that you must exercise flexibility and commitment.  You won’t be able to find mile saver fares during a major holiday on a direct flight to your destination…that’s just a fact of life.  However, if you’re willing to travel at non-peak times (even just slightly off peak), you can derive tremendous value.   Additionally, to always have options, you should be committed to collecting miles in as many programs as you can.  This doesn’t mean you need to fly every airline and get elite status, but you should be going to for any credit cards/promotions that are within reach for you.  This does require you to keep track not only of all your accounts, but also which promotions are happening when.

If you can do all this, you do have the means to travel places.  And contrary to the notion that airlines are segregating elites out of the majority, getting yourself into some of the exclusive lounges is becoming more accessible.  You can book yourself premium class tickets for a fairly reasonable amount of miles (100,000 miles might seem like a lot, but if you can generate 500k miles per year through credit cards plus whatever you spend/fly, booking yourself a first class trip is well within reach), and with that comes access to elite lounges, preferential service, etc.  You can sometimes even pay as low as $100 to upgrade your flights to first class (not necessarily worth it, but you could), and experience all the great benefits that come with that (waived baggage fees, priority check-in and boarding lines).  If anything, preferential service on airlines is becoming less exclusive/more accessible, especially if you play the miles game.

There was a somewhat relevant point made in this post over at Things in the Sky, showing average airfares over the last 15 years or so.  Despite recent fare increases, airfares are still historically relatively low.  I recommend checking out that post, as well as the View From The Wing article and the original National Geographic article.

A few fun articles :)

I ran across a few fun travel related links in the past couple days that I wanted to share.

The Oatmeal had a comic about the saddest things ever heard on an airplane (they have actually made several comics about air travel, linked at the bottom of that page.

This might be a bit late, but apparently there’s a TSA Holiday Choir at LAX (courtesy of One Mile At A Time).

Lastly, in the spirit of the holidays, check out this aircraft painting (it’s old news, but still relevant).  In fact, see more cool aircraft paintings that airlines have used.



Earning miles with credit cards

There’s a couple of posts about credit cards today.  View from the Wing writes about how the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card has been a long time favorite and Million Mile Secrets writes about the United MileagePlus Explorer card and the Continental OnePass card, specifically what your strategy should be right now for applying/cancelling the cards.

I highly recommend the View from the Wing article, because it is the same credit card strategy that I follow, and that I think most people would agree with.  The AMEX SPG card was actually the first affinity program card that I applied for, my ‘gateway drug’ into collecting miles if you will.  When I applied for it, I decided that I wanted a good hotel chain credit card, because I’d noticed that whenever I take vacations, my biggest spending generally seemed to be hotels, rather than airfare.  While airfare to international destinations can be quite expensive, and it is great to earn miles to get that for free, staying at hotels can add up to be much more than the airfare.  So I decided it made sense to start collecting hotel points, and I had heard the SPG card was considered one of the best all around travel cards.

Interestingly enough, I soon learned that it wasn’t considered a great card just because you could use the points to stay at Starwood (Westin, Sheraton, W, St. Regis, Le Meridien properties, among others, are all under Starwood).  I mean, there are great redemption options, even for a hotel program.  You can often get 2 cents of value from each SPG point just redeeming for rooms, but they also offer points and cash rewards, where you use fewer points but pay a co pay (typically $25-$50), and various free nights promotions if you use points for so many consecutive nights.  However, you can also transfer your SPG points to over 30 different airline frequent flyer programs (generally at a 1:1 ratio, with some exceptions such as United/Continental), and for every 20000 SPG points that you transfer, you get a 25% bonus.  Now the card only earn 1 points per dollar, except at SPG properties, but it is still considered one of the best values for general credit card spending.

The programs that offer flexible award redemptions are currently “in”, as you can see from the View from the Wing post.  The other cards that he uses/recommends are the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which is linked to the Chase Ultimate Rewards program (which allows transfer to United, BA, Hyatt, Priority Club, among others), and the American Premier Rewards Gold (or Business Rewards Gold) card, which is linked to the American Express Membership Rewards program.  The Amex cards generally come with steep fees, (the gold card has a $175 fee which is waived for the first year), but I think they are worth it for access to Membership Rewards, and in the case of the gold card, the 4X points on airfare, if you book a lot of airfare on your own credit cards.

At any rate, I recommend reading through both of the linked posts, and applying for some of these cards if you haven’t already!  As long as you can make the minimum spend (of there is one), it’s perfectly acceptable to apply for both an American Express and Chase card simultaneously to jump start your mileage accounts.  Not only that you could apply for the business versions of any cards that you apply for, and your applications will be considered (and approved if you are creditworthy).

On a side note…I decided over the weekend to go “all in” on the AA DEQM (TEQM for IL/TX and CA flights).  I’ll make a separate post about that, but the gist is, I’ve booked 9 roundtrip flights on AA in the month of January, all on weekends no less!  it’s gonna be one hellish month of flying, but hopefully i’ll get 70-80k for EQM on AA, and be well on my way to executive platinum status with them.

To gain AA status or not?

I’ve been debating whether or not to do some mileage runs as I linked to in my previous post about the AAdvantage DEQM promotion.  While it’s being considered one of the greatest opportunities to get into mileage running in a while (being able to gain enough AA miles for top tier status for under $2000), I’m not sure if there is much point to it for me.  While you can take a lot of what lucky calls “fun” trips with the AA system-wide upgrades to re-qualify in the future, I’m just not very certain I would fly AA much out of here.

I’ve generally flown UA/*A in the past, and now, being in the DC metro area, I have a United hub (IAD) and a US Airways “focus city” (DCA) at my disposal.  However, I suppose there would be some value to the mileage running experience and having AA status at my disposal if I ever need it.  So I’ll need to decide in the next couple days if I want to spend a weekend or two in January flying back and forth across the country purely for miles and status.

The cost is a bit of an issue for me, but given the low cost of generating miles under this promotion, I actually think the miles you’re able to earn will effectively pay for the travel expenses.

Impact of change in the airline business

It’s interesting to consider and to witness how business moves impact our decisions as frequent flyers.  For example, all of AA’s recent promotions are attempting to retain their existing customers and draw in new ones while the company goes through bankruptcy (more on that later).  Another example is the bidding war that is going on (post courtesy of Lufthansa Flyer at Boarding Area) for an airline that is obscure to most people, bmi (British Midland International).  bmi is the second largest airline at London Heathrow (LHR), and a member of Star Alliance.  In the past month, British Airways was set to purchase bmi from Lufthansa, which would’ve strengthened BA’s hold at LHR, and removed bmi from Star Alliance.

Now, apparently Virgin Atlantic has joined the fray for bmi.  If Virgin were to win, this would be interesting for several reasons.   For one, Star Alliance would be able to maintain a decent presence at LHR.  Second, Virgin has been rumored to be looking to join an alliance, and this merger would pave the way for them to join the Star Alliance (they already have partnerships with 9 Star Alliance airlines, and they are 49% owned by fellow *A airline Singapore Airlines).  So it will be interesting to see how this plays out…

bmi is/was a favorite among some frequent flyers due to their 600-mile minimum segments as well as a generous redemption chart.  It will be interesting to see how things play out with all this…