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Year end tactics to earn points and maintain or increase your frequent flyer status

airline cabin

Since US legacy carriers have moved their loyalty programs to a dollars spent rather than miles flown model, it has become a more costly undertaking for frequent flyers to accrue points. Savvy flyers that travel around the world for less are losing ground – not because they are flying less, but because they are spending less per ticket purchase.

In the old days (think pre-2016), award-travel and status seekers would plan their year-end mileage runs as a way to increase their mile points and maintain or level-up their elite status ranking. In the new world of dollars spent, we need to come up with new tactics to build our points and preserve our perks and status.

In an interview with Jason Steele, an award travel and credit card expert, we explore the viability of and alternatives to the mileage run that won’t empty our pockets in exchange for diminishing returns.

WATCH our interview with Jason Steele, award travel, credit card, and personal finance expert

ExpertFlyer: Are mileage runs a waste of time now based on the airlines’ new points accrual criteria?

Jason Steele: Well, certainly the traditional mileage run is pretty much gone. This would be when let’s say there’s a discounted airfare of $100 round trip transcontinental from New York to LA. The airlines would get into an intense competition and maybe during a slow season, they’d offer a “just can’t say no” deal, so for the $100, you would get on the plane and you would maybe accumulate 5,000 miles round trip. If those 5,000 miles were worth that $100 to you, then that was a great mileage run. And often as much, runs would be made worth it if there was another promotion going on. Let’s say there’s double miles or a big bonus should you complete a certain number of miles within a certain time.

But as you referred to, within the last few years, the airlines have gone from awarding miles based on the miles you flew to the actual dollars you spent. And so, depending on the status level you hold with the airline, it would be five to maybe 11 miles per dollar spent. But of course, that removed any component of a traditional mileage run where you said, “Okay. Well, for this inexpensive airfare, I’m going to accumulate all these miles.” Well, the fact that it’s inexpensive means you will not accumulate all these miles.

But of course, there is an exception. The exception is the status. Airlines are still awarding elite star status largely based on the miles you fly with a couple caveats.

So it still makes sense, especially around this time of year when the demand is low and the airfares are often low. So certainly from New York to LA and back, you know, being maybe 5, 6,000 miles nonstop might not be worth it for $100, but if on your way from New York to LA you changed planes first in Atlanta and then Minneapolis – Now your 6,000 miles may be 8,000 miles. That infusion of miles might be enough to earn your re-qualification of elite status, which is actually quite valuable. That will potentially give you upgrades to the economy plus or premium economy or even less common now, but first class upgrades are certainly there for the highest status levels.
Also, all sorts of fee waivers. So priority treatment when you have bad weather or mechanical delays or cancellations, are all worth it to get to that elite status.

EF: What happens if you were able to score a relatively inexpensive business class seat? Does that change the formula in any way?

J.S.: Certainly. The airline will offer many bonuses for higher classes of service. So, a business class seat might give you a 50 or 100% bonus in those elite qualifying miles.

Those miles, especially those that are double or re-qualifying miles, might certainly be worth it if the premiere or business class is relatively low. So, maybe you find a $2,000 round-trip ticket to Europe in business class, which would be a great deal if you found it. If that’s compared to, say, $1,200 in coach, a lot of people might say, “Well, I’ll spend the $800. Obviously, I’ll enjoy business class. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent the $800 normally, but now I’m going to get double elite qualifying miles and that will propel me to the next level of status and then all through 2018 and the first couple months of 2019, I’ll have this increased chance of getting first-class upgrades and other upgrades and perks and that’ll partially offset that additional cost.”

EF: When it comes to credit cards, where are we at now in terms of offering the best types of travel rewards? What are your favorites?

J.S.: If you asked me this a couple of years ago, I would have told you that the best deals are with the travel rewards programs, your ultimate rewards, membership rewards and thank you points and the star preferred guest program. All four of those programs allow you to transfer points and miles or transfer your rewards to points and miles with airline and possibly hotel programs.

Over the last couple of years, I would say that has proven increasingly true as airlines continue to devalue their programs. They give you very, very little incentive to invest in accumulating miles with a single airline because they have demonstrated time and time again, some more than others, that you wake up one day and the bar has moved, so the award for 100,000 miles to Europe in business class, is now 120K or 140K miles. That might be okay, but what’s worse is that there are so few seats available at those lowest mileage levels that they might as well be selling unicorns. If the shelves on the store are empty, then what does it matter what the prices are?

On the other hand, I’m not one of those award travel enthusiasts who is all doom and gloom. I still recognize that even if the awards cost twice as much as they used to, I’m often getting three, four, five points per dollar on my spending on various credit cards. So, for example, with Chase Ultimate Rewards, they’re still a card that’ll give me five points per dollar on telecommunications, office supply store, etc.

When I spend money on travel or dining, I use the Sapphire Reserve. I get three points per dollar. So, the credit card industry being so competitive has outshone the airline industry, which frankly is not very competitive. And overall, I think the gains in credit card earnings are outweighing the loses in the value of the miles.

EF: If you were going to give one last tip for maintaining or increasing your status at the end of the year, what’s your best advice?

J.S.: I have never, personally, flown somewhere just to fly back to accumulate miles. I don’t feel like that’s worth my time or even my money, but you know, if you do have a cross-country trip and you are close to the next threshold, use a creative outing. Fly home and change planes in an unusual city. If you could accumulate those extra miles that’s great. Other ways you can accumulate miles is by using airline credit cards, especially with the Delta program, which will give you those elite qualifying miles. American has that as well. United no longer offers cards like that, so there’s no real shortcut with United.

I also tell people, of course, to be careful of chasing status. I don’t think status is worth as much as it once was. Airlines have been saying publicly that they don’t want to give away seats to people with status. They’d rather actually just sell them for $50.

So you might take some of that extra money that you might have spent if you were going to spend money to get status and you might just buy up to first class.

Airfarewatchdog founder offers advice for snagging upgrades & unpublished airfare deals

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to scoring a seat upgrade or lower priced airline tickets on your next flight has become increasingly complicated and confusing.  We interviewed long-time industry authority, George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com, to sort out the best strategies for success.

WATCH our interview with George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com 

ExpertFlyer: What type of information does Airfarewatchdog.com offer its subscribers?

George Hobica: We search and list unusually low airfares. Even though airlines have consolidated, there are still a lot of unadvertised airfare wars. Some of these deals can be extremely cheap. They’re not last minute fares. They are often for a good long travel period. However, they may only last a few minutes or hours, so you really have to jump on them. One way we get the word out is through email alerts. You can track a particular route or even airport to airport. For example, you can say I want to go from Washington Dulles or Washington National to London Gatwick or London Heathrow. We actually let you specify the airport that you’ll be flying into and out of in the alert. You can also choose the airline or if you don’t like a particular carrier, you can eliminate those from the alerts and we won’t send you alerts on those airlines.

EF:  How do you surface these deals?

GH: We have a staff of 10 people, some of whom are former travel agents. Some of whom were former airline employees, who know their way around airfares. They actually choose the deal. I hate to use the word curate, but they’re carefully chosen deals.

EF: For the more novice flyer, what are some of your tips that you tell folks who want to get a deal?

GH: Well, one thing is, you have to search often because airfares do go up and down without explanation. There might be 26 different fares on a plane or a flight, and there are only a few seats at each fare level. Once those are gone, then you will go to a higher fare level. If somebody’s holding those seats and releases them, then they will go back into a shared bucket perhaps, and you can grab them. Another thing that I suggest, unless you’re traveling with small children, is to book seats one by one because there might be one seat at a low fare and the second seat will be at a higher fare. The airline’s going to sell you both seats at the higher fare. They’re not going to average them one by one.

Also, look at one-way fares. A lot of the cheapest fares are half the lowest round trip price. It might be better to go out on one airline. Maybe on Southwest, for example, and then come back on United. Going to United.com, you won’t see that possibility. Always try those one-way fares. Sign up for airfare alerts. You definitely want to get those by email or by Twitter, using the hashtag #airfare on Twitter, is a really good place to look.

Subscribing to airline newsletters is a good idea. Sometimes you’ll find out about deals sooner than anyone else. Sometimes Singapore Airlines, for example, will send their sales to their frequent flier members first and then everyone else gets them a day later. It could be that some of the best seats and fares and routes have been sold out by that time.  I do think that some of the advertised fares are actually not as good as the unadvertised fares. That’s where Twitter is really helpful. Again, that hashtag #airfare is very useful. There are about 10 different accounts now that post deals on Twitter under that hashtag.

EF:  What are your best practices for getting an upgrade to business class for little to no cost?

GH:  Well, these days airlines are selling a lot of their business and first class seats. In many cases, they’re nonrefundable business and first at a reduced fare. For example, recently I flew one way from LA to JFK, and the regular fare was $300 one way on American Airlines. There were business class seats for about $650, which is a lot less than it used to be. It is nonrefundable at that price. I also, on this trip, booked 15,000 miles and $75 to get a paid upgrade. That was a pretty good deal; for $75 and 15,000 miles, I got $375 worth of value, so I upgraded myself that way. Also look for those last minute upgrades. If you book a ticket with Delta, they offer an upgrade for like $100 on a fairly short flight on the app. You can always ask for if there are any upgrades available when you check in or look for them at the kiosk. Sometimes there are offers.

I think the best way really is to use your miles. Now obviously if you attain upper tier status in the frequent flier program, they will sometimes give you a free upgrade, but those are getting rarer on popular routes. It’s really difficult to get those totally free mileage upgrades, or cheap upgrades. You really have to pay for it. You basically have to use miles plus cash to get the upgrade, I find, at least on American Airline on the transcontinental routes. The final way and many people don’t believe this, but on rare occasions, you get upgraded for no particular reason. Now, let’s say they oversell economy class, and everyone with status has been accommodated with upgrades. I have a friend who is a real estate agent in Los Angeles. She went to London recently and flew economy class, and she got upgraded to business class on British Airways. She said, “Why?” I said, “Well were you dressed the way you are today?”

If you are dressed way nicer than everyone else and they need one more person to upgrade, and everyone else looks like a slob, you may very well get upgraded. It’s just the way it goes. It’s happened to me before. It’s happened to my well-dressed agent. It happened to my friend Richard on Air Canada. He was flying from San Francisco to Vancouver, dressed in a business suit. He had no status. I had no status on United and I got upgraded on United because I was looking sharp.

I’ll tell you another story. I was flying on American Airlines last year, or two years ago. There was a seating problem in economy. This guy, a teenager, switched seats in economy class to accommodate somebody who was making a fuss. There was one seat left in business class – the seat next to me – and he got it. I heard the flight attendant say, “Shouldn’t we upgrade so and so who has status?” And the gate agent said, “I’m not going to upgrade that kind of behavior.” Apparently, the guy who was making a fuss was Platinum status on American. He was especially obnoxious, so they decided not to upgrade him.  So, sometimes getting an upgrade is as simple as being a nice, courteous human being.

One more thing about getting upgraded, make separate reservations because they may not want to upgrade two people together. They want to separate you, so if you have separate reservations you may have a better chance of getting upgraded.

 

5 Tested Tips from a Top Tier Flyer

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

frequent flyer tips for better air travel

We continue our series of tips and takeaways from frequent flying executives with our second installment. If you missed the first post, you can read it here.

radius solutions logoMeet Dave Poplin, regional manager at Radius Solutions, LLC, a leading provider of retail point-of-sale technology solutions.

Dave flies every three weeks, on average, and holds membership on all US-based frequent flyer programs. He is a Platinum level member on Delta, which is his airline of choice.

What are your frequent flyer ninja moves for enjoying as many perks via the airlines as possible?

1. There are routes that have fewer numbers of Diamond members, which will allow a Platinum member more of a chance for an upgrade.   An example:   If I fly from Grand Rapids, MI to Florida or other spots West of Chicago and I go into Detroit, it is very difficult to get upgraded.  Conversely, if I connect to Atlanta instead of Detroit I will almost always get upgraded. Continue reading →

Frequent flying execs share their tips for better air travel

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

When you’re up in the air a couple of times a month or more on business, you learn a thing or two about working the airline system and appreciating the differences between real value and service vs. marketing spin.  In this Hot Topics series, ExpertFlyer interviews top tier status frequent flyer business executives and entrepreneurs to learn what they value, what they’d like to change about air travel, and which habits and tips have made flying a better experience.

jennifer flowers frequent flyer

Frequent Business Traveler: Jennifer Flowers, founder & CEO, Accreditation Guru, Inc.

Meet Jennifer Flowers, founder & CEO of Accreditation Guru, Inc., an accreditation consultancy that works with non-profits across the country.

How often do you fly and which frequent flyer program are you a member of?

I fly an average of twice per month, which has helped me earn status as a Delta SkyMiles Platinum Medallion member. I used to be a member of American, US Airways, and Delta, but a few years ago I decided to fly Delta exclusively because of their superior service and to be able to consolidate my frequent flyer miles.

What are your frequent flyer ninja moves for enjoying as many perks via the airlines as possible?

I will look at the seat map before purchasing a ticket to see if there appear to be enough first class seats available for an upgrade to come through. As I have three local airports to choose from (NY metro area), the likelihood of an upgrade may affect which flight and airport I select.

I have both business and personal Delta American Express cards in order to maximize miles earned. Also, because of the amount of travel and other business expenses that are charged against my Delta AmEx, I am able to earn a Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) Waiver (MQDs are a way for Delta to ensure that Elite members have spent a minimum amount of money with the airline, as well as flying a certain number of miles or segments).

I joined the Delta Sky Club as a way to enjoy the amenities offered (wifi, food and drink selections, comfortable waiting areas, etc.) and ease the stress of frequent travel. In the past year, I visited Delta Sky Clubs around the country at least 35 times. With the discounted rate of $29 access pass that is available through my Platinum Delta AmEx card (as opposed to $59 regular price of a single visit pass), my annual pass has allowed me to save more than 50% off of what the reduced rate access passes would have cost.

What’s your biggest brag about scoring something from the airlines and how did it come about? 

This may not count specifically as a “score” per se, but it certainly did impress me. When flying out of Traverse City, MI, in September 2016 I mentioned to the ticketing agent, Ann S., that the flight was putting me over the edge into Platinum status. She congratulated me, which was nice, and I went on to the gate to wait for my flight. Ann soon found me near the gate and presented me with a handwritten card that said, “Congratulations on your new platinum status! Thank you for your business and loyalty. – Ann S., TVC.” If that was not kind enough, she also included a $50 Delta voucher. Their customer service goes above and beyond and this is just one example I have witnessed.

Delta has a great social media team and I always enjoy it when they reply to my Tweets (@jen_flowers or @AccreditGuru) and retweet photos I have taken during my travels.

Anything else that other business travelers should know to help them make flying more enjoyable?

TSA PreCheck is a must!

 

Top Travel Hacks for 2017

According to Expedia and ARC’s annual Global Air Travel Outlook for 2017, travel hackers may not have to work quite as hard to get air travel deals in 2017.  It seems average ticket prices for economy class are dropping all over the world.  In fact, they haven’t been this low since 2013. Good news!  But wait, there’s more!  We’ve gathered tips and anecdotes from veteran travel hackers and experts to give you a definitive 2017 travel hacking cheat sheet.

WATCH our interview with Randi Wolfson of Skyscanner

  1. Use a VPN and clear your cookies!

David Bakke from MoneyCrashers.com says before you start shopping for travel deals you need to outsmart the search engines. “Make sure private browsing is enabled on your computer before shopping for travel deals – or at the very least clear your cookies. Due to airlines’ use of dynamic pricing, websites may show higher prices if you’ve clicked on them before.”

“It’s not widely known that the price of a particular flight may differ when booked from varying locations. One of the ways around this is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that will allow you to check and compare the fares of the same flight by connecting to multiple countries and then book from the location with the cheapest price. This can save you a lot of money,” says Haris Mumtaz of PureVPN.

  1. Airline gold and credit card perks

According to FoxNews Travel writer and GotoTravelGal.com blogger, Lyn Mettler, one of the best travel hacks for 2017 will continue to be the Southwest Companion Pass, which allows one person to fly free with the pass holder for up to two years. “It’s fairly simple to earn the pass, which is achieved after you earn 110,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points. To easily earn the pass, you need to sign up for two Southwest credit cards, meet the minimum spend of $2000 through everyday spending that you can pay off within a month and then earn an additional 6000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points. Once you have 110,000 points, then book a lot of flights without spending a dime on airfare aside from the government required $5.80 per way security fee. My family of four has flown to six destinations within a year for less than $100 per flight using my methods.”

Robert Schrader, a popular travel blogger at LeaveYourDailyHell.com, says credit cards are the key to flying free in 2017, even more so than in 2016. “Now that all major U.S. airlines have finished their race to the bottom—they all use revenue-based mileage earning and have even introduced “basic economy” fares that earn no miles at all—earning free travel via flying is impossible for all but a few travelers.”

“Moreover, with poor airline lounge quality and scant upgrade availability, elite status has little value. Contrast this with generous credit card bonuses, from a recent targeted AMEX Business Platinum offer of 100,000 to 50,000 becoming standard on American Airlines co-branded cards from Citi.”

  1. Best practices for air travel savings

Valerie Bowden, author of Backpacking Africa for Beginners, offers three tried and true best practices for saving money if traveling by air.

  • Reconsider one-way flights. I’ve saved an enormous amount of money by skipping out on round-way tickets. First, airlines make a lot of money with canceled or rescheduled tickets. If you didn’t buy travel insurance, you’re looking at a $200-300 fee. Second, one-way tickets allow you to get better deals. For examples, one time I got a flight from Africa to the US for only $355 (including taxes!). Most tickets within the US cost that amount or more. This is all because I found a quick sale happening that I was able to take advantage of.
  • Take New or Rarely Used Airlines. Another reason why I found such a great sale was because I took Saudi Airlines. It sounds risky. But often Middle Eastern or Developing Countries have great new airlines, and they try hard to promote them. Through sales and special deals, you get tickets much cheaper than you would be taking Delta or Lufthansa.
  • Be flexible. Flights can vary by hundreds of dollars even within a 24-hour span. I like websites that let you search one month at a time because then you can see the best deals. For that, Skyscanner is by far my favorite. 
  1. Housesitting & Hotel Hacks

The ultimate travel hack to cut out ALL accommodation (and often food) costs is housesitting. According to Tanbay Theune, a professional house/ pet sitter and blogger at www.travellingweasels.com, The perks are hard to dismiss. “Most homeowners treat you like a guest. They pick you up from the airport/train station/ bus stop. They cook you a meal or two and leave you some food in the cupboards. All gladly received when traveling on a budget – and even when you’re not! They also show you the area and the secret spots only the locals know.”

James, another devout house-sitter, and blogger at portugalist.com, acknowledges that getting that first house sit can be difficult as you won’t have any references or experience. “The first two I did were actually in the town I lived at the time (Edinburgh). I did them just for the reference. Then, I applied for ones that I was interested in and managed to get several back-to-backs in France. One was five month’s long so, in the end, I was able to spend nine month’s there.”

James has written a list of sites where you can find those opportunities. Of these, Trusted Housesitters is the biggest and it has the most opportunities.

For folks who want to go traditional with their accommodations, Abigail, a travel blogger at Where Abigail Went,  says one of the best travel hacks she knows is this: Check if any of your family or friends are full-time employees of hotel chains. Associates’ friends and family are able to enjoy preferred rates.

“Now that Marriott and Starwood have merged, for instance, you can take advantage of the extended Explore Friends program, which entitles you to book an unlimited number of nights per year for leisure travel at any of their hotels across the world, based on availability. You can save up to 50% off rooms this way, which is a fantastic deal.”

  1. Avoid duty and tax fees at the airport

“I recently bought a blender for my mom for her birthday and had to carry it with me all the way from Australia to South Africa. It’s small enough to fit into my luggage, but when I was going through the boarding gates, they charged me tax on the item. I then saw a guy in front of me going through the boarding gates with a couple of gifts. He paid no tax on the items, simply because they were gift-wrapped. So, to avoid paying tax or duty fees on any items, make sure to wrap them in gift wrapping paper and declare them as gifts!” — Gerrard Hattfield, Flight Factory