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One-on-One with Jason Steele, Credit Card & Travel Rewards Expert

In this month’s One-on-One blog, ExpertFlyer talks with Jason Steele, Credit Card and Travel Rewards Expert. Jason, in addition to being a travel rewards guru, has also worked as a commercial pilot and contributes to several of the top personal finance sites, including Credit.com, The Points Guy, Business Insider and many others, as well as his own blog, Steele Street. Jason shares his up-to-the-minute tips and information surrounding the dynamics of frequent flyer rewards.

I am a huge fan of Southwest Rapid Rewards and their Companion Pass. This is the only program that offers reward tickets worth even more than revenue tickets… After that, I love American as their award chart still has reasonable prices, such as business class to Europe for 100,000 miles.”

– Jason Steele, Credit Card and Travel Rewards Expert


What are some of the key changes you’ve observed in points and mileage programs lately? Which have the biggest impact – good and bad – on air travelers?
The obvious trend is the move towards revenue based mileage accrual by Delta, and having it quickly being copied, almost word for word, by United. This will work out great for those who fly on expensive walk up fares paid for by their client or company, but pretty poorly for everyone else. This is by design as Delta execs are very clear that they are going after high value business travelers and feel little need to reward leisure travelers and others who may be price-sensitive.

Yet many reward travel enthusiasts are somewhat indifferent to these changes since flying has always been a poor way to accumulate miles. It can take days upon days of air travel to accumulate the tens of thousands of miles you can earn in minutes from a credit card bonus or a good promotion.

The airline industry is consolidating and a-la-carte pricing is masquerading as cheap airfare. How can savvy air travelers – both frequent flyers and typical leisure travelers – effectively gain perks in this environment?
I don’t mind the a-la-cart pricing, so long as the airline is delivering something tangible. Food, drinks, WiFi, checked baggage, extra legroom, and in-flight entertainment are all fair game in my opinion. On the other hand, I find charging for carry-on bags to be obnoxious, and charging for non-upgraded seat assignments to be a pretty nasty way to extort family travelers by forcing them to pay to sit with their own children. To gain perks in this environment, I simply avoid the carriers that play these games and stay loyal to those that don’t. And if your travel is paid by a company or client, perhaps you can bundle these benefits in with a fare that is acceptable and come out ahead.

Do you think Frequent Flyer Rewards programs will eventually do away with the highly sought after advantages for elites, like seat upgrades and free travel?
No, I don’t think so. There are a huge number of people who will happily pay extra (or have their client or employer pay extra), just for the chance to be upgraded to first class. Likewise, the idea of free travel is so alluring that the reward credit card industry is practically based on it. It’s only when these fantasies don’t live up to the reality that a minority start to become disaffected and look elsewhere.

Frankly, I see this loyalty model being adopted by hotels, car rental agencies, and, I predict, even by companies outside the travel industry. Imagine if your grocery store had a priority checkout lane for its best customers, or an electronics manufacturer offered upgrades to its latest gadget to its elite members first. That seems more likely than frequent flier programs going away.

Do you see the overall value of loyalty program miles and points increasing or decreasing? Is it worth saving your miles or spend them because of potential devaluation?
While the absolute value of a point or miles continues to erode with devaluation, I see the relative value remaining stable. That is to say that you will always need more points or miles next year than you will this year, but there seem to always be new ways to earn those miles in greater quantities. And when you throw in the increased quality of premium airlines seats, the effect is largely a wash. For example, ten years ago, you might have to fly international first class to enjoy a flat bed seat, but now a similar seat is offered in business class. And back then, you earned just one mile per dollar spent on your credit card, but now, you might earn 2x, 3x, or even 5x. So I do warn people not to sit on large mileage balances for years, but I am not worried that the age of award travel is ending.

How do you see alliances, such as Oneworld and Star Alliance, affecting the value of miles? Do you prefer one over the other?
These alliances do amazing things for the value of your miles, as you can utilize them on so many different partners, not just the carrier you earned them with. And the real value is for people who know enough to search Expertflyer for the awards that aren’t visible on the carrier’s web site.

That said, each has its own personality. Star Alliance has a strong presence in Europe and Africa, but is very weak in South America, China, and Australia. OneWorld is pretty weak in Europe, especially when you are trying to avoid fuel surcharges imposed by BA and Iberia. Skyteam is like a dysfunctional extended family that bickers all the time, but the pretty much own China.

Which credit card offers the most generous points or other travel benefits to customers?
As a credit card expert, I get this question a lot, and I won’t surprise anyone by saying Starwood. I once counted all of the airlines you could book awards with, including the Starwood transfer partners, and each of those airline’s partners, and came up with nearly 200! The Chase Ink cards are also a favorite of mine. Their transfer partners are not as numerous, but you just can’t beat earning 5x at office supply stores and on telecommunications services.

Which airlines offer the best rewards programs right now?
I am a huge fan of Southwest Rapid Rewards and their Companion Pass. This is the only program that offers reward tickets worth even more than revenue tickets, because they are fully refundable with no change fees. So when schedule changes, as it does frequently, and I don’t stress out about it. Meanwhile, my wife and I both have a Companion Pass, so our two kids travel for free.

After that, I love American as their award chart still has reasonable prices, such as business class to Europe for 100,000 miles. Their domestic award space can be amazing, while their partners usually can do the job internationally. Finally, they have no change fees for their awards, so long as the origin and destination remain the same, so you can book now and always try to find a better option later.

Do you recommend any tools or apps to help travelers manage their points/miles to their best advantage?
Like many, I use Award Wallet to keep track of my accounts. When researching an award booking, I often start with the Wikipedia page for the airports in the cities I am visiting, so I can learn which airlines fly which routes. I often use Great Circle Mapper, especially when booking awards on distance based programs. Finally, I always consult Seat Guru before choosing a seat assignment.

What loyalty program trends are you seeing take shape now and how will they affect business travelers and frequent flyers moving forward?
I am not seeing any company move towards greater simplicity, only complexity. For example, Delta’s new program seems to rival the Federal tax code, and even Southwest’s program is much more complicated than it used to be. Like the early days of personal computers, points and miles are becoming something that only serious hobbyists enjoy, while others become frustrated and give up. On the other hand, such complexity increases the demand for what I do, which is to try to help people make sense of these programs.

The Airport Economist on India

Last week, Tim Harcourt, also known as The Airport Economist, dispelled myths about the difficulties of doing business in China. In this week’s installment, he covers his experiences doing business in India, which are also featured in his new book, Trading Places: The Airport Economist’s Guide to International Business .

doing business in indiaOffering tips on the countries that have become his backyard, Harcourt says when considering opportunities in India its best to leave any cultural baggage at home.

“India is much more than the 3 C’s – cricket, curry and commonwealth,” says Harcourt.

He adds that business people must be mindful that 50% of the population is under 25.

“So education, sports and fashion are very popular,” he advises, but cautions that solely relying on the national obsession with cricket can be a mistake. “Cricket is a good icebreaker but it won’t do the entire job for you,” says Harcourt.

He says that countries like Australia have successfully used cricket superstars, like Shane Warne, to open doors, but after that the relationship must be based on the usual business diligence.

A bonus in India as compared to other countries in Asia, is the large, and free, English media.

“The large English press opens many opportunities to run a good public relations campaign,” he says.

Harcourt also advises that businesspeople wanting to enter the Indian market would do well to ask their country’s representatives in India for help navigating the notorious red tape.

“It’s a relationship driven country rather than translational so business takes time. As my Indian colleagues say: ‘It’s a good wicket, but before you can make runs you must carefully prepare the pitch.’”

 

 

The perceived challenges of doing business in China

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

tim harcourt

The latest book from The Airport Economist, Tim Harcourt, shares the lessons he has learned travelling through Asia as an adviser to governments and trade missions, but has its beginnings in lessons he learned as a student at The University of Adelaide in South Australia.

Harcourt says, many of the students he lived with were from Singapore and Malaysia. They were very smart at math and econometrics and helped him get good grades.

A prized scholar at Adelaide, then Minnesota and Harvard University, Harcourt credits those friends for enlightening his interest in Asia.

These early lessons helped him realize that doing business in China is not as scary as commonly thought.

“Don’t be put off by the horror stories of non-payment in China,” he says. “You are more likely to lose your pants in the United States than your shirt in China.”

He also warns not to overplay the cultural issues.

“Even if you don’t speak Chinese it doesn’t mean you won’t be good. You just need to have a good niche, product,” Harcourt says. “But be realistic. Just because it’s China, you’re not going to suddenly sell 1.3 billion pairs of socks.”

Harcourts advises looking to second and third tier cities, which still have populations of around 15 million people.

“They are growing fast with plenty of urbanisation. Think construction, landscape gardening, education…” he says, adding that to land big contracts in secondary cities it’s best to seek the help of your country’s trade representatives to pave the way through municipal bureaucracy.

Harcourt’s final piece of advice is that to succeed overseas you can’t rely on luck.

“There is no trick to finding opportunities,” he says. “Be well prepared, flexible and do your homework. Don’t be afraid to ask for government help too.”

Preparation is key he says but adds that being flexible is also important. “Try not to overcook your strategic plan,” he says. “Innovation often comes from random thought. Over-thinking can hinder action. Get out there, try things and do it!”

With a good story, and country specific practical tips Harcourt says that Trading Places will help businesspeople wanting to take the next step in international business get started.

“I hope people reading it will become more knowledgeable about the world and more confident about going offshore. They may even have a laugh at the same time!”

Tim Harcourt’s new book, Trading Places: The Airport Economist’s Guide to International Business hits the shelves on 1 Oct. Come back next week for part two with Tim where we get the inside track on doing business in India.

How The Hotel Industry is Adapting to Meet Today’s Modern Business Traveler

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

businesswoman running with luggageThe face of the modern business traveler has changed. For one, it is increasingly female – women are the fastest-growing segment among business travelers in the U.S., accounting for nearly half of the market. It is also getting younger – Millennials currently make up an upwards of 35% of the workforce and are expected to soon surpass Boomers in overall travel spending. It is also more often seen working in the lobby and public spaces rather than tucked away in a guest room. Hotels, among other travel industry companies like booking sites and DMOs, are being forced to look at their branding, business models and communications methods to meet the needs of this modern business traveler.

The business travelers of today – especially the ever expanding Millennial market – are looking for flexible work spaces with high-speed and complimentary Wi-Fi, where they have the option to work and network, enjoy a good meal, cocktail or cup of coffee and be as social as they choose. They aren’t looking for cookie cutter experiences, but to discover something new, different or unique with each hotel stay – from the design to culinary offerings or craft beer and cocktail selections at the bar.

Hospitality brands like Sonesta, a global collection of 55 properties in eight countries, have taken notice, and aim to deliver a guest experience that is different, and flexible to meet each guest’s needs – from business to leisure travelers.

According to Mark Sherwin, Executive Vice President Operations for Sonesta, the brand is “passionate about offering guests a sense of place, not just a place to stay.” Sherwin says there is “no typical Sonesta, but a portfolio full of diverse and distinctive properties as individual as its guests.”

A bold and independent-minded aesthetic is woven throughout the hotel’s guest experience, from lobbies and dining experiences to rooms – all also conveniently fitted with complimentary Wi-Fi for guests. Bright, vibrant tones are being carefully selected in design updates to brighten the mood, provide light and airy spaces and inspire creativity during each stay.

Read this CNN post for another perspective on the Makings of a Modern Business Traveler.

 

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