All posts in One-on-One

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.

One on One with Jeff Erickson, CEO of PEOPLExpress Airlines

This month, ExpertFlyer talks with Jeff Erickson, CEO of PEOPLExpress Airlines. One-time president and CEO of Trans World Airlines (TWA) and Reno Air, Erickson talks to ExpertFlyer about his latest challenge in launching a new discount airline with a familiar name.

 Erickson, CEO PeoplExpres

 “We’re taking a fun, creative and innovative approach to air travel, dispelling the myth that low air fares have to mean low service or an impersonal experience.”

Jeff Erickson, CEO of PEOPLExpress Airlines

It’s been three months since you sold your first ticket to fly with PEOPLExpress (PEX).  How are travelers reacting to the new PEX?

People have been very receptive and supportive of our service from the beginning. We’re taking a fun, creative and innovative approach to air travel, dispelling the myth that low air fares have to mean low service or an impersonal experience. Every week more and more people are embracing our mission to restore the concepts of respect, value and excitement to the air travel experience. We’ve seen terrific support from all eight of our initial markets and we’re getting requests daily from many of our 34,000 Facebook fans requesting us to come to their market because many cities are underserved following airline consolidation or lack direct routes that are convenient for personal and business travel.

How does another new airline hope to compete against all the industry consolidation. What’s PEX’s unique value proposition to customers and how will you turn a profit?

We are taking advantage of industry consolidation, which has led to cities and routes being abandoned and some markets, like our base in Newport News, underutilized. There certainly is room for our niche business model. Our value proposition is to provide a low-cost, a la carte service model that enables customers to create a customized travel product reflecting their individual wishes and budgets. Customers can choose to fly at an ultra-low price with friendly and attentive service but minimal frills or they can opt to purchase extras they want to make their trip more enjoyable, such as priority boarding, pre-assigned seating or an upgrade to a Living Large™ seat with more personal space. While this is common in the industry, our difference is the level of service we provide and can-do attitude from check-in to arrival. It’s service and level of personal attention that makes a difference. People want to be treated with respect and know that they are heard. The team members we’re hiring for all customer contact positions are creative problem-solvers who are empowered to find solutions. That’s the PEOPLExpress difference. In terms of profit, the a la carte model, along with affordable base fares, provides the mix of revenues we need to succeed. Continue reading →

One on One with Alex Herrmann, Director Americas, Switzerland Tourism

This month, ExpertFlyer talks with Alex Herrmann, Director Americas, Switzerland Tourism, the official Swiss National Tourist Office promoting Switzerland as a vacation, travel and convention destination.  Alex shares the best of the best things to do, places to see, as well as how to get around in Switzerland – efficiently and economically.

Alex Herrmann, Switzerland“Switzerland is full of mountain railways, cable cars and gondolas – many of the most spectacular ones built a century ago or longer by tourism and hospitality pioneers. They continue to offer access to the mountains like nowhere else.” 

– Alex Herrmann, Director Americas, Switzerland Tourism

When one thinks of Switzerland, the famous Swiss Alps and skiing come to mind.  What are some of the other lesser known, but equally stunning attractions that Switzerland offers to tourists?

Of course there is amazing skiing in Switzerland, and all kinds of winter sports beyond. Winter tourism started in Switzerland exactly 150 years ago with the British, who already had discovered the Swiss Alps as a destination for their summer vacation.

However, the fact is, more travelers from North America visit Switzerland during the summer half of the year than during the winter. Be it winter or summer, the Swiss Alps are among the main attractions. A convenient and spectacular way to experience the Alps is by traveling on one of the scenic train routes in Switzerland, such as the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express or the Golden Pass. These and other train and train/boat combination trips are between three to seven hours and offer amazing views of mountains, valleys and villages. While the trains cross bridges and tunnels, the passengers can have a leisurely meal or lounge in First Class comfort and enjoy the vistas.

If visitors want a Swiss city experience, what are some options in addition to Zurich?

Geneva and Lausanne, the biggest cities in the French-speaking part of Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva, offer a different experience. An international city and the second headquarters of the United Nations, Geneva also maintains its old town charm and rich history. As the heart of the global watchmaking industry, it’s a paradise for lovers of fine timepieces. Lausanne is the Olympic capital, as the International Olympic Committee is based here, and the Olympic museum just reopened after an extensive renovation. Also, as the city is close to the most famous wine-growing area in Switzerland, the Lavaux – a UNESCO World Heritage site – wine and food are big in this city, with many restaurants and hotels situated along the shores of Lake Geneva.

Why do people want to visit Switzerland?  What is the country’s biggest draw?

The Swiss Alps and the Matterhorn, in particular, plus popular towns and resorts, like Interlaken and Lucerne, are the main reasons why many travelers visit Switzerland.

One of the biggest advantages of Switzerland is the location of the country. In the heart of Europe, it’s very easy to combine Switzerland with a trip to Italy or France.  Also, Switzerland has many direct connections from the U.S. and Canada to Zurich and Geneva, and the flight is less than eight hours.

Recently, many travelers combine a pre- or post-tour in Switzerland with a river cruise, mostly on the Rhine River, which mostly start or end in Basel in the Northwestern corner of Switzerland.

Is there a time of year that is more desirable to visit Switzerland?  Are there unique attractions and events travelers can enjoy in every season? What are some of the most popular?

Perfect times to visit the mountains are late summer and early fall (late August, September, early October), as the crowds are gone and rates are more moderate. For the cities, June is a great time. It’s warm and the days are long, and so is the time leading up to the Holidays, as all cities are decorated, many offer Christmas markets, and shopping is fantastic.

There are festivals in Switzerland throughout the year. Some of the most famous are the Lucerne Festival of classical music, with its main festival including many symphony concerts for a full month in late August/early September, the piano festival in December, and the festival for religious music around Easter.

For the fans of popular music, the Jazz festival in Montreux, on Lake Geneva, is a must. It takes place in July, and features world-renowned pop, jazz and rock musicians and bands. Deep Purple’s song “Smoke on the Water” features the festival prominently.

For fans of film, the Locarno International Film Festival, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the Ticino, takes place in early August. Highlights are the nightly screenings under the starts, up to 7,000 people watch a movie on the historic Piazza Grande of the town.

Switzerland appears to be a great destination for hikers, bikers and mountain climbers.  Where are some of the best trails for beginner to advanced hikers? Same for biking – what are the best trails and tours?

Switzerland is a natural playground for kids and adults alike. Thousands of miles of hiking, cycling and mountain biking trails, well-marked and always connected to the public transportation network – crisscross the country. An excellent place for hikers is Zermatt. This resort offers hikers of all levels not just excellent trails, but also wonderful views of the Matterhorn. Switzerland is full of mountain railways, cable cars and gondolas – many of the most spectacular were built a century ago or longer by tourism and hospitality pioneers. They continue to offer access to the mountains like nowhere else. So, even beginners can hike in high alpine terrain, as a gondola takes them up and a chairlift brings them back down to the valley again.

For bikers, a huge trend in Switzerland is the e-bike. The electric bike, with several different levels of support, which require pedaling, but allow the bikers to go farther and higher, is perfect for a country of mountains and hills. Particularly for groups with various levels of fitness and strength, e-bikes help keep everyone together and going to the same places at roughly the same speed.

How would you describe the Swiss people?  What are some of the culturally significant places and things visitors should experience?

The Swiss are generally a friendly people. While not as outgoing as Americans, once you get to know them a bit, they are warm and have a great sense of humor. Another point of pride among the Swiss is that the hospitality industry was founded in the country – and the legacy of Swiss hospitality continues to attract visitors today.

If timing allows, a visit to a local festival is one of the best ways to get to know the locals – be it carnival in Basel or Lucerne, Sechselaeuten in April in Zurich (celebration of the beginning of spring), festivities for the Swiss National Day on August 1st, countless other summer festivals throughout the country, many harvest festivals in the rural and wine growing areas in the French- and Italian-speaking parts of the country, or the many Christmas markets.

What’s the best and most economical way to get around Switzerland? Car rental, train, bus?

The best way to travel around Switzerland is by its unique public transportation network – the trains, buses, boats, and the transit systems in the cities. All can be enjoyed with one ticket, the Swiss Pass, which includes unlimited travel for four, eight or fifteen days on all the means of transport mentioned. Included is access to over 450 museums throughout the country, and most gondolas, cable cars and mountain railways offer discounts. Every town and village in Switzerland can be accessed by either a train, a postal bus or a boat, and these are all included in the Swiss Pass. The Swiss Pass can be bought in North America through RailEurope by going to www.myswitzerland.com/rail.

Where do you recommend visitors seek accommodations?  What are some options on the luxury side, middle of the road and cheap deals, particularly for college students?

Via our website www.myswitzerland.com, visitors find information on hotels in various categories, e.g. family-friendly hotels, wellness hotels, design and lifestyle hotels etc. For the five-star category, the Swiss Deluxe Hotels offer 38 mostly independently owned and managed hotels throughout the country. For the traveler looking for a three or four-star property, a group called “Typically Swiss Hotels” consists of about 300 independent hotels run by a family or a local host, with typical architecture and the gastronomy of the region. Great options for college students are the Youth Hostels, which offer very good value for reasonable prices. Several recently opened Youth Hostels offer amenities usually expected in higher star establishments, including wellness areas and cutting-edge architecture.

Where do the Swiss like to spend their holidays in Switzerland?

Many Swiss spend their vacation right alongside many international visitors in the most famous resorts, such as Zermatt, Grindelwald, Gstaad or St. Moritz. However, they also like the smaller, lesser-known resorts, oftentimes just in the next valley, such as Saas Fee (near Zermatt), Wengen or Muerren (near Grindelwald), Adelboden or Lenk (near Gstaad), and Maloya or Pontresina (near St.Moritz). Oftentimes the smaller resorts offer more value for families and are less busy during high season.

A very popular area for the Swiss is the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the Ticino. Not just the language is Italian, the palm trees, the Italian-style cuisine and the excellent Merlots and other wines allow visitors to enjoy Switzerland Mediterranean-style.

Switzerland is still the most popular vacation destination for the Swiss, both in the summer and the winter.

What else is there to know about Switzerland and projects that are in the works with the office of Switzerland Tourism?

Switzerland Tourism as the official Swiss National Tourist Office promotes Switzerland as a vacation, travel and conventions destination. In these times of increasing global competition, we are always active in our mission to keep Switzerland at the top of potential travelers’ minds. We’re doing this through campaigns with major travel magazines such as AFAR or National Geographic Traveler, online and social media activities (via our website www.myswitzerland.com), collaboration with TV producers for travel and reality TV shows – Just last month, The Amazing Race visited Switzerland! And some of the models of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition visited Switzerland for the current anniversary edition. Who knew Switzerland could be so tempting.

One-on-One with Steve Lewis, Founder and CEO of AirPooler

This month, ExpertFlyer talks with Steve Lewis, founder and CEO of AirPooler, a platform that lets pilots and travelers easily find one another to share expenses on private flights the pilots would be doing anyway.

Steve Lewis, CEO, AirPooler.com“Our mission is to make general aviation more accessible and affordable.”

– Steve Lewis, CEO of AirPooler

Where does AirPooler fit in to the air travel industry? In terms of price and accessibility, is your service a real option for the regular air traveler?

Private pilots have been ride-sharing since the days of the Wright brothers. AirPooler is just making it much easier to do. In terms of how this fits into the world of aviation, these are small planes (single or double prop) that fly to smaller general aviation airports that are almost never served by commercial airlines. At the same time, weather is a big factor for smaller planes and pilots cancel or change flight plans often. So ride-sharing on small planes is not a substitute for regular air travel. It is a different option that people can use to expand the range of their regional leisure travel.

Who is your typical passenger and how are they using your service most effectively?

AirPooler’s typical passenger is tech savvy, loves to travel and explore but is short on time and careful about how she/he uses it. They’ll use AirPooler to do something, or go somewhere that otherwise wouldn’t have been an option – especially for short durations like weekends.

How do you vet pilots? If experience is the most important contributor to air safety, are pilots screened by hours of flight time?

AirPooler facilitates pilot and passenger ride-sharing and does not itself offer transportation services or in any way become involved in vetting pilots or the airworthiness of airplanes. However, we work closely with well-regarded pilot clubs which have extensive programs and resources devoted to safety and pilot training.

What types of planes are used and how many people can be accommodated per flight?

Most airplanes are piston-driven single or double propeller planes that can seat from 2 to 6 people, including the pilot. In practice, because of weight limitations, most planes fly with less than their full passenger payload.

How much lead time is required to book a flight with AirPooler?

Most pilots decide on their flight plans a maximum of 4-5 days out. Depending on the popularity of the destination, available spots can fill very quickly or remain open. And since these are flights the pilots would be doing anyway, passengers can often find rides to share very close to departure.

AirPooler was launched last year with service in California. What markets are you servicing now and where are you expanding to within the next few years?

Just to clarify: AirPooler launched to the public in California in March of this year, following a multi-month private beta. We’ve received hundreds of inquiries from pilots and prospective passengers around the country who want to know when the service will be available in their home airports. We’re trying to figure this out now.

Do you think AirPooler will reach critical mass, such that major commercial air carriers will feel a pinch from you competitively? How many flights are you facilitation a month now?

As I mentioned, AirPooler pilots fly mainly to smaller airports that are not served commercially so ride-sharing is not really a substitute for flying commercial. As a small private company, we do not disclose overall usage numbers for competitive reasons.

Is the key benefit to pilots using this service filling empty seats? What’s their feedback been?

Yes. The cost of flying has continued to grow with increasing fuel prices, forcing many pilots to cut back dramatically on their flying time. So, defraying some of their costs is a big deal for most pilots. But many pilots also value companionship.

Are you looking at offering any type of frequent flyer rewards program in the future?

Most likely not. Federal regulations prohibit pilots from taking compensation (passengers on AirPooler pay only their pro-rata share of a trip’s costs) and require pilots and passengers to have bona fide independent reasons for making any trip. We would not want to introduce incentives that may interfere with that.

There have been other startups that have launched similar travel options, like BlackJet and SurfAir. How is AirPooler different and better and how will you succeed where they failed?

BlackJet sold discounted seats on chartered jets. Even discounted, the economics of that are incredibly different: at least $4000 an hour for jet travel, vs. $50-100 an hour on light airplanes. So these are totally different audiences. SurfAir is a commercial airline that operates on a membership basis: customers pay a monthly fee and get “all you can fly.” Flights listed on AirPooler are by private pilots, on a non-commercial basis.

One-on-One with Matteo Sarzana, Founder and CEO of Avionerd

This month, ExpertFlyer talks with Matteo Sarzana, Founder and CEO of Avionerd, an interesting and soon-to-be-released travel app that relies – literally – on the kindness of traveling strangers. Sarzana explains how – and why – elite frequent flyers can share their status privileges with the rest of us.

matteo sarzana avionerd“Our goal is to connect frequent flyers with normal flyers and have the frequent flyers share their status privileges with them.”

– Matteo Sarzana, Founder and CEO of Avionerd

Since Avionerd isn’t even available yet, can you give our readers an overview of what this app is designed to do?

Avionerd is a mobile app which will help everyone fly in a better way. Our goal is to connect frequent flyers with average flyers and have the frequent flyers share their status privileges with them.

There’s nothing like it on the market today and we’re sure it’ll be a killer opportunity for both travellers and airline companies.

How exactly does an elite status flyer pass on perks, like Lounge Access, Priority Checkin, Priority Boarding & Upgrade to a stranger booked on the same flight?

The baseline is that the app connects people on the same flight to share frequent flyer privileges.

Once you attain frequent flyer status, you’re allowed to share your privileges with another companion or your family. Avionerd is putting this under-utilized opportunity to more use by linking a frequent flyer solo traveler with a non-frequent flyer to let him or her experience the perks.

The app will let you know, with a push notification, of the possibility to get in touch with the frequent flyer and connect to organize the meeting or the other way around. We like to call this “sharing economy for the airline industry.”

The mechanism is pretty straightforward. Users sign up and create a profile inserting their frequent flyer information, if they have it, or they can skip this step. They then input their flight information and if on one of the flights there’s someone willing to share their privileges and someone without them, the users will be connected.

After the flight, they will be prompted to share their feedback and points are awarded based on the actions and privileges shared. Users will also be able to see their friends’ activities and search for flights with the most people willing to share their privileges.

Have you piloted or test marketed the app?  What makes you think that frequent flyers will be open to sharing their privileges with complete strangers?  What’s in it for them?

After a lot of research, we know there are no competitors at the moment. The closest thing is the Flight Connect page at FlyerTalk where people post their flight schedule to try to connect.

Market research also tells us that frequent flyers spend an average 18 percent more when buying tickets to stay with one airline for the frequent flyer miles and privileges. Proving to airlines that Avionerd is a marketing tool for them when normal flyers experience frequent flyer perks will be the key success factor to involve them in the project.

There are three main reasons we think frequent flyers will want to share their privileges:

1- To meet new, interesting people.

2- To be the one getting the privileges when they are not able to fly with the airline they have status with. Sort of a karma situation when a Delta Platinum is forced to fly American Airlines.

3- Be part of a global community, and in the future, be able to get even more airline miles.

How do you think the airlines will react to this? Airlines haven’t always looked kindly on those that try to game the system. Do you expect push-back from them?

I don’t think airlines will push back on Avionerd. We think the airline industry will see our app as a marketing opportunity to educate more consumers about the benefits of becoming frequent flyers.  Turning a typical flyer into a loyal frequent flyer means more money in the long run; our research tells us that frequent flyers spend up to 18% more to fly with the airline they have status with.

Also, every airline frequent flyer program offers companion sharing benefits. If an airline changes this rule, people will switch to a different program. Here are some key reasons we believe the airline industry will be interested in the app:

- Frequent flyers are a minority of the people who fly each year

- Frequent flyers usually spend 18% more than people without a status to keep flying with the airline they have status with

- We believe airlines are not exploiting the opportunity of educating more people about the benefits of being a FF, thus they are not leveraging the marketing opportunity

- Educating more people about the FF privileges could lead more people to sign up for FF awards programs, thus making them high spending people

- If airlines can understand that, they should be happy we are actually doing the work for them.

You also employ a points system for users who offer feedback based on their experience.  How are points earned and what rewards do flyers gain them for?

For each action performed by users, such as priority boarding, lounge access or upgrade, there will be a score awarded to them. In the beginning, points will be aggregated in a global ranking. We’re working with partners to give users the chance to convert their aviopoints into airline miles.

How soon can travelers expect to find Avionerd available for iOS and Android mobile platforms?

We are planning to submit the app to apple for approval by end of April. If successful, we’ll start working on the Android version.