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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.

Boost Your Award-Booking and Upgrade Success With ExpertFlyer

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

ExpertFlyer was recently featured by The Points Guy as a resource to get the award seats you want on your next flight.

The Points Guy“If your plan for finding airline award space involves relying on airline phone agents, people who have a very tough job in my opinion, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As hard as they work, many lack the necessary training on award-booking rules and airline partnerships — and this can put an end to your award itinerary before it begins. Today, I’ll show you how you should use ExpertFlyer to get the award seats you want.”

Read the full post here.

 

 

Weekly Business Flyer Touts Loyalty for Amazing Upgrade Opportunities

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

In this third installment of tips and takeaways from frequent flying executives, we caught up with Andrew Mahaffey, a sales executive with Ingenico Group, a global leader in seamless payment. Catch up here if you’ve missed previous posts in the series.

Andrew flies for business on a weekly basis and holds Diamond Medallion frequent flyer status with Delta Airlines.

andrew mahaffey, ingenicoWhat are your frequent flyer ninja moves for enjoying as many perks via the airlines as possible?

I utilize the Delta American Express Reserve credit card for traveling and expenses which give you great miles and MQM bonuses, Delta Sky Club access along with free checked bags. With the Delta AMEX Reserve card, you also receive a Companion pass each year.

Being a Diamond customer is great because you will get upgraded 9 out of 10 times on domestic flights especially if you are originating from a non-hub airport which is outside of Atlanta, JFK, MSP, Salt Lake City, Detroit, or LAX. Hitting Diamond also gives you the added bonus to choose four gift options in which one offer is “Four Global Upgrades” to the Delta One cabin or partner equivalents if available. My wife and I just booked a round trip flight from ATL – Barcelona for later this Summer. Our flight was $800 per ticket for Economy but we were able to use the Global Upgrades for each ticket round trip to get us into Delta One (with lay flat beds); the cost of that ticket, if you are paying full price, is $4,525 per ticket.

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

Earlier this year my wife and I redeemed SkyMiles to take a trip to Iceland which we were going first class round trip (99,000 miles each). Our original flight itinerary had us leaving ORD to JFK for a two-hour layover then JFK to REK arriving there at 6:45 am. Due to weather that day (and really that week), all flights into and out of JFK were either severely delayed or canceled. The ticketing agent at ORD was able to place us on a British Airways flight to London which had a 4-hour layover then a flight from London to REK where we arrived at 3:30 pm later that afternoon. The catch was that our flight from ORD to London was not in their first class cabin as it was completely full so we ended up flying economy (which was fine but we used more miles for the purchase to fly in first class). That turned out to be more than okay as our experience on British Airways was outstanding. Great customer service! Delta was still able to get us upgraded on our flight to REK from London which was on Icelandair but that flight was only 2.5 hours. Anyway, due to the delay and changing of classes, Delta gave me back 38,500 miles for each ticket along with giving each of us $200 flight vouchers. Delta also gave many passengers that week 20,000 bonus miles if you experienced a delay over 3 hours which we both received too. In the end, we actually ended up obtaining 58,500 miles back per ticket (117,000 total miles) from that overall experience which only put us 8 hours behind our original schedule. We effectively spent 81,000 miles total (original total being 198,000 miles) to go to Iceland all while getting $400 worth of flight vouchers, too.

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

I would recommend staying loyal to an airline and focus on obtaining status as the whole experience of traveling gets much better and easier once you get that status (early boarding, upgrades, sky club, priority customer service call center, etc.).

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.

 

Luxury travel and tips for getting a flight upgrade for little to no cost

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

If you’re a frequent flyer for business or leisure, odds are you’re regularly scheming ways to get an upgrade out of coach.  With airlines monetizing everything down to the last peanut, air travelers need to adopt guerrilla tactics to make their loyalty status payoff with prized business or first class upgrades.

We interviewed TheLuxuryTravelExpert — who prefers to retain his anonymity — to get an update on all things luxury travel related, and learn his proven moves for getting a flight upgrade for little to no cost.

flight upgrade

Tell us about your blog and how you arrived at becoming a luxury travel expert?

I am not part of the travel industry. I am a doctor, and I have been blogging about my travels for years, mainly sharing my stories with families and friends. Three years ago, I felt the need to bring the blog to the next level, and opened it up to everyone, with a focus on luxury travel. I aim to make my blog a reference source for fellow travelers with the same spirit. There is an avalanche of travel websites, reviews and agencies out there, that can inspire the demanding traveler but also cause a lot of frustration and confusion (“too many choices!”“is it worth it?”“will it fit my taste?”). I try to filter all that information into my blog, based on my own 20+ years of experience traveling around the world. I keep the blog as a hobby, and as such, I have to limit my output to three newsletters per week (as my main profession keeps me busy for most of my time):

My Youtube channel is quite popular as well, where I have 80,000+ followers. My clips documenting Business and First Class flights are some of the most watched in this genre. I actually started making flight clips because I suffer from a fear of flying and I wanted to do something to distract myself from the flying process. Someone advised me to make clips and photos, and so I did. It does help to keep my stress within manageable levels, and it’s a bit weird that the clips are so popular, since I now feel the urge to fly even more :). Continue reading →