Dec 222011

I’m going to go off on a new tangent here – this is my first post not specifically as a trip report but a bit of advice from my years of travel.  I’ve been traveling now for roughly 35 years, well before there were airline alliances, before frequent flier miles existed in any meaningful way, etc.  I flew as a standby brat for years, on the whims of empty seats, and once I’d spent years flying in first class for “free” I knew I didn’t want to go back.  The key was elite status – which seemed impossible at first, but in the end, it really wasn’t.

However, I quickly learned, that even when most people amass a large amount of miles – be it from flying, credit card offers, or other means, all too often they spend so many more than they need to to get something.  There’s nothing wrong with it – sometimes you need something very specific.  A given date, a given flight, a given gift for a friend – and you pay what you have to.  But, when you can be even just a little bit flexible…you can really stretch your dollar or frequent flier mile so much farther.

In that vein, I want to offer 5 common mistakes people make when redeeming their miles or points, and perhaps how to avoid them.

1)  Believing the airline.  Believe it or not, your airline has absolutely no interest in getting you the best deal.  Face it, these are for profit companies, and in most cases you are either dealing with a web interface or disinterested customer service representative whose goal is to get you off the phone.  You have to know your options….yes, for double or triple the miles you can usually get any flight you want, but maybe you can be flexible?  Try another airline in the alliance?  (Star Alliance, Skyteam, and OneWorld are huge, and have tons of options.)  Call back, ask them to check partners, move things by a day or two in either direction.  Volunteer for one more connection, etc.  Then decide if paying double or trip miles is worth it – it might be, but make sure you know all your options!

2)  Not realizing the value of miles.  If you find “saver” level seats you can fly in north america for 25,000 miles.  That means DC to New York, but it also means Miami to Alaska.  Miles are the same…but the price certainly isn’t.  When you’re looking at an award, do a little math:  take the price (in cents) and divide it by the number of miles they want for the same ticket.  Why redeem 25,000 miles for a $200 ticket when you could redeem it in the future for a $1,200 ticket?  It just doesn’t make sense.  My general rule is that you should get at minimum 1.5 cents in value from a mile (25,000 miles = $375) but hopefully over 2 cents (25,000 miles = $500).  Just do some math…

3)  A mile is a mile.  This really depends on your travel patterns – if you’re a domestic traveler, it probably doesn’t matter.  US Airways, United, Continental…they’re really not that different.  They all pretty much charge for bags.  Seats are uncomfortable, boarding is a cattle call, etc.  However, if you do travel internationally, it’s a huge difference.  For the same numbers of miles, for example, you can fly to Sydney on Delta, Singapore, Korean, United, etc etc etc.  This is all the more important if you redeem for premium classes.  United might if you’re lucky serve you $15 Champagne in first class.  Singapore?  Krug or Dom at $150 a bottle.  It really depends what you value, but you need to realize especially internationally, that the milage cost of a ticket is often the same but what you get sure isn’t!

4)  The airlines give you all your options.  When you call for an award, 99% of the time you will only be offered what the agent sees on the first screen.  Ask them to scroll down.  Ask them to consider partners.  Ask them to consider multiple connections, and you might be shocked what you get.  I can’t speak to non Star Alliance, but I’ve been shocked when I called United, Continental, and US Airways.  I was once offered Washington National to Charlotte to Chicago to London on United…..a bit of prodding got me Washington Dulles to London nonstop on Virgin Atlantic.  Same price.  Ask ask ask if that’s the best they can do.  Many agents are lazy, pressed for time, or just uninformed.  The more you ask, the more you might get.

5)  All agents are the same.  This, to me, is the biggest.  Just because a phone agent tells you something is your option for using your miles does not mean it’s right.  If you don’t like it…put it on hold if they let you.  Then, call back.  You’ll be amazed the answers you get from other agents.  This relates to number 4 above, but not all agents are as interested, have the same skills, and are willing to go the extra mile.  Always, however, put things on hold if they let you.  THey might be giving you the best option, but if you suspect you can do better…call back!  You might be shocked!

Hopefully this helps some of y’all, and I’d love to hear personal experiences!

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