Frequent-flier foolishness

by Charlie Leocha on June 29, 2007

While planning her honeymoon, an acquaintance who flies only occasionally asked for advice about flying from New York to California. I suggested JetBlue, citing the seatback TV, extra legroom and service. She replied that she and her fiance were considering flying United Airlines because they have lots of frequent-flier miles with that airline. Frankly, that’s the wrong reason to fly any airline these days unless all other things are equal.

In this case, the destinations worked in favor of JetBlue, flight times worked in favor of JetBlue, reputation worked in favor of JetBlue, flexibility worked in favor of JetBlue, and connections worked in favor of JetBlue. The only thing United had going for it was frequent-flier miles collected a long time ago but still, unwisely, influencing this couple’s travel planning. I’m still not sure what their final decision will be, but I hope they don’t fly United, which is currently sporting the lowest customer service ranking of all the major airlines.

Frequent-flier miles come in handy for travelers who are truly frequent fliers. They help with upgrades when you are moving between two cities or within the same airline alliance system on a regular basis. But occasional fliers who select flights based on frequent-flier miles may be doing themselves more harm than good.

Here are seven rules for using frequent-flier programs when you are an occasional traveler.

Rule #1. Don’t do goofy things to earn miles. Don’t book connecting flights to add miles and don’t change your work schedule for miles. The program is meant to serve you, not run you around in circles.

Rule #2. Don’t use frequent-flier miles for flights if inexpensive tickets are available. Save your miles for more cost-effective trips or use them to upgrade to first class.

Rule #3. Keep a minimum balance. Last-minute tickets are one of the most valuable ways to use frequent-flier miles; seen this way, your miles constitute a valuable emergency fund. My rule of thumb is to keep enough miles in my account to purchase two unrestricted tickets at the last minute.

Rule #4. Use miles as they accumulate. Once you have your emergency fund, there is no sense in hoarding miles. Remember, program rules can change at any time — and in ways that devalue your “currency.” In fact, the major airlines have already limited the use of frequent-flier miles by imposing expiration dates, in some cases retroactively.

Rule #5. If you have followed Rule #1, your frequent-flier miles are really free. They can now be spent to get flights with “fare breaker” double-mile surcharges and still be of real value — provided the flights go when and where you plan to travel.

Rule #6. Use miles for upgrades. This is one of the biggest bangs for your buck. Elite members normally get the inside track, but if first class seats are available, using your frequent-flier miles to get one is a good idea both for your wallet and for your comfort.

Rule #7. Don’t pay extra for airline frequent-flier credit cards just to get miles. If the annual fee is $75 and your miles-for-travel exchange rate is a penny a mile, you will need to spend $7,500 a year just to break even. If the mile-for-travel exchange rate is less, as is often the case, you may need to spend $10,000 or more before you break even. Besides, these cards often have high interest rates and fees.

In sum, don’t let frequent-flier miles twist your decisions about how to travel. Remember, try to fly on nonstop flights, avoid the worst airlines (they are not changing overnight), use advance check-in and fly early in the day to avoid delays as much as possible.

Frequent flier or occasional flier — these rules are good to follow.

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  • FRANK

    I’m trying to figure out why you suggest using miles for upgrades is a good idea. To me it seems like that is a WASTE of perfectly good miles. The cost of an upgrade is far in excess of the difference in value betweeen coach and first class on any US airline. For example, on US Airways an upgrade costs 15,000 miles EACH WAY, i.e. 30,000 miles roundtrip, which is more than a Mileage Saver award ticket. That means you are spending the equivalent of $300-500 for a couple of drinks and MAYBE a sort of a meal. The first class seats arrive at the destination the same time as the coach seats. I’d much rather use my miles to take additional trips, to visit friends and family, that I otherwise would not take.

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