October 24, 2014

Frequent Flier Kung Fu for Novices

Travel isn’t always sunny and glamorous!

I travel a lot. Keep an eye on the event calendar on my blog and you’ll see me show up in dozens of cities every year. Not everyone is such a frequent flyer, but everyone can benefit from a little bit of travel kung fu! Here are my top recommendations for new travelers to make the most of their time away from home.

Get with the Program

Lots of people feel like they can’t benefit from frequent flyer programs because, frankly, they don’t fly all that frequently. While it’s true that “elite” flyers get most of the benefits, it’s foolish to pass up the miles and points.

Sign up for a frequent flyer account with one airline in each of the three global alliances (see below), and use that number whenever possible. You might also consider signing up with independent airlines like Southwest and Alaska just to make sure your miles don’t go to waste.

What goes on behind the curtain in first class?

Don’t worry about “elite” status at this point. Unless you fly as much as I do, you are not going to get much benefit, and the big “world traveler” perks are more marketing than reality. The useful benefits for “elite” fliers are far more mundane than the “sipping champagne” image implies:

  1. The elite security line is usually somewhat quicker, especially during vacation time
  2. Free checked bags can save you big money on the legacy carriers like United
  3. Many hotel programs offer free Internet access to “preferred guest” program members
  4. Early boarding guarantees you an overhead bin for your carry-on
  5. Elite reservation lines have shorter hold times
  6. Elites occasionally get upgrades to business class or a corner suite
Elite status won’t work miracles, though. I spent an hour listening to hold music on the United 1K line recently, and I’m not sure I see the upgrade in most Hilton Diamond floors. But sometimes I luck out and nab a first-class seat or corner suite!

Pick a Winner

The most important thing for frequent flyers and novices alike is to pick one chain and stick to it. This is the goal of the marketers who created these programs in the first place: They want you to come back as often as possible, and the benefits come to those who play along with their game.

Travelers should pick one airline alliance, hotel chain, and rental car agency and try to use it as much as possible. This will maximize your earnings and dramatically increase the chances that you will get elite status, upgrades, and free stuff.

I recommend picking a large company with diverse offerings to increase the likelihood that you will be able to use them for all your travel.

  • Hotel chain – In the United States, nothing beats the Hilton hotel chain. Hilton is both broad and deep: They have properties almost everywhere at a wide variety of price points (Hampton Inn through Waldorf=Astoria). Whether you are staying in Normal or Chicago, there’s always a Hilton brand hotel somewhere nearby. I’m not trying to be an advertisement (the Hilton program is really nothing to write home about) but you maximize your rewards by focusing on one brand, and this brand beats everyone else in my experience. Marriott is another good choice in the United States, but I found it difficult to find enough Starwood properties.
  • Airline – Airlines are organized into three global “alliances” that share frequent-flier rewards: Star Alliance (United, US Airways, Lufthansa, etc), SkyTeam (Delta, Air France, Alitalia, etc.), and Oneworld (American, BA, etc). Just pick one and try to stick to it. I chose Star Alliance because of United’s Economy Plus seating and reasonable pricing out of Cleveland (before they merged with Continental, that is). If I was to do it over again, I might pick Oneworld and American instead, because they are often slightly less expensive. Another option is to take a domestic airline like Southwest, though you lose access to international destinations.
  • Rental cars – Just about every rental car agency as an office and just about every airport, but pricing varies considerably. I really like National’s “pick whatever car you like” Emerald Aisle program, but they’re sometimes a little more expensive than options like Budget or Dollar. You probably won’t be renting cars as much as you think, anyway, so this decision is much less critical.

Put on My Card

The best way to earn hotel points and airline miles is something you probably already do: Charge things on a credit card. There are scores of credit card offers out there, many with travel points and frequent flyer links. It pays to spend some time considering which one works for your chosen airline alliance or hotel chain.

I use the Hilton Honors American Express card for travel expenses, since it gives hotel points for purchases. These are easier to use than airline miles, and rack up quicker too. I recently switched to their Surpass card, which offers even more points along with a boost in elite status.

Many frequent flyers take advantage of credit card offers to pick up easy airline miles. It’s not uncommon to find a credit card company offering 50,000 miles with the new card, but watch out for the fine print. You usually have to spend a certain amount of money in a short time to reach the big advertised number! Average spenders only get 10,000 to 15,000 miles in some cases. Watch out for fees, too, and make sure to pay your bill on time or you’re not getting any value at all.

Keep It Fresh

Every time you fly, a few more miles will be deposited in your account. You have to keep these “fresh” with new activity once a year or so, or your miles will disappear. But this does not mean you have to fly on every airline every year. There are many other ways to get frequent flyer miles!

Here’s my best trick for frequent flyer programs: Hilton hotels allow you to “double-dip” and earn both hotel points and frequent flyer miles for your stays. Each time you stay at a Hilton property, you can use this to toss a few miles into your “hibernating” frequent flyer programs to keep them active for another year!

You can also sign up for dining programs that give you airline points whenever you pay for a restaurant bill using a registered credit card. This is how I keep my otherwise-dormant Delta account active.

Stephen’s Stance

If you’re careful, even an infrequent flyer can rack up valuable points and maybe even elite status. But don’t do anything foolish, and don’t be fooled by the promises of first-class treatment. Even top-tier frequent flyers sit in coach most of the time!