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Frequent flyer essential concepts – what you need to know

by in Features.

Part Four in the series “How to travel the world in luxury at budget rates using loyalty schemes.”

The ultimate use for your frequent flyer points?

The fourth part in our series on getting the most out of airline frequent flyer scheme covers the essential concepts you need to understand. You may have read the leaflet about a programme and glanced at the redemption chart before coming to the conclusion that you’ll never be able to earn enough points to fly anywhere fun.

Sounds familiar – I mean those award tables make out that you need to fly every other day to get a free trip anyplace exotic…

Then you need this information. Here we go, the 12 golden rules for frequent flyer schemes:

Rule 1: Earn the points on one airline, use them on another

This is perhaps the most important concept you need to understand. There are three main airline alliances: Star Alliance , One World and Skyteam.There may be occasions when there are real bargains to be had by using your points with a partner airline within the alliance, or when the class you want to book is not available with the airline with which you are earning. This would be the case for SAS, who do not have a first class product to the USA (and first class is the holy grail of redemptions) but Lufthansa and United do. In addition your connections will be included in the award – so in my case when flying to Central America the amount of points needed for my trip is the same even though I am starting in Trondheim. Another reason for using a partner airline could be to avoid flying through or from the UK with its expensive (and soon to rise) air passenger duty (APD). If you are planning to redeem points for a first class ticket the APD will be even more extreme as different scales apply depending on the class of ticket.

Rule 2: Earn points through credit card signup bonuses and spending

As I mentioned before there are only limited opportunities in this area for us in Europe. As I understand it the best deals can be had in the UK and Ireland, with a few cards on offer for those resident in Germany and Scandinavia. If you are eligible then don’t hesitate as the introductory bonus is the best way to earn a large chunk of points just for signing up, and if you are disciplined with your spending then use the card whenever possible and pay it off each month – the extra points per pound or Euro spend can quickly add up. British Airways, bmi, SAS and Virgin are just some of the airlines offering cards in Europe which earn you points. I suggest you investigate what you can find in your country and look out for special offers (they are often touted at airports).

Rule 3: Earn points any way you can

There may be other opportunities – for example through grocery store cards, hotel schemes, car rental programmes etc. If you consider airline frequent flyer points to be of most value then make sure you exploit all opportunities to earn them. Make sure you investigate the online mileage malls where you will automatically get points when you spend. They take you to exactly the same website you would reach if you went directly to the retailer – the only difference is you earn points. The following airlines have related shopping portals: Air Canada, American, bmi, Delta, SAS, US Airways, United. I’ll come back to this in a future article and whenever I discover new schemes. You can also often buy miles – this is worth it if you need to top off an account or they are selling for half price during a promotion (US Airways does this all the time).

Rule 4: Stick to one airline as far as possible

If you are already earning EuroBonus points with SAS and are due to fly Lufthansa, don’t bother opening a Miles & More account (Lufthansa’s scheme) to earn their points – you cannot mix points even within Star Alliance so it is better to have 30,000 points in one programme than 15,000 in two. This is perhaps the biggest mistake people make – you should open all those accounts so you can start earning when you fly but once you have points within one alliance programme focus on building those up to a useful total.

Rule 5: Points increase in value exponentially

I don’t get hung up on the actual financial value of points but you can find enough people online who do, and obsess over how many cents each point is worth. But it is true that the intrinsic value changes depending on how many you earn – using 30,000 points for a short-haul award ticket is seldom a great deal as prices can be low – but there are exceptions. Flights to Svalbard way up north in Norway from Oslo are expensive at the best of times and thus a real bargain with points as the route is domestic one. But blowing 60,000 points for a trip to a more exotic destination in the summer when airfares rise is a decent return on your investment. Get your total stash to  100,000 points and a business class ticket across the pond or to Asia can be yours – representing a big change in value. Sure, you probably wouldn’t stump up US$7,000-$10,000 fare for that business class seat with stopovers to Los Angeles but if you’ve got 100,000 points this is exactly the kind of experience you should be dreaming of. Think big, and don’t just think of travel as a way to get someplace. You want a big, comfortable seat (or preferably a lie-flat bed seat or suite) for your journey too so find the best product you can

Rule 6: Plan Ahead and be flexible

To get the most out of your points you should ideally plan ahead. In general the earliest you can book is (for some reason) 331 days before your travel date. It’s a good idea to make plans a year in advance if you can – this is quite easy to do if you are saving your points for a real dream trip (mine would be First Class in the A380 on the longest stretch I could find). This also gives you time to do your research – make sure the flight you want to take actually exists…and don’t be surprised if award seats aren’t shown as available 331 days out – many airlines wait before releasing these seats. The second part of this rule is to be flexible. Have a bunch of dates to check as your first choice may not be available.

Rule 7. Think creatively

Don’t give up just because a direct (or at least straightforward) flight is not available. Keep your options open and consider using different airports and connecting flights (which will be included in the points you need if in the same geographical sector). It may be worth asking for help here – more on this in Rule 7.

Rule 8: Get help if you need it

As in most things in life, there will always be someone who knows a bit more than you do – and may be willing to help you out. Aside from the forums, blogs and websites there are several people/companies who provide a consulting service for a fee – and this may be money well spent. I went straight to the expert – Ben from Points Pros who fixed a route I would never have found myself for US $150 – for me this was the difference between actually being able to take the trip to a friend’s wedding in El Salvador or having to stay at home. I checked what I could myself but do not have the experience Ben has – he was incidentally the reason I became interested in the whole frequent flyer game after reading an interview with him. So for his fee, 125,000 US Airways miles and US$125 in charges to the airline I was able to secure the following route (a perfect example of creative thinking): Trondheim-Frankfurt-Chicago-Houston-San Salvador-Houston-Chicago-Brussels-Oslo-Trondheim. The main flights are in First Class with the remainder in Business – and with a three day stopover in Chicago I am looking forward to the trip of a lifetime in April.

Rule 9: Stay informed about the best deals

There are a number of websites, blogs and forums which provide a huge amount (sometimes a little too much) of information about all the programmes out there. It is worth trawling these sites on a regular basis and in the next part of this series I will be providing links to the best resources for research and news, as well as to sites you can use to check availability – and instructions on how to do so. There are free (but often complex) websites such as Aeroplan.com, Continental.com and ANA.co.jp (which is considered the best for Star Alliance, but also the hardest to use) as well as paid-for services and you’ll get the low-down on these in Part Five. Also register for email notifications about program changes or special offers. Perhaps a new route you’ve been waiting for will suddenly be introduced – you may be one of the first to know.

Rule 10: Don’t believe a word (if that word is “no”)

It’s unlikely that the airline websites or call centre agents will be your best bet when you are ready to redeem your points. They have no reason to be as creative as you and don’t have access to the same information – so when you’ve done your research and found your tickets, don’t be put off if the agent tells you they can’t find availability or the route you want. Be polite and tell them you’ll call back – then do so and cross your fingers that the next one will be more helpful. Booking award travel, especially in business and first class, requires patience.But don’t give up, you’ve earned those points but it may take a little work to use them.

Rule 11: Aim for Elite status, one sunny day

Elite status is the ultimate symbol of your loyalty to an airline and you’ll be treated accordingly. You’ll get better customer service and upgrades, and generally earn bonuses on points earned. Once you get status, other airlines will often match it, allowing you to benefit with them too.

Rule 12: Set your goals and achieve them

Having a specific destination, seat class and trip dates makes it easier not to give up when it feels like it’s taking forever to earn those points. Oh and when you finally make that flight and settle back in first class – I have it on good authority from airline staff that the crew will NOT know that you are flying on points – so don’t expect sub-standard service.

In this post we’ve provided a list of frequent flyer rules you should follow.

In the next article in this series we’ll provide full details of online tools and websites to help you find available seats and plan your trips, as well as stay informed on the latest news and deals.

This is Part Four in the series: “How to travel the world in luxury while paying budget rates using loyalty schemes”.

You can read the introduction here

Part One is here: The basics: What is a frequent flyer scheme and why should I care?

Part Two is here: So which frequent flyer programme should I join?

Part Three is here: Frequent flyer jargon buster – what are they talking about?

We hope you are enjoying this series – if we have missed anything out or you have questions or comments please do let us know in the box below – and make sure you sign up for email updates or subscribe to the RSS feed by using the links on the right so you don’t miss a thing from Grown-up Travel Guide!

Image obtained from Flickr.com under Creative Commons (c) NewbieRunner

 

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