Frequent Flyers Speak Out
Sunday, May 9th, 2010
Frequent Flyers speak out to Val about the movie “Up in the Air” and how it parallels their real-life experiences.
GREG LINDSAY, WRITER, CONDE’ NAST TRAVELER MAGAZINE
Q: What have you learned about extreme frequent flyers like the character in the movie “Up in the Air”?
GL: Well, first off, I mean, it’s a lifestyle unto itself. You’re really into it. Second, there’s a lot of arcana. There’s really sort of a lot of mileage laundering you can do with it. And third, if you’re sort of an amateur and really want to get into it, I mean, there’s several basic steps, several basic tips you can start with. You know, you should have an airline-branded credit card. You should choose and sort of concentrate on one carrier and choose an alliance and sort of go from there. And it’s very, actually very simple to get awards and then to get elite status, which is really where, you know, if you want the sort of perks that the airlines used to have of, you know, flying in first class, and having sort of priority boarding and what not, the best way to do that is to really sort of accumulate miles and FlyerTalkers are the best there is at doing so.
Q: What is an airline-branded credit card?
GL: For example, many of the major banks, MasterCard, VISA, American Express, all offer credit cards that award you miles, frequent flier miles. I personally have a Delta American Express and a VISA United. And by basically spending money on that, you not only get a certain number of miles for every dollar you spend, but if you hit certain tiers, you get elite points and that basically sort of catapults you up into the ranks of the frequent flier. So, even if you fly just a little bit, a few trips a year, and you spend enough money, you too get to travel like George Clooney in “Up in the Air.”
Q: What’s your experience with frequent fliers like George Clooney’s character?
GL: I don’t know if I’d want to fly all the time for business, but, you know, a lot of them are actually people who like to, love to fly for leisure. And it’s really sort of being tapped into how miles work sort of allows them to live a lifestyle of frequent travel, in the sense of, you know, they go on vacations on a moment’s notice. And they actually have friends all over the world, because part of what FlyerTalk is is an online community. So, it really sort of allows them to really sort of see sights that most of us never get to see because they find a way to fly for almost free and really sort of live this sort of life of not quite escape, but really, you know, they really do live up in the air. They really have this sort of freedom that most of don’t.
Q: Why is the Delta AMEX not a good one?
GL: Oh, actually, no, I think it’s actually a pretty good one. You know, Delta, for example, this year, they’re one of New York’s major hometown carriers. If you’re a frequent flier in New York, you should really think about, I think, between Delta, which has a lot of LaGuardia and JFK, and Continental out of Newark, and then basically from there you can sort of choose alliances. But, in the case of Delta, I mean, they have sort of rollover miles, so I had a lot of extra frequent flier miles, which I got to keep this year as an elite and I’ll probably be able to renew. And I actually think it’s one of the better programs for allowing you to have your perks.
Q: Why is the Starwood AMEX considered the best?
GL: Well, the best one — if you’re not someone who really intends to fly a single airline all the time, I really recommend the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card, because that allows you to translate your points that you earn into any of the major airlines, I think several dozen of them, and you can use it for Starwood hotel stays. So, if you’re not going to sort of commit yourself completely to one airline, it’s really the best way to go to get perks on all of them.
Q: Is it difficult to redeem frequent flier miles?
GL: It’s not difficult per se to redeem them. It’s difficult to redeem them cheaply. And that’s sort of the trick of it. It’s a question of — someone described it to me as an arbitrage game. It’s accumulate miles cheaply and then spend them high. So, finding a way to actually find a really good deal and spend very little miles, relative to what you get out of it, that’s the trick and that’s what FlyerTalkers are best at.
ROBIN DELESKY, FREQUENT FLYER, FLEW 150K MILES LAST YEAR, STATUS ON TWO AIRLINES, PHYSICIAN
RD: I’m a doctor, but part of my travels has to do with going to medical meetings as well as to, I go overseas for a mission that I do in the Philippines. So, I have to say that does rack up a few of the miles and my vacation time is usually spent on trips that require me to be in a plane for quite a bit of time.
Q: Please share your tips for female travelers.
RD: OK, the number-one thing that I always recommend people who ask me about how I get about so efficiently is to use carry-on luggage and don’t check bags. If you can get by on your trip without having to check a bag, you’re in and off of that plane much more quickly than if you check your luggage and have to wait at that baggage carousel. However, sometimes that’s just a mandatory thing. Don’t overpack your bags and try to keep them as light as possible with only the essentials that you’ll need. Most places you’ll be able to go, you can pick up any item that you might have forgotten. To get in and around onto the airplane, those of us who are frequent fliers sometimes will be given boarding priority, which is always beneficial to be able to stash your bag away. Being a lady and not very tall person, I usually will put a bag underneath the seat in front of me that leaves more space for the people around me to be able to use the overhead bags, baggage area.
Q: Do you have a particular bag that you like?
RD: Oh, absolutely, I have a favorite bag. It weighs nothing when it’s empty. I has little wheels. It’s bright blue. Do you want to know the brand name? The brand name is Hayes and it’s a hard-sided bag. And it also has a couple of other pieces that are check-in bags for those trips where I just have to bring extra things.
Q: What other tips do you have for women when they’re getting off the plane and checking into a hotel?
RD: I usually will when I get off of the plane and coordinate all of my items that I carried on with me and, or collected bags from the baggage carousel, then what I usually will do is I pre-researched my options from getting from the airport to my final destination or hotel. And that may be a taxi or a car service, in some cases, are not more expensive than using a taxi; and, in some cases, actually less expensive. They will pick you up and take you directly to wherever it is that you want to go to. Particularly, here in the New York City area, there are a lot of car services that are very user-friendly, easy to find out their telephone numbers and access to them, just a telephone call away, and sometimes, even get a coupon. So, you can get a few dollars off. Other cities do have these services, as well. Sometimes, I’ll use a shuttle service or research that with a hotel that I’m in. When I check into the hotel, I usually will ask for a room not on the ground floor for hotels that have ground-floor rooms. I think that that leaves me, feels more safe. I don’t, I also ask for rooms that are away from elevators and service elevators, simply because I don’t like the noise and the traffic going by the room. Other than that, I really don’t have any special requirements or needs of hotels. But I do often ask for extra towels. And if they have a bathrobe, I will ask for that.
Q: Any advice for accumulating and redeeming frequent flier miles?
RD: Amassing the miles is easier than redeeming them, unfortunately, in some cases. There are, once you establish a pattern of flying with any given airline, establishing elite status will usually allow you to get bonus miles. Bonus miles are great, because they up your redeemable-mile tally. Lots of airlines also have special promotions and bonuses where if you fly on a new route or fly from this city to that city, which might be in your plans, you might get bonus miles or bonus status qualifying miles, which helps you to reach the next level of tier in their program. So, those are the best ways of getting miles to be able to be redeemed. I’m sure a few of the other people who are around will be able to give other tips.
SETH MILLER, AEROPHILE
SM: I love to fly. I love to be in airplanes. I love to be in the air. I love traveling any which way I can, but flying is sort of heaven for me.
Q: What is your vocation?
SM: My travel is based around my job more than the other way. And basically, I fly for fun. All of my trips I was on the road dozens of days last year, over a hundred and eighty thousand miles and it was all for fun. I also work free-lance; IT work on the side that pays the bills, but the flying and travel part is sort of my passion.
Q: What are your top tips for accruing and redeeming frequent flier miles?
SM: The key to both accruing and redeeming miles is to take advantage of the partners. Any one program that you’re stuck with is never going to be perfect. They all have, you know, their nuances and details that are unfriendly, so to speak. But when you can leverage the partners that they offer on the earning side, whether it’s the credit cards or online shopping portals or things like that; on the redemption side, there’s these global alliances, so you may have points with Continental, but you can still redeem with Continental or United or USAir or Lufthansa or Air Canada or 20 other different airlines. And, at the end of the day, even though you’ve only accrued miles in one place, you have the opportunity to take advantage of all these other partners that they have out there and that really opens up a lot of opportunities.
Q: We’re talking about hotels also?
SM: And hotels is similar. There’s, you know, in the same idea of the alliances, there are verticals of hotels. Hilton has eight brands or so. Starwood Preferred Guest has a number of brands associated with it. They all have credit cards associated with them. They all have online shopping. They all have other partner opportunities and you really have the opp-, you can really take advantage of all those partners to both accrue and redeem miles or points and get some phenomenal vacations out of the deal.
Q: What is your card of choice?
SM: Credit-cardwise, I mostly accrue with Membership Rewards from American Express. That gets me a lot of flexibility for airline redemptions that I appreciate.
Q: Talk to me about redeeming miles and how to buy?
SM: Absolutely! When you have all these miles, the key is sort of buy low, sell high kind of game. You can accrue the miles at some cost if there’s something, a redemption for merchandise or things like that; generally speaking, it’s not the best value for your miles. It may, you know, be something that you want and something that you need and you don’t have the cash, it’s not so bad. But if you can redeem it for, you know, a trip to, you know, long-haul travel in a premium cabin that’s sort of where you’re going to get the best bang for your buck. And again, you have to take advantage of the partners that the airline program you’re in offers. If your hotel program, you’re gonna be looking at, you know, redeeming your points for a night in Paris is gonna be much more valuable than redeeming them for a night in Atlanta, generally speaking, so.
Q: What do you think about the different point levels for the same flight?
SM: So, the way that the mileage levels and the redemption levels work is good if you’re stuck looking for a specific date that you have to be on a plane. You may be stuck paying for that sort of top price reward. But if you can find reward seats with partners, often you will, you know, get to use those lower tier prices. So, Delta may only have seats available at their top-tier level, but, let’s say you’re going to Europe, maybe Air France or KLM or Alitalia has a seat available at the lower price and they won’t necessarily show up on the Web site. So, you may have to do some research on those carriers’ Web sites or make a phone call to the airline to find those seats, but trying to find seats on partners, no guarantees, but, there’s, when you’re looking across four or five or 10 different airlines, you got much better chance than just looking at one.
Q: Do you look at George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air” and say, “God, I want to be him”?
SM: I can’t say that I want to be him, but I am in a lot of ways. I fly a lot, maybe not, you know, not necessarily every day, every week, but I’m on the road a lot. And I love it. I really do, you know, appreciate sort of that air world environment. I love being in the airports, being on the airplanes, being in the air. And it’s really a lot of fun for me.
Q: Did the movie accurately depict people like you?
SM: I do think it was accurate. I think that, you know, he’s probably over the top in a couple of ways, but we’re all over the top in a couple of ways, in terms of, sort of, our obsession with these points and trying to find them, trying to earn them, trying to get the, take the most advantage of them we can.
Q: How many miles do you have?
SM: I’ve flown over a million miles in my life. How many I actually have in my pocket right now, probably half a million. I redeemed a half million miles last year across various programs for trips with me and my wife. So, it’s, you know, one of the keys to the program is you earn ‘em and you got to cash ‘em in, because they’re never worth more than they are right now.
Q: You say don’t hoard miles?
SM: Once you get to the point that you can, you know, you’ve got enough for that trip you’re looking for, cash ‘em in. They don’t earn interest sitting in the bank. And the airlines, over time, are going to constantly be changing the redemption values and they don’t go down. So, over time, you really are going to lose value on them. When you get to that point where you can, you know, don’t necessarily cash ‘em in every time you get to 25,000 for a domestic trip, but if you get up to a, you know, hundred, a hundred and five thousand, you know, whatever that business-class ticket to Europe is, it’s time to take that trip. Don’t try to hold on to them and, you know, hold out, just in case you need them later.
RANDY PETERSEN, FOUNDER, FLYERTALK
RP: FlyerTalk is probably where all the mileage-crazy people hang out. And, in terms of social media, everybody has a habit and if your habit is frequent flier miles, you’ll be over on FlyerTalk–about 13 million posts by people trying to collect more miles.
Q: Do you feel like you’ve been vindicated by “Up in the Air”?
RP You know, it really is, because I can come out of the closet now. And the best thing about it is when your wife says, “You know what? If George Clooney can go out and collect 10 million miles, you better get back on the road, Randy.” So, it does vindicate a lot of people and now a lot of people will be able to come out of the close and say, “Now, you know what I really like to collect, it’s OK.”
Q: Is it easier or harder these days to accumulate or redeem miles?
RP: Answer one: It’s easy to accumulate miles. There’s so many ways. Used to be, we just flew to earn miles. Today, the average program probably got 200 different ways to earn miles and some of them are pretty darn easy. In terms of using miles, I think for most people it’s still really difficult. For people that probably learned some tricks and pay attention, it’s probably easier than ever before, because they’ve got more miles and they can, like, for instance, most of the airlines offer one-way awards right now. So, instead of finding no seats available, you can kind of fly out of your way and make it work. So, combination of answers in there, but, you know what, it’s still the love to fly that’ll get anybody to use their miles.
Q: Has the economy affected how miles are awarded?
RP: Yeah, the economy has a big thing. And today, this is probably the toughest thing for frequent fliers, because travel is so cheap now. It’s cheaper to accumulate more miles and you almost don’t want to burn your miles, you want to save your miles for when tickets’ll be $800 instead of $300. So, it’s a tough time. Most people right now are earning miles rather than redeeming miles, because I don’t know if it will be like this again in years to come as I think the economy rebounds again and everything will get more expensive.
Q: Do we have to worry about airlines going bankrupt and losing our miles?
RP: You know, unfortunately, I think you do. In the last two years we’ve seen eight different airlines go out of business. And I’m sorry to report, all the members of those programs lost all their miles. I was really shocked when Aloha Airlines went out of business. I didn’t see it coming. And, you know, while not a big airline, couple million people lost all their awards. So, it can happen, but I think recently with the Delta-Northwest merger, it kind of shows that in the economy people are gonna say, “Let’s just try to be friends and get together as a better airline,” rather than seeing an airline go away.
Q: Share some tips for average fliers just getting into the game?
RP: Google is your friend. You know, the interesting thing is that so much of the tips and information and great advice is found online. So, I use Google myself. You know, bonus miles — United Airlines. And you’re gonna find places where people are talking with tips and the bonuses from the airlines themselves. And the other big thing is that blog. There’s probably a hundred different bloggers I know out there, all writing a unique twist on how to get the most out of your miles. So, honestly, Google’s your best friend.