Getting the Most out of Airline Miles Programs

How do you travel not just economically, but also get something back for your travel? Miles programs can be a maze to the uninitiated, but they’re superb loyalty marketing tools that can make travel more fun an exciting.

It’s always travel season for MadPipe. I just got back from Los Angeles, and am now targeting Portland, Maine. I recently had a chance to share the following information about using miles, buying fares, choosing aircraft metal & crews, and when/how to book for deals. Even if you’re an experienced traveler, you might find something useful in this digital strategy.

Know the Airline Miles Economy

Miles aren’t dollars – don’t fall for that. They’re more like rupees. A normal domestic flight is 25-30K miles per person, round trip – half of that one way. A normal international is 60-65K/person round trip. Over that (35-65K domestic, 75-120K international) and you’re into premium fares for more desirable (possibly crowded) travel times, and may want to scan for better dates/times.

Don’t Buy Low Dollar Tickets with Miles

On any ticket in the $300 price range, use of miles is probably a waste; just buy it with a miles card (like a Delta Gold Amex) and EARN miles. Especially if it’s directly from an airline website, use that airline’s credit card if you possess one (Delta for Delta, AA for AA, etc). That’s because you usually get double or triple miles earnings and extra travel insurance, a couple of free bags, earlier boarding, and even sometimes guest benefits. When you’re in the $450+ range, spending miles *might* make sense, if you’re not trying to save them for international trips, and if fares aren’t typically cheaper on different weeks/days of the week. Sometimes just going for different dates brings the fare down or up radically. A $900 fare can be $298 fare on a different week/month or different fly/return days.

Let the Market Alert You As Prices Shift

I use airfarewatchdog.com to sign up for cities I want to hit and alert me by e-mail when fares start getting good. I can get an initial fare deal for $450 that I watch drop to $399, then $340, then $298, then $257, if I’m willing to gamble by waiting until I think the fare bottoms out. Then, if the deal expires before I can act, I can still then hit all direct airline websites I earn miles from (AA, United, Delta) for the same travel dates, knowing there are likely to be fewer tickets left, so I have to act quickly, and a less desirable choice of seats (might have to have a middle to go with that aisle), instead of an aisle and a window, with an empty middle. If I know I want to hit Portland later this year, I can watch price patterns shift by getting those alerts, and then make a purchase and choose a week accordingly when they do.

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Consolidator Sites Aren’t Always the Best Deal

I use sites like Expedia (for domestic) or Kayak (for international) to find good deals from airlines and excellent times to travel, but I don’t stop there. I can often go (if I hurry) right to the airlines’ main websites and get similar or cheaper pricing – even on the exact same flight numbers, and earn more miles buying with my airline card. Using my AA Visa on Expedia gets me a mile for each dollar; using it on AA gets me three miles per dollar. That said, it’s not worth switching over price alone (more on the true value of a mile in a moment). Often I’ll find times on the airline sites for the same price that are less time in the air, or better times of day, or I can stay 100% on the main airline without switching to partners/affiliates they often use when offering bottom dollar fares on consolidator sites. I’d rather ride two back to back AA flights, than an AA and American Eagle metal (under AA umbrella), if I can stay in the same price range. They can be bigger planes with more seat options, but they can also be less harried/hurried crews and slightly fuller service for the same fare class. That said, American Eagle is definitely one of the better affiliates out there.

Go for a Miles Card When Offers are High

It’s not worth it to sign up for a miles card unless you’re getting a 50K or above miles bonus for doing x,y,z in the first 3 months. An exception is if you don’t have much credit, and you think you can qualify for a miles card at 25K or above but not a 50K deal – they are tougher on the bigger awards signups. Don’t guess – you won’t be considered again for a 6mo-1yr with that bank. If you’ve got one 50K card, you’ll likely qualify for another. Another exception is if you won’t be able to make the spending cut to earn the 50K+ miles. If it’s spending $3K in 3months, and you won’t be able to do it, even if you switch most of your utilities and other spending to the card for 3mo, you may be better off going for a card with a lower initial reward and lower spending requirements – e.g. $35K miles for spending $1K in 3mo, or $25K miles for spending $500 in 3mo, etc.

Don’t Let Your Miles Expire

One reason to have a miles card is it’s the easiest way to keep adding miles and not lose what you have. You must earn miles somehow to keep the miles you’ve earned. If you go a year (in most cases) with no earnings on that airline’s miles program, they start deleting your miles. If you want to build up and retain United miles, you can at least go to United.com and buy flowers via their mileage program partners, and probably get 75 miles for a $40 purchase. That’s enough to keep your existing miles alive. Using the card definitely does it. Buy at least $1 every 2-3mo. Buy gum if you have to, but it has to be $1 to earn a mile; 50 cents doesn’t count. When you can purchase airline tickets directly from the airline at roughly the same price as a consolidator site, do that, and use the airline’s card. Get 3x miles that way plus benefits, and really bolster your earnings.

Never Purchase Miles

Don’t buy miles, even when they hit you with discount pricing. It’s a terrible value. A mile is worth about one penny. Yes, you EARN a mile for every DOLLAR you purchase, but you SPEND at a rate of 100 times that when you actually use miles to travel. That means, actually your miles have a 1-cent spending value. So if someone offers you 10,000 miles for $100, you only break even, and that’s a bad investment to tie up your cash. Keep in mind, too, some airlines charge a surcharge on miles flights. Delta, you break my heart. So even if you spend $300 on miles to buy what would be a $300 ticket, it’s going to be cheaper with cash.

Don’t Spend Money in Order to Earn Miles

If you can make a PURCHASE of something you actually want for $100 and earn 100 miles, the 100 miles are essentially free. That’s a good deal. But never buy something just to earn miles – that’s the same as buying miles, while convincing yourself psychologically it’s something else. Buy what you need and want and would buy at said prices anyway without regard for miles, and casually use your miles card to do it. I have a personal miles card I use for groceries, charity, whatever, and a business miles card for things like a sport coat (costume) for use in a video commercial (advertising). Anything can earn miles.

These Days, Everyone Has a Business

The rise of the contingent workforce, and the fundamental change that was happening even before 2007 – most people have multiple income streams – means nearly everyone earns money that isn’t on a W-2. You don’t have to have a business entity (S-corp, etc) to have a business card; you are a business if you earn $1 that isn’t on a w-2; you’re a sole proprietor. The name of the business is your name, or you can make up one, like Lisa Stevens Services or JamPacked. 2 cards = 2 miles bonuses if you can meet the spend requirement.

How to Get the 50K Deals

Of course the 50K offers you have to hunt for, and they only run at certain times per year or get sent to you by postal mail (don’t turn off all offers if your bank, credit card providers, or airline preferences). If you’re an existing bank user, card holder with a bank, or heavy user of a particular airline, you’re likely to get a 50K offer if your haven’t blocked junk mail at the post office. You can always find a $25-35K deal any time of year. If you’re not getting the mail offers, or don’t want to wait, troll airline miles discussion boards like FlyerTalk, where they routinely post announcements of new miles offers. Yes, we’ve all heard Star Rewards is the best card ever, but the best deal is one you’ll actually use, and you can only really use so many cards unless you churn and burn.

Don’t Churn and Burn

Churning and burning is a practice of exploiting offers repeatedly that you can explore elsewhere, if you want, but I just don’t have the time for it. If I have to spend 30 hours focused on exploiting the airlines for enough free miles for an international trip, versus drop $1000 cash on it, I’m saying my time is only worth $33/hour. I can’t afford that, and it’s not where I want to put mental energy. The one thing you can never buy back in life is time. You either come from a context of abundance or of lack. I witness a lot of people invested in lack – they’ll spend an entire day bargain shopping for what amounts to $100 worth of discounts and savings. They have no budget for redeeming time – they wouldn’t take an Uber to get back an hour rather than stand on the platform for a major train delay. They’ll drive across town and spend that time and headache in traffic to save a few pennies of gas. I get it that when you’re dealing in every last dollar and cent, that $10 might be more than you can swing; I’ve been there; and spending 30 hours on a once in a lifetime trip then becomes potentially worthwhile. I’m saying that, if that’s not where you have to be, don’t act like it’s where you are.

Loyalty Means Pick an Airline or Two

Picking an airline you like or are likely to use a lot helps. The criteria are usually: a) it flies easily and frequently to places you plan to fly, b) you like the airline itself, c) if you have a significant other, it’s nice to share favorites, so you can fly together more often. I have three. United doesn’t wow me on the in-flight experience or tiny seats, but there are more 25K miles flights. Delta, which I have because of a companion, is decent service, but they have really tiny seats and more of their flights are 30K flights – not 25K. AA is slightly bigger seats and good service, but there are fewer flights available for spending miles (more blackout times than the others); still they have $25K flights for the lowest fare class.

Picking an Airline Means Picking a Bank

Out of the airlines mentioned, I favor AA, except their partner bank (Citibank) can’t handle a modern purchase environment the way Amex can. My Visa is routinely denied for ordinary purchases online and even in sight of my residence; they can’t handle the idea that a business – even using a business Visa – often means purchasing gas, food, lodgings, and even office expenses in cities all over the United States, and they can’t handle it – really – that my mailing address, business address, and residence address are in separate states. I have to go through all the embarrassment at the counter, go call it in, and spend ages on the phone, with a non-functioning SMS system, just to get my card unlocked, and only to have it happen again on the next leg of the journey. I would never sign up for a Citibank/AA card again, if I had it to do over. Delta/Amex is a superb deal, and I use it whenever they take American Express but, be aware, Amex is harder to get than Visa/Mastercard if your credit isn’t stellar.

Southwest is an Option

They offer their card at kiosks in various airports, or just the loyalty program signup, or both. People either love or hate Southwest; I’m in the “love it” camp. I think Southwest is a superb way to fly (different topic), and their signup is generous. Their ordinary flights can be pricier when you’re not choosing “wanna get away” or web saver fares, so that can be disappointing. There’s no round-trip, so you price to/from separately; that can be a pain, or it can be great, because you’re not paying a cent more for a preconfigured combination. I don’t have any SW miles built up that I’m committed to keeping, because I don’t fly it enough, but their miles program sounds good. If you fly to Chicago a lot, SW flies into Midway rather than O’Hare, and that’s a much more centrally located airport (to the city) that’s far less time-consuming and crazy at rush hour. I wish American Airlines would either switch banks, let me have an Amex instead, or that I could switch it all over to Southwest (that’s how much I loathe my credit card experience).

Keep Those Corporate Travel Miles

What you use, you’ll use for years, earning miles for European trips, etc. When I was younger, I earned a lot of corporate travel miles (company buys ticket, but passenger rides on his own loyalty program number) and I lost them all, because I didn’t keep adding a few miles every year. I dearly wish I had those back, because I still fly those airlines (American, United, Delta). Hey, I thought we were friends! So picking early, even if you’re not getting a miles credit card, is essential in a career. Hell, rent one car for one day using the airline’s website instead of the rental car company’s site, or book a room, or buy something online, and your miles are preserved. If you think it’s dodgy/iffy or you need to ask about putting in your personal loyalty program number when booking corporate travel – think again, and don’t ask (you’ll look silly). Walmart was famously shamed in the press for being the only major corporate that forced it’s executives to give up their airline miles. It’s unheard of; they’re YOUR miles, so put in YOUR number. If you have to book through a corporate travel site, chances are your company is ALREADY getting some kind of allowance or reward for that, anyway. If it’s a small business (e.g. single owner), that person can’t earn your miles anyway; miles go to the ticketed passenger or just get thrown away and go to no one. And if you’ve flown recently (in the past 6-12mo) and didn’t do this, you can apply to recover those miles just by providing your flight info, which you probably have in an e-mail. The one caveat (besides time), is you usually had to have already been a loyalty member at the time.

Don’t Unnecessarily Multiply Programs

If you’re going to fly a one-off with Alaska Air (elbows in! they don’t warn you when they come rushing up the aisle at race car speeds with that service card – I’ve taken multiple hits), you don’t have to open up an Alaska Air loyalty program membership. If you’re not riding on a lot of Alaska fares, just put in one of your membership numbers from one of their partner airlines, like AA or Delta. 500 miles sitting in an account somewhere, and not growing rapidly, doesn’t do you any good.

Judicious use of airline loyalty programs can be a worthwhile way to more fully integrate travel into one’s life. I’ve made a good amount of my business operation mobile, for this purpose. The main reasons I travel are to feel an expanded context with much more distant borders – I’m a large person mentally, emotionally, and physically – and I simply need a sense of space, and I also want my awareness of the world to be large. Draw a circle and call it the world or the way things are, and I always want to draw a circle around that one, putting the original in one ‘corner’ and say “the world is even bigger”. Travel erases the lines.

If you want this skill set of thinking like a Digital Ecologist® applied to your brand’s marketing or sales, I’d like to see if we’re a fit. Reach out. We don’t need to go into long details about how.

 

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides leadership in marketing, educational programs, and organizational transformation for brands that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, writes a Forbes column, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, and Success Magazine.

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About once/month, Corporate Storyteller and Digital Ecologist® Daniel DiGriz weaves together interesting stories around organizational transformation, education, and marketing.

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