Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reviewing Our Frequent Flyer Reward Programs, Travel Patterns, and Goals for 2009

As much as we complain about the decline in the value of frequent flyer miles, we have to admit they’ve worked for us. Over the last five years, just about half of our airline tickets have been obtained with frequent flyer miles. A few have been from credit card spending on “fake miles” credit cards (such as Capital One, Amex FreedomPass, or Merrill+). A few more were obtained from points in hotel programs (especially Hilton HHonors, back when you could redeem points directly for airline tickets, rather than just transferring to/from an airline program). Other tickets have been obtained directly with miles in an airline’s program (mostly United or Alaska, even if we used those miles with other airlines, such as Alaska’s partnership with American). Nonetheless, more of those miles were probably obtained from credit card sign-up bonuses and spending than by flying.

In addition, we’ve obtained about half our hotel stays over the past few years for free by using points for rooms (again, mostly Hilton points obtained from credit card spending).

We’ve been whittling down the balances in our frequent flyer accounts. Currently, we each have about 30,000 miles with Alaska; Ken has roughly 60,000 with United, 25,000 with Delta, and 30,000 with USAir (we wiped out Francesca’s United miles on our last international trip); we have a bit more than 160,000 Hilton points; plus there are some miles scattered around other airline programs.

So despite our skepticism, we still have to say that the game works. Consider getting those airline credit cards to obtain the initial bonus miles. Work the system for points with other credit cards or other points programs such as hotels. Make every purchase count – assuming you pay your card(s) in full every month, use a credit card for every purchase and either get cash back or miles/points of some sort for every dollar you spend. Work the angles for sign-up bonuses, contests, surveys, and the like – for example, every one of our combined 28,000 bmi miles have been obtained that way.

Our miles/points goals for 2009 are pretty modest: 1) bump up the Delta miles significantly, to get to the next award/upgrade level, 2) use up those USAir miles that we think of as just “sitting around,” 3) concentrate on using cash-back credit cards as much as possible, yet, 4) no matter what, continue to take advantage of every opportunity for free miles, even if we’re skeptical of their value.

As for related goals, we vow to only use 0% foreign-exchange-fee credit cards overseas (Capital One and Schwab are our current favorites); to never pay an ATM fee again (possible with several banks, especially Bank of Internet and Schwab); hopefully never fly less than Premium Economy again; and finally, for foreign travel, try to fly a “good” domestic carrier (JetBlue, Virgin America) to a U.S. gateway city, and then fly a real airline (an international carrier) overseas.

As for specific travel plans, we’ve moved to a space in our lives where we are “non-planning” more vacations, and being more spontaneous. We have our list of desired destinations, and the general timeframes when we can travel. Then, we’re going to wait for airfare deals, specials, and other offers much closer to our actual travels. For example, just in the past month we saw several incredible airfare deals to New Zealand, Scandinavia, France, and Asia. If we had been “ready” to take advantage of those offers, we could have jumped on a good deal. In general, we’ll have a few destinations in mind where we’ll be ready to pull the trigger in a 30-day window. This also makes sense with the myriad schedule changes the airlines are making nowadays. A recent trip that we planned several months in advance had more than half-a-dozen flight changes (we stopped counting) before our departure.

We’ll be traveling from Jan 1-10, and do not plan any posting or moderating comments during that time. We thank all our site visitors during 2008, who came from 88 countries this year (see map below). See you all next year.