Thursday, December 19, 2013

some frequent-flier basics (part six: a real-world example!)

It's December and I've been invited to a friend's birthday in Europe late June of next year. Because I'm always trying to live my "earn and burn" mantra, I'd like to spend some of the 200,000 British Airways "Avios" miles I've got in my account. (I'm not-so-secretly hoping I can find a seat in First or Business Class!)

He doesn't know yet where he's having the party, but I have old friends in London I want to see and I'll take a cheap no-frills airline flight to Barcelona or Lisbon or wherever the party ends up being. Flights to Europe in summer are pretty hard to snag reward seats for, so I'd really like to book the transatlantic part as soon as possible.
  1. I dutifully checked Wikipedia (like I mentioned in Part 2) and found out that my local area (New York City) has two airports with direct flights to London. London has 3 major airports I could potentially fly home from. 
  2. I hopped on to Kayak to see what it would cost to fly there in Business Class, making sure that I chose "NYC" and "LON" as my cities (rather than "JFK" and "LHR") so my search results would show flights from ALL the airports in those cities.  Right now it's looking like $3869 per person ($2700 fare + $1169 in fuel surcharges and taxes!!)
  3. I logged in to my British Airways account to search for flights on my desired dates.
  4. The results tab shows that I have quite a few options including a few in Business and First. (NYC-London is very heavily traveled route, so the availability is quite good). BA also shows flights with their partners (e.g., American Airlines).

    TIP: If you're having trouble finding a ticket, use the 'View Calendar of BA availability' button to quickly see the whole month at once and save yourself a ton of clicking.
  5. Looking over the various departure times I remember that it's a lot better to sleep on an overnight flight to Europe, so I look for something leaving in the evening and landing in the morning.
    BA availability chart

  6. Once I've clicked my desired flights the price appears: 80,000 points plus $1169 in fuel and taxes (the same as when I priced it out on Kayak).
    Total cost of trip displays below.

  7. Doing my math is see that my 80,000 miles will save me $2700 (since I'll have to pay $1169 fuel+tax no matter how I buy the ticket). So $2700 ÷ 80,000 = $0.034 (3.4¢ a mile). Since we know that anything above 2¢ is a good redemption, I'm happy. But as I mentioned before, it's very difficult to get above 2¢ flying in Economy so don't hold your breath waiting to find it.

    TIP: while doing this math is helpful to see if you're making good use of your miles, it's important to do a reality check here — if you would NEVER pay $3869 to take that flight, these miles aren't really saving you that much money. Your miles might be better spent buying 2 (or 3 or 4) economy tickets instead of one glamorous one. Only you can decide what the right "math" is for your situation.
  8. Once I've found my seats I move on to booking. British Airways is annoying in that they charge everyone except their top elites a fee to pick your own seat on the plane. I usually visit seat guru and plug in my flight numbers to see if their expansive seat map inventory shows a particularly good (or bad) seat and then decide from there. 
  9. Bust out the credit card to pay the fees (which are higher than any other airline's) and I'm all done :)

other resources

<< back to part 5

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

NEWS: Delta pulling out premium seats on international routes and replacing them with Economy

Delta is set to make record profits this year, but that's not necessarily good news for you if you like flying in premium seats for a good deal. Delta frequent flyer miles are generally regarded as the worst in the industry because reward seats are difficult to find and when you do find them, they require a huge number of miles – hence their unofficial nickname of Delta SkyPesos. 

Now that they're finding routes with the lowest number of paid premium seats and replacing them with economy, reward seats are going to be even harder to come by.

I've actually flown Delta by choice a couple of times because their domestic first class is identical to everyone else's yet it's priced 30% cheaper. Also, they had fleet-wide wi-fi long before United.

Until United finishes retrofitting their fleet, Delta is still a good choice when flying domestically on short-haul routes where you don't care much about miles or when you're paying for first class out of your own pocket. 

more info here

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

NEWS: United is going to stop displaying award space for their partner Singapore Airlines

One of the great thing about airline alliances is that you can use your points from one airline on any of the partners. When you're on searching for a mileage redemption reward between New York and Frankfurt, for example, you see results for United-operated flights as well as flights from Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. You're free to book whichever one suits your needs and interest. 

Unfortunately, United has decided they're going to start hiding the results from Singapore Airlines from the search results. The flights are still available, but you're going to have to call United and pay the $25 "talk to an agent" fee in order to redeem your miles for one of those flights. 

When a United mileage member flies on Singapore (or any partner airline), United has to pay cash to the partner airline for transporting you. When that same person flies on United, there's no payments to be made. You'd think that these partner agreements would all end up balancing each other out in the end, but apparently United doesn't think so with regards to Singapore. 

No doubt about it, this is irritating. 

(Also Note that also doesn't show award space for their partner LOT Polish airlines, either).

more info on flyertalk

Singapore Air A380 on the JFK-Frankfurt route

Monday, December 16, 2013

NEWS: British Airways now adds "travel companions" to their Household Accounts

While I've mentioned that very few America airlines have the concept of family accounts, several international ones do. British Airways have offered a family plan option on their Avios points plan for some time now, but the big downer was that with a family mileage plan you could only redeem tickets for people in your family. 

They've just updated the plan now, so your "family" can use its points to buy tickets for up to 5 "travel companions". Perfect for nannies, cabana boys, or that work bestie that you're taking to Mexico for her "dirty thirty" celebration!

Take your family AND your friends with you on BA award flights now!

more info on

Sunday, December 15, 2013

NEWS: Norweigan airlines launching Boeing 787 service to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Orlando

Norweigan Airlines is beginning service to LAX, Oakland, and Orlando airports starting in March of 2014 as they take delivery of new 787 aircraft from Boeing. This could be a great way to get an inexpensive fare into Europe and then take one of the smaller, low-cost European carriers on to other points on the continent. 

I'm a big fan of the 787 for several reasons
  • the interior air pressure and humidity is higher than most airplanes so you don't get as dried out and stuffy-nosed as you do on normal planes
  • the ceiling heights and layout of the overhead bins means you have much more headroom no matter what you're doing
  • the plane was designed to be much quieter in the cabin, so you have less stress from the sound of the engine droning for hours on end
  • the windows are 30% larger and have an electronic tinting feature so it's easier to see outside if you want to
  • since they're brand-new, you can be assured that the planes will have the most modern amenities on board
  • the economics of the plane mean more direct flights between smaller markets. 
787 headroom – and Mr. Z is 2m tall (6'5")!

press release here

Saturday, December 14, 2013

NEWS: Southwest Airlines offering $2 iMessage-only wi-fi

I love in-flight wi-fi. But there are times when it's just not worth it to me — maybe my workload is light, or maybe i have a good book. Southwest Airlines is now rolling out a super-cheap wi-fi option where you can use Apple iMessage onboard for $2 (versus the normal $8 you'd pay for full wi-fi). 


Friday, December 13, 2013

Why I like EMV chip cards

Whenever we travel to Europe, there's always a few instances of what we call "card roulette" — where you're standing at a machine (like, say, a Paris Metro machine that doesn't take cash or coins) and you just start jamming different cards into the machine hoping one of them will work.

While many restaurants and shops have swipe readers, there are an inconvenient number of places where you're going nowhere fast without a chip card.

I got a British Airways visa card a couple of years ago primarily because it was the only major US card that had the chip, but that's slowly changing over time. Their card is 'chip and signature' (meaning that you still have to sign a piece of paper for the transaction) whereas most European cards are Chip and Pin (meaning that you have to enter a PIN code to complete the transaction.)

On our most recent trip, the Paris regional machines (pic) refused my BA card (as well as all my swipe cards), yet the Metro machines (pic) worked just fine. I don't think any one card is a silver bullet for the card roulette problem, but I feel like its a much better better item in my arsenal when dealing with fussy foreign card readers.

UPDATE: Barclays now offers a USA credit card with Chip+PIN functionality. 

My Chip + Signature Chase Sapphire Preferred Arrived!

In November, Chase started offering a free replacement card with EMV chip and signature technology for Sapphire Preferred cardholders in the US. Just call the number on the back of your card and they'll express you a new card along with a mailer to return the old card in (metal doesn't shred very well!)

If you don't have a Chase Sapphire yet, please consider using my affiliate link to sign up for one. 50,000 bonus points after you meet the minimum spend, and I get a 10,000 mile referral bonus! I've had one for several years now and the two biggies for me are the double miles on dining and travel, plus it can transfer points to a bunch of places that my Amex can't: United Airlines, Korean Air, Southwest and Amtrak. Our 2015 First Class trip to Asia happened largely because of this card. 

UPDATE: Barclays now offers a USA credit card with Chip+PIN functionality!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

some frequent-flier basics (part five: what are your miles worth?)

In the greater frequent flier community there's much debate about what a mile is worth but generally speaking they're worth something around 2¢ depending on which airline they're from. 

When you're pricing out a potential flight you can quickly tell how much your redemption is worth by dividing the number of dollars it would cost to buy the ticket by the miles needed (this is another great reason to look for the flight on before starting an award search). 

Let's say your flight was pricing out at $400 and you look on and find a Saver redemption for 12,500 miles each way (for a total of 25,000). Now just do the math:
     $400 ÷ 25,000 = $0.016

So 1.6¢ per mile is a decent redemption rate because you're generally in the ballpark of 2¢. Many frequent fliers aim for 6¢ per mile or more, but the only way you'll ever see a redemption rate that high is if you're booking international business or first class. Domestic economy it's quite difficult to get above 3¢. (Although I recently managed a domestic 9.4¢ redemption!)

On the opposite end of the spectrum  I've seen $159 flights on Kayak that would have cost 25,000 miles to redeem (i.e., $0.006 — six-tenths of one cent!!) so it's possible to really over-pay for flights if you don't do a tiny bit of math first. Even if you eventually decide you have to buy at that price, you should make sure that you're making an informed decision. Put another way: be sure you're ready to trade in two later trips for this one if you're going to cash in miles at such a low valuation. 

It's important to do a reality check when calculating these values — if you would NEVER pay $13,000 to take a First Class flight on an exotic foreign airline, then these miles aren't really saving you $13,000. Some folks advocate pricing your miles against the flight you would have actually purchased had you had no miles. But our flights on British Airways and Korean Air First Class were experiences way more memorable and fun than the (likely) Premium Economy seat we would would have gotten if we'd been paying cash, so I think the true valuation of these First Class flights lies somewhere in between. 

The whole system is designed in such a way to make it difficult for you to know what you're earning when you fly and what you're paying when you redeem. It also bears similarities to chips at a Vegas gambling table – once your visceral connection to physical dollars is cut, you're more easily tricked into spending them unwisely.

I'll go more into this later, but if you have an airline mileage credit card, you're essentially paying 1¢ per mile to earn those miles (because with an airline card you're foregoing 1¢ on every dollar spent compared to a 1% cash back type of credit card...). So you probably shouldn't give the miles back to the airline for less than you paid for them. 

The same logic goes when the airline offers to let you buy points (sometimes offered on paid flights as an "award accelerator"), they're almost always priced well above 2¢ each, so it only makes sense to buy them if you're just a few thousand points short of the mileage needed for a specific flight.

Armed with this information and a calculator, you should be able to figure out if you're getting a good deal for your miles or not. The Points Guy also has a great chart where he tracks his own estimates of what each company's points are worth. 

Part 6: a real-world example ➡️
   < back to part 4

some frequent-flier basics (part four: searching for redemption)

So now that you know route and the current going rate if you pay for the flight, it's time to log in to the airline's website and start looking at availability and mileage costs. Make sure you have all of the necessary personal information handy: all travelers' full names, dates of birth, frequent flier number, passport number and expiration date (for international flights) so if you find a great deal you can grab it before someone else does.

In this example, I'll show Log in with your user name and password, since many of the fees and seat choices will change if you're a member of their program. Select your dates and destinations, make sure to click the Award Travel button, then click Search

Flight availability and pricing is shown for all 3 classes of service – Economy, Business, and First (most domestic flights only have 2 classes whereas international flights tend to have all 3 classes). Direct flights are shown first (both United and Partner flights), followed by flights with stops. If you're lucky, your first choice from your earlier Kayak search is here with Saver availability – just click the "Select" button and move on to the next step!

United award availability

If not, then it's time to start making some decisions. The calendar at the top of the page is color coded to show availability on various dates (NOTE: those colors reflect United availability only – partner availability is not taken into account). Click a different day to see its availability.

As a general rule, Standard Awards are not a good use of your miles, but if you're strapped for cash and there's no saver flights that work you can always use them. Once you've (hopefully) found something acceptable you can afford, select the flights and complete the transaction. The miles are automatically deducted from your account.

This is probably a good time to go on to a larger topic: what are you miles "worth"?

part 5 ➡️
<< back to part 3

Thursday, November 7, 2013

some frequent-flier basics (part three: award charts)

So in the previous step you found the price to purchase the ticket you want, now it's time to see if you can find a mileage reward seat.

Most airlines publish award charts with fixed redemption rates between regions (e.g., 50,000 miles for flights between North America and Europe). Additionally, most have a concept of a "Saver" reward and a "Standard" reward. Like finding low fares, finding Saver rewards often requires planning a trip pretty far in advance, flying at the very last minute, or flying at an unpopular time of day, but the reward is that you can get the flight for a lot fewer miles — often half of the Standard award. (Some have "high", "medium", and "low" but the concept is the same).

United Award chart for flights from North America to Europe

A few airlines (Virgin America, JetBlue) do away with the whole award chart and simply use a flat rate to convert your miles to cash (usually at a rate around 1.5¢ – 2¢ each) and you then pay the current price for the flight you want. So if you're flying from A to B next month and the cash fare $200, it'll cost you 10,000 miles, but if you're flying from A to B tomorrow and the cash fare is $400, it'll cost you 20,000 miles.
With revenue-based award programs the miles needed is proportional to the flight's dollar cost

The nice part about these fixed-value plans is that they'll usually let you use miles to buy the last seat on the plane, even on holidays. Whereas with the Saver/Standard plans the airlines usually only have a few seats on each flight that they've allocated as "mileage award seats" and on popular travel days (Christmas, Thanksgiving) there are often no award seats at all. This is why you hear people planning their first-class mileage vacations fully 12 months in advance — if you want to be certain you have 2 (or more) mileage reward seats together, it can be very hard to find if you don't book as far in advance as possible. On some flights there might only ever be a single reward seat in first class (or worse – none at all), so you might need some extra flexibility with your travel if you really want to fly up front.

On the flip-side, airlines will often release extra award seats at the last minute, so if you can be spontaneous (or if a family emergency requires you to jump on a plane RIGHT NOW and the price is sky high) you can sometimes find incredible values using your miles.

So if you're booking on JetBlue or Virgin, you're done – there's no need to see if there's a good deal or not since the value is fixed. If you've got the points, spend 'em! If not, then you need to see if there are any smart point redemption opportunities for your trip.

on to part 4 ➡️
<< back to part 2

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

some frequent-flier basics (part two: preparing to redeem)

So you've flown a few times, banked a few miles and you're ready to redeem your miles. Here's how I usually start the process:

First, visit the English-language version of the Wikipedia page for your home airport (keep in mind many larger cities have two airports) and scroll down to the Destinations section. There you can quickly see every single route that's available and which airline it's on. This can save you time hunting for a direct flight that doesn't exist! 

Wikipedia destinations

Visit and price out the ticket. Kayak has a ton of very powerful options to help you find exactly the ticket you want at the price you want. Check the Nearby Airports option if you're willing to travel to another nearby airport for more options. (I also uncheck the Priceline and comparative search options since they just open up a ton of windows that I don't need to look at.)
One of the big reasons I go to first is to make sure I'm not passing up a great deal on a flight from a competing airline: why redeem 50,000 miles for a flight when a competitor is running a special on the same route for $149?
Look along the left-hand side of the screen and you can choose departure time, number of stopovers, wifi, etc. (see pics below) Use the 'Sort by' menu at the top to re-order the results (but be very observant of the "total trip duration" in grey — sometimes the cheapest flights will have you sleeping in the airport for 8 hours!)
TIP: One thing I always do is look at the itinerary on the screen and think about what that day will be like. Do you really want to get up at 4am from your super-relaxing vacation and drive 2 hours to get to a distant airport save $22? Or take a red-eye? or a 2 stopover journey on turbo-prop planes? Sometimes it's better to just fly out of the nearest airport on a direct flight at a civilized time even if it costs a little more.

Once you've spotted a flight that looks like it meets your sweet spot of convenience and price, click the "Details" button and see which airline is actually operating the flight (in the example below, it's a flight purchased on Scandinavian SAS but it's actually a codeshare flight that's being operated by United). Note the flight numbers and times so you have them when you visit the airline website to redeem.

on to part 3 ➡️
<< back to part 1

Kayak search options along the left (click to enlarge)
Flight details

Monday, November 4, 2013

some frequent-flier basics (part one)

A good friend was considering getting into the points game so I spent some time writing down a few of the basics. I realized how much I'd learned over the past couple of years and how many of my own misconceptions were shared by many, many others out there on various frequent flyer forums so I'm starting at square one here:
  • Most Airlines have some kind of loyalty program where you're awarded miles (sometimes called "points") based on how far you fly how much your flight costs. (UPDATE: In 2015 most of the US carriers switched their plans around so you earn points based on ticket cost instead of distance). 
  • Some airlines give you bonus miles if you buy an expensive ticket (like business class), others give fewer miles (e.g., 50% of the distance flown) if you buy a steeply discounted ticket. Some also award bonus points if you have Elite Status with them. 
  • You can also earn miles when you fly with a partner airline (e.g., you can earn United miles when you fly with Lufthansa because they're partners). 
  • On top of the point game, most also offer some type of Elite Status. The short story here is: don't bother. Unless your work is paying for your tickets Elite Status isn't worth chasing. The airlines have become shameless in gutting Elite benefits and drastically changing Elite qualifications with no notice. Don't bother. 
  • Only the person who actually flies gets to keep the miles. You can't credit anyone's flying — even your kids — to your own frequent flier account. (though recently JetBlue added a new 'family pool' for miles). If your kids are going to fly more than once every 2 or 3 years, it's totally worth it to sign them up for their own Frequent Flier account. 
  • Legally you cannot sell your miles to other people, and functionally speaking, it's quite difficult to do and can get your entire account (and all of your miles) deleted if you get caught. 
  • You can also earn miles through airline credit card signup bonuses and spending, and through various shopping promotions. 
  • Most domestic airlines require some type of activity on the account every 18-36 months (depends on the airline) to keep all the miles in the account from expiring. Even if you're not flying there are often promotions you can participate in (e.g., "sign up for our travel newsletter and we'll give you 500 miles...") that will count as "activity" and restart the clock. 
  • Every 18 months or so, most airlines do something to significantly devalue the points you have (e.g., raising the cost of a trip from 25,000 miles to 35,000 miles), so it's never a good idea to hoard them for a long time — "earn and burn" should be your mantra
  • Using the airline's website or call center, you can redeem these miles for free or discounted travel on the same airline or one of their partners. It takes roughly ten paid, transcontinental round trip flights in Economy class to earn enough miles for one free round-trip domestic ticket.
  • Keep in mind that these programs are like casinos in Vegas: they're designed to make sure you have fun while losing lots of money! The basic "game" is to trick you into buying a more expensive flight on their airline because you're saving up miles for a reward flight and/or trying to get elite status with them. It's often not worth it! 
  • Therefore, always comparison shop before booking any flight! Given the price of most domestic economy flights, your free ticket will be worth $400-$600. But if you overpay on every flight it took to earn those miles, your "free" flight actually cost you a ton of money. 
  • If you book a mileage reward flight, you don't earn miles for that flight. 
  • In general, playing the point game is best for people who have more time (and patience!) than money. If you hate over-planning your trips and abhor airline call centers, you might be better off just giving away your points as wedding or graduation presents, or donating them to charity.
  • Some credit cards (Chase Sapphire, American Express) have their own points which you can transfer into your airline's frequent flier program. These points are often more flexible than crediting them to a single airline.