Thursday, December 13, 2007

Using those FF miles

One of my closest colleagues, who also works in Travel, allowed the other day that she’s never used her frequent flier miles.


Well, she and her husband can’t plan far enough in advance. And you can’t get the seats during prime time, anyway, she explained.

That’s the rap, sure enough, but it doesn’t have to be true. In the past decade, I’ve used miles to go to Africa (thrice), Bali, Bangkok and Europe – even in Prime Time seasons like mid-summer and at Christmas.

The Husband and I have a method, and along the way we’ve picked up a few extra tips.

1 – Plan as early as you can. Each airline allows a different window for advance award bookings; at American, where I’m a member, you can book free tickets up to 330 days in advance of travel.

2 – Can’t book early? Give it a shot anyway. Some people snag award tickets, then cancel them…and the seats come open. Or bookings aren’t as strong as the airline had hoped, and they release extra seats. (This is more likely to happen when it’s low season in your destination.)

A couple of cases in point: This fall, I sent The Husband to Ireland on a free ticket that we booked just 60 days in advance. Another year, we snagged two free tickets to Calgary, Canada, by traveling on Christmas day.

3 – Use your miles for the most expensive flights.

If you fly only on the least-expensive economy tickets, you’re probably paying less than 10 cents for every mile you earn. If you use your miles for a ticket you can buy for the same price – say, my Miami-to-LA ticket today for $302 – you’re just getting an even trade. But if you use them for a ticket to Asia or Africa that costs thousands of dollars, you’re getting a deal.

Steve Becker, a government chemist in Washington, D.C., doesn’t travel at all for work. But each year he makes “mileage runs,’’ searching out cheap flights that will rack up lots of miles. His average price per mile earned was 1 cent last year, and 1.61 cents this year. This fall, he used miles to snag a business class ticket that enabled him to visit multiple cities in Asia and Australia for 150,000 miles – or a cost of around $1,500, given the price he’d paid to fly his mileage runs. If he’d purchased his Asia/Australia ticket, he would have paid more than $10,000. Now that’s a bargain.

4 – Don’t book award tickets online. Yes, you’ll pay an additional $15 fee for using a phone agent. But a good airline agent can find you routings that will never show up if you’re booking online.

5 – Call back often. This can be a pain – but worth it.

In July, we’re going with a group of friends on a Baltic cruise. All are from Miami, so the competition for the free seats is tough. And because cruises begin and end on set dates, we’re facing competition from the thousands of other Americans sailing on our ship.

About two weeks ago The Husband called. We were able to secure two free tickets to Copenhagen a day earlier than we really wanted to go, but we couldn’t find a return flight. So we asked the agent to hold the outgoing seats for the period allowed – in this case, two weeks – while we hunted for return seats. Sure enough, a few days later, another agent found us a way back.

Becker told me that to get his free Asia/Australia ticket, he called back almost every day for six weeks. The last four weeks, he spent two hours every night on the phone with his airline’s award desk.

OK, that’s pretty extreme (though Becker’s was an extremely complex itinerary.) People with less time and patience can get a travel agent to do the work for them … for a fee. At TraveLeaders in Coral Gables, for instance, clients are often happy to pay $150 to get their office to handle the hassles of snagging a frequent flier ticket, I was told recently by Nina Meyer, the firm’s leisure travel manager.

6 – Find an experienced airline agent to help you.

How? One method is to call back until you get someone on the phone who really likes doing this. It doesn’t take but a minute of chat to figure out that the agent you’re talking with thinks finding you a free seat is a big snore. We end the call by saying, “thank you very much for your help,’’ hang up and call right back (you nearly always get a different agent.) By the second or third call, we’ve got a winner.

Other tips: When The Husband snagged the Europe ticket, he was told that the best time to call is on a weekday morning. More experienced agents get first choice of work shifts, he was told, and those agents are more likely to find you that free routing.

Becker, an American Airlines flier, says he’s been told to call in early afternoons, when the company’s Tucson office opens. That office, he says, is supposed to be the best at finding free seats.

7 – Be flexible. We’ve often paid for a hotel room to make a free ticket routing work. For instance, our last trip to Bali was possible with miles only if we stayed overnight in Tokyo. A hotel room near the airport cost us $100 – far, far less than two tickets to Bali at Christmas time.

8 – Be prepared. Becker checks out every conceivable routing through all of his airline’s partners and puts them on a spreadsheet. When he calls the award agent, he suggests various options instead of expecting the agent to know them all.

For his Asia trip, for instance, he decided he wanted to fly on American’s partner British. But British doesn’t fly west toward Asia from the U.S., and ticket rules wouldn’t let him fly first to Europe, then to Asia. So he routed first to Toronto, which offers a BA flight to Asia.

The Husband and I aren’t quite that organized, but we do try to figure out basic possibilities for partner airlines and routings before we call the awards desk.

Still, we never came up with the routing we finally got: Copenhagen to London, then to Nassau – and then to Miami. For that, we needed an agent.

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