Even if you’re a mileage junkie, the frequent-flier game is not an easy one to navigate.
Peter spoke with Los Angeles Times contributor Charles Lockwood to gripe about the system, and share tips on how to get the most out of your frequent-flier miles.
Peter Greenberg: I really do think the airlines are running what amounts to an unregulated, illegal lottery. The inducement to join a program is that when you get 25,000 miles, you get to redeem that for a ticket and it’s not working out that way.
Charles Lockwood: It’s just as unclear in the mileage game as it is in what the price of the actual regular tickets are. You do not know what you can get or when you can get it. It’s very unclear how many seats they can set aside on each flight.
PG: They’re not required to reveal it either.
CL: No, though some people have picked apart in the past, before flights got really crowded, that 6-8 percent of travelers were flying on a free ticket. But everybody knows that because flights are more crowded today it’s harder to get the redemption rewards because the airlines would rather take your money than take your miles.
PG: I hate to play the one-upsmanship game, but you have 1 million miles; I’ve got about 12 million.
Learn more in our Mileage & Reward Programs section
CL: You’re spending too much time on airplanes. We can worry about spending them later, but the great thing about frequent-flier programs is that you don’t have to live on an airplane to earn miles. These programs really aren’t frequent-flier programs now; they’ve evolved into what I call frequent-buyer programs. More miles are earned through things like credit-card bonuses, getting miles from purchases, signing up for certain financial investment programs, than are earned by air travel now.
PG: You can earn miles for everything short of breathing. Did you know that Delta and US Airways have a program for funeral directors, where they earn miles every time they ship a coffin?
CL: Only the airlines could come up with something like that.
PG: It’s “frequent-dying miles.” Yet so many of us are nearly dying to redeem them. The little-known fact is that you can deed your miles to someone in your will, so let them die trying to redeem them.
You’ll find more interviews, clips, guest lists and related articles in our Radio Articles section here.
CL: Let’s try to be more optimistic. I was just successful in booking business-class tickets to Latin America in a few months. I would say the key advice is that you’ve got to be flexible. In planning our vacation trips, we get the tickets first and then worry about when we’re going to go. Sometimes we get the tickets based on where you can go. You may not get the non-stop flight to Europe or Asia. You may not be able to get the Friday flight which is full of business travelers coming home. You’re definitely not going to get the flight over Christmas.
PG: The only way I’ve been able to redeem miles is like this: I call up the agent and say, “I’d like to go to Hawaii in four weeks.” They laugh. But I pick a flight, say Flight 1 that leaves at 8 a.m. They say no seats are available for frequent-flier redemption. So I ask, “When in my lifetime will there be redemption tickets available on Flight 1 to Hawaii?” They’ll say it’s next October even though I want to go in February or March. So I take the ticket, and pick an arbitrary date for return. So now I have in my possession a frequent-flier ticket on the flight that I want, to the destination that I want, just not on the date that I want. So I take the ticket on the day I want to fly and I fly standby.
CL: I don’t know what to say. It’s all very clouded, it’s unclear. The rules of the mileage programs say that they can change things, and do anything they want at any time for any reason. The airlines are not going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. They’re not going to make it so impossible to get seats that people get turned off to the program and stop chasing miles. Those who benefit from this program are the airlines: they’re selling zillions of miles every year to credit-card companies, telephone companies, mortgage companies, as perks. If they’re too tight on the awards, this enormous source of revenue will start to diminish.
PG: Although I will say that we’re such a nation of mileage junkies that what happens at the end of every year are fanatical, crazy travelers doing what we call “mileage runs.” They’re a few thousand miles away from the big mileage threshold of promised perks and goodies that they’ll literally fly anywhere just to get the miles. I had a friend who did it last week from New York to L.A. to reach Platinum level; she landed in L.A. at 1 p.m. and flew back at 4 p.m.
CL: Most people are using the programs to get the occasional free tickets or the upgrades to business class. They can try to accumulate the miles without flying through credit-card purchases. People should look for the non-flight ways to earn miles.
To redeem them, flexibility is key. Of course, there are also the alliances. If you can’t get to Latin America on United Airlines, maybe a Star Alliance partner can get you there.
PG: I’ll tell you this: You can even do it in a counterintuitive way. If you want get from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires and couldn’t do it on United; if you don’t mind flying through Frankfurt on Lufthansa and back around to Buenos Aires, you can do it.
CL: Or let’s say they fly American but can’t get to Buenos Aires. But maybe you can on a oneworld partner like LAN instead of American.
PG: Except what I’ve found lately is that the partner airline holds out the inventory, so American says that there are no seats available. So you call LAN and it turns out they have so many seats on board yo can go bowling on those planes. Then you have to get a supervisors on the phone to get an industrial-strength spatula to pry out those miles to use. So it is possible, but you have to be creative.
By Peter Greenberg for Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio.
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Frequent Flier Rules, Airlines & Travel News: Leigh Gallagher Interview
- Mileage & Reward Programs section
- Air Travel: Airlines & Airports section
- Travel Tip: Tactics For Redeeming Frequent Flier Miles
- Frequent Flier Follies: Why Airlines Don’t Make Good Banks