Getting the most out of frequent flyer points and status

This article assumes you know nothing or next-to-nothing about how frequent flyer/frequent traveler status works or why it’s valuable, and spends a decent amount of time explaining it in detail.

If you’re an old hand at this stuff, there are still some opinions and thoughts that you might find interesting and valuable, but I won’t be offended if you skip this one. Maybe read about not running in airports instead.

Elite frequent traveler status has virtually no value to individuals or society outside of the world of business travel, but it’s worth the time and effort to understand it if you’re someone who travels for work even occasionally.

Even for travelers, some of the perks that these status programs provide are pretty worthless, especially at the lower tiers. A free checked bag is nice, sure, but you shouldn’t be checking a bag anyway.

At the mid-tier and higher, though, status becomes valuable extremely quickly, mostly in the form of what I’ll call travel lubrication. Status makes traveling smoother, and if you’re flying every week, you can save 50-100 hours a year of airport time with the perks that status provides — enough time to run 600 miles at a 10-minute pace, or watch every movie in the Fast and The Furious franchise five times (or both, with an iPad and a treadmill).

Knowing you can skip lines lets you arrive later and travel through security at a more predictable pace. Having the ability to reschedule flights for free lets you avoid stranding yourself in an airport, lets you get home a little early, and generally gives you more travel flexibility. Lounge access gives you a slightly better place to weather the occasional delay. Early boarding guarantees you won’t have to wait 30 minutes for a gate-checked bag. Being able to sit near the front of the plane lets you deplane much faster (plus gives you a little more legroom). Car rental status lets you skip another line once you get to your destination.

The primary goal of being in an airport is to get to your destination as quickly as possible, which means that by definition, you primary goal in an airport should be getting out of that airport as quickly as possible. Status helps you do that.

So, when you first start traveling for work, pick a preferred provider for air travel, hotels, and if applicable, car rental and begin accumulating qualifying miles or points as quickly as possible.

Selecting your providers

The first step in this process is selecting the providers you’re going to patronize. Start by checking with your employer — many large firms with big pools of travelers have special relationships with airlines and/or hotel chains, and you may not have much of a choice in the matter. If it’s up to you, the three big choices are hotels, rental car companies, and airlines.

For hotels, just go with Starwood/Marriott unless you have a very specific reason not to. Given the recent Starwood/Marriott merger, it’s the obvious first choice — Marriott has the best US availability, Starwood has the best status program, and they’ll (probably) be one loyalty program by 2019.

For rental car companies, there aren’t major differences among the big providers1Just like hotels, where three or four super-chains own most of the properties, or airlines, where a small number of alliances run most of the flights, there are fewer players in the rental car world than you might realize. Avis owns Budget, Hertz owns both Dollar and Thrifty, and Enterprise owns National and Alamo. In this analogy, Sixt would be something like Southwest. in my experience. All have relatively similar stock and service, and each has its own list of “get you out the door faster” perks like being able to walk straight to your car without signing papers at a counter. Pick a big one that has on airport lots at your most likely destinations and offers the aforementioned skip-the-line bonuses to its frequent customers. National, Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise will probably be your main consideration set.

On to airlines.

There are are three main things to keep in mind as you choose an airline: availability, quality and status program value.

Availability is the most important criterion, and the simplest: can you consistently use this provider to get where you need to go when traveling? For airlines this will mean flying into and out of the cities you need to go, ideally with multiple options for when to fly; if a major airline uses your home city as a hub, that will be the obvious choice.

Quality is equally straightforward: how good is their actual service offering? Things that matter include the quality of the fleet itself (you want large, new planes), the quality of service provided by on-the-ground employees and customer service personnel, and their on-time-departure record. Things that do not matter include what food and beverages they serve on the aircraft or in the lounge, if they have recently experienced a customer service fiasco (they all will over time), and what’s on the TVs on the planes.

Status program value has three factors:

  1. Perks: what does status give you?
  2. Tiers: what do you need to do to get it?
  3. Redemption: how can you spend your points?

For perks, focus on the things that will actually make your life on the road easier, and how quickly you get them: the ability to change flights without penalty, priority lines at security and the gate, concierge phone lines, etc. Access to upgrades may be on this list for you, but it shouldn’t be at the top unless you have actual physical difficulties flying in coach.

The tiers of the program should leverage your actual behavior. Do you think you’re going to hit your status tier on legs (number of trips) or miles? (This will mostly be determined by how much you fly internationally.)  If you’re not taking the status match route, most of these are fairly identical airline-to-airline, but it’s worth having a look.

In terms of redemption, what you should value depends on how you spend points. Some things to think about are: the lowest possible amount of points you can use for an award flight, the points cost for a first class international ticket, and cross-transferability to/from partner providers.

If you travel internationally for work or leisure, you’ll want to prefer airlines in global partner provider networks like Star Alliance (United) and OneWorld (American), whichc allow you to both use and accrue miles on a wide variety of international airlines.

Ultimately, don’t overthink this decision too much. It’s more important in the long run that you stick with the decision you made than which one you make. If you’re still in doubt, just select the providers that are going to make the most sense for your first scheduled trip. You’ll have the ability to re-make this decision every year or so with the help of status matching.

Status Challenges and Status Matching

If you’re truly brand new to the road warrior life, status challenges are your best friend. Status challenges are a shortcut to the traditional status accrual structure, where you effectively make a bet with the airline or hotel that you’ll patronize them a certain amount of time over the course of a limited timeframe (normally 90 days). For a regular business traveler, these numbers are easy to hit, and can often be knocked out in a single international business trip.

Often, they will grant you temporary status to the tier you’re going for while doing the challenge, so even if you don’t think you’ll get there, it can be a nice way to buffer some of the early-days stress and pain as you learn the ropes.

Status matching is similar, but assumes you already have status at a competing provider, and is the best way to switch providers, should you want or need to.

Some hotel chains will give you a status match for the simple effort of sending an e-mail to their loyalty program proving you have status at a competitor. As such, it’s worthwhile to request a match at basically all hotel providers, even if you only intend to stay at one of their properties for a few days (e.g. when at a conference at a different provider, when you happen to be in a city without your main provider).

Everyone else, including every major airline, will still make you do a challenge, but often on better terms and with a higher ceiling as to what status tier you can attain — this should probably be reserved for attempting to switch providers for good, because they often won’t let you attempt the challenge more than once.

Accumulating Points, Using Points, And Letting It Become A Hobby

This will be a short section, because there roughly one trillion other places online that can provide you with in-depth and up-to-the minute advice to maximize points accrual, redemption, and otherwise travel-hack your way to East Asia for virtually free, and frankly, I just don’t care that much about any of it.

Chasing status and accumulating and redeeming points from travel (collectively, travel hacking) can become a hobby and even an obsession. It’s one that totally makes sense to me, too. It turns a unavoidable pain into a game that you can win complete with points to earn and sidequests to follow, where the more you know about the rules the better you’ll do. It’s a dream for any nerdy type that would take a job as an analyst for a big consultancy.

To that end, there is definitely a baseline level of caring you should do and knowledge you should have about points and status and how to maximize their benefits to you — it’s one of the few big perks of the lifestyle — but despite how many make it one, travel hacking is not a required hobby of professional travelers.

When you already spend hours every week dealing with expenses, travel booking, and so-on, it can be worthwhile to leave work at work, as it were. I recommend only caring enough about these things to get what you want and need out of them. If what you want and need is a new hobby, more power to you. Head on over to flyertalk and get stuck in. If it’s not, read the next section and then move on with your life.

Travel Hacking Basics

The few things that I consider baseline knowledge for anyone that accrues as many rewards points as you will as a business traveler are:

  • the business model of awards points
  • the pricing model and ticketing rules of award travel, and
  • the concept of points-per-dollar-spent.

Awards points are, for all intents and purposes, extremely-limited-use money with an extremely weird exchange rate. For my economics nerds, points are a fiat currency controlled by one unregulated central bank, that is also (most of the time) the only business with which you can spend that currency. They control supply, demand, pricing, and the exchange rate.2Related prediction: some airline will probably have a blockchain-based points system by 2020 or so. They may try and sell this as being hip and cool to boost their stock price, but the reality is they’re doing it because millions of points (which have real economic value) are stolen from compromised frequent flyer accounts every year, and blockchain (not a cryptocurrency, the underlying tech) is a relatively neat way around that.

More importantly, it represents a debt that the airline owes to you in the form of flights or other goods. It’s a liability to their bottom line, even if they don’t have to keep it on the balance sheet. Because of this, they make it intentionally complicated and hard to get the most out of points or to understand their dollar-equivalent value on accrual or redemption.

Ultimately, the goal in travel hacking is get around those complications and optimize for points per dollar (PPD), either dollar spent to get the point on accrual, or dollar-to-point ratio cost of the thing you’re getting when you redeem.

On the accrual side, there’s only one thing a business traveler can do, because you’re probably neither picking where you go nor paying for the flight, and that’s to get a good fare code. You see, a ticket that goes a longer distance should accrue more miles than one that goes a shorter distance at the same cost, but that’s not always true.

When you buy an airline ticket, there’s not just one ticket type — most airlines have 12 or even 20 different fare codes, effectively entirely different tickets in their backend system. Actually explaining the arcane nightmare that is fare coding and variable pricing would take a long, long time, so I’ll leave it at this: some tickets don’t give you as many miles as others (and generally the ones that short you on miles also short you on upgrade opportunities). Buy a full-fare “Y” class ticket whenever possible, and if you can’t, look up your airline’s fare codes (you can just google the name of your airline plus “fare code”) and make sure you’ve got one that gets you what you want.

Together, these are where the concept of mileage running comes from, where you find the longest, cheapest flight possible with the best possible fare code and take it just to get the points, often turning around after only a short stopover in the destination city.  You couldn’t pay me enough to do this, but to each their own, I guess.

This may be changing soon, as more airlines are going to a spend-based accrual system, closer to hotel points accrual. Hotel points accrual is normally pegged to the actual cost of the room, with multipliers for which property you’re in. E.g. on balance, rooms at a Marriott proper that are the same price as rooms at a Courtyards will get you more points per night.

Oh the other side, in the interest of protecting their bottom line, award travel has insane, arcane “pricing” and ticketing that are often entirely different from normal pricing, ticketing, and upgrade rules, making it hard to predict (or event calculate) the dollar equivalent of any given redemption.

The most relevant part is that instead of being priced per-seat or per-room, award flights and hotel stays are priced by zones or tiers. Most airlines save a limited number of low-point ‘saver fares3Mostly used to fill flights that would otherwise be running under capacity’, and once those are sold out, every class of service in every flight to every destination within a zone costs the same number of points — for example, on United, a first class flight to anywhere in the domestic US is 70,000 points, economy is 32,500; first class to europe is 190,000, economy is 70,000, and so-forth. The exception to this is Delta, who price their award flights through through some opaque algorithm.

Hotels are similar, but the tiers are clusters of hotels with similar amenities and locations that all cost the same number of points to stay at. For example: the Ritz Carlton Tokyo is the highest possible tier in the Marriott network and will run you 70,000 points a night, while the Fairfield Inn in Yuma, AZ is the lowest possible tier and can be had for 10,000 points. But considering that the Fairfield runs $95 a night and the Ritz runs $600-700, these are actually pretty consistent in terms of PPD, a little under a cent per point.

The trick is finding routes and stays that maximize that number. As an example, flying to Europe normally costs more than twice as much in dollars as flying to many domestic locations, so even though a flight to Europe is more in points, it’s almost always better deal if you’re measuring by PPD.

Redeeming points for non-travel stuff is almost always a bad deal from a PPD perspective, but if you have no desire to travel after being on the road 48 weeks a year and would rather have some nice headphones for the plane, get some nice headphones.

Ultimately, do you

My opinion is that status’ primary value to business travelers is making the process of traveling easier, not because it throws off perks in the form of weird money. I like to worry about efficiency when I’m traveling for work, not when I’m going on vacation.

Unless you have fun playing this game (in which case, go nuts), it’ll be more enjoyable to skip the detailed research and just go somewhere you want to go with the points you have rather than travel-hacking your way to a place you don’t actually care much about.

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