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'The Points Guy' Shares His Secrets for Maximum Frequent Flyer Miles

May 24, 2010 at 5:00 PM | by | ()

A few weeks ago, we dished over at HotelChatter about our friend Brian Kelly, who successfully made a transition from lowly desk jockey to jetsetting superhero with the Ryan Bingham-esque moniker, The Points Guy. He dished on the best hotel reward points programs, told us which ones to avoid, and shared his favorite tricks for getting suite upgrades.

This week, we queried him on airline loyalty programs to discover his picks of the moment, where he sees the industry trending in general, and what you, the average traveler, can do to fly business class while everyone else is getting stuck in coach. Here’s what he had to say.

Jaunted: The news out of the airline business seems to be getting worse every day. What does that mean for points loyalty programs?

The Points Guy: Airlines have decreased capacity by taking planes out of service and downgrading aircraft size in order to fly fuller planes, meaning it’s only going to get harder to find those awards seats. Airlines will also be focusing on high-yield business fliers as the economic recovery gets underway. Delta, American and United are already running bonus promotions for full-cost business and first-class fares. So unless you’re racking up those business miles, elite status will be harder to come by.

Jaunted: What are your favorite points programs and why?

TPG: Each program is so different!

· American's AAdvantage is wonderful because I've found that they have the most awards seat availability. It might not be a direct flight, but you can always find a seat if you’re flexible, especially in first and business. Their ace in the hole is the one-way awards. Not everyone’s trip is roundtrip, so for half the price, you can get where you need to go.

· Before the merger with United was announced, I was in love with Continental’s OnePass Program. Since joining Star Alliance, their redemption opportunities increased, and they had a 1:1 direct transfer for American Express Membership rewards, so topping up your account to achieve an award was instantaneous. Continental has also been heavy on the promotions, like their offer of 25,000 miles per checking account per year with Chase (max two accounts: one personal, one business per year). I earned 50,000 OnePass miles for opening checking accounts, which don’t even affect credit. However, now that it will be merging with United, the combined frequent flyer program will be worse thanks to more people trying to redeem miles on fewer flights. The Amex relationship will probably end, and United’s practice of blocking partner awards will continue. The only silver lining will be one-way awards which you can’t do on Continental, but you can with United. I’d like them to combine the best aspects of both programs, but if the Delta-Northwest merger is any model of things to come, we’re all going to be sorely disappointed.

· US Airways, while one of the most customer-unfriendly airlines, actually has a great frequent flyer program. They often run promotions where members can buy miles and receive a 100% bonus—meaning you get double the miles you buy. US Air sometimes runs a “Share Miles 100% Promo,” which means someone can “share” 25,000 miles with a friend for a fee, and then the friend would receive 50,000 miles. US Air is also very lax with routing of award tickets, so you can go to Europe via the Pacific and return over the Atlantic while on most other airlines, these round-the-world routings are generally prohibited.

Jaunted: What are common mistakes people make when redeeming their points?

TPG: People generally undervalue their points. They get frustrated and end up shortchanging themselves for easier, yet less valuable redemptions, like merchandise they don’t need, gift cards, or “Flexible” awards that cost twice the points. The simple tips I give people are:

· Don’t always believe what you see online. Airlines don’t make it easy to see true award inventory using online search engines on their sites, so pick up the phone and call your airline. But don’t expect them to do all the work for you. Arm yourself with knowledge—know what other alliance airlines fly to your destination and be prepared to give flight numbers.

· Don’t always believe what you hear on the phone. If an agent sounds exasperated with your request, hang up and call again. Helpful agents are hard to get, but you’d be surprised at what they can find.

· Be flexible with dates and routing. Are flights to your destination sold out? Get creative and fly to a nearby city and then take a regional jet or train to your destination. The more flexible you are the better chance of being able to use your points.

Jaunted: What are some of the tricks you use to find fares that the average consumer doesn’t know about?

TPG: For low fares on certain routes, set a Travelocity Farewatcher Plus alert. You can also follow both Airfare Watchdog and FareCompare on Twitter. Most important, once you find a really low fare, don’t be afraid to book. Many airlines offer 24 hour cancellation or hold policies, so you should act quickly. Many fare sales go quickly, so if the price is right, go for it.

Jaunted: What is the best awards deal you've ever gotten?

TPG: Delta was running a new city promotion to Zurich, so I got a ticket for $232 and earned 15,000 bonus miles, plus 10,000 for buying the ticket with an Amex, plus a 5,000 per flight loyalty bonus Delta was running, plus my Medallion program bonus. {Drum roll please!} I ended up with 45,928 miles from a $232 fare.

Jaunted: Any last tips?

TPG: Harnessing true point potential allows you to enjoy a nicer lifestyle and more destinations. Not only can I travel more, but I can experience each destination more. In this economy, everyone’s discretionary spending is limited, but the desire to travel has not subsided. If people are savvy, they can use their points to live out their travel dreams!

And that is where The Points Guy comes in. Brian will consult with clients on their loyalty program points, and even book their itineraries for a $50 charge. If he can get you from coach to business—or even first—that’s six times the value of the reward you would have gotten yourself. And as we mentioned, you can even pay for Brian’s services using Amex Rewards Points rather than cash. Now that’s putting your points to good use.

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