How do I game the frequent flyer mile system?
October 13, 2010 1:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting a new job where I'll be traveling a lot, and I want to get the most out of the frequent flyer/ hotel miles. What do I need to know?

I'll be flying within the US once a week and spending four days a week in a hotel. I know there are all kinds of ins and outs to working this system. Please share your wisdom.
posted by dontmesswithseth to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A couple of comments in the question I asked last month about tips/tricks for being a road warrior. Since we have to fly United at my company I also signed up for the rewards from eating at restaurants that are part of their program. This rolls into your airline miles, every little bit helps.
posted by white_devil at 1:16 PM on October 13, 2010

I would recommend immediately proceeding to the FlyerTalk forums.
posted by proj at 1:22 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I second the recommendation for proceeding to the FlyerTalk forums.

Generally: sign up for FF accounts at all airlines that you may be using for company travel. Some companies are contracted with one or two, some let you use whichever is the lowest fare. Concentrating the bulk of your miles in one program will net you the most benefits. Do the same with hotel chains.

Always sign up for any bonus offers the hotel or airlines have - many will have double stay or triple miles bonuses several times per year. Some of these count toward elite status, which will get you even more benefits, like upgrades and extra points/miles. Signing up for the restaurant thing that white_devil mentions is a good idea too.

FlyerTalk has tons more info about specific airline and hotel programs and info about how to maximize your benefits in each. It's a fantastic resource that helped me very much when I started traveling for work.
posted by bedhead at 1:27 PM on October 13, 2010

nthing Flyertalk. You may get even more specific useful advice there if you can be more specific about your travel patterns -- i.e., cities, airlines and hotel preferences / requirements.

(In other words, if you're always going to be flying on AA because of company requirements, advice about maximizing benefits on Delta or United might not be helpful.)

If you have any choice at all regarding your travel accomodations (airline, hotel), you will need to / should decide on where to focus your business. Even if you are spreading your travel across a few different airlines there are ways to concentrate points (i.e., fly USAirways or Air Canada but credit the travel to United).

As you'll probably tell from going to Flyertalk, the "holy grail" is going to be elite status on your airline and hotel loyalty program of choice. The timing isn't that great for you if you're starting immediately, since most of these operate on a calendar-year qualification period. However, you might be able to sign up for a "fast-track" promotion which can get you status quicker. Availability of those promotions, not to mention whether or not you can actually meet the requirements, will depend on your particular programs and travel patterns.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 1:37 PM on October 13, 2010

Also, going from big picture to micro-picture, if you haven't already signed up for the frequent flier programs, make sure there aren't referral bonuses, etc. available for that program. In a weird bit of synchronicity, I just received a referral bonus offer from United in my email.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 1:55 PM on October 13, 2010

Once you've identified which airline and hotel chain you're going to be concentrating your miles and hotel points in, consider getting a rewards credit card linked to one of those programs, and running as much of your personal expenses through it as possible, while still paying the balance off in full every month. If your company issues you an AmEx as your corporate card for business expenses, make sure you sign up for the Membership Rewards program on that, even if you have to pay for it out-of-pocket.

One thing to keep any eye on when it comes to hotel promotions is rewards that are keyed to stays, rather than nights. In that situation (it seems to happen a lot with Starwood promotions in particular), you can ramp up your rewards by switching hotels every night within your destination city, particularly if it's large enough to support two hotels of your target chain.

In addition to FlyerTalk, don't underestimate your co-workers as resources if you'll be part of a group that travels a lot. In my experience, on a large travel project, there's always one person with an elaborate spreadsheet of all their rewards balances and an encyclopedic knowledge of the promotions coming down the pike as well as the strategies to use for timing a redemption.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 1:55 PM on October 13, 2010

find out how good your employer is about reimbursement for travel expenses. If:

they're fairly quick in their reimbursement turnaround, and ...
you're fairly sure that you can float the expenses on your personal card, and ...
your job allows you to book your own travel rather than going through an agent ...

... then you could sign up for something like an American Express Rewards card, which will give you some extra bonus points for booking your travel through them. So, even if you have to do lowest cost carrier and/or travel to a wide array of destinations that aren't major hubs, so will fly JetBlue on one trip, United another and Delta on a third, you can still consolidate points by booking it all on a specific card. Amex can then be used for redirecting those points into partner hotel programs, effectively allowing you to double-dip on your rewards earning.

If, however, reimbursement is glacial and you don't have the cash to pay off your expenses in full every month, then don't do this because, depending on the amount of expenses that you may rack up on the road, the interest charges that you will incur for carrying a balance while Accounting gets in act in order will easily wipe out whatever perks you get from points accumulation.
posted by bl1nk at 1:59 PM on October 13, 2010

FlyerTalk for sure.
No matter how infrequently you use a particular airline or hotel be sure to sign up for their programs. If you're renting a car you should also look into those programs. I recommend National.

If you can, try to fly airlines which are part of the same alliance. Likewise, stay at hotels which are all part of the same hotel group.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:14 PM on October 13, 2010

Sign up for all the hotel reward programs you think you might possibly consider using. Then watch for emails about special reward programs that offer extra points during promotional periods. I found that Holiday Inn gave me the best bang for my buck (in terms of extra free nights) when I traveled more than 100 nights/year. They also have a program that hooks up your points account to your credit/debit cards (does not have to be their Branded Credit Card) for dining at restaurants that are part of their Dining Rewards program. They also tout free upgades oPlatinum members which is somewhat hit or miss.

I also earned an amazing number of free flights and drink coupons by being loyal to Southwest Airlines. I find their credit program leads to quicker flights than the point based system at other airlines. It's also fairly inexpensive to re-up an expired free flight compared to other programs.
posted by prettymightyflighty at 2:40 PM on October 13, 2010

prettymightyflighty is right about it being easier/faster to get free flights on SW, but as someone who flies several times a month I have to say that I value the benefits of gaining "status" on a regular airline over the free flights on SW. Getting upgrades and preferred treatment when the inevitable travel nightmares happen are totally worth it.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:45 PM on October 13, 2010

nthing FlyerTalk. SeatGuru is also fairly useful. Also, as a result of some rather interesting experiences, I started looking up places in the Bed Bug Registry.

nthing, "sign up for any and all affinity programs"

Some other things ...
When you're making decisions about which air carrier to focus on, do take a look at their alliances (eg. star alliance, oneworld, skyteam) don't focus on carriers that don't service areas that you might actually want to fly to.

Depending on your company's travel policy you may also want to obtain credit card that is affiliated with the various airlines and hotel chains. Not only is there the initial bonus for signing up for the first year, there are often booking bonuses if you use the card to book via the company's website and bonuses for pay for your hotel bill with the card. And while it does muck around with your credit rating, if you're not looking for a long term loan anytime soon it doesn't seem to matter if you cancel after the first year and reapply (receiving the signing bonus again).

For hotels, there is a difference between hotel nights and stays. The path to elite status is often quicker via stays than nights in most hotel programs. So one easy way of getting status if you're camping in a city with multiple variations on the hotel brand (e.g. W, Sheraton, Westin, etc...) is to check into a different, affiliated hotel each night you're in town. For example, with Starwood to reach platinum you'd need either 25 stays or 50 nights. If there's a westin and a sheraton in the town and you flip between the two -- you'd end up with platinum status in 7 weeks.

Once you have elite status, you should consider calling other hotel and airline chains to find out if they'll offer you elite status to switch.

Finally, there is something called the "American Gold/Platinum Challenge." Google it for information about the rules associated with the program. My only gripe is that it used to be free, but now you have to pay a fee to go for the challenge.
posted by cheez-it at 2:57 PM on October 13, 2010

Yes - if you are going to fly a lot soon, do a challenge. The good thing about getting "status" is that, even if you fly less in the future, you can often pay to keep your status - something like $400, which can be worth it (or not) depending on how much you fly.
posted by Mid at 7:11 PM on October 13, 2010

I was going to recommend the Challenge as well. I fly AA (or oneworld) as often as I can - it adds up quickly. I'd done the challenge before when it was free and later lost my status. The last time I had to pay a fee to try it, but it was well worth it.

This wasn't specifically part of the question, but I also use to help decide which seats I should choose on a plane. Add it to the list of things you use to book travel.
posted by jmevius at 8:12 PM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: I never fly/drive/stay with any company if I'm not earning miles/points for it. (Even if it's some no-name regional airline with only two planes; I'll still sign up for their loyalty program before boarding... you never know when someone will get acquired by a bigger outfit.)

The equation goes like this:

Frequent travel is humbling, frustrating, and takes you away from the people and places you love best. -->

Upgrades make frequent travel infinitely better. -->

Elite status leads to free upgrades. -->

Miles/points lead to elite status.

So, as annoying, meticulous, and nitpicky as it may seem to track and fuss over these miles and points... on your first free first-class upgrade when you are comfortably reading the newspaper, sipping a cocktail and snacking on warm cashews while the other tired slobs shuffle past wondering if their overstuffed roll-on will fit in whatever inch of space is left in that overstuffed overhead bin, you will think, "Ahhh, I get it now."

I successfully did a Platinum Challenge with AA in 2007 (and cheez-it, no, there was no fee at the time. That sucks! Very dumb of them, esp. in this climate where so many companies have cut back the travel).

If you elect to do a hotel or airline status challenge, I recommend reading all the recent wiki and forum posts at FlyerTalk on that particular challenge. They are all ninjas over there.

A few other tips that I had to pick up along the way:

• Whoever your top hotel/airline programs are, read their loyalty member manuals cover-to-cover, and hang out at the corresponding intro threads at FlyerTalk. Learn the program lingo. Is it better to accrue miles? Segments? Nights? Stays? Or do they have some other system? Become fluent in their credits.

• Wait and purchase your airline lounge memberships after you get status—the annual fees are usually lower if you have status.

• American only credits you toward status for butt-in-seat. In other words, if they require 25,000 miles to get to Gold, that can't be 5,000 miles flown plus 20,000 miles from restaurant dinners; it has to be miles earned flying on actual flights. (I am in Dallas so I've never invested much energy in status from other airlines, but I assume it's the same.)

FlyerTalk seems to be filled with people posting with confused complaints around why they didn't automatically get status—just because they signed up for an airline-branded credit card that awarded 50,000 free miles.

But the nice thing is that once you do get status, you don't merely earn regular FF miles... you often earn 1.5x or 2x the miles thanks to your status bonus, or special promotions. So a 1,000-mile round trip might net you 2,000 miles. But you should never expect to get status-building credit if you weren't actually on a plane.

• Read up about codesharing... where two airlines are technically using the same plane for two different flight numbers. Sometimes codeshares count for FF, sometimes they don't.

Never throw away a boarding pass until you have checked online to make sure your miles/points have cleared, which can take 7-14 days. If the airline incorrectly credits your flight, or doesn't post the miles at all, sometimes they will only accept your actual boarding pass as proof of their error.

All the various FF programs will seem overwhelming at first... but I promise it will be second nature after a time. When you get to the point where the FlyerTalk miles/points boards don't seem like they are written in Sanskrit, you've arrived.

Unrelated to FF miles but just useful:

• Learn the 3-letter codes for the airports you'll be in and out of most often. When you know what you are looking for, you'll be faster in booking tickets, in checking luggage tags, in everything.

• Learn your hubs. For example: American has hubs at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Chicago (ORD), Miami (MIA), New York (JFK), and Los Angeles (LAX). A couple others... I know Continental hubs at Houston (IAH) and Newark (EWR). Delta hubs in Atlanta. If you have to change flights or travel plans on day of event, knowing which carriers have the most routes, gates and planes will be a lifesaver. Ex: a snowstorm in New York keeps you from flying into JFK... but you could fly into EWR and drive.
posted by pineapple at 8:44 PM on October 13, 2010

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