Advice for a frequent flyer newb?
July 10, 2013 2:51 AM   Subscribe

After not travelling much for most of my life, I've been on a quite a few flights in the past year, and plan on flying more in the future, domestic and international. I've just been using Orbitz, etc, to book flights, but are there better ways to do it if you're flying often? Should I focus on one carrier? How do frequent flyer miles work and how can I best take advantage of them? Is there a good resource for figuring all this stuff out?

I'm not going to be exactly globe trotting, but assume I'll be flying somewhere 6-10 times a year, if that makes a difference for the answer. I'll mostly be buying tickets for two. And I'll trade comfort and luxury for price almost every time, and this is mostly for leisure/personal stuff not business.
posted by empath to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh -- and is it possible to retroactively get frequent flyer miles on tickets you've already bought?
posted by empath at 2:51 AM on July 10, 2013

Yes it's possible to get retro active points IF you still have your boarding passes. I agree about price over comfort BUT I pay for my preferred carrier over choice. 6-10 flights (assuming they're not 6-10 thirty minute flights) should get you some mid level status on most major and minor carriers. For resources you can't beat flyertalk, i've been a heavy business traveler for close to 15 years and I was in flyertalk last week to have the new air Canada thing explained to me. If you mention your home airport and some typical destinations I can be more specific to airline suggestions. Just remember that if you aren't doing all short haul domestic your best option is likely to be not ONE airline but either the oneworld or star alliance groups (again although IMO star alliance is better it depends on YOUR home airport)

Memail me if you have more questions etc. I love travel and can probably give you tips on pretty much any major city anywhere at this point. Enjoy the jetset life!
posted by chasles at 3:19 AM on July 10, 2013

The internet home for those of us who collect frequent flier miles obsessively is Flyertalk. In general, it is probably best to concentrate on one carrier (or at least one alliance), because if you accumulate enough miles in one calendar year, you get a lot more perks. I almost never fly in coach, because my status entitles me to free upgrades to first class. On most alliances, you'll get upgraded quite frequently when you fly around 50,000 miles per year and basically always if you fly 100,000 miles or more.

The "secret" tip that many people don't realize is that credit card sign-up bonuses are HUGE in the accumulation of miles. Just about every airline has an affiliated credit card that awards 50,000 miles for signing up and for many of them meeting yearly spending thresholds gives you status miles (the 50k and 100k figures above) which make it easier to earn upgrades.

In terms of getting credit for tickets, the answer is "it depends." You will get credit for all tickets bought but not yet traveled -- you just have to enter your FF# into the record. For flights that you have already taken, the rules vary by airline. In some cases you can go back as far as 6 months to request credit for flights already taken.
posted by Lame_username at 3:20 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Short answer: sign up for every frequent flier program that exists. They're all free, and will only cost you a few minutes of time. Same for hotel programs. Secondarily, consider getting a credit card for the airline you use the most, to keep your miles fresh (unexpired). I like Kayak for booking personal travel. On business travel, use your company's agent to the degree it makes sense, but it may be more expedient to book your own. Yes, many programs will allow you to retroactively apply for miles.

Longer answer: You should collect miles for every trip you take, but for the amount you're flying, you'll want to concentrate on a single airline to make things really worthwhile. This is at odds with your stated goal of price being the priority; any airline in particular will never always be the cheapest option. Further, once you have loyalty to an airline/alliance, you will start feeling... very motived... to take them... that's the whole point of frequent flier programs, for the airlines: they incentivize you to choose them over cheaper options. Whether the perks are worth it or not, depend on the program and your status level. The equation also changes significantly when someone else is paying.

On 6-10 RT's a year, assuming mostly domestic on random airlines, you'll probably get status on one. Probably. But honestly, everyone has (low level) status these days. Basically: you're never going to get a complimentary upgrade, but you may get access to (somewhat) better seats and shorter lines at the airport (depending on the airport). The primary benefit will be accruing miles which you can spend on flights and upgrades. At that rate I would just choose based on price. This changes pretty significantly if your trips are all international/long haul.

Also, miles expire, typically a year and a half or so after you earn them, unless you're accruing more. That's where the credit card comes in.
posted by danny the boy at 3:22 AM on July 10, 2013

You should know that most carriers are part of an airline alliance which share frequent flyer programs. You should at least sign up for an airline within each alliance.

For example, I fly TAP Portugal often from the UK to Portugal. I'm not a member of their FF program but instead I add the miles to my United Mileage Plus account. Same with British Airways and other airlines.

So, you don't literally need to confine yourself to one airline, just one alliance, in order to gain miles.
posted by vacapinta at 3:27 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've just been using Orbitz, etc, to book flights, but are there better ways to do it if you're flying often?

That works well for most direct flights. But those sites sometimes don't list the discount carriers. Orbitz had some problems with Southwest and American, I believe. And in Europe, carriers like RyanAir and others get left out of listings as well.

For flights that may have multiple connections, it may sometimes be better for you to look around at different itineraries on your own at the sites of different airlines. Putting together a complex itinerary and finding the best one is still a tough problem for computers and one where human intelligence and intuition can still find some improvements to be made.
posted by vacapinta at 3:37 AM on July 10, 2013

Response by poster: I"m flying out of DC, so I can choose from three different airports, if that matters for airlines. And it'll probably be mostly domestic with some international -- i've gone to europe and central america in the past 12 months..
posted by empath at 3:44 AM on July 10, 2013

Consider getting a general points credit card rather than a specific airline card. For example American Express Membership Rewards or better yet Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express which can be used on a ton of different airlines.
posted by Dansaman at 5:15 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I started traveling a lot for work I had a massive spreadsheet of all possible alliances I could join by choosing a US airline to partner with, and worked from there. One big driver is that I knew I'd have to go to Singapore at some point, and I desperately wanted to fly Singapore Airlines since they have such an amazing reputation (especially for business class), and from there I backed out who I needed to partner with (United, in the US, codeshares with Sing Air so Sing Air's miles help me both for award miles and qualifying miles on United). Consider this, especially as you look at international destinations -- usually flying internationally is much more enjoyable on non-US carriers.

Also -- note that both United and Delta, starting in 2014, are going to require you to spend a minimum amount of money on tickets (NOT COUNTING TAXES AND FEES, argh) in order to earn or maintain status. On United at least (unsure on Delta), having the credit card and spending a minimum of $25k during the year waives that requirement up through Platinum status, but not for their higher tier status. American may not yet be going to that system, though they undoubtedly will eventually.
posted by olinerd at 7:08 AM on July 10, 2013

I'm skeptical that you fly enough to earn elite status with an airline. What does that mean? Well, that's where the real perks are that you get from airline loyalty. And if you don't get elite status, the number of miles you'll get in terms of accumulating a free flight won't be worth added costs, if your preferred airline doesn't offer the cheapest flights.

You get the number of miles per flight that you actually fly, more or less. To get Delta silver status you need to fly 25,000 miles in a year. To get Delta gold status you need to fly 50,000 in a year. Silver offers very few perks (most of which you can also get just by using the co-branded American Express card). Theoretically you can redeem 25,000 miles for a free flight, but in reality it will probably cost you closer to 40,000.

Frequent flier programs really pay off for frequent business travelers; not a leisure traveler who might get on a plane every month and a half.

Maybe I'm wrong, but my view is that you should sign up for accounts with all the airlines -- and then choose flights based on price (with a preferred airline if price is equal).

Flyer Talk is the website you want.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:12 AM on July 10, 2013

Just to be clear, when you use a points credit card like I mentioned above, on your card you get points for the dollar value of the purchase and in that airline's frequent flyer program you get points for the miles travelled. You get both benefits.
posted by Dansaman at 8:22 AM on July 10, 2013

My husband travels for work, and we live in the DC area. He travels a bit more than you -- more like 10-15 times a year. We LOVE Southwest airlines FF program. LOVE IT. We have their credit card, and use it to pay for everything except our mortgage. Between credit card points and his flights, we have two really awesome perks: a companion pass and he has A-list status. The companion pass lets me fly with him for free (well, not totally free, but we only pay the taxes). His A-list status gives him automatic check-in as an A (if you don't fly Southwest, this might seem cryptic, but it is totally awesome, trust me). Southwest flies out of BWI, Dulles and National, but you'll get the cheapest fares with them out of BWI.

The one downside to Southwest is that they don't have a lot of international flights, but they recently bought AirTran, so they have more than they used to, but it's mostly limited to Mexico and the Caribbean. Southwest also doesn't participate in any alliances.
posted by OrangeDisk at 8:24 AM on July 10, 2013

Some airlines are better for some things. Southwest/AirTran allow you accumulate free flights the fastest. Also, when I flew AirTran I was ALWAYS upgraded to business. It makes a big difference if you fly frequently.

I will say that if you're flying out of a hub, you will be competing with folks who fly twice a week for the upgrades. For example, I'm in Atlanta, and I've never even been close to getting an upgrade with them. Too many Medallian travelers for me to come close. On American though, I have better luck.

Elite status means some pretty great perks. In some airports there are security lines for Elite status travelers, Business and First Class, etc. I always get in that line. It moves more quickly.

Elite status folks get milage perks on certain routes. That's super helpful too.

I do check the travel sites for fare deals, but I always book through my carrier directly. I know, I suck. I always get the same rate, and if there's a hassle, I deal with the airline, not the website.

One thing I will say is check your rental and hotel options through the airlines. American has A-MAZING deals for hotels. I've booked Courtyard for $35 per night! I got InterContinental Barklay in New York for $189 per night. Serious deals!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:28 AM on July 10, 2013

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