Following upon my previous post on using a knowledge of airlines, air hubs and airline alliances to gain some advantage to cheaper tickets, this post will follow up on how to utilize the knowledge in redeeming miles as well as how to use other resources wisely. I would start with earning airline miles.
Rules differ from airlines to airlines, though most airlines allow you to redeem miles for flights on other airlines in the same alliances. Sometimes due to other partnerships, airlines also allow passengers to accumulate miles even if the airline is not on the same alliances. And airlines also divide miles to two classifications – status qualifying miles and non-status miles. Frequent flyer cards have different tiers, and the more you fly with them, the higher the tiers. Top most tiers are just like your 1% in this world, and they really gain access to a wealth of benefits like lounge access when you fly economy, automatic upgrades (not all airlines), ability to pre-book first row seats on the economy cabin, extra service and attention from crew on all cabins (like they will get meals before the rest, and sometimes might even be given meals from the class higher). That is why it is important to accumulate status qualifying miles that will get you the basic perks of travelling.
Miles earned from credit cards do not contribute to status and you can only achieve this through checking in and taking the flight yourself which is why some people have resorted to ‘mileage runs’ that is flying return tickets on weekends just for the sake of earning miles. Earning status means higher priority in redemptions so they also get access to better flights. All this are aimed at passengers to remain loyal to one airline, so pick one good airline to fly with and credit all your flight to that airlines’ frequent flyer card. My main frequent flyer card is the Marco Polo Club of Cathay Pacific, and for beginners, they are part of Asia Miles, and upgraded to Marco Polo after 4 flights on Cathay in a single year. Some of the better frequent flyer cards I recommend are United Mileage Plus, Asiana Club, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer, Air Canada Aeroplan, Lufthansa Miles and More, American Airlines Advantage and Qantas Frequent Flyer. Please refer to each membership earning and redemption rules for the pros and cons, or maybe there should be a post comparing them. I am not very familiar with all of them but the main things you need to consider are your travelling patterns and main airport hubs that you use. Non-frequent travellers might consider United or those American based airlines frequent flyer cards as their miles can be extended indefinitely (ie. they do not expire). Another thing to consider is the points required to redeem and upgrade flights, as different airlines varies the miles required for the same routes. The rule of thumb is that it is easier to earn and redeem miles on America-based airlines (United and American are the best).
A shortcut to earning miles is through purchasing miles, and this is only worthwhile if there are promotions. US Airways (a member of Star Alliance) frequently holds promotions whereby one can buy a maximum of 50,000 miles and get 50,000 miles free. The price for them is US$1,750, and with 100,000 miles, one can get a return ticket from North America to Asia, and there have been instances where the routes can be done via Europe. Sometimes US Airways target certain members for this promotion, and they have a rule stating that only members who have enrolled in their Dividend Miles account for 12 days or more are entitled to this promotion. Thus I encourage anyone to sign up for their account since it is free anyway. The catch here though is it is nearly impossible to redeem flights on Lufthansa, Swiss and Singapore First Class and it is a shame since these 3 are perhaps one of the best First Class cabins in Star Alliance. And redemption to First Class cabins is limited to one person per flight, which makes it difficult for couples wishing to travel on First. There are however, certain routes which are attainable like LAX-NRT on ANA First, ORD-ICN on Asiana First, and FRA-BKK on Thai First. Asiana, Thai and ANA are perhaps one of the best Star Alliance carriers to redeem these miles, and which is why I encourage readers to research on the available flights which offer good cabins. For business class cabins, consider ANA’s new 787 service from SEA-NRT, Air China’s A330 from YVR-PEK and PEK-SIN and even Asiana’s ORD-ICN flights.
Another promotion that is ongoing right now is the purchase of American Airlines (a member of oneworld) miles. They have an ongoing promotion whereby you can purchase 40,000 miles and get a bonus of 15,000 miles for US$1,100. With 50,000 miles, one can redeem one-way flights from North America to North Asia on Cathay Pacific business (the world’s best business class). Note that for these two promotions, sales taxes apply for credit card purchases. And there are also fees involved after redemption and these 2 additional charges will add around $300-400 depending on your routings. Naturally the best use of miles is earning them on American-based airlines and redeeming them on Asian-based airlines (even China based airlines now have better cabins than United, Air Canada or American).
One other method to earn miles is through earning hotel points and one of the best way to do that is via Starwood Preferred Guest (or SPG) for short. They are one of the easiest hotel chains and perhaps the most generous for points. Stay at any Sheraton, St Regis, Westin, W, Le Meridien and some others (check their website for all their brands) and get SPG points. Though this is restricted to rates purchased directly from their website (ie. Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline doesn’t count). They have their own promotions called Starpicks which conducts sales on selected properties worldwide for stays in the next 6 weeks. These rates are pre-paid (means not refundable) and are usually good value. In addition they hold quarterly promotions where you gain bonus points (like double or triple) depending on number of nights stayed. If you stay at their properties enough to gain a higher tier, you can get more points per stay. For users of social media like Foursquare, they provide 250 additional points when you check-in (one reason why I use Foursquare now…), and if you book through their iPhone app, it is an additional 500 points (another reason I use the iPhone, though they have one for Androids now…). Another great reason to collect SPG points is that for every 20,000 points one transfers to airline miles, you get a 5,000 bonus, thus 20,000 SPG points = 25,000 KrisFlyer miles or 25,0000 Asia Miles etc. By being loyal to their hotel chain, my points just add up, and because I stay enough times, I gain their highest status which gives me free standard suite upgrades whenever available, and free internet and breakfast at all their properties around the world even when I book their lowest rate.
Now that you have earned or bought the miles, the difficult part is redeeming airline miles. First of all, you would need to check for redemption or award availability. For Star Alliance flyers, they would need to sign up for the ANA Mileage Club and/or Air Canada Aeroplan, and they would need to plan ahead and research for availability using the ANA Mileage Club or Aeroplan’s flight award section. The trick to using the ANA search tool when you do not have any ANA mileage balance is to first search for routes that ANA flies with. This will bring up only ANA flights, and after doing that, a small link will appear allowing ‘Search on Star Alliance’ flights. Both ANA and Aeroplan has one of the easiest and most accurate search for redemption availability. This allows you to try and plan your itinerary, and always be flexible when planning travel. For example if you want to fly to Denpasar (Bali) from Miami, check flights from the American hubs (nearest is most probably Chicago or New York JFK or Newark) then route to an Asian hub (Hong Kong or Narita or Incheon). The regional flights are simpler to find (ie. MIA-JFK, MIA-ORD or NRT-DPS, HKG-DPS). Always check for the longest flight in your itinerary first before arranging the regional flights to fit into your schedule.
For oneworld flyers, as I am a member of Marco Polo and Asia Miles, I use them to check for award availability. Otherwise British Airways has a nice tool to check for availability, though you would need to do a Google search on how to use their tool. Another method to ascertain if you can get award availability is by determining how full a particular flight is. And this can be done by using Expert Flyer, a website that allows one to find out how many seats are occupied for a particular flight. This means you need to know the flight number and the departing and arrival airport codes (ie. SIN for Singapore, CGK for Jakarta etc.)
Finally redeeming miles can be done by calling up the individual frequent flyer hotlines and do a manual redemption, though sometimes administrative charges or more miles are required for such award bookings. Another thing to take note is the quality of the person who does the award booking might be different. If an agent cannot process an award that you have found availability for, say thank you, hang up and call back again. And for those not having access to a 1-800 toll free number to call the respective frequent flyer, just get a Skype account, add credits and call. Be prepared to spend an hour or so to book an award redemption. So I guess that is how I manage to get a North America to Asia flight in First for one thousand bucks one way.