Wanderlust the Smart Way

There is this spark in my husband’s eyes whenever he redeems his airline miles or acquires free nights in hotels in various locations in the world. That spark is an outcome of a clever collection of air miles and hotel loyalty points. Those two components, through a series of permutations and combinations, add magic to our holidays.

Imagine paying in terms of loyalty points and miles for a holiday. You would then have to take care of just the regular expenses of eating, drinking, sightseeing and shopping in a destination.

Travelling could be that much simpler, yes.

My husband has been inspired by our Seattle-based brother-in-law who is a firm believer in the goodness of the concept. Their conversations revolve highly around these subjects when we meet or talk on the phone.

A lot of eye rolling happens on my side whenever they are in the groove.

Then on a hike in Norway we made a new friend who it turns out is as obsessed with air miles and hotel loyalty talk. And boy, those conversations can put me to sleep but that is because I am an air travel simpleton. Before I met my husband, I used to book air tickets in the basic mode: Cheapest fare, tick; Destination A to Destination B, tick; Timelines that suited me, tick. I did not even collect hotel loyalty points.

After years of watching the husband spend hours researching deals on his laptop and whittled by his conversations with like-minded people, it has seeped into me – that travelling intelligently, armed with miles and hotel points, is a gratifying process.

….

This deconstruction of getting started with air miles and hotel points is for the uninitiated (I shall try my best and let the three experts I had a chat with take over).

What are air miles? A word from the mile-wise friend: “I would say miles are the same as any other form of travel currency. Registering with most airline programmes does not cost anything.  If you do not collect air miles, you are giving away travel currency.”

Similarly, hotel points are the kind of loyalty that you receive when you favour a certain property during booking rooms for holidays.

There is a third way of maximising points. Apply for a credit card with sign-up bonus points for hotels and airlines. For e.g. in the UK you get 30,000 reward points on a certain credit card company’s platinum card. “The aim should be to hit the spend limit, get bonus points and then churn (cancel the card once the bonus points have been accrued and then reapply for the card after a few months so that you get fresh points all over again) the card. I have earned 300,000 points through applying for credit cards for my wife and me, and churning them,” says the husband.

He adds: “Always keep an eye out for offers from hotel chains on their loyalty programmes. I did a mattress run recently and earned 80,000 points by just spending 120£.”

The brother-in-law is an expert and rather passionate about the subject. He once took eight flights in a day. He got up early one morning, spent 110$ on a round trip, flying from Raleigh to Charlotte to DC to Pittsburgh to Buffalo and returning to Seattle via Philadelphia, DC, Charlotte and Raleigh. “US Air was showering travellers with bonus miles at the time. I was a gold card holder and I ended up with 20,000 miles. They upgraded me on every flight to first class,” he notes. You see the way the expert’s mind works.

The most lucrative promotion came about in the early 2000s, he recalls, when Swiss Air went bankrupt. KLM ran a promotion which stated that if you were an elite member with another airline, had a European address and earned 12,000 Flying Dutchman points or flew 20 segments within 6 months, KLM would make you an elite member. It would also give you an equivalent number of points as the miles you had collected on the other airline’s frequent flyer account.

The brother-in-law explains: “It was aimed at people who were frequent flyers on Swiss Air. The deal was that you had to fly 20,000 miles within three months. I was an elite member of US Air already. To satisfy the other clause, I used a friend’s mail address in the UK. I cadged up the miles by taking a trip to India and a round trip to Europe within three months. I numbered six flights on the round trip to Europe, then were another six flights involved in reaching India and getting back. I booked these on KLM and Northwest, former partners of Swiss Air. As a result, I got the equivalent of gold elite membership on KLM, and 880,000 points.” Subsequently, when KLM moved to a mileage-based programme, they converted each point to 1.8 miles.  The brother-in-law ended up with roughly 1.5 million miles.

For the friend everything changed about six years ago when he first acquired an air miles co-branded credit card that allowed him to collect Emirates Skywards. He had never bothered checking how many miles he had on it till he received a notification from Skywards that stated that he had about 80,000 miles. “That started my ‘miles hobby’ and I quickly changed my alliance from Skywards to BA (Oneworld).  Now I almost never book with booking sites. I only use airline and hotel sites — as you can see the benefits of travel programmes,” he points out.

But it does not really mean that these air miles and hotel points make you travel for free. For let us sober up, there is nothing called free travel but there is award-happy travel. As the friend notes: “Contrary to the popular misconception, travel is not ‘free’.  What a ‘miles hobby’ does is that it makes you travel extensively, explore new places, look up new hotels and new airlines. It has done all that for me, and most importantly, it has made me more spontaneous with travel. Many would say that travel is only about getting from point A to point B. Miles let you enjoy how you make that journey. Last year, I visited 10 cities and seven of those had some form of connection with redemption of miles (e.g. cash fare plus upgrade, an all-mile redemption etc.).”

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Vignesh, a points addict. Pic courtesy: Vignesh

….

How do you get started?

“Look up blogs. There are so many out there which dedicate posts to conversations about air miles. I got hooked when I was doing a search on frequent flyer issues and ended up on FlyerTalk (www.flyertalk.com). They discussed all kinds of tricks, how to maximise your miles and even listed out details on every programme,” says the brother-in-law, who in the last 15 years has funded 75 per cent of the family’s travel through miles.

According to the friend, FlyerTalk forums are the best way to get updated but if you are a beginner, they can confuse you with too many details. “You need to be an aviation geek and follow the forums on a regular basis. Headforpoints and Godsavethepoints are two good blogs which I would recommend. Headforpoints focus exclusively on the UK market.”

Another point to note is that miles do not belong to you but rather to the airlines. The friend adds: “This means that they can be devalued, at least theoretically, overnight. You could lose value drastically (e.g. Alaska miles devaluation in US recently). Miles, just like cash, lose value over time, so I would never keep hoarding on to miles with a view of reaching some magic number. Collect miles on more neutral programmes like American Express Membership Rewards or SPG rewards as they can be converted to a number of different programmes and you can hedge the exposure towards any one airline programme. That said, you also need to have frequent flyer status with some of the main programmes (e.g. Oneworld or Star Alliance) as it makes travel even more pleasant.”

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The kind of rewards you can reap through collecting air miles. Pic courtesy: Vignesh

With respect to maximising miles, you have to know when to redeem them. For short-haul flights within Europe, my husband opts for low-cost airlines instead of throwing away miles on what would anyway be a cheap air ticket. But when we think of tickets to far-off destinations, he does extensive research on how to best use our bank of air miles.

“In the UK, government taxes are so high that it makes sense to redeem the points for a business class or first class ticket. When we travelled to Seattle and back, we chose business class. We had a companion voucher which I had got through a credit card. We redeemed 80,000 points – without the companion voucher it would have cost us double the points. We paid only 600£ taxes for two return business class tickets. In economy, the taxes would have still gone up to 550£. That is the point of maximising miles,” adds the husband.

The same goes for loyalty points. Redeem them at a top-of-the-line hotel of the chain that you bank your loyalty with.

Now are you up for making a change to intelligent travel and getting adventurous with it?

The husband pipes out while I am writing – “Remember, with miles and hotel loyalty points, you feel your next holiday is more achievable. More than when you look at your bank balance.”

As the aviation geek would aptly insist: “It is never too late to start this hobby.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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