The One Person Who Drives Me More Crazy Than Anyone Else

And believe it or not, it isn’t Christopher Elliott.

No, it’s Peter Greenberg.

He’s famous. He’s a big deal. And almost everything he says is wrong or at least misleading.

Here’s today’s column on redeeming frequent flyer miles.

Every year, I tell you how the airlines are devaluing frequent-flier miles. And since they control the inventory, some airlines make it harder than others to redeem those miles for seats.

A new study from IdeaWorks ranks airlines around the world based on their availability of reward seats. And guess what? The low-cost airlines fared the best. We’re talking Southwest and JetBlue in the U.S.

Internationally, Air Berlin, Brazil’s GOL, and Virgin Australia ranked high.

Meanwhile, US Airways and Delta tied for last place, and American Airlines was in the bottom five.

The IdeaWorks study is highly flawed and misleading. Nobody who knows anything about frequent flyer miles should draw conclusions like Greenberg does based upon it.

In any case, the broad claim that ‘every year airlines are devaluing frequent flyer miles’ isn’t quite true. Inventory goes up and down generally with the economy and the extent to which airlines are filling seats with paying passengers. And airlines have done a lot to add value, too, largely through partnerships and alliances but also through more liberal routing rules.

A dozen years ago you couldn’t book seamless alliance awards.

Even five years ago there were very few one-way awards. Three years ago United ‘blocked’ redemption of seats being offered by those partners when the mileage program didn’t want to pay for those seats, and held redemptions strictly to the “maximum permitted mileage” published for a given city pair.

Award prices have largely gone up, but it’s also become easier to earn miles through more partners and bigger bonuses.

While I am the first one to decry devaluation, it hasn’t been unquestionable, every year, or across-the-board.

But more importantly relying on the IdeaWorks study to tell you where to find current value leads to you almost the exact wrong conclusions. Greenberg should recognize this himself since he advises in the piece that you should redeem for international award tickets, and yet highlights the Southwest program as being most valuable (!).

Most airlines will release award seats as far out as 330 days. That’s when you start looking.

The only airline that I know which loads seats at 330 days out is US Airways. Most load their schedules earlier than that, even if it’s just at 331 or 338 days.

See also The Myth of Booking Award Travel at Midnight 330 Days Out. When the schedule loads isn’t necessarily the only or even best time to find award space.

And the most important advice: Talk to a human being. It may cost you a few bucks to talk to a reservations agent, but they can think creatively, find alternate routing, and even override the system on occasion. Things that a computer…can’t do.

Almost. Don’t rely on an airline website, though as far as websites among U.S. airlines go for award redemption United’s is pretty good. Delta’s is terrible. US Airways’ offers no partners (which is a large reason it does so badly in the IdeaWorks study, because it only looks at online availability, roughly speaking they have the exactly same availability that United does and United was ranked higher by IdeaWorks).

You can’t just ring up an agent and assume you’re getting the best information. Especially true if that agent works for Delta (their agents often don’t even know who their partners are let alone the right booking classes to use when searching for space).

Instead, you need to hang up and call back, I suggest making three phone calls before you believe a “no.”

Why oh why can’t we have a better travel press corps?

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. To be fair, I just read a blurb from none of than Randy Peterson in Moneny magazine which contained some fairly questionable advice about flying.

    How about a critique of that?

  2. @hobo13 You’re welcome to send me the link, you haven’t seen a critique of it first because I haven’t seen it. Whether or not I found it interesting enough or irritating enough to write about it I’d then have to say.

    But if your suggestion is that I don’t call Randy out when I disagree with him (not sure what that has to do with the topic here, but ok) then I suspect you don’t read me that closely — not that I blame you, but just sayin’.

    See for instance:

    And many other disagreements over time such as revenue-based programs (he and I have publicly disagreed about whether US Airways was going revenue-based and thus would make American revenue-based with the merger).

  3. Didnt mean to imply anything other than even respected guys in the field can have suspect advice.

    And I do read you. Fwiw.

  4. Alas, there if no perfect review method. The airline/credit programs are just too complex and each individual has their own preferences. Things like where one flys and which destination, value they place on economy, business, and first class, can they use business expenses for miles/points, flexibility in schedule, how far in advance can they plan, level of elite status on airlines, etc., etc. What works best for me may be horrible for the reviewer. Add that to the ever changing travel programs (devaluation of points, change in partners, change in seats available for awards, etc.), it is not easy to rate. However, the blogs that list the programs, current benefits, pitfalls, etc. are very useful for one to see which program best fits thier needs.

  5. @hobo13 Thanks!

    I think I was interpreting your comment based on the opening, “To be fair…” as though my singling out of Greenberg wasn’t fair.

  6. @SAPMAN hit the nail in the head!

    I used to get almost angry at friends and family redeeming their miles and points on economy class tickets. But I then realized that some of them do not have access to the big credit card bonuses (they live in other countries) or they do not fly loung haul, etc, etc, etc.

    I tend to pay for my short to mid-range haul trips and redeem on premium class for long ones. I can usually plan my trips very ahead of time and I use the miles also as an insurance (you can cancel and lose only the fee).

    I love traveling to small cities where there aren’t the big hotels around (interior of Tuscany and Umbria, Capadocia, etc) and in these places hotel points do not even matter, much better for me the program plus the ultimate rewards.

  7. Is ok. The more people they turn off of mile/point collecting the better for the rest of us. It’s like too many people spoil a good thing. Think Disney on a busy holiday weekend.

  8. Gary,

    I submit that the “mass” travel press lacks a luxury you enjoy – an informed, sophisticated readership.

    And, no, you do not have to thank your readers for being sophisticated. But most of the travel press has folks at the steepest slope of the learning curve as their audience.

    With that said, Mr. Greenberg should refrain from BAD analysis, even to an uninformed audience. I am left to wonder if the travel press, as part of developing information for distribution to the millions, tracks the blogs, whose information is directed to the relative thousands who want to be best informed?

  9. United’s is usually pretty good, but a few months ago I was trying to price an award from US to Asia through Europe, I couldn’t get any two segments in/through/from Europe to show up on, called in and 15 minutes later I was booked DEN-IAH-LHR-MUC-BKK-FRA in F (UA site had error for LHR-MUC-BKK, IAH-LHR-MUC, MUC-BKK-HKG standalone searches).

  10. What always scares me about the media is that if you are truly an expert in a field, you realize how bad the reporting is in that area.

    What’s scary about that is that nobody can be an “expert” in more than a few things. And when you don’t know better, you tend to trust what you read in the media. So think about how much misinformation you’re exposed to every day, and you don’t even know it!

    Mainstream “frequent flyer news” tends to be poorly done. There are probably a hundred people reading this thread who could do a better job than Peter Greenberg. Heck, if I were running NBC Universal, I’d fire Greenberg tomorrow and offer you the job. 🙂

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