The Very Best Basic Miles and Points Advice

I love Joe Brancatelli’s new column on loyalty programs.

I wish I could write this clearly. But I have this compulsion to give too much detail, to hedge, to be completely accurate and so I avoid making too many useful generalizations. And I think that limits both my reach and my ability to help people.

The advice he offers is generally sound, and echos what I write here though much more clearly and succinctly than I write it:

  • The IdeaWorks study on award availability is flawed
  • The best use of airline miles is premium cabin international awards.
  • Only top tier elite status really gets you a good flying experience, but having some status can be helpful — the kind of recognition you pretty much get just by signing up for your airline’s co-brand credit card.
  • Don’t hoard your miles, don’t buy miles without an immediate use, they may be devalued when revenue-based program changes come.
  • Don’t rely on airline websites to give you a good idea of what awards are available. For many partner airlines you have to call. And don’t expect the agent on the other end of the line to give you good information, either. Hang up, call back.
  • Hotel programs offer real value.

Joe singles United out as his example of when you need to call and not rely on the airline’s website, though it’s a little bit unfair since United is farther along in having its partners online than any of its US competitors. United’s website is actually decent for award booking compared to American and especially Delta (broken pricing engine, few partners) and US Airways (no partners at all).

And while Joe gives a recent Hyatt stay as an example of value, he doesn’t really distinguish between the different programs in his piece — different hotel programs provide wildly different value in terms of free night redemptions, and for upgrades as well as breakfast.

Finally, Joe’s advice on how to hedge against program devaluations is also great advice for having the points you need to get the awards you want — flexible points that transfer to a variety of mileage programs. Joe names Chase Ultimate Rewards, and that’s probably my favorite, but I prefer to diversify even there too so as not to be at the mercy of an individual issuer. Hence I like both American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints as well.

I do wish I could write this clearly…

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. Your blog inspired me to start writing as the Frugal Travel Lawyer more than 2 1/2 years ago. I continue to read and enjoy your posts. Thank you for your dedication and clear detailed writing style.

  2. You have a great blog, for the most part. When you stray into things that are not your…well…core competency (i.e., Supreme Court inner workings…), I cringe. But, love the travel advice.

  3. Gary, you do a terrific job. I owe all my free trips to your advice. I have been following you for years.

  4. Sometimes it’s hard to write short and simple when you know so much and have so much information worth sharing. I can relate, Gary.

  5. I know it is selfish. The easier it is for anyone and everyone to book “premium” awards, through all these blog guides, the less availability there will be.

    Unlike bloggers who may get to gain through viewership/ hits/ ads, etc, for me, there is no gain whatsoever.

  6. @Grant – is that what you are going with for Gary’s long-windedness? 🙂 You’re too kind. Love the blog but Gary would do himself a favor by getting an editor (or even a decent spell check program).

  7. Gary, your blog inspired me to start my own, the S&M Mistress on Travel. Really love it.

  8. The article does have an error in that US Airways doesn’t have off-peak business class awards to Europe/Asia anymore.

  9. “The best use of airline miles is premium cabin international awards”

    Used to think this, but really coming to disagree.The best use of airline miles is whatever gets you to wherever you want to go for the least possible outlay in whatever level of comfort you see. Focus on what you want to do, not cents per mile

  10. Ill add one more : hedge your points and don’t put everything in one basket

    If u have some in UA and some in AA, it’s nearly impossible to find an award seat no matter how exotic the destination or urgent the travel is

  11. @MilesAbound

    I agree. Use your miles to your heart’s desire. Only you can gauge what a mile is worth. I used to be obsessed with first-class, but now I find it somewhat of a waste. I also used to be obsessed with seeing new towns and cities. But even that got old and repetitive over time.

    Nowadays I fly to party. If I see a party I like on some random far-flung destination around the globe, or even 650 miles from home, I’m going. The more chances I have to do it, the better. Experiencing first-class is nice a couple of times, but in the end, what matters to me is what I do once I’m there. Flying just to fly gets stale. Flying to live, on the other hand, I’ll do any day of the week.

  12. @Brian – Seeing new places became old and repetitive?

    With all of the natural and cultural diversity in the world, I can’t even begin to imagine how a person could feel that way. I really hope I never end up as jaded as you.

  13. @MilesAbound – I agree with you that the best use of miles is not necessarily on premium cabin international awards. But I disagree about ignoring the cost and value of your miles. If you’re not paying attention to those numbers, then your awards may very well end up costing you more than if you had simply purchased revenue tickets to begin with.

    I personally prefer to use my miles for international awards in coach, as I consider the destination to be more important than the journey. But I always ensure that my redemptions are in my best financial interest.

  14. Call it jaded if you want, but falling into the usual repetitive tourist rut for the sake of seeing someplace new so you can walk around a square and take the same photos that millions of others have taken seems pointless.

    If I travel, I do it with a purpose; whether it be private cooking lessons, enhancing and enriching a foreign language I’ve learned at home, meeting an online language partner, seeing people I’ve befriended overseas, or (yes) even partying.

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t see anything jaded about it. To me, a destination, whether new or old, is more like a backdrop to a movie. More often than not, what goes on in the backdrop is more fruitful than the backdrop itself.

  15. I don’t fully agree with the no hoarding comments. You want to have a base of miles/points in a variety of programs to deal with availability issues. Most of my points come from CC’s. Its not the end world if my “free” money gets whacked a bit.

    That said, I do once a year family travel mostly which requires a lot of points to go one place, but not a lot of continuous burn throughout the year.

    I think the hoarding issue comes with more pain if you earn your miles on a BIS basis.

  16. @Brian.

    Cooking classes? Boring. Just go to any community club. After a while it gets old and repetitive. There is only so many dishes the teacher can claim to be “authentic” before you start to question the truth. I’d rather visit the country where the dish originated and eat the real deal.

    Learning a foreign language at home? Boring. I’d rather go to a different country to experience the language in action along with the culture that comes with it.

    Brian calls traveling “for the sake of seeing somewhere new”, “walking around a square” and “taking picture everyone else has taken” pointless. Brian says he travels with a purpose. Well, seems like Brian has been traveling without a purpose and traveling for the wrong reason.

    The majority of people travel to see new things. Brian on the other hand, is just following a tour guide’s itinerary and complaining. Brian is not traveling with a purpose. He claims to value “the experience” and what is important is “what I do there”. Well, Brian is not doing what he preaches since he doesn’t seem to immerse himself into his destination once he gets there; he complains.

    Brian is trying too hard to be “different”. Being “different” for the sake if being different is lame.

  17. @supersuper, get over yourself. Brian is right. Most “travelers” are merely gawkers. They get little more than Reader’s Digest version of the culture/place they visit. Absolutely impossible to learn anything meaningful in a few days/few weeks. And if you think otherwise, you’re simply delusional.

  18. I guess I would classify myself as a miles hoarder, but its not by choice. I fly so much for work that its not often I want or need to fly for personal. As such, I have a little over 2 million miles just sitting there. Makes me nervous, but have no realistic way to spend them…..

  19. I don’t understand this discussion of the “right” way to travel. Just about all personal travel is fundamentally selfish – we do it because we enjoy it and find it personally enriching. Even so-called “service” travel is probably a net waste – there are already professionals on-the-ground and you’d be better off just donating to operating charities than going, as an amateur, to build a house or clear a road.

    So if you find it personally enriching to meet locals and have tea in their homes, great! If you find it personally enriching to visit architecturally significant sites and photograph them, great! I don’t see why we need to label either of these as ‘better’ experiences or even ‘more authentic’ experiences – certainly providing homestays in india as travel lodging is just as much a business for the people that do it as being a tour guide or a tout…

    For some people clearly the thing they like most (or nearly most) about traveling is the hours of being pampered in a fancy cabin with good food on the way there and back. Why do we want to brand this as better or worse than people who like to go to raves full of Australians on the beach in Goa, or people who like to tick off lists of the highest mountains they’ve climbed or the days of backwoods powder they’ve skiied? To each his own.

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