Scott McCartney offers a lot of bad advice in the Wall Street Journal about the value of miles and what to expect from them.
Seth does a good job pointing out the flaws. McCartney looks only at the websites of the airlines whose miles he’s trying to use (the Delta website is broken, the US Airways website doesn’t offer partner award options at all), the routes he’s searching with the miles he’s using aren’t really generalizable to mileage programs as a whole, and the conclusions he draws about the value of miles are erroneous (you shouldn’t just expect a penny a point in value from them).
However, through my award booking service I have come across a large number of folks who approach things just the way that Scott does and that’s why they come looking for help — they assume if they want to use their miles that they should go to the airline’s website, tell it what they want, and the system would tell them what’s possible. That’s not an unreasonable assumption. It’s how the average person would expect things to work. Of course, it’s not how things actually work, but there’s no reason the median member would know that (though it would have been nice for Scott to tell them…).
In fairness further, Scott actually also gets the conclusion ‘almost right’:
You can get better value using your miles for high-dollar tickets like international business-class and first-class upgrades, or by using them for last-minute trips, such as a family emergency, a funeral or just surprising someone unexpectedly. Business-class fares run so high that using miles instead gets you 6-7 cents or more for each mile. And I’ve long advocated, and employed, the last-minute strategy. Better to avoid those unexpected high-dollar tickets if you can.
The corollary to the critique, though, is to point out what lessons can be learned to get the most out of miles, not merely to dampen expectations. Sadly, that’s left to folks with a far smaller audience…. (or not so sadly, more award seats for us!).
- The biggest bang for the buck in miles is premium cabin international awards. Miles aren’t really ‘worth’ the 10-14 cents a mile I get out of them on my first class award redemptions (comparing mileage cost to the price of a similar paid ticket) both because I wouldn’t actually pay the sticker price, so I haven’t replaced that amount of cash, and also because the mileage seats are more limited, I don’t have the flexibility to buy any seat on any day that I would when paying the cash price. But since the price of a coach ticket to Europe in the summer is often $1200 – $1500, I’m certainly getting well over Scott’s penny a point when I redeem 100,000 miles for a business class ticket to Europe.
- International upgrades are no longer as good a value as they used to be. Contra Scott, except for folks whose companies are buying last minute full fare tickets anyway, it’s rarely a great strategy to buy a coach ticket and try to upgrade (unless you can confirm the upgrade with a complimentary upgrade given to top tier elite members).
Mileage upgrades generally involve a hefty cash co-pay that can mean an extra $1000+ per person roundtrip in addition to the lowest fare and in addition to burning the miles. Using miles to upgrade on partner airlines generally first requires buying a full fare coach ticket, and that’s often close to as expensive as an advance purchase discounted business class ticket.
Finally, with award booking you generally have the flexibility of combining multiple partners into a single one-way award to get where you’re going, meaning it’s much easier to find the space you want. Upgrade awards, even on full fare tickets, won’t normally cover more than a single flight segment.
- The best time to look is not necessarily 331 days out. The old myth about calling at midnight the moment airline schedules load isn’t true, I’ve never done that in my life and have still redeemed over 100 million miles worth of premium cabin awards all at the low level (for others). People used to think when they called at midnight and were told the seats weren’t available, “darnit, someone else must have already grabbed them!” That’s wrong.
Airlines load some award seats when the schedules open, but what they’re trying to do is make those seats available as awards that they aren’t going to sell for cash — and 11 months out it’s tough to forecast. Some airlines load lots of inventory then (like Cathay Pacific). But almost all airlines will continually evaluate their sales and if they’re below forecast they’ll add more seats as awards, if sales are above forecast they’ll take away award seats (a disappearing award seat doesn’t even necessarily mean someone else took it). Sure, 11 months out could be a good time to book (and some airlines let you book 355 – 360 days out).
Any time within the first few months is often good, some carriers release seats around 10 months (that used to be South African’s approach though more recently I’ve seen good availability 11 at months). Six months is a good time too. The toughest is probably 60 days out, much of the advance inventory is already gone but the last minute seats the airline has given up on selling aren’t made available yet. If you really want to play chicken with inventory, the world is usually your oyster 2 days out on all except sold out flights…
- Don’t rely on the airline’s website. Delta’s website is just completely broken for booking awards. American is working on displaying partner airlines, but so far only includes Alaska. US Airways doesn’t show partner awards at all, thus Scott McCartney sees no space DC – Austin even though a phone call to US Airways would secure plenty of awards on United for that route.
The best place to look for awards on Star Alliance airlines is the Continental website (which will imminently be called united.com), it includes all Star Alliance partner awards except Ethiopian (which has great availability Washington Dulles – Rome – Addis Ababa and beyond within Africa). The All Nippon and Aeroplan sites are good, often even more useful for experts, but the Continental site is easy and you don’t even need to log in to use it.
Meanwhile, oneworld awards can be searched on the Qantas website (though notoriously not Japan Airlines space, and partner award space on Cathay can show inaccurately). I supplement that with the British Airways website. (I personally use the Japan Airlines website just for partner Cathay Pacific award searches, but one rarely needs to get that fine-grained).
And Skyteam awards, such as those booked with Delta miles? The US Air France Flying Blue website gets me most Skyteam partners, though it isn’t complete, Korean Airlines has good availability out of several US gateways but won’t come up anywhere except ExpertFlyer.com and FlightStats.com (the latter of which can be searched via the KVS Availability Tool).
- Hang up, call back. Just because a telephone agent says something is not available doesn’t mean it is not available. Delta agents often don’t even know who their partners are, let alone what booking classes to search for awards. Some airline agents don’t understand their systems, or are simply not inclined to be helpful. Other times there can be IT glitches. If you believe seats are available by doing your own award searching, such as via the websites mentioned above, and an agent tells you there’s no space open, hang up and call back and you may get a different answer.
- Think creatively. Maybe the only flight that isn’t available is from your home airport to the city you fly internationally from. Would you buy that flight separately if it got you the award? Air France from Washington DC to Paris, and then to many cities beyond, is available in business class most days of the week. The hard part with Delta miles would be getting to DC to start and end the award.
Or consider coming up with your own non-traditional routings, a website or a phone agent is only likely to search the most obvious and ‘logical’ routings but a connection in Mexico or Canada when traveling from the US to Europe is often allowed and available even if it’s not proactively offered to you. Or using American miles to fly to San Juan and on to Madrid on Iberia.
- Get expert help. Many of the folks who read this blog are interested enough in the chase to learn to do it themselves, to invest the time, to become at least a semi-expert in their own right. For those folks I’d always rather offer advice than charge a service fee to do it for them. But many people are like Scott’s Journal readers, are not going to learn the minutiae of airline schedules to figure out routings the airlines won’t think to offer and then develop knowledge of partner websites to find availability so you know when to hang up call back should you get an unhelpful agent. For those times, there are experts — I offer a service (that for some reason I rarely write about!). And I’m not the only one, I have full confidence in Ben from the One Mile at a Time blog and also Matthew from Live and Let’s Fly.
Miles are hugely valuable. I’m writing this onboard a Cathay Pacific first class flight from Hong Kong to Chicago (paid for on points) where I spent five nights at the Park Hyatt Hadahaa in the Maldives (also on points). I would never in my lifetime be able to afford this sort of aspirational travel, and it’s something I do all the time.
When I mentioned to my boss a year ago that I was headed to Asia on vacation, he said “Again?” I said what do you mean again? He replied, “you were just in India two months ago.” I demurred, “Yes, but that was Central Asia.” On that trip I flew ANA first class, Singapore first class, and Thai first class, and had the entire cabin on two of those flights. And that is why I collect miles and points. Not to get a penny a point with a coach ticket to Austin.