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Airline Mismanagement

One of the most influential factors in how we choose our flights, hotels, and rental cars, are the frequent flier programs linked to such travel products.

What were initially simple standalone programs have now become tremendously complicated and interwoven.

This book tells you how to get best mileage out of your frequent flier programs.

 
 
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Mileage Pro

The Insider's Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs

The growing popularity and complexity of frequent flier programs has created a small industry of advisors and commentators.

Without a doubt, the two pre-eminent gurus in the field are Randy Petersen and Tim Winship.  They've joined forces and pooled their knowledge and expertise, creating a book to share this with all of us.

Their book is a must have for everyone who participates in frequent flier programs.

 

 

It seems for many of us, the more we know (about frequent flier programs) the more we realize we don't know.

Whether you're a very active frequent flier or an occasional traveler, you need to buy and study this book.  You're sure to benefit by many times the book's $19.95 cost.

A joint venture by the two pre-eminent experts on this complex topic, 'Mileage Pro' is a great opportunity for us all to learn from their accumulated knowledge and pooled experience.

Recommended.

About the Book

The paperback book measures 5 1/8th" x 8", and is 5/8th" in thickness.  It has 206 pages.

The book is printed onto standard quality white paper.  Apart from small sepia cartoons at the start of each chapter, and a tiny black and white photo of each of the two authors, there are no illustrations or pictures. But, hey!  You're buying this book for the information it contains, not for any pretty pictures.

The book, published just a couple of weeks ago on 22 Nov, sells for $19.95 and is available direct from the publisher.  It is not currently stocked by Amazon.

Strangely, although the book has a contents listing 18 chapters, there is no index.  So if, for example, you want to find out information about dining programs (which isn't mentioned in the contents but does get mention in several places in the book), there's no way to quickly find this information, short of reading all the way through the book.  This is a strange omission and hopefully one to be corrected in future editions.

What the Book Contains

The book starts off with some interesting history of the evolution of frequent flier programs.  Interestingly, although American Airline's Aadvantage program is generally believed to be the first frequent flier program, there were airline antecedents to this, plus United already had a program it was about to launch.  Indeed, the big daddy of all affinity programs was the Green Stamps program, which at its peak saw the program organizers printing three times as many stamps as the US Postal Service.

Although the book's title would suggest a focus on frequent flyer - ie, airline - programs, it covers not just airline programs but also all other travel affinity type programs, eg, those of hotels and rental cars, and more generic programs operated by credit card companies too.

To some of us, the book may contain a fair number of obvious ideas; to others of us, the ideas may be new and startlingly revelatory.  All of us, no matter how knowledgeable we are, can benefit from an occasional complete read through this book.  I found myself reading about things I'd forgotten about or overlooked in the past, and so benefited both from the reminders and checklists for things I already knew as well as from the new ideas I did not know about before.

Chapter 17 is a very useful chapter, with summaries of the salient points of 23 different airline programs, 14 different hotel programs, four (only four?) rental car programs, two credit card programs and one miscellaneous program (Amtrak).  It also has what would have been called in a former age a bibliography, referring you to other websites and newsletters for more information.

Which program is best?

While it is very difficult to identify any one program as the 'best', the book helps you to understand the differences between the different programs so that you can both choose the best programs to match your travel patterns and needs, and then use your selected program(s) to best advantage.

The book contains some excellent suggestions, any one of which pays for the book several times over.  For example, with hotel programs that allow you the choice of earning miles into an airline partner program or points into the hotel's program, the authors recommend the latter in cases where you can subsequently convert the points into miles.  As they sensibly point out, this strategy preserves your options for the future, and at no present cost.

Sometimes better to forego frequent flier miles?

The authors also cut through the hype of frequent flier program benefits when they say 'In some cases, you are better off buying a cheaper product and foregoing miles.  Do the math.'

So, if one does the math, how much is a mile worth?  In quick summary form, the authors say that, on average, a value of a frequent flier mile is approximately 1 cent.

They do note, however, that you'll get much more 'value for money' if you redeem miles for more expensive tickets and upgrades.

But this is a slippery slope, and sometimes you may be playing directly into the airline's hands if you do this.  For example, to upgrade from a coach award to a business award for a trans-Atlantic flight may mean going from an award that costs 40,000 - 65,000 miles up to an award that costs 85,000 - 120,000 miles - in round figures, twice as many miles.  Now the good news, such as it is, is that a business class ticket will generally cost you four or more times as much as a coach class ticket, so in theory, paying twice as many miles to get a four times more valuable ticket sounds like good value.

But the other way of looking at it, if you have a limited number of miles and may opportunities to cash them in, is that one way you can travel twice as often as the other way (or you can travel as many times, and have a partner travel with you).

On the other hand, if - like many frequent fliers - you fly too much already and have too little spare time, you'd probably prefer to enjoy the greater comfort and much nicer experience in business or first class, rather than have your miles expire, or depreciate.

Depreciate?  How do miles depreciate?  There seems to be a slow but steady trend for mileage awards to require more and more miles to be earned, and also for all manner of nuisance fees to be added to the cost of your otherwise 'free' ticket.

Keeping track of your miles

Here's a sobering statistic.  The authors estimate that 7% - 8% of all travel entitlements are improperly recorded.  In my own experience, while I generally get full credit when flying on the airline that operates the program I'm having the miles placed in, whenever I switch to a partner program, my chances of getting the miles successfully credited drastically drop.  What really annoys me is when I check at the airport, and have the person enter my frequent flier number into my record, and still the credit for the flight disappears.

How is it possible in this age of computerized booking, linked computer networks, and closely linked airline alliances, for miles to go missing?  One has to suspect that no airline is strongly motivated to correct the problems which plainly exist.

And, when you don't get miles credited, forget any hope of the airline being able to look back in their records.  Oh no.  You'll have to flood them with paperwork (much of which you've probably lost, and some of which doesn't even exist these days with electronic commerce and paperless tickets) to get them to grudgingly and slowly credit you for the miles you've fairly earned.

What to do?  There's no easy solution, and the authors simply restate the obvious - keep fastidious records of flights and other mileage earning events.

What the Book Doesn't Cover

Although the book crams a lot of information into its 206 pages, there is plenty more that has been omitted.  For example, although it makes passing reference to there being 2700 different companies who participate in the American Airlines Aadvantage program, it doesn't list them.

The book is decidedly light on tabulated data and 'decision tree' guides or bullet point lists to help you choose which programs would be best for you.

The book's narrative is interesting, well written, and helpful, but sometimes the narrative style makes it harder to extract the key elements of data one needs.  So which really is the best or worst airline mileage program?  Maybe that's not a fair question to ask or to seek an answer for, but more side by side comparisons would be helpful.

The book does give some issues to consider in selecting the programs which are subjectively best for each person.  But - and this is a big but - it omits to then give the data for each program.  For example, it talks about the varying levels of minimum miles awarded per flight.  But nowhere does it provide any data on the different minimums for the various frequent flier programs.  Providing this information would be tremendously helpful, because the airlines themselves don't necessarily provide simple summaries of the key features of their programs; instead you have to dig around to find it, in different places, on each different website.

It would be an obvious thing to expand the data listing of some details of each frequent flier program provided in chapter 17.  But currently there is only extremely limited data for each program - its name, a contact phone number and website, miles expiration policy, pooling miles policy, and whether the airline is a member of an alliance or not.  This very brief data barely scratches the surface of what we all want to know when evaluating our program memberships.

The slightly unstructured nature of the book's information presentation is made worse by the lack of an index.  For example, and as mentioned above, if you were to want to find information on dining programs, there's no way to conveniently find it other than reading all the way through.

Sure, a lot of the information the book omits can be found on the internet, but that's not the point.  And, sure, a lot of information is likely to change over time, but that's not the point either (and, for the writers and publisher, including this would provide a great lever to encourage people to buy updated editions).  In reality, everything in the book is somewhere on the internet.  If people buy the book to get a complete standalone and ordered presentation of all data that would otherwise take a lot of surfing to try and piece together, they may be disappointed.  But if they buy the book seeking a strategic overview of what mileage programs are all about and how best to approach them, they'll be very pleased.

If you're looking for a complete and definitive guide to everything you are likely to want or need to know, this book will disappoint.  But - like the classic question, 'is my glass half full or half empty' - while the book could have been developed much further, we can perhaps simply accept the book for what it currently is, and be appreciative of that.

About the Authors

Although ostensibly competitors, Randy Petersen and Tim Winship sensibly realized that by joining forces, and creating a book that combined both their slightly different perspectives, they'd end up with a product much more valuable to its readers than if they'd written a book each, independently.

This is innovative thinking - to collaborate rather than to compete - and we as readers benefit from the combined product.

Randy Petersen publishes the InsideFlyer magazine and has several travel related websites including WebFlyer.com and FlyerTalk.com.

Tim Winship publishes FrequentFlier.com and contributes to Frequent Flier magazine and smartertravel.com.

Summary

This is a good book and gives a strategic overview of how to best approach frequent flier programs.  It does not contain as much tactical information and factual data as I'd hope for, but the information it does contain is interesting, well written, and helpful.

It is far from a definitive and encyclopedic explanation and analysis of every last little twist of frequent flier programs.  But it does give some helpful and high level advice, and tells you what to look for and consider when you then go off and do the necessary research to choose and manage your own frequent flier program memberships.

Available direct from the publisher for $19.95.
 

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Originally published 9 Dec 2005, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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