I recently returned from Frequent Traveler University, or “FTU” as it is popularly known. With over 600 attendees talking about travel and loyalty programs, it was the largest yet, and the uninitiated may be curious about whether they should consider participating in a future meeting.
FTU is held twice a year in spring and autumn. The locations always change, but usually spring is the main event and coincides with the Freddie Awards (honoring winners of a popular vote for the best travel loyalty programs). It tends to be held near New York or Washington, DC.
Autumn provides an opportunity to take the show on the road to new destinations like last year’s event in Los Angeles and this year’s in Tampa. Who knows, it may even make it to my hometown of Seattle sometime soon!
In my limited experience, there is usually a 50/50 mix of repeat attendees and newbies. Content does not change much from one event to the next, so old hats like me rarely attend every session. I still find FTU worthwhile because of the opportunity to socialize with experts — and even some legends. Where else would you have a chance to share drinks with Mr. Pickles, Gary Leff, Lucky, Million Mile Secrets, The Points Guy, and Tommy777?
This reminds me of the importance of networking when it comes to travel hacking. Some of the best ideas out there are developed and shared by small groups of like-minded travelers. Even as more of this information becomes public, some things you won’t learn by reading a forum or a blog. There is also a session on the final day where top experts share a few lesser secrets to save money on flights and hotels.
Travel beginners will benefit from a quick introduction to all the basics of miles and points in a compressed two-day schedule. These entry-level topics focused on valuing miles, earning them with credit cards and category bonuses, and choosing loyalty programs that work for your travel needs or desires.
Personally, I think the content has shifted too much toward credit cards and a misguided effort to obtain “free” award travel. A larger audience might benefit more from learning tips to save money on the kind of paid travel they already do. As I’ve said before, travel hacking is more than just credit cards, and FTU could stand to diversify its seminar topics further.
(Two incidents at the most recent FTU were telling. I overheard one person say to another, “Are you here for the credit card conference?” Another person asked me how I earned the majority of my miles. When I responded, “I fly,” he paused for a moment and started asking questions about Vanilla Reloads. More than one person was amazed to learn there are no CVS stores within several hundred miles of Seattle.)
But there are efforts to make up for this myopic approach. Gary and Lucky held court with two excellent sessions on award travel, covering the basics of the three major airline alliances — oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam — as well as an open forum for advanced Q&A.
Anyone who flies United Airlines should hear Seth Miller talk about its award and upgrade rules, as well as some of the tools he has developed on his site, Wandering Aramean, to make travel easier. Stefan Krasowski, of Rapid Travel Chai, gave a refreshing talk on travel to remote and uncommon destinations, not just luxury vacations. His favorite trip? North Korea.
Finally, the DC FTU was the first to host LaunchPoint, a new venture backed by the online community MilePoint and several travel industry donors to provide seed funding that supports new tools and technologies for the frequent traveler. Examples include PointsHound, with its innovative hotel booking platform, and AwardWallet, a long-time favorite for tracking multiple loyalty accounts.
This time, Walla.by and Card Watch Dog, two services for tracking rewards credit cards, were selected as semi-finalists. Two other semi-finalists will be selected by a popular vote in Tampa, and then the four will compete for a $50,000 prize. It’s just another sign that the Frequent Traveler University is where you want to be if you’re a fanatic about miles and points!