The three most common questions I get when I meet readers at Frequent Traveler University are:
- How do you get all your miles?
- How do you book awards?
- Do you run an award booking service?
I view these questions as interrelated. Such events are all about how to get miles and then how to burn miles. Plus there are several other speakers who are very good at certain tasks. I don’t deny that Frequent Miler can probably earn more miles in one day than I do in a month, and One Mile at a Time can probably book more awards in a day than I have in my life.
That’s exactly the point when it comes to how I answer those three questions.
Spend Money on What Matters
The first answer is easy: I fly. A lot of my travel is paid for, either because someone else is footing the bill (~10-20%) or because I’ve budgeted my own money for it (~80-90%). There’s nothing wrong with buying tickets. I can afford it and always have been able to afford it, even when I was in graduate school and living off a training grant. I simply make more money now and travel more and in better comfort. But I get to fly when and where I want without worrying too much about award availability. I know what a good fare is when I see it, and I pounce on it. I also get to choose a preferred carrier that then allows me to earn elite status and other benefits. I also apply for the occasional credit card, but paid travel is still the largest source of new miles in my accounts.
“But…” they sputter. “You can’t possibly earn enough miles for all the award travel you still do!”
Actually, that’s not really an issue for me. When I fly by myself, it’s almost always paid for and almost always in economy — hopefully upgraded. Paying with cash or miles is usually a wash in economy class, and if I’m by myself I don’t mind the discomfort (much). And 80% of my travel is by myself. I would be better served by someone who could find or teach me to find cheap fares, not book awards.
When I travel with my wife, I redeem miles for award travel in first or business class. She only gets 15 vacation days a year and not many holidays, either. (You’d think for such awful pay architects would at least get good benefits, but no.) She uses half of those days to visit family, which leaves enough for us to take about one full week and two long weekend vacations each year. I have more than enough miles for that.
Booking Awards Isn’t Difficult If There Aren’t Many
That brings us to the second answer. If I’m only booking three or four awards each year, I don’t really care to use any tricks or tools to make it faster. I think there are certainly resources out there that can help. AwardNexus is a good one-stop shop for beginners. But they largely automate a process you can do on your own if you choose. I just know where to look (hint: not on the same website as the airline that operates your flight or holds your miles). I sit on the couch watching TV and run my searches, constructing an award piece-by-piece. There isn’t that pressing need for me to outsource this task to someone else.
And so by now the third answer should be obvious: I don’t book many awards for others — at least not beyond family members — because I simply don’t do it enough to consider myself highly skilled. I know more than many people, but I’m not going to put out a shingle. Let Tahsir and his Award Magic service do that.
I like the novelty of doing the occasional award search. I also enjoy my day job, which lets me earn money and pay people to tackle the stuff I don’t have the time or skill for. There’s no shame in that. I don’t grow my own vegetables or change my own oil, either. If I did have lots of awards to book, I’d definitely pay a service to help me. Most people, however, could probably learn a thing or two from going through the process themselves.
Be Your Own Travel Expert
I like my answers to these questions because I imagine they’re the same ones that many of my readers would give. Certainly some of you are more expert in some areas, or you just enjoy the thrill of the chase when it comes to manufactured spend and award search. But I’m content with where I am, and I think I illustrate the example that anyone can hone their skills to become a frequent traveler without necessarily being the world’s expert on a topic.
Learn more about which airlines fly to the destinations you visit, the benefits of their programs, and also the benefits of their partners’ programs. Maybe it makes more sense to credit those flights to someone else.
Learn how to book an award. It’s not difficult. Often you just need to know where to look and how to read an award chart. My dad was trying to call British Airways yesterday to use his Avios for an award he found on Alaska’s website. So far so good.
But then I looked at his itinerary: Even though Delta is an Alaska Airlines partner and can be booked with Alaska’s miles, only Alaska — not Delta — is a partner with British Airways. So he learned something new about non-alliance partnerships. But he still knew where to look and that he didn’t need Alaska miles to book awards on Alaska-operated flights.
Determine how much you actually need to travel, and what you need your miles for. If you like flying in coach, you don’t really need upgrades — just a good award program that will let you redeem miles when you want and without charging an arm and a leg in co-pays and fees. Ironically, the same logic applies to a person who always flies in paid business class because those fares include checked bags, better seats, and lounge access. It’s the in between people, who can only afford coach but want something better, who often find value in elite status.
Yea or Nay on Paying Someone Else?
For those who do want to use an award booking service, I saw go ahead. Try to book it yourself first, then use a service if you keep coming up empty or find that you can use your time more productively elsewhere. But know that they aren’t doing anything you can’t do yourself. They just have more experience and can do it more efficiently. I haven’t yet found myself in that predicament. But neither have I always made the wisest choices when it comes to spending my limited time. Sometimes satisfying my curiosity is worth more than time or money.