I’ve been writing a little less frequently, partly because I’ve been headfirst in my startup and partly because I didn’t see much of a point on weighing in on the doom and gloom bandwagon (though I’m all for attention-grabbing title!).
I’ve largely written off chasing status with US carriers and even engaging with their programs about two years ago, but I’m still getting outsized value from travel and still spend a lot of time in business class. Taken from a panel I was on last month around “The Future of the Game” here are some observations about how the frequent flyer community* has evolved and why an entirely different strategic approach is warranted. We’ll start with some that are obvious and move to some that are less so.
Informed Travelers are Free Agents
Gone are the days where you would suck it up and fly your US airline of choice to hit that next tier, whether it be Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Executive Platinum or 1K. Benefits have gotten watered down. Domestic first class hasn’t kept up with innovations in coach (wi-fi, recaro seats which actually add to pitch) or on the ground (decent food at airports, public rest areas, OLCI, automated lounge and boarding gates) and honestly, if you’ve flown it enough, sitting in front on a A319 doesn’t excite you.
My personal limit is generally that coach is fine for anything under 6 hours, sans red-eyes and that extends to most international flights as well with a few exceptions. So I may spring for a lie-flat seat if I’m flying to the East Coast (but likely only if going onward to Europe), but domestically I’m pretty happen with an exit row (or extra legroom seat), perhaps a mini bottle or two in my bag (shhh!) and a Gogo voucher I pre-purchased on the ground. But I also know exactly what I’m missing.
I carp on upgrades as that’s held as the sole remaining reason to seek status from a US carrier vs looking further afield to other programs, which is a strategy I strongly recommend now. Not only do many have better mileage redemption charts, but they often have lower change and cancellation fees, better earning on US domestic flights and phone agents that are polite and more highly trained, so calling them is less of an exercise in frustration and futility.
Tools Are Getting More Diverse
In addition to diversifying the programs they use, expert travelers are also getting way less shy about taking advantage of the sheer number of very good fare sales, promotions and deals that have been going on over the past two years. I’ve flown to Europe from the West Coast 3 times in the past year on three separate fare sales for under $400. Yes, you have to be flexible, but I planned these trips with several months notice and had my pick of many dates over a several month period.
Many people get this weird tension between deciding they want to go somewhere (say Japan or Spain) and then rushing to buy tickets even though they may not be going for 9 months. I take the approach of always having a list of places I’d like to check out, but no huge order as to WHEN I have to go to any of them, and then just wait for a fare sale to one of them. Similarly, for work, I’ve been having to go to Europe nearly every month, but the particular dates are flexible, so when I see a good, REALLY good fare, I book 3 of them and set up my meetings to coincide with the 7 or 10 days I’ll be on that continent.
This plethora of cash fares is combined with many other tools that make hotel and ground transportation programs and costs look silly by comparison. I can reliably stay in Airbnb’s in London for $60 USD per night in decent neighborhoods. Some nicer hostels are starting to eclipse the privacy and comfort of a lower end Starwood or IHG property and boutique hotels are getting in on the game, offering more amenities than the big chains can (free bikes, wine, friendly recommendations that don’t include hawking the bland restaurants often found in chain hotels).
Does that mean I’m racking up fewer Starpoints? Perhaps, but I only use my hotel points often for the first night when landing in a country that’s particularly difficult to navigate — and then I switch to a guesthouse.
Miles Are Playing a Smaller Role, so Understanding your Earn and Burn Goals Is Essential
I think there are a number of folks that fall into two categories: “accrue as many miles as possible with no clear goal in mind of how to spend them” or “learn just enough about the hobby to maybe get two credit cards to redeem for one trip and conclude it’s too hard or attention-consuming to continue.” They seem to be the product of extremes of “too much focus” and “not enough”.
In the first case, it’s a matter of not seeing the forrest for the trees. Yes, miles are a useful emergency escape tool when you need to go somewhere tomorrow. Yes, they can get you access to international first class. But so many people have been racking up millions of miles and have no idea how to spend them, or do in relatively objectively suboptimal ways (UA Global First – sure, call me out on that but it’s suboptimal) and never deviate from airline loyalties or their weekly (daily!) Walgreens, Office Depot and Walmart runs. Great, but it’s sort of treating the whole hobby as too much of a video game and not about helping you get where you need to go. Once you fly LH F a few times and stay in a suite in an expensive Park Hyatt, they start to lose their luster and you question spending the upcharge in miles for an experience that’s marginally better than most business classes or a mid-tier, well priced Hyatt (or guesthouse!). And you begin to appreciate and explore the destinations more, not wallow in a hotel club lounge or airport lounge.
These people would be well-served by understanding how many miles they actually tend to spend in a year and aiming for a strategy that puts them slightly ahead of that. Much of that is dictated by where you live and where you tend to like to go. Someone living in Atlanta, who likes to go to Latin America will likely need to know way more about Delta and partner accruals, AA’s route network and what competitive airfare tends to look like from the Southeast to EZE, GRU, LIM, SCL, BOG and beyond, perhaps even on carriers like Azul and Copa!
This means you hit the credit cards and grocery stores less hard and follow cash fares and other outsized value opportunities more closely. You ditch your top-tier status on a carrier you complain about to everyone who will listen. Nobody wants to hear the complaints!
As per usual, there will be a part II. Stay tuned!