During our monthly travel meetup this week, one reader asked an interesting question: We all love earning and redeeming miles, but family and friends rarely understand the value they represent. At what point do you give up trying to explain how it all works? And what do you do next?
It’s an interesting question because it speaks to both psychology and economics.
Why should I care at all if my family understand how miles and points work? I earn my miles, redeem them for my trips, and they can do whatever they want with their life. But people also like to be right. If others aren’t following in your footsteps it can feel insulting, like they don’t respect the time you put into figuring this stuff out.
It can also be more difficult to support this hobby if you are the only person earning but are still expected to redeem for other people’s travel. For example, I would like to travel more often with my siblings, my parents, and my wife. At some point, they need to cooperate for that to happen. I simply can’t earn enough miles for everyone. Other reservations are still paid with cash and need to be book when prices are low.
The ideal scenario is that you sit this person down, explain how it works, and they buy into it. This probably won’t work. So take the person on a trip. After they see what first class is like, they may want to do it again — and now you have a carrot to dangle in front of them.
What If No One Cares?
Incentives aren’t what we’re talking about today. The original question was directed at situations where all such avenues have been tried and these friends and family members still don’t understand or care about your hobby. In that case, we have two options.
Option A is to ignore it. Again, does it really matter that everyone agree with you and adopt your crazy travel habits? Probably not.
Option B is for when it does matter, and hopefully for more practical than personal reasons. If I want to travel with my wife, we need twice as many miles. If my parents are going to ask me for advice on finding a cheap hotel, then they need to act on that information, which is typically time sensitive.
The safest way to approach Option B is to ask your family if they mind letting you manage things for them. They may just tell you to have at it, letting you add their frequent flyer numbers to new reservations and tracking the account balances. If they really don’t care, they may even let you use the miles for your own purposes. Just remember to return the favor.
Some people get possessive about their miles even if you were the one who helped them earn them. So if they don’t grant full account access, at the very least you should ask to track their account balances with a tool like AwardWallet. This doesn’t require them to hand over a password. They can set up an AwardWallet account of their own and share access so that their balances and account numbers — but not their passwords — also appear in your account. That at least lets you answer questions like “Do I have enough miles for a free flight?” without responding with follow up questions like “Do you remember what your MileagePlus number is?”
Booking Award Travel for Others
More common that issues of earning miles are issues finding and booking award space. People may be indecisive or not realize how quickly things change. If you can get access to account numbers and passwords you may just need to book things for them and ask questions later.
This works best with hotels. Almost all award stays at hotels can be cancelled up to the day before arrival with no penalty. There’s no cash on the table and the points go back into the account. (Be sure to watch out for resort properties, which can require as much as two weeks’ notice.)
Airlines are hit-and-miss. If there are enough miles and you find good award space, book it and ask questions later. You might even book more than one option. But there will be fees to cancel or change the ticket unless you have elite status.
Sometimes the “best” approach is to book the hotel now and the flight later, or vice versa, because award space becomes available at different times. Family members are usually very uncomfortable with this and may feel locked into an incomplete itinerary with no place to stay or no way to reach their destination. Again, emphasize that award travel is flexible. It may help if you search other dates closer to the present so you are aware just how likely it is that a non-stop, first class seat will open up even if it’s never there three months in advance.
A “backup” flight — probably in coach with lots of connections, if that’s all that is available — can help settle nerves. Now they know a flight exists even if you plan to cancel or change it later. Book extra award nights so you can cancel one or two on either end once you have the final itinerary locked down.
Responding to Inaction
But sometimes the issue isn’t earning, tracking, and redeeming. It’s costly inaction when booking paid travel. My experience is that the most frustration occurs when others don’t book even though fares and rates continue to increase. They become exasperated that “travel is so expensive!” or even say, “I can’t afford to go anymore.”
Maybe it’s time to just book the trip for them and put the ball in their court. I have everyone’s names and birthdates, and I know the cancellation policies of most airlines and hotels.
Within the U.S., at least, airlines are required to provide either a 24-hour hold or a 24-hour cancellation without penalty. Most allow a cancellation, though American Airlines is among those who allow a hold. (This means once you actually book an American ticket, you will be charged for a cancellation even if it’s within 24 hours.)
For hotels, I’ll book a room using a rate that can be cancelled, usually up to the day before arrival. If you’re concerned about paying more than the cheapest non-refundable rates, know that AAA and Costco often have similar discounts.
The point here isn’t to book all the travel in your name so you can rack up miles on your rewards-earning credit card (although that certainly doesn’t hurt). Instead, it’s to change the line of questioning. You’ve found and booked a good trip at a good price. Now the other person has to ask you to cancel it or confirm it. That may work better than waiting for them to ask you to book it later …and finding out it’s no longer available.