Stephen P. asks:
A colleague recommended your blog for frequent flier / business class travel advice. As a non-frequent flier, booking international tickets and trying to upgrade or get business class using miles is very daunting (and that’s coming from an economist who’s supposed to love numbers…hah!).
If you can offer any advice on when should we try to book, whether churning credit cards is worth it (my wife and I have excellent credit but neither of us flies much), or if you know of a pattern to business class deals (we’re flying out of DC, staying in Japan for a week, and Bangkok for 2 late Nov / Dec this year, and it seems United fits our itinerary best (or other star alliance), so I’ve done some research to figure out how many cards we’d have to churn to get a business award ticket (doable given 3 months).
I’ve also seen online websites advertising much lower fares, but they appear to be doing something like transferring amex points into a frequent flier account and then booking a ticket, and that seems like a circumvention of the rules and might lead to cancellation of the ticket. Is this a proper reading of such schemes?
Thanks for any help you can offer
First, your choice of frequent flyer programs matters, you should pick programs which match your reward goals, for instance if you want to be flying to South America then American’s program is a good option and if your goal is Asia then in general United is going to be the best option.
As far as when to book awards, the idea of midnight 330 days out turns out to be a myth in most cases. You should book as soon as your plans are firm, but if seats aren’t available at that time, continue checking.
Awards are generally much easier to get than upgrades, upgrades you are going to be limited to a single airline most of the time, you generally can upgrade lower fares on the airline whose miles you have than when you’re using miles on a partner. If you have United miles you can upgrade the lowest fares on United (using miles and a cash co-pay) but using United miles on other airlines requires you to buy a full fare ticket which is going to be out of the price range for most folks and is often about as expensive as an advance purchase discounted business ticket.
Assuming you’re thus limited to upgrades only on the one airline whose points you’re using, you then have the task of finding confirmed upgrade space, which may be scarce, it often is with United. But if you’re using miles for awards you have all of United’s partners to consider and can mix and match partners at will to get to your destination. So much easier to get awards than to get confirmed upgrades. Plus those upgrades tend not to be a great value. A decade ago the best use of miles was international upgrades. But awards have gotten much more flexible with the growth of airline alliances, and upgrades have gotten more expensive with the advent of cash co-pays, so the advice is very much reversed. Stick to award tickets when possible, ie when someone else isn’t buying your ticket.
You’ve hit on the best way to quickly earn large numbers of miles needed for award tickets in your question – churning credit cards.
Read my confessions of a once and future credit card churner. Here are the results of my recent credit card churn. You can use credit card bonuses to construct a dream trip quickly.
I do think the single best card bonus to sign up for at the moment is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, 40,000 bonus miles after $3000 in spend within 3 months and no annual fee the first year. Since the card also provides an annual 7% bonus on all points earned that’s really a 53,500 point signup bonus, and points transfer into United, Southwest, Korean Airlines, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, and Amtrak. Points transfer to anyone you wish, so you and a spouse both get the card and transfer, say, to United and you have enough for a business class ticket to Europe.
If you’re rejected by Chase for a new card, here’s how to turn a rejection into an acceptance. The advice applies to several other issuers as well.
Finally, there are companies out there offering to book tickets for you using others’ frequent flyer miles, I avoid those entirely, I’d much rather build up my own stash of miles. It’s both less expensive and less risky.
Got more questions? Fire away!
(Note that the link to the Chase Sapphire Preferred card in this post does offer referral credit to me, it’s the best available offer for a card I value and carry. You can find links to the same offer that do not offer anything back to me, and you don’t need to use my link, though I certainly appreciate it if you do.)
Update: the Chase Sapphire Preferred offer is now for 40,000 points.