I thought this was a fantastic articulation of Spirit’s business model. Anyone who flies Spirit should understand that they’re getting. I love that they exist, they represent an option in air transportation that’s different. It isn’t for me but I believe it’s great to have options.

What’s never good is buying something without being presented with an easy way to understand how the product may be different than what you’re expecting.

I find that Spirit does a really good job on its website making clear what fees you’re paying, and what fees you’ll pay later unless you follow a very defined set of behaviors.

Of course if you book Spirit tickets through another channel you won’t get that same level of expectations-setting.

Here’s Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza’s response to their having the highest rate of Department of Transportation complaints.

It seemed worth sharing almost in its entirety, because it really is that clear and crisp. And as much as I don’t want to fly the airline, I have a hard time arguing with the logic.

What about you? Read More…

I love loyalty program surveys. At least I love ones that:

  1. Don’t take very long
  2. Offer insight into the strategic thinking that a program is going through

So I always at least try to start surveys, though sometimes I give up along the way. I used to play all the time with e-Rewards, opinionplace, e-miles, and the other survey programs but for those the rewards were never worth the time.

I liked having a stash of points with e-Rewards and e-miles that I could transfer on demand to generate partner activity in a mileage account when there was a bonus for doing so, but even those offers have been fewer and farther between. But at least that provided some leverage. The straight-up earning for time is weak.

That said, I’ll check out surveys done directly on behalf of a program because I’m interested in what they’re surveying.

So I saw a survey link posted at Milepoint and ostensibly IHG Rewards was offering 500 points for completing it. I value that at about $3, but I was more interested in seeing what the questions were.

In fact I don’t know whether I’ll get credit for it or not. The survey can be accessed here and you can then reload the page adding your IHG Rewards account number at the end of the URL string. That may or may not wind up delivering points to you (my guess is that it will, that they won’t check the survey against their original email list to see who was targeted. But points didn’t post instantly.

The survey seemed to want to know about three things:

  1. What the IHG Rewards program makes you feel. There were only a variety of positive options to choose from, so this may give them adjectives to use but isn’t a survey aimed at constructive understanding of customer perception.
  2. What kinds of rewards you want most. I selected upgrades, something the program doesn’t currently offer. You shouldn’t redeem your miles for merchandise anyway.
  3. How you use your smartphone and social media while on vacation. I surmise this is the real meat of the survey from a strategic perspective, with the other questions attempting mostly to classify members or figure out what to offer to and how to engage smartphone and social-engaged members.

IHG Rewards strikes me as on the whole behind in the social and mobile space. Not that any hotel chain does it especially well, although they do for the most part at least have an app.

This survey, judging from the URL string, was aimed at Ambassador members of the program (paid members seeking better treatment at Intercontinental-branded properties). And at least it shows your progress along each page, something that I resent any survey for leaving out (I have to know how close to done I am if I’m expected to complete it).

There were 20 questions in all. If you’re interested you can certainly take a stab for a possible 500 points. And you’ll find out whether or not they post in 4-6 weeks.

This has nothing to do with American’s elimination of stopovers at North American gateway cities and distance-based oneworld awards>

I’m not talking about American making changes that reduce how we value their miles.

I’m talking about changes to how they value miles when reporting prizes for tax purposes.

There was a story in 2005 that garnered significant attention about a man who turned down a prize offering him 12 roundtrip coack tickets for two to anywhere American flew.

He won American’s ‘We Know Why You Fly’ contest. I always found that to be one of the creepiest ad campaigns, in a pre-Snowden and before the NSA was cool kind of way.

The man turned down the prize because American reported that each ticket would be worth $2200, and so his tax liability was going to be ~ $800 per ticket. The tickets expired within a year, and he quite reasonably didn’t think he’d get as much value out of them as he’d be liable for in tax.

That’s the first time I wrote about disputing the reported value of a prize.

I updated that advice last weekend as folks were scrambling to finish their taxes. It’s important because just because a travel provider says a prize is worth a certain amount, doesn’t mean it is worth that amount. And you should only be obliged to pay taxes on what something is actually worth (the price at which a transaction would occur between a willing buyer and seller).

It seems though that American may only be reporting mileage prizes now at 1.5 cents per mile at least some of the time. And if they’re doing it even occasionally, going through the dispute process we should be able to get reported prices that are higher reduced.

I believe they have. Last year when I won the MoTown the Musical Sweepstakes from American Airlines they valued the 100,000 AAdvantage miles at $1990 or 1.99 cents/mile. I have the paperwork and had to pay taxes on it.

Fast forward to the Fly Like Your Famous Sweepstakes from AAdvantage Shopping, and now the T&C list ARV of 100,000 at $1500 or 1.5 cents/mile.

Remember that the IRS does not tax miles — except when they are reported as prizes.

The lower American’s valuation, the easier it is to pay a lower tax.

With US Airways miles set to become American miles in the near-term, and US Airways offering occasionally sales for as little as ~ 1.2 cents per mile, it’s difficult to justify a higher reported price — or at least it’s reasonable to take the lowest demonstrable price.

That’s a whole lot better than reported valuations of over 3 cents per point — at which point I would decline a prize, too!

Starwood’s new promotion, Earn Away, Get Away, is double points for three months — with stays that include a Sunday night earning triple points (stays in the Middle East that include a Saturday night will earn triple points instead).

Registration is required by June 30, but there’s no reason not to register now — just in case — even if you don’t expect to make any eligible stays during the promotion period. Perhaps you’re like me: I often find that I don’t know where my future self is going to stay…

Here’s the list of non-participating hotels, which is to say that Starwood Preferred Guest isn’t picking up the whole cost of this promotion out of its own marketing budget and so hotels had to be solicited to sign on and had to be willing to spend some money for the bonus points. Nearly 90% of hotels did, though.

Double points are better than single points, of course, but given the modest base rate at which Starpoints are earned for in-hotel stay this promotion isn’t strong enough to encourage me to shift any business.

That said, I’m seriously considering picking back up my Starwood Platinum status this year so I’ll likely find myself in some of their properties during the promotion period.

(HT: Wandering Aramean)

Citi® Hilton HHonorsTM Visa Signature® Card

  • 50,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first four months
  • $50 statement credit after you spend $50 or more on your first hotel stay within the Hilton HHonors Portfolio during the first six months of cardmembership

This is the best offer for the no annual fee Hilton card that I’ve seen and it expires tomorrow.

This free card gives you free Hilton Silver status. Better to walk into Hilton as a silver than as a base member. First, because of the bonus points and in some cases free bottled water. But second and more importantly is that it serves as a reason not to be given the worst room on property, the one above the HVAC system or overlooking construction. That’s not a guarantee, but it helps.

It also entitles you to 5th night free on standard room awards, a benefit that only applies to Hilton elite members (silver status qualifies).

This no-fee card is useful to have for the bonus, and to be eligible for fifth night free on standard room redemptions.

(Note that cards in this post offer credit to me if you’re approved using my links. The opinions, analyses, and evaluations here are mine. The content is not provided or commissioned by American Express, by Chase, by Citibank, US Bank, Bank of America, Barclays or any other company. They have not reviewed, approved or endorsed what I have to say.)

Many things can go wrong after you make a reservation. You don’t want them to go wrong for you, and you want to be able to fix them proactively when they do. Don’t get caught off-balance.

Just yesterday American Airlines posted this advisory for travel agents about making double booking mistakes.

American loves issuing debit memos to travel agents. Point is, though, ticketing problems happen.

  • You may never really have a confirmed reservation in the first place. A third party hotel booking site may not have properly communicated with the hotel you’re staying at, or a problem especially common to United an award ticket may never have been issued in the first place.

  • Schedules change. Sometimes it’s a modest change but even 15 minutes could change when you’d want to leave for the airport.

  • Schedule changes can ruin connections. You can’t always count on being automatically rebooked to the next-best flight combination. Sometimes your reservation will have an impossible connection, other times you’ll be rebooked to something entirely undesirable.

  • Upgrade requests can disappear as a result of schedule changes, or maybe you’re in first class but get moved to a flight with no first class cabin or one that’s full. It may be the best you can do, but a modest change that works for you could keep you in the desired cabin.

  • A ticket might need to be reissued. It’s a pain to turn up at the airport to find that your ticket is not in sync with your reservation. That can take time to sort out, time you may not have at the airport.

  • A schedule change may cause the whole thing to cancel, or another problem might. United is especially bad at not passing ticket numbers through to partners properly on award tickets, the partner doesn’t see you ticketed and you no longer have an award reservation. This doesn’t happen every time of course but it happens surprisingly often, United does know about the problem but it continues. When you can get a sufficiently empowered supervisor on the phone they’re generally pretty good about opening up space on their own flights to re-accommodate but that’s less than desirable, takes time, and isn’t something you want to try to figure out at the airport.

It really amazes me how frequently problems creep up. And how helpless many travel providers seem to be at least initially when you contact them. I am more or less a professional when it comes to travel and my reservations get screwed up, not all the time but not infrequently either and I often wonder how the inexperienced traveler can possible handle getting from A to B with all of the roadblocks thrown up in front of them.

Virtually every problem is fixable if it’s discovered in advance. The key is to make sure you know the status of things before they become too difficult to fix.

  1. Always look over your confirmation, make sure the flight or hotel information matches what you expect and the travel dates do as well and also class of service or room type.

  2. Confirm, check, and double check anything that doesn’t match, with more than one agent. If everyone says you’re fine you probably are. If anyone is unsure you likely have a problem.

  3. Check on your reservations frequently, if you book really far in advance then it’s worth pulling it up at least monthly to see if anything is different. That gives you plenty of time to fix things like misconnections or flights that disappear from your reservations.

  4. Especially in the case of international award travel with airline partners, since that’s where most of the problems I encounter are, check with each operating airline that they see your reservation and they see the ticket number. Get seat assignments. Any time there is a schedule change call again to make sure they still see the reservation and ticket number and that your seats are still intact. Don’t trust the website of the airline whose miles you used.

  5. Whenever possible, check in online far in advance. Having a problem checking in doesn’t necessarily signal a problem, but it signals it’s worth checking to see whether there’s a problem (and also a flag that you may wind up having to get to the airport super early to sort through any problems that cannot be verified and corrected in advance).

This just never gets old for me.

You know you think about miles too much when:

  • You hear the words “mile a minute” and find yourself pondering the concept of earning bonus miles as a function of time.

  • You answer the question, “How many miles per gallon do you get?” with “It depends on what credit card I use.”

  • You unthinkingly ask your non-frequent flyer friend why she is taking the nonstop flight to London instead of the connection through Syracuse.

  • You check 4 times a day to see if another partner has posted for the US Airways Grand Slam.

  • One half of your brain keeps trying to calculate the cost/mile value of a mileage run against a baseline of a $24.98 San Francisco – Paris ticket, leading to a temporary conclusion that a $507 New York – Singapore trip is “expensive”.

  • You criticize your spouse for not spending enough (“doing your share”) on the credit card last month.

  • You see a lone shopper in the grocery store place a box of Nutrigrain bars in his cart — and you have to bite your toungue not to ask him if he will be using the 100 miles on the box.

  • Your teen learns that the best way to ask for something is “It’s on sale, and you’ll still earn miles for it!”

  • When all your friends are in debt to you because you always pick up the check at lunch.

  • One of the first things you do with the person you are training is to go over the airlines and routes out of their local airport, and which mileage programs will work best for them.

  • When you have not only YOUR frequent flier and credit card numbers memorized, but also the numbers for family and friends that you book travel for.

  • You know all your mileage balances within 50 miles, but can’t remember your phone number.

  • Even though the “low fuel” light on your dashboard has been on all day, you drive past half a dozen gas stations and ten extra miles to the Shell that takes Diners Club.

  • The only thing you use Excel for is tracking miles, and you write to Microsoft asking them to include class-of-service bonus spreadsheet function to the next version of Office.

  • You walk into a meeting at the office and people ask, “So where did you go LAST weekend?”

  • You buy flowers for your wife so you will get your 5th Northwest Fly Free Faster partner. What’s worse is when she asks you if the florist is a partner.

  • A loved one passes away and you think that the funeral home accepting your miles-earning credit card mitigates your loss.

  • You book an international trip because you don’t want to waste a Systemwide Upgrade domestically.

  • You plan day trips to cities you find boring just because there’s a websaver and you can get free booze in the lounge.

  • You get a big goofy smile when you hear “Rhapsody in Blue”

(* Culled from multiple folks, these do not originate with me but I don’t have all the attributions unfortunately.)

This is all advice I’ve shared before but really does bear repeating — we take trips but do we get the most out of them? Or are we traveling, putting too much pressure on our trips, and letting great opportunities go to waste?

The best advice comes down to: spend time planning vacations, take more trips, work while you’re gone, and experience new and unusual things.

  • Planning vacations contributes more to your happiness than actually taking them. Of course you may need to go on vacation to justify all of the planning time, and to convince yourself that the planning is meaningful.

  • You get all of your relaxation benefits on the trip itself, but don’t expect to be relaxed when you get back. We quickly snap back into the stress of daily life, sans any benefit from the vacation. Go in knowing you’ll enjoy yourself while you’re gone, but don’t set the bar for “needing a vacation” that you expect to be reset, relaxed, and in a different place with work upon your return.

  • Being on vacation can actually be stressful. We put pressure on ourselves to enjoy, quickly, in a compressed period of time. After all, unless you travel frequently, you only get one shot per given period of time and you have to make the most of it.

    Take more trips, and take the pressure off of each trip to be perfect. Don’t try to do everything, it’s better to leave some sites un-visited and have some experiences left for the future. Leave yourself longing for more.

  • People actually enjoy trips more when they’re interrupted by real time, as counter-intuitive as it seems. Many short trips mean work punctuates your travels. For longer trips consider staying connected a little bit (with defined times) each day.

  • Look for intense or unusual experiences, things that will stand out in your memory. You’ll get more lingering value out of the trip than just a general sense that you must have been relaxed but where did the relaxation go? You’ll have something to hang onto.

  • Make travel part of the trip. And since planning contributes to happiness spend time working through contingencies so you know how you’ll handle things like missed connections along the way.

How do you approach your travels? What makes you happiest — and leaves you happiest once the trip is done?

I carry both the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Ink Plus business card.

Both have fantastic signup bonuses, a $0 fee the first year, and great earning –

  • Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points on travel and dining, plus a 7% annual bonus on points earned
  • Ink Plus earns 5x on telecommunications and at office supply stores, and 2x on gas and hotels

Both have no foreign transaction fees, and points that transfer to airline miles (United, Korean, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Southwest), hotel points (Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, IHG Rewards), and Amtrak.

But after the first year each has a $95 fee. Most people are better off with just one of these cards and with the no-fee version of the other.

The ‘no fee version’ will earn points that do not transfer to miles. But if you have both cards, you can combine points from the no fee card whose points don’t transfer to miles, over to the premium card whose points do. And from there you can transfer points to miles.

In other words, you can get most of the best features of both cards, while only paying an annual fee for one card.

There have been two versions of the no fee small business card, Ink Cash and Ink Classic. Ink Classic is no longer available for new applications. It’s not on the Chase website, by phone, or in-branch although you may be able to find an old application by Googling. (HT: Deals We Like)

    Ink Classic Has Vanished From This List!

So the no-fee option that remains is Ink Cash which earns 5 points per dollar at office supply stores, and on cell phone, landline, internet and cable tv bills. And it earns 2 points per dollars on gas and at restaurants. Just like Ink Plus.

The differences between Ink Cash and Ink Plus are:

  • Lower signup bonus, 20,000 points after $3000 within 3 months (advertised as $200 cash back) for Ink Cash
  • Double points on restaurants instead of hotels (when you pay the hotel directly) with Ink Cash
  • Bonuses on your first $25,000 of spend in the 5x and first $25,000 of spend in the 2x categories for Ink Cash – instead of capping your bonus earning in each at $50,000 with Ink Plus

So someone with a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, who isn’t going to max out in the 5x categories at the higher $50,000 level, would want to pair that card with an Ink Cash instead of Ink Plus.

Similarly, if you decide to keep Ink Plus (probably because you do max out in the bonus categories at the higher spending level), then instead of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card you can go with the Chase Sapphire instead which has a signup bonus of 10,000 points after $500 spend within 3 months, and still earns 2x at restaurants (but not on travel).

For many people I think the best combination is Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Cash — especially folks that have already first gotten the Chase Ink Plus card and found that they’re not using it at the levels which will justify an annual fee on that card.

(Note that cards in this post offer credit to me if you’re approved using my links. The opinions, analyses, and evaluations here are mine. The content is not provided or commissioned by American Express, by Chase, by Citibank, US Bank, Bank of America, Barclays or any other company. They have not reviewed, approved or endorsed what I have to say.)

American Express is offering a 30% bonus on transfers to Virgin America through April 30.

This isn’t unusual, they had a 40% transfer bonus to Virgin America in January of this year and also in the latter half of September 2013. Both of those offers, of course, were better.

A year ago they even ran a 50% transfer bonus.

Should you transfer?

Normally American Express points transfer 2:1 into Virgin America. A 30% bonus is significant, but it’s important to understand how Virgin America points can be valued.

My rule of thumb is that Virgin America’s points are deflated, that one Virgin America point is worth about 2 points in a European airline frequent flyer program.

Their points are reasonably good, then, for redeeming on partners (with fuel surcharges).

You can use the points for about 2.2 cents apiece towards travel on Virgin America, or for fixed-point redemptions on their partners.

Transferring to Virgin America to redeem on Virgin America doesn’t get great value, you’re only getting a bit over 1.5 cents per point of value out of this offer.

Where this does get a little bit interesting is partner redemptions. They do have partners, none of which offer out of this world value but some of which can be strategically useful, for instance:

  • Emirates. New York – Dubai roundtrip on Emirates is 95,000 points plus ~ $1400 in taxes/fees. New York-Milan roundtrip on Emirates is 59,000 points and ~ $670 in taxes/fees. One-way awards are permitted. Still, Alaska Airlines is generally a better partner for one-way awards and Japan Airlines a better partner for roundtrip.
  • Virgin Atlantic. JFK-London in Virgin Upper Class is 35,000 points roundtrip plus ~ $1000 in taxes/fees.
  • Virgin Australia. Los Angeles – Sydney is 80,000 points roundtrip in business class and over $900 in taxes/fees (compare to 160,000 Delta miles but no fuel surcharges). Short-haul business class within Australia is quite reasonable.
  • Singapore Airlines. Short-haul regional business class on Singapore can be quite attractive, eg. Singapore – Bangkok roundtrip is 13,000 points and ~ $45 in taxes/fees
  • Hawaiian. Hawaiian Airlines West Coast – Hawaii is 20,000 points roundtrip in coach, so the credit card gets you that. First class is 50,000 points. And no fuel surcharges apply.

Whether you should take advantage of this offer hinges on the extent to which these and similar redemptions are appealing and match your plans, in my view.

But for most folks I’d advise against.

If your flight is delayed or cancelled, don’t be a wallflower, don’t be at the airline’s mercy. There are things you can do to proactive solve problems that come your way, and ways to handle travel stress effectively.

Whom to Seek Out for Help

The Customer Service counter at any airport is usually the least customer and service-focused place at the airport. The lines are long serving everyone that’s displaced. The agents deal only with unhappy passengers. No matter their disposition, after a day of getting yelled at it’s tough to be proactive and helpful. They’re beaten down and just want to get through the day.

While sometimes you’ll get stuck in this line, the first thing I do if there’s an airline club lounge I have access to is go there. The lines will generally be shorter and the agents less harried.

If there’s a line there, or if there’s no lounge, then I hop on the phone. During major weather events phone wait times can be long but I might as well wait on hold while I’m waiting in line. And elite phone numbers help here in jumping the queue.

I can often get rebooked before I’m near the front of the line, and that can make a difference in getting a seat on a flight that would be booked solid by the time I made it to the front of the customer service line, or it may mean finishing my day at the airport sooner and retreating elsewhere to relax and be productive.

Find Your Own Strategy — And Get the Help You Need

Whether dealing with a phone agent, an agent in the club, or an employee in the customer service line it helps to have a rebooking strategy of your own instead of wating for them to make suggestions. They may not be as creative — or as despearate — as you are.

They might look for space on the next flight that matches your current routing. Perhaps you’re willing to fly into an alternate airport? Or even overnight along the way if it means getting wherever you’re going faster?

Availability changes rapidly too so I have seen seats open up while on a phone call that wheren’t there when an agent first checked. I would love to say that mobile tools are as good as what I can do on my laptop but for me that isn’t the case.

I mostly use the KVS tool for this, and another pay service Expert Flyer but as long as you’re not flying American a good source for free availability information is FlightStats.com and for predicting delays and tracking where your aircraft is coming from is FlightAware.com (though inbound aircraft tracking isn’t available for all airlines).

The most important thing when dealing with agents is to be friendly, to be sympathetic not demanding. You can even listen in on the people in front of you in line, scanning for bad behavior, and use the abuse that agents are taking as a way of gaining their willingness to help you. Tell them you’re not having a great day but you’re sure it’s nothing compared to theirs, since they have to deal with everyone. And that you really appreciate them. That you’re going to be easy to work with, but that you really need their help for whatever important reason you have. Empathize with them and they’ll usually go to greater lengths to help you.

Elite Status Matters Most During Irregular Operations

Status comes in handy during these situations. It’s often the difference between getting out same day and not, since standing by you generally bump to the top of most waitlists. I wouldn’t mileage run from zero to get status, but having status helps and the higher the status level the better when looking to be re-accommodated. An incremental trip at the end of the year can be worthwhile.

Picking Your Best Bet

Picking what flights to try to get on, I want to make it as close to my destination as possible — ideally drivable but generally to the closest hub that has frequent flights to wherever I’m going.

If I’m on the West Coast heading East I’m happy to get to Chicago, even with a forced overnight, because i’s a lot easier and quicker to get home from there with plenty of flight options. If I’m headed West then Denver works fr United, and Dallas for American as long as those aren’t the cities I’m stuck in or that are primarily affected by cancellations.

Know When to Throw in the Towel and Try Again Later

When flights are cancelling because of a major weather (or other) event that’s affecting an airport and not just given flight, I’ll prepare to hunker down and get myself an airport hotel room right away.

Those are the circumstances where rooms at the airport tend to fill up and I’ll make a speculative booking — a same-day cancellable revenue or award booking ideally, but sometimes even an award night that I could wind up not using but that I’ll make sure I have to avoid getting stuck without a convenient and clean room.

Mostly I want a place to work and be productive, a more comfortable place to relax, even just a private bathroom and shower — not to mention access to a more relaxing restaurant (or room service). Timelines matter, getting where you’re going matters, but when that’s just not going to happen usually the best strategy is a second-best of finding a way to get as much done as you can.

Recouping Some of the Cost

Some delays and cancellations will trigger eligibility for trip delay coverage provided by the premium credit card used to buy airline tickets. I’ll worry about that part later, no harm in inquiring and opening up a claim. But mishaps happen during travel, if they happen to me only a couple of times a year then mentally I’ll divide the cost of the delay (hotel nights, incidentals) across all of my trips and the average cost isn’t too bad.

Starwood is offering up to a 25% discount on purchased points through May 31. The same discount applies to gifting points as to buying them for yourself.

Buy Starpoints® for yourself or as a gift now through May 31, 2014, and get up to 25% off the regular price. 

• Get 10% off 500–9,500 Starpoints
• Get 15% off 10,000–14,500 Starpoints
• Get 20% off 15,000–19,500 Starpoints
• Get 25% off 20,000 Starpoints

Now let’s do the math. 20,000 Starpoints still costs you $525. That’s 2.625 cents per point.

Starwood points are worth a lot, and I’ll usually get at least 2 cents per point out of my hotel redemptions. But even for ‘topping off’ towards a hotel award this is dicey. Remember, you’ll get a better deal than buying Starpoints at 2.6 cents with cash and points awards. Those work out to buying back your Starpoints at about 2.1 cents apiece.

And there’s been much grumbling about that price since it’s higher than in the past (though I think it’s still marginally worth it).

But not for hotel awards except the very most expensive. And certainly not speculatively. If you know you have a specific hotel you want to redeem for, where you’re getting at least 2.7 cents a point or higher in value, and you need to buy points to achieve the redemption (a cash and points redemption, or where cash and points is not available) then go ahead. But don’t do it to replenish your points.

Let’s look at this one other way though — airline mileage redemptions.

Here’s my primer on transferring Starwood points into airline miles.

With most airlines 20,000 Starpoints transfer to 25,000 airline miles. The $525 price to buy 20,000 Starpoints now looks like 2.1 cents per airline mile.

That’s not a price I buy miles at. I’m tempted but generally say no to US Airways at 1.88 cents per mile. Those points from US Airways at that price should eventually become American miles.

But if you need to top off a mileage account other than a United one (Starpoints don’t transfer well — 2 Starpoints to 1 mile — with United) and there’s not a cheaper offer such as a 100% bonus with US Airways then this could be a way of buying miles in your favorite airline cheaper than doing so directly from that airline.

And that’s a time that an offer — that at first blush seems too expensive still — could make good sense.

For instance, if you had 100,000 Starwood points and wanted 120,000 to transfer into 150,000 Japan Airlines miles for a New York JFK – Dubai – Bangkok roundtrip on Emirates in first class then buying the last 20,000 Starpoints at a bit over 2.6 cents apiece could make sense.

United MileagePlus is offering a 20% discount on roundtrip saver economy awards between the US (excluding Hawaii) or Canada and Mexico City if you book by April 29 and travel in May.

That’s a 7000 mile discount — 28,000 miles instead of the usual 35,000.

Of course travel must be booked less than 21 days out to qualify for this discount, so most members will have to pay United’s close-in booking fees ($75 for general members, $50 for Silver, $25 for Gold, waived for Platinum and above).

If you are checking a bag, assume it will get lost — at least for a little while. Split up your most important items, try to carry on the things you can’t do without in first day, and don’t put all of your most valuable items in the same bag.

Checked bags will get lost. Not every time, of course, just when you’re the one checking them and when you need their contents the most.

They’re most likely to get lost when:

  • Transferring bags between airlines. It’s an extra complication and condition that needs to go right.
  • You have a short connection, whether because of flight delays or not
  • There are disgruntled employees. When Alaska had a baggage handler job action I had one bag mutilated to shreds and another sent to Reno rather than Seattle.

Airlines are better at tracking bags than they used to be, but things go wrong with bags outside of your control. This becomes especially problematic when the contents are super-important or you’re traveling beyond the ticket you’re flying on when you checked the bags.

Assume your bags will not make it when you do. Carry on clothes that will get you through, along with whatever else is vital.

I’ve had plenty of good luck with checked bags. I’ve left bags in Bankok on a 14 hour overnight without problems. I’ve had Cathay Pacific retrieve and re-tag bags more than once mid-trip to send them to a different destination than they were originally checked to. I’ve usually had no problems. But I always plan as though I will.

In addition to packing items in a carry on as insurance, and being willing to make purchases at your destination when bags do get lost, you should:

  • Have identifying marks on your bag — tags, contact information inside the bag as well, and something unique on the outside so it stands out. You don’t want the airline looking for an unidentified and unidentifiable black bag.
  • Take a photo of your bags, I usually wind up doing this at the airport with my phone as I am turning the bag over to airline employees. That makes it easier to explain what it looks like.

Odds on, you’ll be ok.

And don’t forget that in addition to getting compensation from an airline that lost your bags you may be able to get something from the credit card that you used to purchase the ticket.

With American Express it’s generally up to $500; with Visa Signature it’s $100 per day ($300 maximum) when you’re separated from your bags for over 18 hours; World MasterCard is similar to Visa Signature except that the delay only needs to be 4 hours. Your specific card benefits may vary, but save your receipts and call your card issuer to process a claim.

News and notes from around the interweb:

Skift reported yesterday on JD Power’s rankings of hotel loyalty programs (their “Hotel Loyalty/Rewards Program Satisfaction Report”).

Honestly I was hoping this wouldn’t get any pickup, since it’s just another missive likely to mislead consumers.

  • The most heavily-weighted factor in the rankings — nearly a quarter of it — was ‘account maintenance’. That just doesn’t strike me as the single biggest factor in how valuable a hotel loyalty program is. Note that this isn’t “customer service” which is its own category and worth just 5% of the survey’s weight.

  • They factor how easy it is to earn (which will heavily weight number of points earned and number of partners with which you can earn) and ease of redemption (but not the value of what you’re redeeming for).

  • An undisclosed amount — less than 5% of the weighting — is based on ‘variety of benefits available’ which is the closest they get to how well a hotel chain actually treats its guests on-property, or to elite benefits — things which have to factor in heavily when evaluating a hotel loyalty program.

About 3800 people were surveyed. Delta Privilege comes in third and Drury comes in fifth.

  • There’s no comment from JD Power on their beliefs about how this is or isn’t a representative sample of loyalty program members voting.
  • Or about statistical significance. How many of those 3800 could possibly be in the data ranking Drury’s program?

Bear that in mind when evaluating that the results they came up with are Marriott Rewards as the best program, followed by IHG Rewards Club, and that the worst are Best Western Rewards and Hyatt Gold Passport.

I don’t have an issue with these being the results of a ranking per se although I disagree vehemently with this estimation (personally I think the best hotel loyalty programs are Hyatt, Starwood, and Kimpton).

Instead I don’t give this much credence because t’s JD Power. JD Power sells its research to the subjects of its award rankings and sells companies the right to market their winning of these awards.

How any journalistic outlet can report JD Power findings without noting that companies promoting their awards are paying JD Power to do so is truly beyond me.

Later this month I’ll be honored to hand out Freddie Awards to airline and hotel loyalty programs from around the world.

There is no perfect measure of what program is best, but this is directly voted on by millions of frequent travelers (rather than weighted based on an internal metric). I will disagree with many of the assessments by program members, and that’s fine — it is not an award by a panel of experts, it attempts to capture public opinion. And it’s always humbling to see where there’s a real gap in my views of program value and those of frequent travelers around the world. I can feel really out of touch with what’s important to members.

One of the most common questions I get from programs when talking to them about the Freddies is how much it costs to enter? Or how much it costs to attend the ceremony? What kind of license fees they have to pay to promote the award?

The answer is no fee at all. As long as a program describes the awards and their performance accurately, they’re simply reporting on what frequent travelers have said about their program. And there are sponsors picking up the tab for dinner and trophies, some who want their brand in front of loyalty program leaders. Last year one of our sponsors, USA Today, even gave us a full page color add with which to congratulate winners.

With the changes American announced to its frequent flyer program last week many members are wondering what shoe is next to drop.

There are going to be many more changes for sure — for the frequent flyer program, and for the airline — simply as a matter of going down the list of differences between American and US Airways.

And there are going to be members who don’t like the changes no matter which version of a policy, American’s or US Airways’, they decide to go with in any given instance.

But here are some of the changes I expect to see as US Airways and American harmonize their programs and their airline operations.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but several readers have asked me for some of the changes I expect and while I’ve shared many of these before it seemed useful to include them as a list.

  • We’re going to get a combined award chart, we can expect Asia awards to get more expensive and in general we can expect first class awards to get more expensive. I do not see huge increases to Europe and Africa because American’s chart is already effectively quite expensive due to the fuel surcharges on their primary transatlantic partner and because Africa awards are expensive to begin with.

  • Not for 2015 necessarily but I don’t expect 8 confirmed international upgrades from any fare to last for top tier elite flyers, although Delta’s improved international upgrades for top elites makes it harder to cut back too far here.

  • I expect the airline to go with unlimited complimentary upgrades for elites, no more stickers. If they went with American’s current system, which is unlimited complimentary upgrades for Executive Platinums only, US Airways elites would hate having to pay for upgrades beyond the 2000 miles’ worth for every 10,000 miles flown given under the current system. But with the US Airways (and United, Delta) approach American’s lower-level elites will miss the greater frequency of upgrades compared to having to go up against every elite every flight. Assuming this happens I’ll be interested to see what American does with existing outstanding unused 500 mile upgrade certificates (I have some from before I was an Executive Platinum), e.g. whether they convert them to redeemable miles or just ‘disappear’ them.

  • While US Airways is beginning to match American service standards for now (although not quite — US Airways is offering meals on flights over 1000 nautical miles while American has at least plated snack service on shorter flights), I expect that a year from now there will be fewer meals in the forward cabin domestically — closer to what US Airways service standards were than American’s standards), I also can’t imagine they’ll keep the mints.

  • They will almost certainly move to 4 elite tiers like US Airways has. Otherwise they would have to ‘demote’ US Airways 75,000 mile flyers. Delta and United have four tiers already. The open question would be whether top tier is earned at 100,000 miles (American, US Airways, United) or 125,000 miles (Delta).

  • American Platinum members (50,000 mile flyers, mid-tier elite) currently earn 100% bonus on flown miles. I expect that will fall to 50%.

  • American has an agent meeting every arriving flight at their hubs, this is in addition to the agents working the gate for the next flight. This is an easy cut for the airline to make. It amazes me how many customers take advantage of talking to the agent to find their next flight instead of looking at a flight monitor. An agent is useful, though, at the very end of the day with delayed flights when the airline should be providing a hotel night. I don’t expect this service to remain.

Which ones do you agree with? Which ones do you disagree with?

What other changes do you expect?

And which policies are you most nervous about?

MeliáRewards is a hotel loyalty program with most of its properties in Europe, and the largest number in Spain. The next biggest region for them is South America. There are 3 hotels in the U.S. as well, in New York, Atlanta, and Orlando.

They have a current joining offer of 12,000 points, enough for a free night with many of their hotels.

Here’s the detail:

  • 2000 points is the normal signup bonus, and it’s enough to get a discount on a hotel booking (cash and points).
  • The current promotion gives you an additional 10,000 points — for a total of 12,000 points as a signup bonus.
  • The catch is that the extra 10,000 points expire at the end of April if unused. So you need to book an award night right away (within the next couple of weeks) after creating your account.

This won’t get you a free night in New York, but cash and points can be useful too. And of course two people traveling together can each sign up for an account and redeem points as separate reservations, back-to-back. So no doubt this will be useful to some readers, even though the timeframe to use it is limited and most redemption options are outside the U.S.

(HT: SlickDeals)

Now that the US Airways 100% bonus on shared miles (the best offer for purchased miles generally made by any airline loyalty program) is over, they’re apparently back with a version of their usual bonuses for purchased miles (which isn’t nearly as good a deal). (HT: Loyalty Lobby)

The buy miles offer page is again asking you to verify your name and account number at the outset, which means it’s checking on what your targeted offer is.

The offer runs through the end of the month, not everyone is eligible, and the bonus you’ll be offered will vary.

It turns out that none of the accounts I manage were targeted for a purchased miles bonus this go-around. Even if they were, I wouldn’t be a buyer — certainly not at any amount under a 100% bonus.

Good Deal?

At a 100% bonus, priced at around 1.9 cents per mile, I would consider it to top off an account towards a given award.

US Airways ran — both targeted and non-targeted — versions of the 100% purchase miles or share miles bonus for most of 2013. This airline has been the single most aggressive in selling miles, and at a price point lower than most other carriers offer their miles.

Buying miles at a 100% bonus from US Airways used to be an amazing deal. Four years ago their award chart was less expensive (e.g. 80,000 miles for business class to Europe). And prior to September 2010 miles normally cost 2.5 cents apiece. In October 2011 they raised the standard price of miles to 3.5 cents apiece.

Challenges and Opportunities With US Airways Miles

US Airways has difficulty ‘seeing’ some partner award inventory — even now that they’ve left Star Alliance — although it mostly seems to be agent error when they’re unable to find flights, the agents aren’t used to the systems they’re using to find oneworld space, or the booking codes for that space.

On the other hand they’re pricing awards less expensively in both miles and taxes than most other oneworld members so there’s real value here.

How to Play This

My advice is to use this offer only to top off an account towards a specific award — and you can generally place awards on hold and then buy the miles, calling back to ticket the held reservation.

I wouldn’t buy miles speculatively at nearly 2 cents apiece. This purchase bonus offer is cheaper than American sells miles. Of course there’s uncertainty about the US Airways award chart over the course of the next year. They’ve just increased the price of the famous 90,000 business class award to Hong Kong.

No Credit Card Bonuses for the Purchase Cost

US Airways mileage purchases are processed by points.com which means they don’t show up as airfare, and thus don’t earn bonuses from credit cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred (double points) or American Express Premier Rewards Gold (triple points) that bonus airfare spend.

News and notes from around the interweb:

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