Monday, March 5, 2012

Is Scott correct on Frequent Flier Miles?

Finally, I am back. I have couples of personal things going on with my life, so I have not posted for a while.

On March 1, 2012, Scott McCartney from The Middle Seat of Wall Street Journal posted "Redemption Strategies: Getting the Most Out of Your Frequent Flier Miles" in his blog.

At Boarding Area, the post receives negative reviews from Gary and Seth, claiming that his conclusion is wrong:

Horrible advice on award valuation from the Wall Street Journal (By Seth from the Wandering Aramean)

The Wall Street Journal’s Strategies for Getting the Most of Your Miles (are Wrong) - (By Gary from View from the Wing)

I have read those 3 posts over and over again. Even I understand both Seth's and Gary's perspective, I see nothing wrong with Scott's post at all.

Based on Scott's post, here are how I agree with Scott (and disagree with Seth and Gary):

1. Without doubt, miles are devaluing as we speak (Mile Inflation).

When the airlines start imposing fees on travel, award tickets (without tax and surcharge) are no longer as free as they are used to be. In fact, it is not news that people have to pay for hundreds of dollars in order to travel for "free".

2. Routing issue is a complicated subject.

To most people, getting from City A to City B seems easy - "Sure, fly to there".

But how many people (including frequent flyers) know exactly how?

Here was a real, actual experience that I have.

My friend needed to get from San Francisco to Geneva, Switzerland one-way. As any international one-way ticket can cost as much as a round-trip, my friend chose to use miles instead.

He is a United MileagePlus General Member.

At that moment, Swiss and Lufthansa were not available. His only hope was United.

However, the website was quoting him the trip would need 40,000 miles (plus tax and surcharge).

Then I have taken a look and I found the issue - the increase of miles was not due to the Trans-Atlantic segment of the flight, but the San Francisco-Washington D.C. Dullus segment.

So I used a trick by finding a award seat for the San Francisco-Washington D.C. Dullus segment instead (as the Trans-Atlantic segment was never the issue at all). By inserting a stop at Dallas/Fort Worth, my friend saved 12,500 miles.

By the way, this route was constructed manually, which no one from United could have constructed this route (as the result, the booking fee was waived as well).

Here is my question - how would you expect a typical passenger to know all these?

It is exactly the same - when you asked a person who self-files his own tax return, "Do you know how the tax system work?", he or she would probably say no to you as well.

My real-life example is simple - routing issue, with the additional complication of inventory issue, can make a trained professional becomes an amateur.

(By the way, Gary did suggest award booking service may work, which I agree. However, based on Elliott's blog, 75% of people will not use such service.)

3. Scott suggested for a change in strategy. But he did not offer one.

In his conclusion, Scott said,

"As ticket prices go up, travelers may have to re-adjust their expectations – and strategies – for mileage award redemption."

However, he did not address how. So he merely suggested his readers to look into this issue. He did not offer other advices.

4. Last but not the least - Most people travel on Economy, not Premium Class.

(And this is exactly why I start this blog - Economy, as always, is easily forgotten class of service, but yet the most crowded.)

So how wrong (or correct) is he? I don't know. But at the least, he has a point.


  1. I find it ironic that you claim Scott wasn't wrong when the "fixes" you cite are the things that Gary and I suggest he should have pointed out in the first place.

    The fees thing is mostly a red herring right now, at least for US-based programs redeeming on their own metal. Delta charges usurious fees for trips originating outside North America and AA does for some partners, but otherwise that's just not an issue right now.

    And the point of not trusting only the basic website search but of looking at partners and searching for other connections are the things that should be suggested in a story about getting better value, not just saying that awards now cost more.

  2. But then, it takes 20 economy paying passengers to make up the profits that only just one paying first class passenger to do it.