In general, I don’t redeem miles or points for my own travel. I would rather redeem them for friends and family, and in practice they usually make up for it by helping me pay for my own tickets so that I continue to earn elite status. Obviously we both win financially, but there’s another factor to consider: flexibility. The main reason for this is that elite status typically allows free changes or cancellations on award tickets but not revenue tickets. Elite status still offers no help there. But with one exception, I have never cancelled or changed a ticket, so I could care less about this distinction for my own travel. Instead, it comes in really handy in those instances when I book tickets for other people. Let me give you a few recent examples.
Trading Revenue for Award Tickets
Megan’s parents generously pay for both of us to visit a couple times a year. These tickets are expensive, usually $500 although I’ve found one or two in the $300 range. One Christmas it was well north of $700. Each. Fortunately United is nearly always the cheapest option, or if Southwest is a few bucks less, I’ll cover the difference. I also search for award space, but there never is any because we travel on holiday weekends.
This weekend, however, Megan’s sister is flying out, and there did happen to be award space. So I snapped it up for 25,000 miles and saved her parents another $500 ticket. It’s a little thanks for all the generosity they’ve shown us. (Just to put this in perspective, Megan and I together earn about 18,000 miles including credit card and elite bonuses each time we visit.) The itinerary wasn’t quite perfect, but it never is coming from Amarillo. Fortunately a seat alert popped up yesterday on ExpertFlyer, and I cut the connections to one instead of two so she could get in before dinner.
Sharing Elite Benefits
Continuing the story, Megan’s sister will get to share in all the elite benefits I enjoy as a Premier 1K. One of the glitches in Continental’s reservations system that carried over in the merger is that elite status for award tickets is based on the person who provided the miles, not the passenger. (I imagine you could make an argument for better treatment if a non-status relative booked an award for a 1K.) So her ticket says “Premier 1K” on it, and she’ll get access to the elite security line and a free checked bag–not an inconsequential benefit given that she’ll probably show up with two suitcases full of bricks.
In addition, I just got an email alert this morning that her flight has been upgraded. Normally award tickets aren’t upgradeable, but I know an exception is made if you hold a MileagePlus Explorer credit card. The thing is, I canceled that months ago. Perhaps it’s a feature of my new United Club credit card but not an advertised one I’m aware of. It certainly isn’t because she got an early op-up due to a full plane. It isn’t even close, and there are several people behind her on the upgrade list. So for now I’ll chalk this up to a lucky glitch. If anyone has more details on this one, I’d be glad to learn more.
Accommodating Clueless Parents
I used my miles to book my parents a trip to France last fall, flying Swiss business class on the way there and Lufthansa first class on the way back. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t make up their mind about where they wanted to go in France and kept switching back and forth between Lyon, Paris, Zurich, and Bordeaux. They also weren’t sure when they wanted to come back. ARGH! Fortunately it’s always easy to find new flights for intra-Europe travel, and I had a few back-up itineraries already booked for the return. Every time they called to announce they’d changed their minds, I was able to call United and get it fixed in less than 10 minutes for no charge.
Getting a Deal on Short, Expensive Flights
My aunt was in the Bay Area two weeks ago for a doctor’s appointment and to see my mom. She forgot her return flight information to Medford, OR, and all she knew was that she was departing SFO. I had to help her find her itinerary using the confirmation number from her outbound boarding pass, only to find she was leaving the next day. However, she wanted to change her flight to Saturday, so I explained there would be a $150 change fee and found space for her. The good news is there was no fare difference to pay on top of that, but the bad news is this is because fares to Medford are always ridiculously expensive. I just checked yesterday and found the cheapest at $900 roundtrip. Hers was $700. In a turbo-prop with no first class.
After making the change, I pointed out that a short flight like that is only 20,000 miles round trip, a drop in the bucket for me, and that she could make all the changes she wanted if she felt like staying longer to visit with her sisters. Hopefully she’ll remember to call me the next time she needs to head back.
Helping a Fellow Blogger
Finally, fellow blogger Angelina, who writes Just Another Points Traveler, was looking for some help earlier this week with her flight back home from Hawaii. She had used some American Airlines miles with a stopover in her home near New York and continuing on to London, essentially getting a discounted one-way ticket to Europe that she could use in the future. However, she needed to return home from Hawaii earlier than expected and couldn’t find any award space. It looked like she might have to cancel the entire trip, along with paying redeposit and cancellation fees.
I couldn’t find her space on American, but I pointed out that there was likely tons on United, which has many flights to the Hawaiian islands. I also have access to some inventory not available to other MileagePlus members. Thanks to the flexibility of Ultimate Rewards points, I suggested she transfer 40,000 points to me, and I would book her some return tickets on United for 40,000 miles. If she ended up using her new United tickets, I could transfer the UR points into my United account or just leave them there. (I have plenty of both, but I would prefer UR points for their flexibility. It’s a win-win.) If she was able to find new award space on American later on, she could fix her existing itinerary, and I would cancel the United tickets with no fee and transfer the UR points back.
It certainly helped that I already had a lot of UR points and UA miles with no immediate need for either. If I had to transfer the UR points into my United account, I would not be able to transfer them back to Angelina. However, things worked out, giving her a safety net on United in case she couldn’t fix the award trip she had already booked.
So there you have it, five ways that I’ve helped friends and family by NEVER booking award travel for myself. Sure, I am building up a little stockpile for my own needs, but I’ve been able to help a lot of other people who really needed the flexibility that can only be offered by the combination of award travel and elite status. Miles alone are good. Who doesn’t like free travel? But the combination of miles and top-tier elite status is great. The problem is that using those miles yourself can make it harder to keep the elite status. If you can manage it, as I have, I suggest you look for similar opportunities to maximize the value of each.