Using ExpertFlyer helped get us Qantas First class AGAIN

I am the kind of person that likes to plan far in advance. Getting plane tickets for trips 5-8 months beforehand is not unlikely in my life, mostly because that’s when I seem to find the best deals. Either there is a sale of some kind of I have an insight due to my frequent-flyer blog reading. So, when I tell you that my wife and I booked our flights home from Australia one week before takeoff – please know that this is not who I normally am.

That being said, it’s not completely true. While we had booked our flight to Australia on Qantas First class, it was getting particularly hard to find the same kind of availability on the return for January 1. In fact, I had been searching for two months on a daily basis and I didn’t find anything. So, my wife and I gave in and decided two things:

  1. We would book the cheapest economy (oy) ticket home and just deal with it.
  2. We would set up flight alerts on ExpertFlyer and cancel the economy tickets (eating the fees) if we found something.

So, that’s what we did. I found a relatively inexpensive ticket home from Sydney on the morning of January 1 and booked it for the two of us:

Then, I set up flight alerts on ExpertFlyer for award tickets home. For those who don’t know what that service does: instead of spending my own time searching daily on all the websites for specific flights, it does the work for me! I just set up a bunch of queries and when one is available, it sends me an email. Here are some example searches I had running:

Then, the most amazing thing happened: not only did I receive notification of award availability, but it was still in Qantas First class!

I got this email while on the train from Gold Coast airport to Brisbane so I immediately closed the Netflix movie I was watching and went on AA.com to book it (I was using AA miles after all). It turned out while there were two seats available, one was direct Sydney->Los Angeles while the other was Sydney->Melbourne->Los Angeles. Well, after talking it over briefly with my wife, we booked it and later on cancelled the United flights (getting all the money back, incidentally). Since both flights arrive in LA around the same time, we then booked a return flight home to JFK together.

It’s amazing what a little patience, flexibility, and a great award search tool can do!

Should you keep that credit card or not?

As many of you who read this blog know my wife and I have over 25 credit cards to our names. In some, she is the primary user and in some I am. We have accumulated all these cards because of their sign-up bonuses and various benefits like free checked baggage, access to lounges, elite status, etc. But, every little while it is a good idea to think about if you should keep a card in your wallet (or folio, in our case) or cut it free. In fact, The Points Guy has great posts on checking your credit card inventory once in a while.

The biggest question for me in keeping or cancelling a care is if I am getting a benefit that outweighs the annual fee every year. The easiest examples of “keepers” to me are cards for airlines I or my wife use frequently. For example, we have a United Mileage Plus Explorer card and an AAdvantage Aviator Red Card, each with a $95 annual fee, but we keep them year after year because we get benefits of free checked bags (a $25 benefit each flight per bag) and boarding status (we get to come on the plane earlier and make sure our carry-ons fit in the overhead compartment). As long as we have at least four bag-checks on each airline, it is worth it to keep those cards.

Other cards come with anniversary bonuses. The Amtrak Guest Rewards World card provides an annual Companion pass that, if used correctly, can offset its $79 annual fee. My wife and I travel to Providence, RI frequently enough that a round-trip train ticket + companion makes that doable. The JetBlue Plus Card has a fee of $99 but gives free checked bags and 5,000 points after every account anniversary.

Some cards come with status and not necessarily other benefits you might use. The AMEX Hilton HHonors Surpass card has a $75 annual fee but comes with Gold status at all Hilton-connected hotels. That has given me free room upgrades and free breakfast in at least three situations, totally that much money or more. Additionally, I have earned more points than usual, making it more possible to have a free night sooner. Basically, it does end up paying for itself.

It’s really the big, expensive cards that make me seriously think whether or not it’s worth it to keep them. I currently have a Citi Prestige card, which I got in December 2015 when the sign-up bonus was 50,000 ThankYou points. I applied because I knew that while it has a $450 annual fee, each calendar year it comes with a $250 airline credit. So by using it in 2015 to buy a flight and 2016 to buy a flight, I received $500 in credits to offset the fee the first year. Additionally, it also comes with a host of other benefits including access to the Priority Pass network of lounges across the globe, which my wife and I used extensively during our honeymoon. The fee just came up again and I am debating whether or not to keep the card. It is essentially a $200 annual fee card (with the offset airline credit) in order to access a whole host of lounges and potentially free hotel nights as well. I’m not sure what to do with it but I have some time to decide.

So there you have it – my basic analysis of the different types of benefits you can earn. It really is an individual decision whether or not to keep these cards and, as the Points Guy said at a recent workshop I attended, “do the math.”

Death of the Mileage Run?

Two days ago American Airlines announced that starting on August 1, 2016 their frequent flyer program, AAdvantage, will become revenue-based instead of mileage-based. This is a move that follows the other major carriers, Delta and United, who have done the same in recent history. It is definitely a big move as AA is the largest domestic carrier in the US and now all three of the top domestic carriers have similar rules.

With these major carriers imposing these changes, it seems that there is another nail in the coffin of the mileage run, a practice of flying to distant locations for cheap fares in order to gain miles for use at a later time. With revenue-based earning, the price of the ticket matters a lot more than the distance flown.

So what does this mean more specifically? Here is an example of a flight from New York’s JFK airport to London-Heathrow.Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.16.27 PMScreen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.16.33 PM

 

Under the former system, 100% of the miles flown would be added to the purchaser’s account in any Economy class, as shown below. Since the two airports are 3,452 miles apart (as calculated by TravelMath), the total miles earned would be 3,452 * 2 = 6,904.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.19.53 PM

According to American Airlines’ new rules, however, for that same trip costing  $881, the number is significantly less. First of all, only the “Base Fare” and “Carrier-imposed Fees” count towards mileage determination. Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.18.12 PM

So, only the $195 + $458 count, totaling $653. With the example shared on their announcement website, a low-level member of AAdvantage (read: most of us) would earn 5 miles/dollar. That totals to a whopping 653 * 5 = 3,265 miles, not even half of what was earned before.Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.22.34 PM

So, with this information in mind, it’s important to consider a) if earning points from flying is actually worthwhile in the future and b) perhaps we should put our miles on foreign carriers to get more leverage from them in the future.

Win 350,000 miles on American Airlines (and get taxed for it!)

Right now American Airlines has an interesting promotion called Miles for Milestones with either no downside or a pretty strange downside. For the 35th anniversary of their AAdvantage program they are offering 35 people a chance to win 350,000 AA miles to use on any of their routes or award partner routes. In addition, each entrant earns 350 miles just for signing up.

The upsides: you could earn enough AA miles to go round-trip first class for free to anywhere in the world. Or you will definitely earn a small amount of miles to help you get to your next domestic flights.

The downside: in the terms and conditions at the bottom of the site, it lists the “total ARV of each Prize [as] $6,965.” This may sound like a windfall but it’s possible they will send you a 1099-MISC form requiring you to pay taxes on the “income” you received as part of the prize.

I would still recommend signing up for the promotion anyway because the benefits far outweigh the costs. Imagine spending 25k miles on each roundtrip flight inside the US and you would earn 13 free flights with this prize. I signed up for it this morning.

Good luck!

When buying miles is a good or bad idea

One of the ways frequent flyer programs make money is to offer their members to purchase miles at various rates. Sometimes there are even bonuses (like the current one offered by American Airlines). It is usually not the best idea to purchase miles for yourself since you will end up paying more for a flight with those miles than if you bought the ticket outright. Additionally, there are usually more direct flights when purchasing with cash (rather than miles) so you get more comfortable options also.

That being said, there are some times when it makes sense to buy miles outright:

  1. You are almost at the threshold to purchase an award ticket and just need a bit more to get to the requirements. For example, flying to Bali on Korean Airlines is 95,000 miles one-way for their fantastic first class product. If you only had 80,000 miles in your account, you could get that ticket by paying some cash for the 15,000 more miles you need. That would save money on the $18,000+ flight if you bought the ticket in cash.Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 2.24.38 PM
  2. When the cost of the miles is less than the approximate value thereof. For example, if the value of AAdvantage miles is 1.7 cents/mile and you can buy them for 1.4 cents/mile, it would make sense to buy them and keep them banked for future use.
  3. You really really want to take a certain flight and the value of the ticket is worth it for the miles you would buy. For example, if a certain first class flight was $18,000 and to buy the miles would cost only $2,500, then go for it (that is, if you have the money).

Sometimes it makes sense to buy; most of the time it doesn’t. Just keep up with what you have in your account and what upcoming travel you expect to determine your best course of action.

US Airways and American Airlines’ mileage programs are merging soon

Yesterday I received two emails – one from American Airlines and one from US Airways. See if you can spot the difference in the headline picture:

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 2.24.42 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-14 at 2.25.02 PM

For those not paying attention, American Airlines and US Airways are merging into a single company soon and thus their accruing programs will be as well. As part of their lead-up to the merger they are starting to bind things together within the next 30 days. You can already buy tickets on either site with miles from that program (i.e. you can buy American Airlines tickets on US Airways website with US Airways miles) and soon enough the mileage programs will merge entirely. If you have accounts with both airlines, be sure to link them by following the instructions on this View from the Wing post – it is quick and easy to follow.

One of the important aspects of US Airways that will be disappearing soon is the World Elite Mastercard they offer: very soon you will not be able to sign up for it. In order to get last-minute sign-ups, they have increased the bonus to 50,000 miles with your first purchase and the $89 fee. Since I already have this card, I received a mailing explaining how mine will soon turn into the AAdvantage AviatorRed Mastercard sometime between April and June. Just some of the benefits that are changing are listed here:

  • Instead of the 5,000 mile discount offered by US Airways, the new card offers 10% back instead (better for some award tickets, worse for others).
  • No stopovers on award tickets (US Airways used to offer one stopover, effectively leading to two plane tickets for the price of one).
  • No more companion tickets (oh well).

There are a few more changes, but these are the ones that applied to me (and probably most people).

So, as we wait to hear more information about these changes, keep in mind it’s happening, people.