Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency
Since late 2019 I’ve booked, canceled, and re-booked the same trip five times using frequent flyer miles. And that process has illustrated a lot of important conclusions about the process — both earning miles and using them. I was concentrating on flying business class to and from Europe from my home in Oregon, but I checked other options along the way. Clearly, with all the variables involved, I can report only my own experience, but I think some conclusions are broadly representative of what anyone would find.1. Miles do Not Improve with Age.The value of a frequent flyer mile is inexorably declining. During each of my five successive tries for the same trip, I found that lowest-mile mileage requirement kept increasing and itinerary options kept getting worse — in both business and economy. I expect devaluation of miles to continue indefinitely.Yes, you can still get some economy class long-haul round-trips within the U.S. for 25,000 miles and to Europe for 60,000 miles, but many — if not all — the available lowest-mile trips increasingly rely on itineraries you wouldn’t want: New York to London with a connection in Istanbul or Warsaw, for example, or San Francisco to Paris with back-to-back red-eyes and a full day layover on the East Coast, and few, if any nonstops.
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2. Want are Miles Worth Now?Over the years, the very active frequent flyer blogosphere has valued credit on big US airlines between 1.0 and 1.7 cents a mile. Most foreign airlines show slightly lower values. And transferable American Express, Chase, and Citi credit is worth 1.8 to 2 cents per mile/point. Surprisingly, that hasn’t changed much over the last few years. But those values look increasingly high:Economy class. Currently, for mid-September travel, you can buy long-haul domestic round-trips for $400 to $500 and the lowest-mileage frequent flyer awards are still 25,000 to 30,000 miles. That calculates to a credit value of 1.3 to 2 cents a mile. Nonstop flights to Europe start at $500 from the East Coast; $900 from the West. Frequent flyer round-trips start at 60,000 miles. The math there works out to 0.8 to 1.5 cents a mile.Business class. My most recent attempt for this coming September costs 145,000 United miles, with a lousy itinerary eastbound. Big-line business class round-trips currently start at $5000 plus, so you could calculate the per-mile value at 3.4 cents each. But most of us wouldn’t pay $5000 for a ticket. I regularly see promotional business class round-trip fares to Europe at around $2100, which computes to a more realistic value of about 1.4 cents a mileClearly, you’ll accumulate whatever miles you can by flying. But maximizing credit-card miles is generally not a good deal. A good reward card these days can earn 2 cents per dollar charged on all your charges, so you’re generally better off shunning airline cards and instead going for cash-back cards. Even if you have an airline card that gives you free checked bags and other benefits, it’s not likely that the various airline benefits will offset annual fees.Maximizing the value of your miles can be complicated. Blogger Ben Schlappig (onemileatatime.com) recently listed eight best mileage “sweet spots,” and six of them involved using one airline’s points to book a flight on some other airline. Special transfer promotions can also offer improved value. For another future trip, I saw a terrific deal: transfer AmEx points to British airways with a 40 percent promotional bonus, then transfer the BA points to Iberia to book the ticket.If you aren’t confident about manipulating miles yourself, a cottage industry of award booking assistance is available. I decided to test the system with PointMe (point.me), and it worked well. The agent there did all the work of converting 82,000 AmEx points into a round-trip business class trip to Europe — that’s just a bit over half of the miles for my earlier trip and well worth the $200 fee.I expect devaluation of miles to continue indefinitely. Use ’em, don’t sit on ’em.(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at email@example.com. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)
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