Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Frequent flier Miles and points: how far will they take you?

I haven’t blogged in a while. The reasons are several including procrastination during summer vacation. I hope to continue with the blog, now that I am back and refreshed.
This summer, I planned a family trip (with my wife and son) from Anytown, US to Bangalore where my parents live. While planning the trip back in Spring of 2014, I decided to explore the possibility of burning some of my accumulated airmiles.

I am not a miles junkie at least not as much as I used to be. This said, I will gladly take the small, perhaps the only, perk of business travel that comes in the form of air mile credits and hotel loyalty points.
I shall refrain from naming the carrier where I had accumulated nearly a million miles and now have a measly ‘silver-elite status (but here is a hint this airline traces its roots to the illustrious Pan Am). Not long ago, when I was a ‘road warrior’ IT consultant , it was much easier to earn a lot more air miles, and more importantly acquire and retain privileged Platinum “Elite” status with the airline. The biggest benefit of an elite status, besides the ability to change flights without additional fee was that I frequently got bumped up to first-class while traveling in the US – lots of leg space without the need to worry about knee defenders.
Of course, it is much harder to maintain such coveted status with the airline, now that I don’t travel as much; and the few cross Atlantic business trips a year don’t really cut it with them! I spent a couple of days searching options on the airline’s website with the following constraints:
  • I had to be able to book three returns tickets from Anytown, US to an airport closest to Bangalore where the airline flies
  • Ensure that the major leg of our trip could be on business class
Turns out most US carriers don’t fly directly to Bangalore. A few fly into Mumbai or Delhi. And Airlines are less generous with miles on code-share flights with partner airlines, and especially less generous with those who don’t have higher elite tiers (like I said earlier, that is a perk that makes being a road-warrior worth it).

After a few days search, I zeroed in on two options: fly from Anytown, US to Mumbai or to Dubai and book an additional return flight from DXB/BOM to BLR. The difference was the return trip to DXB would burn about 140,000 miles (per seat) versus 180,000 to Mumbai. I decided on the former and decided to extend the trip with stopover for a day-long tour of Dubai.
The trip was great, with minimal disruptions. A few lessons from this experience
  • Be flexible on airports and itinerary. As I mentioned above, we were flexible in planning a trip with a stopover in DXB instead of BOM.
  • Change fee is expensive, but may be worth paying. I booked the trip in spring and didn’t have much of the vacation planned. Work and other scheduling came in the way after booking the trip which meant I had to cough up a change fee for the itinerary. Bottomline: change fee of $150 on a cross-continent trip using miles? Worth it!
  • Free is not always free. Even free tickets issued using airmiles are taxed. One has to pay the airport tax and other fees that can add up to a tidy sum for cross-continental flights.  There are other costs and incidentals one needs to plan for, especially if you don’t have a higher elite status with the airline in question. Costs like change fee, standby fee etc can add up.
  • Be prepared for “Attitude” from (some) of the ground crew. An example: on the return leg, while getting our boarding cards, I asked the lady at the checkout counter where the business class lounge in DXB was. She gave me a ‘look’ and asked if I were eligible to enter a longue on a ticket issued with points. I had to stand my ground and insist on this simple prevlidge (DXB airport requires US airlines’ staff to endorse tickets for longue access as most don’t have their own longues)
Bottomline: The effort expended in being able to burn accumulated airmiles for a family vacation is totally worth it!

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