HOW TO MANAGE YOUR FREQUENT-TRAVEL PLANS
You shouldn't use American Express Membership Rewards points or Diners Club Rewards points for merchandise. Unless you are absolutely awash in frequent-flyer miles that you can't use, the very best value you'll get for your card points is premium-class airline seats via a conversion into frequent-flyer miles. Consider: Diners will give you a Bose Lifestyle 18 DVD Home Theater System in exchange for 166,000 Club Rewards points. Amex will give you the same Bose system for 200,000 Membership Rewards points. Bose doesn't discount, so you can take it to the mileage bank that the retail value of the system is $1,999. But those Club Rewards points can be converted to 166,000 Delta SkyMiles. With that cache, you can claim an unrestricted BusinessElite roundtrip from New York to Paris. The retail fare: $6,355. Those 200,000 Membership Rewards points work the same way.
In their rush to turn frequent-flyer programs into general marketing plans, the Big Six airlines have taken on a raft of shopping partners and both the airlines and the retailers seem intent on ripping off travelers. One salient example: the Continental OnePass program alliance with Calyx & Corolla, the flowers-by-courier service. The OnePass deal seems sweet: Earn 15 miles for every dollar spent when you follow a OnePass link and buy at the C&C Web site. But the OnePass link drives you to a rigged version of the Calyx & Corolla site. Only C&C's most expensive flower products--the bouquets bundled with ugly, overpriced vases--are listed on the site. And a "catalog quick order" function, which should permit you to buy C&C's more reasonably priced flowers-only products, has been disabled. Enter a valid code for a flowers-only bouquet and the OnePass version of the site spits out a phony error message. Of course, none of these games are played at C&C's public site, which lists the firm's entire inventory and happily processes the same "catalog quick order" codes that the OnePass-specific site rejects. In other words, if you want to shop smart at Calyx & Corolla, you can't have OnePass miles, too. The moral: When an airline frequent-flyer program drives you to a merchandise or service partner, be suspicious. Always check the price and selection you're shown against the offerings at the partner's general Web site.
Frequent-flyer plans stopped being about flying a long time ago. They're now "multi-sector travel and retail programs," says Steve Grosvald, who helped create the United Mileage Plus and the Continental OnePass plans. Mileage guru Randy Petersen says nearly 60 percent of all miles are now earned from non-flying sources such as credit cards, long-distance and wireless calling, retailers and dining. But change your buying patterns to earn the non-flying miles and you're in for a financial shock. One example: Charging $25,000 on a frequent-flyer credit card will earn you 25,000 miles, enough for a free, restricted domestic coach award. Use it to claim a Boston-Los Angeles roundtrip and you'll save about $300 at current fares. Pay back the $25,000 in charges over one year at the 13.99% interest that most affinity cards charge, however, and you'll ring up $1,934.72 in finance fees. Stretch the payments out over three years and you'll pay $5,755.50 in interest. Bottom line: Non-flight miles have value only if you earn them rationally. Never let the lure of so-called free miles induce you to pay more for a product or service. Never "roll over" your payments and pay interest charges on a credit card tied to a frequent-flyer plan. In fact, be wary of the price of anything that promises you "free" frequent-flyer miles.
It's a measure of how concerned business travelers are with their frequent-flyer mileage balances that the most popular new tools available on the Web is the Mileage Converter. This simple bit of brilliance not only calculates the conversion rate among frequent-flyer miles, frequent-stay points and Amex Membership Rewards and Diners Club Rewards points, it also tells you how to swap the credits. It even advises you of the most efficient method for doing the swap. But I must warn you: Virtually all inter-program conversions carry a heavy penalty, some higher than 50 percent of the miles that you are switching between plans. If you're truly worried about your US Airways, United, America West and Delta miles, you'd be better off cashing out rather than converting. And the safest way to cash out is to claim your award seats on international-airline partners for flights in the next six months or so. Once miles in a program are exchanged for a free trip on a partner carrier, the partner airline must honor the ticket even if the airline sponsoring the frequent-flyer plan has imploded in the interim.
More than 80 percent of all frequent-flyer awards are redeemed at the basic, restricted level. As advance-purchase domestic coach fares plummet, however, those 25,000-mile awards now have very limited cash value. Early, coast-to-coast flights were selling for as little as $158 roundtrip. Flights to Florida dropped as low as $138 roundtrip. Prices are higher in summer, of course, but advance-purchase coach fares are always dirt cheap these days. So the best payoff for travelers is claiming awards for premium-class tickets, especially on international flights. Those tickets are dramatically more costly and much less frequently discounted. One example: A restricted business-class ticket between New York and Rome on Continental recently cost about $3,250 and was available for 100,000 Continental OnePass miles. The comparative math is shocking: If it cost $158 to fly coast-to-coast in coach and 25,000 miles to claim that ticket for free, you realize a per-mile value of just six-tenths of a penny. A $3,250 business-class ticket to Europe that costs 100,000 miles to claim for free yields a value of more than 3 cents per mile. The bottom line: Use your frequent-flyer miles to claim premium-class, premium-priced tickets. Using miles for routine domestic coach tickets is a waste.
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THE FINE PRINT
JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2005 by Joe Brancatelli.