Frequent Traveler Resources
Scoring luxury suites in an oceanfront resort for free? Fly to Paris and get upgraded, for free? Too good to be true? There is a parallel currency for travel (miles and points) with top airline and hotel brands that smart travelers always take advantage of. Believe me or not, there are effective strategies that you can work on to make all of the above possible.
Find below some ideas and bits of wisdom we have collected over close to a million miles of air travel and more than 500 nights at hotel rooms. Bottomline, make a habit of earning points/miles for literally every time you spend money and contribute anything.
While there are thousands of aggregator websites like Expedia, Kayak, Hotwire, etc. that help you find the cheapest airfare, often it makes more sense to choose a preferred airline (or alliance) and stick to them even if that costs a little bit more. The Elite benefits and the miles you earn (especially in international travel) turns out to be extremely valuable (sometimes intangible) in the longer run. If you travel (or plan to) two or more international (or long haul) trips, not sticking to a preferred airline is basically squandering the opportunity to earn valuable miles and status.
Here is how it works –
- Choose your preferred airline/alliance based on your home town and world regions that you foresee travel in the next five years.
- There are three major airline alliances (Star Alliance, Skyteam, Oneworld) and a few independent airlines (e.g. Emirates).
- Choice of your preferred alliance is critical since the miles and status you earn will depend on how many times you can fly with the partner airlines. For example, if you live in Atlanta, Delta/Skyteam Alliance is your best bet, if you live in Chicago, United/Star Alliance is best.
- Maximize your miles while you fly by choosing partner airlines, such as flying AeroMexico on your travels to LatAm or choosing AirFrance on your trip to Europe if you are a Delta or SkyTeam member). Make sure to add your primary airline’s membership number (Skymiles# for Delta for example) when you book. Read an educating article on maximizing tactics here.
- Book from airlines directly when possible. Once you find a ticket with a fare you’re comfortable with, check the airline’s website directly and try booking from there instead of a third party. The fare class is different based on your booking agent/direct booking, and often you get priority in upgrades, miles earned, rebooking and seat selection if you book directly.
- Gain Elite Status quickly if you stick to a single airline/alliance. There are goals to be met per calendar year for all airlines, in order to reach a specific Elite Status (e.g. Delta has five primary tiers – Skymiles Member, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond). The higher you are in status, priority given on seat selection, upgrades, rebooking, customer care, and miles multiplier. We have seen the Elite status to work wonders when in emergency need, such as exponentially faster check-in with priority access, direct lines to customer care and priority for rebooking (even with non alliance airlines), etc.
- Leverage travel credit cards like Delta AMEX Card, AA Citibank Card, that are basically joint venture credit cards with airlines and a credit card provider. Benefits often include priority boarding, additional miles, free checkin luggage, discounted F&B, etc., over and above the credit card points. There are annual fees and high APRs associated with these, but if used wisely, outweighs the fees often.
With the advent of the new age B&B sites like AirBnB.com, the hotel and hospitality business landscape has changed a lot. Plus the recent mega mergers in the hotel industry calls for advanced strategies in making travel plans and earning points. Strategies to maximize benefits from hotel bookings is vastly different from Airlines. Even if you are loyal to one brand, it is likely that in your travel to a specific part of the world, you won’t find a single property of that brand. Like we found out in Costa Rica, there were hardly any Starwood properties in the main attractions we went to.
- Luxury and upscale properties are mostly owned by Starwood-Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton and IHG. Read more about top hotel brands here. Before the merger in 2016, being elites in two major brands, we found the Elite Benefits, value of points, and hospitality to be the best by far with Starwood group. Starwood and Marriott has way more upscale properties than any other chain combined – Le Meridian, Four Seasons, W, Westin, JW Marriott, etc. Marriott and Hilton though has a number of properties that are economy and standard (Courtyard, Fairfield, Embassy suites, etc.) therefore providing good coverage in small towns and in peak seasons.
- Economy properties are more with Choice Hotels, Best Western, Wyndham, Ramada, etc. The elite status and the privileges are definitely not at par with the upscale brands, but points conversion and geographical coverage is unparalleled with these brands.
- Boutique hotels provide an unique experience that cannot be replicated in any chain hotel. These days, we have seen interesting partnerships with major brands that provide distinctive experience for the hotel guests. For example, a Ritz Carlton property in California paired up with BMW to offer guests an ultimate driving experience in the race track nearby. Golf vacation packages, and fashion outlets offering add-on services to guests in boutique hotels are fairly common these days.
- Last but not the least, Couch Surfing and AirBnB provides a cheap and cozy alternative to traditional hotel travel, although the points/elite status privileges are not available.
Although most American Car rental companies (Hertz, Enterprise, Budget-Avis, etc.) has a loyalty program, in our experience being elite members in two of the above, we have not found any to be worthwhile investment.
In our experience, there are a couple of interesting ways to earn points and intangible benefits in your dining experience. Using Opentable for making table reservations will earn you points redeemable towards future meals. Writing personable reviews in Yelp, thereby becoming a Yelp Elite provides a unique experience of getting invitations to exclusive events and network with a diverse group of people.
Other Helpful Resources
There is a plethora of online and offline resources in this crowded space of travels with points and miles. A number of professionals quit their jobs and started freelance and travel genius sites that offer options to maximize travel benefits and virtually travel for free in some instances. Some of them actually started as merely travel blogs, turned out really successful and now various brands (hotel, fashion, and boutiques) sponsor them to travel full time and write for the brands.
Outside the sponsored content, we follow and seek advice from thepointsguy and awardwallet.