Hosteling

Frequent Flyer Credit Card Whoes

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

The Fjords, Norway

**UPDATE** – While still frustrated by the experience I had, I recently decided to give FF programs another go.  While I have continued to face frustrations with the process, booking and usage of my points, there is value there for those willing to play the game.  It is important, however, that you be prepared to play that game and do your research.

A few years ago I signed up for an Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Credit Card.  It seemed like a great idea.  After all, I fly internationally 2+ times a year, love travel, and put most of my expenses on my credit card. They were offering a 20,000 mile signing bonus which was solid at the time and a few additional perks including a large partner network. Unless something drastic changes I’ll never sign up for another frequent flyer card again.

It’s now 3 years later and I still have those 20,000 points. As well as another 18,000 or so I picked up before I stopped using the card out of frustration and transferred over to a Capital One cash back card. Each year as my December trip approaches I sit down and try and use my miles.  Each year I end up wasting 30-40 minutes on the phone before hanging up disgusted.

Let me tell you a bit about this year’s adventure.  I’m pretty flexible about where I want to visit.  My main criteria is time based.  My window this year starts on December 15th and ends on January 4th.  That means that I’m willing to depart December 15th-17th and return January 1st-4th.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s a far more flexible schedule than most people have. Also, I’m not overly picky about where I end up going.  A good deal in the general region I want to explore is usually good enough for me.

With nearly 2 months to go before my date of departure I called the Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Concierge service and got a very friendly associate. I gave her my dates and gave her a few countries – not cities, but entire countries – I was interested in while specifying I didn’t mind which city I ended up in.

We searched Peru without any luck.  Then Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia. From there it was on to Argentina and Chile before adding Panama, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.  You would think, given that she was searching all partner airlines with flights from Phoenix that at least ONE flight to at least ONE of these countries would have been available.  No such luck.

Annoyed but not overly surprised I groaned at the ridiculousness of it – after all – I’d essentially searched 2/3s of an entire continent and been unable to find so much as a single flight that would work.

So, I expanded my search to Asia. After all, there had to be at least some availability to somewhere. The search continued; Thailand?  Nope. Cambodia, Malaysia or the Philippines?  Nope.  Vietnam?  Another nope.

So…Asia was out. In a final act of desperation I figured I’d check two off-beat destinations in Europe I wouldn’t mind visiting – Greece and Turkey.  Want to guess the results of the queries?  You got it – nope, and nope!

So, I gave up.  She was apologetic and suggested I try to make my reservations further in advance in the future or considering upgrading to a business class ticket.  Apparently ~2 months isn’t enough lead time.  I’m sympathetic to the fact that December 14th-January 10th is a peak travel period…but seriously, with 2 months lead time, semi-flexible travel dates, searches across 3 continents and in 18 countries you can’t find me a SINGLE flight? That’s straight pigswill.

Oh, did I mention that for the privilege of being a Miles Rewards customer I get to pay a $75/year fee?   I’m sure there are a few people out there making these programs work for them, but if you’re an average consumer and you’re using a mileage plan, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re essentially being robbed.  Hell, did you know that the vast majority of “travel” cards still charge the exact same transaction fees as a normal credit card?

My advice for non-business travelers?  Tell em’ to go to hell, switch banks and pick up a Capital One cash back card that doesn’t have an annual fee, puts actual $ back in your account, and which doesn’t charge 3% on every purchase you make while abroad.  In the long run those are perks you’ll actually be able to use and which will leave you with real, tangible benefits no matter when you choose to travel.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

11 Comments

  • Artemis_rck
    October 20, 2010

    My experience with FF miles is that for international flights, you need to book almost a full year in advance. You do better with domestic flights, but assume you will pay double the mileage cost that is advertised. However, sometimes even that works out, esp if the alternative is paying the premium for last minute travel.

    Reply
    • AlexBerger
      October 20, 2010

      Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s downright non-sense and pretty damn immoral when you think about it. Over a year ahead of time to make a reservation? Add to that, that this isn’t some “free” service. It’s a paid service and one that compared to the cost of other services being offered is served up at a premium.

      As far as the argument for domestic travel. The thing about that is that you’re really not saving that much if you’re an Average American. If it costs 20-30,000 miles base for domestic travel on a program like Alaska Airlines or to use partner points and you’re earning those points manually.

      You’re looking at attaining that many points maybe once or twice a year if you’re lucky. You’re already paying a base of $75 or so a year for the service, plus whatever additional fees they add on. Meanwhile I can snag a ticket online right now Phx to LA for $150 RT. Add to that the 1-3% cash back you’d be earning if you were using a direct cash back card for the expenses that generate those points all without a $75 fee and even on domestic flights I think people are losing money as often as they’re saving any.

      Reply
  • Brandon Berg
    October 20, 2010

    If you do any research into International Award travel, I think you’ll find that making your reservation right at the 330 day mark before you want to travel is the key to ensuring you are able to use your miles. I would suggest looking at http://www.flyertalk.com as this has been a topic that has been discussed at length across this message board. The other alternative is to schedule just days-a week before your travel plans. Your issue has very little to do with the Alaska Airlines miles you are earning which have been regarded as having some of the greatest availability in the industry, but more to do with your timing and the fact that airlines have become more stringent in their allocation of award seats as the overall capacity has decreased.

    Reply
    • AlexBerger
      October 20, 2010

      Brandon – thanks for the post and weighing in.

      That’s kinda the point though. How is 330+ days acceptable for a service that you’re paying for. Further, a service that you’re paying an annual rate for? You essentially have to commit to an additional billing cycle once you’ve attained the needed number of miles before you can hope to use them at a cost of an additional X dollars?

      My issue isn’t so much with Alaska Air’s program specifically, it’s with the award program system in general. That Alaska Air’s offer some of the greatest availability makes the whole thing that much more foul.

      At the end of the day they’re selling a service they essentially have no intention of fulfilling. 18 countries – 18 – that’s absolutely ridiculous. Especially because that may have been the tip of the iceberg, if I hadn’t given up what would it have been. 20? 30?

      At the end of the day, there are a select few making a decent use of them. People who can book their ticket over a year in advance and who don’t mind paying the yearly fee for a service they’re only getting intermittent use out of. For the average and novice user though? It’s a pretty bad sham, and they’re getting ripped off.

      Reply
      • Brandon Berg
        October 20, 2010

        For the average or novice user, it might not be a good solution – especially if you want to keep your average/novice knowledge of the market. You also have to remember that people are using their miles for many different purposes. This could be a great way to get a 12500 one-way ticket to Austin or some other use within the Mileage Plan system. Miles have different applications for different people.

        Re-reading your post, were you attempting to get an international award flight with only 38,000 miles in your account? This would have been a steal in the world of the Award Redemption. This would have given you a value of $0.023 – $0.034/mile.

        I view airline miles redemption like priceline.com or eBay. I wouldn’t go and just randomly assign a dollar value extremely low on an item just because that is what I want to get the item at that price. What I have done, and many others who want the system to work for them, is conduct research on what I am interested in and what the market is currently getting for a price. Does this take time and devotion? Absolutely. Does it feel amazing when you have carefully planned out what you want and what you are willing to spend and snag a great deal? Indeed. Does it feel equally horrible when you have done the planning and you still can’t find something that reasonably meets your needs after a significant investment of time and effort? Of course.

        The more complex nature of the mileage system has even led some folks to start up some businesses to help people redeem your points. I have seen some folks redeem miles for higher class cabins and get an incredible value for their miles. Who can really afford a $16K ticket for business class on Cathay Pacific? Well if you have 120,000 miles, you can! That is a $0.13/mile value and one of the highlights of the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan in my opinion. One of the business in the field is http://www.propoints.com.
        (Disclosure: I consider Ben a friend, but he does some great work and is an expert in the field.)

        The thing that caused me to read your post in the first place was my general curiosity regarding someone having a poor experience in redeeming miles on Alaska Airlines, as I mentioned, they have some of the best availability and helpfulness of the agents is top notch.

        As with just about anything in life, unless you know the system and how to work it, the system is sure to work you.

        Reply
  • Chloe Barnes
    November 2, 2010

    I think it’s ridiculous – when you’re paying for the ‘privilege’ of being a rewards member, shouldn’t there be an element of actual reward for your loyalty? I can’t tell you how many reward points I have sitting dormant thanks to my inability to actually get a flight with them… Great post, couldn’t agree more!

    Reply
    • AlexBerger
      November 2, 2010

      thanks for the comment Chloe! I hear ya. It’s extremely annoying!

      Reply
  • simon
    November 14, 2010

    Trying to book a flight for X-Mas 2 months in advance is ridiculous, considering you are trying to use your miles. People started booking flight for those dates as early as april-may. It’s the highest season of the year.

    In order to use your miles, you need the flight to be booked in the cheapest booking class, which is hard to come by in December-January.

    Reply
    • AlexBerger
      November 14, 2010

      No, what is ridiculous is paying nearly the price of a regional ticket for an annual service which isn’t actually even truly available.

      I tried again, this time with regional airfare within Argentina. Again, nothing.

      It’s like a popular 600 table restaurant selling a premium pass which gives you access to reserved tables. Only they accept reservations years in advance and only have 1 table set aside for “premium” members. It’s effectively a scam. Just one right on the cusp, which they’ve been doing for so long it’s considered socially acceptable.

      Reply
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