**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.