Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Frequent Flyer Miles - Good for Nothing?

My company will be shutting down for 2 weeks in December - I hate these forced vacations, but my CEO believes that if he's on vacation no one is working... Anyway, since I am forced to take a vacation, I was hoping to take the family somewhere. Hanging out around the house with 3 kids? Not fun. So I started looking for some places we can fly to using frequent flyer miles, and since I have about 500K miles on United and Continental, I have miles to burn.

Not so fast. Using miles to fly somewhere for the holidays is not a very doable project, apparently. I haven't been able to find anything so far, although I have not given up quite yet.

So, are those frequent flyer miles really useless? No, not really, although using them to fly places with multiple people is pretty much impossible these days. So what can you do with frequent flyer miles?

Buy Stuff - I recently bought a nice little pocket camera using my United miles, and the year before I bought a Roomba vacuum cleaner.

Read Stuff - I never pay for my magazine subscription anymore, I just use miles to get them. Same goes for my Wall Street Journal, even though I recently allowed that subscription to lapse. I need a little break.

Fly in Style - although I haven't had much luck paying for family vacations with miles, I have had more luck upgrading myself to business class on occasion. I typically only do that when the alternative is to be stuck in a middle seat somewhere.

Travel in Relative Comfort - unless you are in business class, there is no such thing as flying in comfort on an American airline. That's not the case everywhere. Try one of several Asian airlines (e.g. ANA) and you'll understand what kind of crappy deal we're getting here in America. However, the most important use of miles from my perspective as a frequent business traveler: earning status with your chosen airline. Nothing sucks worse than having to check your luggage when traveling on business. By having status on an airline, I get to board the aircraft early, thus ensuring that I have enough space for my carry-on, even if I am stuck in an uncomfortable seat only fit for people under 5' tall.

You want to hear about a really useful loyalty program? Hotel loyalty rewards. These are like frequent flyer programs' less famous but more talented step-brother. For years I ignored these loyalty programs, but have recently started concentrating my business stays at either Marriott brand hotels or Holiday-Inn brand hotels. Those rewards are easier to collect & easier to redeem for free rewards (such as free hotel stays) than airline miles. Viva la free stuff!

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