News and notes from around the interweb:

British Airways’ top elite tier is Gold. But because theirs is an airline frequent flyer program, it’s more complicated than that. There’s an upper tier within the tier called Gold Guest List (and an invitation only Premier level as well).

BA is making it harder to earn ‘Gold Guest List’ status for the first time and for non-UK Europeans to requalify.

Presently, the requirement is to earn 5000 tier points in one year or 3000 tier points each of two consecutive years. This second method of two years of 3000 tier points each is going away.

It will still take the same 3000 tier points for UK members to re-qualify for this status. European members – who needed 2500 points in the past to requalify – will have to earn 3000 points going forward.

Now, everyone’s “member year” is different in British Airways. It isn’t a calendar year. There are some folks who just started a member year, earned 3000 points last year, and were on their way to 3000 more in the current member year. They get the rug pulled out from under them, sort of. British Airways will allow up through April 8th to earn 3000 tier points to qualify as the second year in a row. That’s the same deadline whether one’s member year ends in April or November.

Gold Guest List members get twice a year to book awards even when there’s no award space. (They can book for themselves and up to 4 passengers into revenue booking classes.) Another benefit is Hilton Diamond status. Although some might say that’s also a benefit that comes with merely eating breakfast or doing one’s own laundry.

Gold Guest List members who earn 5000 tier points in a year get Concorde Room access at London Heathrow and New York JFK even when not flying first class.

British Airways has made it a little harder to attain their top status within a status, although it doesn’t change things for those who already have it.

Every couple of years an aircraft undergoes a “C check” which entails a majority of the plane’s components to be inspected.

Emirates posted a time-lapse video of one of their Airbus A380s undergoing such a check. It’s amazing to watch.

(HT: Johnny Jet)

Over the weekend international award space on American Airlines flights for next year dried up almost completely.

Lack of award availability on American isn’t a new issue. Premium cabin transatlantic awards more or less went away two years ago. It was still possible to get plenty of transpacific first class space, but first class has become much harder in advance especially as American reconfigures 777-200 aircraft with new business class and no first class (and introduces new first class on their 777-300s).

But coach space has been pretty easy to get much of the time. Until a few days ago.

For sure, a major schedule change rolled out. We’ve seen those accidentally open the flood gates with way too much award space in the past. This time we saw the broad disappearance of space.

There were plenty of scary theories as to what was going on. One was that US Airways has historically been quite stingy with awards for their international flights (they’ve really just been generous with domestic first class awards, and great for booking awards on partners). And that US Airways folks are in charge now, tightening up was to be expected.

But things were much tighter than we’ve seen with US Airways, and indeed American had tightened considerably over the past few years as the economy has improved and planes have gone out full — even to the point where American wouldn’t release awards on flights that remain empty.

Now, to me international award space on American and in particular international economy awards aren’t much of a draw to the AAdvantage program. I use my miles for premium cabin award tickets on partner airlines. But it does matter to a large portion of the AAdvantage membership.

Fortunately, it was a glitch.

The Associated Press’ David Koenig, a good guy who has interviewed me several times, asked American what was going on and then tweeted:

@AmericanAir says glitch loading new schedules caused international low-miles SAAver awards to disappear, will be back by late Weds.

And a collective sigh of relief was heard.

Airline lounges are 75 years old. The first one was an American Airlines lounge in New York.

American has a great online history of its lounges.

  • The original club opened in 1939. New York’s Mayor LaGuardia was criticized for having too big an office at New York LaGuardia airport so he rented out some of the space to American.
  • They couldn’t name it “Admirals Club” because a judge determined people might think it was for Navy Admirals only, so it was named “Flagship Club” (American’s current lounges are Admirals Clubs while their first class lounges are Flagship Lounges).
  • The second club was at Washington National airport. They weren’t allowed to serve alcohol, so they stored bottles for members. This practice continued until liquor laws were changed in 1970.
  • American’s sales department gave out memberships, with paid memberships introduced in 1967 ($25 per year, or $250 for a lifetime membership).

Paid memberships became the norm across the industry after a 1974 Civil Aeronautics Board ruling. Paid club memberships were an anti-discrimination measure — lounges were open to anyone willing to pay the fee.

Here’s American’s new airport lounge strategy. Unquestionably lounges have come a long way since the advent of the lounge 75 years ago.

In the US we have American Express Centurion lounges far exceeding what we’ve become used to.

Of course little can match the Thai Airways spa in the Bangkok airport.

.. or Lufthansa’s tarmac transfers.

Or Cathay Pacific’s showers.

Who knew that in some sense we have populist outrage over Fiorello LaGuardia’s airport office to thank?

News and notes from around the interweb:

Reader George asked about the economics of rewards credit cards.

I was just mulling over the economics of credit card bonusing last night- are all of the costs absorbed by the credit card companies?

2x travel and dining are broad credits that capture a big chunk of credit card spend, so that’s a subsidy that makes sense. But 5x at office supply houses, or 5x on the Freedom categories?

The bonuses drive a lot of incremental traffic into those stores (albeit low margin gift cards, etc)- do the stores pay advertising fees or a higher credit card fee on these transactions to offset the cost?

What about the privileges on premium cards, like IHG Rewards Club Platinum status and free nights on card renewal – does Chase pay the cost, or does IHG comp it to them, because Chase buys so many IHG points already?

Generally speaking, credit card companies pay for the benefits they provide to cardmembers. An airline or co-brand partner gets paid not only for the points sold to the credit card company, but also for the perks.

There may be a few posts I’ve written that are of interest here:

The specifics of each deal are held in confidence, although they do make it into the public occasionally — for instance, SEC filings disclosing how the payments from banks to loyalty programs are accounted for. And when these deals become the subject of lawsuits (such as when Bank of America sued over Juniper Bank becoming the exclusive issuer of US Airways cards when US Airways and America West merged) the full, lightly redacted contracts become public. They aren’t fascinating reading for everyone, but they are for me!

It’s not entirely that simple, because the overall deal that a loyalty program and a bank strike (in conjunction with the payment network) is a complex negotiation that winds up with a total deal cost and value. How the funds are assigned to each element of the deal may wind up being somewhat arbitrary or based more on the accounting desires of each entity than anything else — for instance what revenue a loyalty program can recognize right away from the sale of miles, versus what they need to defer against the cost of future travel redemptions.

Here’s what I mean. Take the free checked baggage benefit that many airline cards come with. Credit card companies offer this because checked bag fees really get under travelers’ skins, so having an ‘out’ from paying these fees does a great job at prompting credit card signups. Card companies, under their co-brand contracts, pay for the checked bag fee waiver. And airlines book that revenue in the current year rather than booking a deferred liability. So the airline has an incentive to overweight the value of the checked bag benefit, in order to benefit their bottom-line now.

The credit card company pays the hotel program for an annual free night benefit. It’s at a discount compared to the number of points a similar redemption would cost, because the free night expires and so there may be breakage. The free night category is capped in order to further reduce the cost of that night to the bank.

The reason the annual free night is offered is as a way to encourage cardmembers to keep the card, instead of cancelling — it convinces them they’re getting something of ongoing value in exchange for paying an annual fee.

Premium rewards cards cost merchants more in fees than generic Visa or MasterCard products. But the payment networks are part of the negotiation, they offer cut-rate processing overall or for specific merchant categories to help the bank and loyalty program fund the rewards that the card offers. In that way, Visa or MasterCard expects to get more charging volume than they’d otherwise receive. And the bank sees a lower cost to provide the rewards.

Reader Megan asked,

What’s the best way to travel first class to Asia? Buy a ticket and upgrade, or go with miles?

Great question, because it gets at understanding several key issues about international airline travel, and about miles and points.

First of all — although once upon a time American Airlines used to allow double upgrades — no airline is going to permit upgrading from coach to first class. Business class is a different story, although many people use the terms interchangeably. If you want first class you need to buy a business class ticket (say, $3000 to $8000) and upgrade.

So for the rest of this post I’m going to read the question as, “should I book an award ticket, or buy a coach ticket and upgrade to business class?”

If you’re an American Airlines 100,000 mile flyer you get (8) confirmed upgrade certificates a year valid on any fare for any American flight, including international — provided upgrade space is available. Delta’s 125,000 mile Diamond flyers now get an option for a benefit of four such upgrades a year. United gives their 100,000 mile flyers six international upgrades, although there’s a minimum fare requirement attached.

Using these upgrade instruments it can make sense to buy a coach ticket and upgrade. You’ll earn miles and elite qualifying miles. But for a transpacific flight I’d only be interested in doing this is confirmable upgrade space is available at booking, not if I had to waitlist, because I wouldn’t want to risk having to take the flight in coach if my upgrade didn’t clear.

For anyone else, not using these certificates I recommend using miles for an award ticket rather than buying a ticket and upgrading. This is the opposite of the prevailing wisdom from a decade ago. That’s because several things have changed:

  1. Awards have gotten easier. Airline alliances have made it possible to spend miles easily across carriers, even combining multiple airlines on a single ticket. Upgrades across alliance partners haven’t kept pace, and at a minimum where it’s possible to use one airline’s miles to upgrade on another airline, purchase of full fare coach will be necessary.
  2. Upgrades have gotten more expensive. If you aren’t on a full fare ticket, American and United will charge you a cash co-pay (that may be more than $1000 roundtrip) in addition to the cost of your ticket and in addition to spending miles. That makes upgrades expensive. Delta will require you to buy a nearly full fare ticket to be eligible to even waitlist for an upgrade with miles. I never recommend playing that lottery.
  3. It’s harder to upgrade than get an award ticket. With flights full, upgrades that don’t get confirmed at time of booking can’t be counted on to clear — if you aren’t a top tier elite, your chances of getting the upgrade on a flight that wouldn’t have otherwise gone out with empty seats in business class may be low.

As a result, award tickets are – for most people – a better approach to premium class travel than paid tickets with a mileage upgrade.

News and notes from around the interweb:

Reader Rob P asked for,

[a] post on your “earn and burn” philosophy would be helpful. How do I know if I’m hoarding too many UR points and not spending them enough?

I explained ten years ago why points programs devalue. They’re private currencies without any binding constraints. The Supreme Court even limited your right to sue this year. Programs can do as they wish with impunity.

There’s tremendous value in frequent flyer programs but you should not save points now for some future day in which you might spend them.

In general your points will never be worth more tomorrow than they are today. The only real exception to that has been the introduction of alliances. The ability to redeem across partners, even on the same award ticket, made existing points more valuable not less valuable.

But the cost of awards goes up, and in most cases the rules associated with redeeming awards get more restrictive (the United-Continental merger is an exception, as it spelled an end to United blocking otherwise-available awards when the airline didn’t want to pay for the seats and also led to more generous routing rules).

In general I recommend points that transfer to other programs, you’re diversifying your points holdings even by accumulating a single currency. Starwood, Chase, American Express (and to a lesser extent Diners Club and Citi’s Thank You Points) are more desirable than individual airline miles because you can put your points where you need them when you need them later.

But this isn’t a panacea. Transferrable points can devalue. We just had a scare with Chase removing points transfers to Korean Air from its website, although it looks like this may be temporary and we’ll get these transfers back. But it serves as a reminder that even these programs can devalue – although usually with notice.

American Express has lost transfer partners many times in the past (US Airways, Continental, Northwest, to name a few). Starwood has devalued its transfer ratios… Qantas used to be 1:2. United used to be 1:1. For a time Singapore went down to 2:1 but was brought back up to parity.

There are two lessons:

  1. Burn as you earn. You don’t care about devaluations as much if you are earning and burning in roughly the same period, under the same award chart. It’s much easier to earn points than it used to be. What’s a problem is earning points 10 years ago, when it was harder to do so, and spending them now when awards are more expensive.
  2. Diversify your points. I like having Chase, Starwood, and Amex points.. and also points with various airline and hotel programs. That way I don’t take a hit to my entire portfolio when a single program devalues.

These two pieces of advice sound somewhat in conflict and they are. Diversifying involves building up large points balances that you aren’t likely to spend right away.

The truth is I earn points too quickly to spend them right away, so I want to have them spread out as best I can. Plus I don’t know what my future self will want or need in terms or rewards. I’m hedging not just devaluations but unknown future preferences.

I don’t want too many points. I want to have enough points in a given program to redeem them, and then earn points in the next program until I have enough for the redemption I’m likely to want. And then the next program. Meanwhile I’d be redeeming.

Although in practice I diversity, I spend points regularly, but I earn faster than I burn. So I will become the victim of devaluations, as I have in the past. Knowing that causes me to discount, now, how much I value the miles I’m accumulating — so I’m willing to spend less to accumulate them than if I were going to use them in the near-term.

Reader Denis asks about my elite status, and since I write about what I think people ought to do what I actually do is fair game.

How are you planning status (airlines) for year end? Do you need to MR? Lifetime status?

I’ve re-qualified for American’s Executive Platinum (100,000 mile) status already. I should end the year with about 120,000 qualifying miles, and 10,000 on US Airways from spend on their credit card, that will ultimately get combine when the two programs are joined next year — although there will be no benefit to me for being over 100,000 since I won’t hit 125,000 points (which would likely get me – upon request of AAdvantage Customer Service – 2 additional confirmed international upgrades).

I’m also a lifetime American AAdvantage Platinum member — American gives lifetime Gold at 1 million, Platinum at 2 million, and they used to count all account activity towards status. I’m a 3 million miler, much of the activity from credit cards, bank accounts, shopping portals and other activity. I’m headed towards 4 million, though it’s much slower going as only flights now count.

I’m a British Airways Silver, which was previously soft-landed from Gold, and I will lose that come March. I’m an Aegean Gold, and will lose that in a year.

I generally have no need to mileage run. I hit American’s top status without doing so. Combined with award travel I’ll fly about 200,000 miles this year.

I’ve also requalified as a Hyatt Diamond already, and hit Starwood Platinum on nights. I hit Marriott Silver as well (unintentionally) and received a targeted offer for Hilton Diamond.

Reader Jered asked,

Why don’t airlines open all remaining international premium cabin seats for awards for day-of travel? Surely getting something for them is better than having them go empty?

Here’s Jered’s question — if a seat is going to go empty, an airline is getting literally nothing in exchange for that seat. They get something, whether reduction in liability (and thus recognition in revenue) for their frequent flyer program and a transfer of funds from the program to the airline… or cash for the seat from an airline partner.

So why would an airline let a seat take off empty, rather than reaping an incremental revenue gain for it?

Now, many airlines do follow this strategy. They make seats they expect to go unsold available as awards. Some seats may be opened early on when an airline’s schedule loads, but nearly a year out there’s limited data to go on so it’s only as travel approaches that they know which seats will go empty and release those seats as saver awards. Indeed, as the day or two before travel approaches they might open up all or most of the unsold seats for folks using points.

There are essentially two reasons not to do this:

  1. Preserve the exclusivity of the product. The belief here is that there’s value for the paying passengers in having a lightly booked cabin, and that a cabin you have to pay for is more special, harder to get, and worth paying for. Something you can get cheaply and easily on points could be harder to justify paying for, at least for some passengers at the margin.
  2. Prevent passengers from redeeming points instead of spending cash. Some passengers might buy the seat, but choose to use miles is mileage seats are available. Indeed the highest revenue customers are those buying last minute tickets. Why give them a points option when they’re stuck needing to spend cash?

In both cases the idea is that in giving up incremental revenue for the award seat, the airline might be protecting revenue (because a customer spends cash instead of miles) and protecting the long-term revenue-stream (By keeping the cabin exclusive).

That’s the argument anyway. That said, many airlines do fill the cabin. The question is how: award seats, upgrades, or employees. And upgrades may be ‘supported’ upgrades (with miles, or upgrade instruments) or ‘operational’ upgrades (a lower cabin is oversold so some passengers get upgraded in order to have the flight go out full and on time).

Each airline’s approach is different, though North American carriers tend to fill their forward cabins while practice varies more in other regions of the world.

I’m not at all a fan of most airline advertising, and I’m not claiming these are effective, but I sure do actually have favorites in the world of miles and points advertising.

Here’s my all-time favorite print ad:

And my favorite television commercial, even though they’re doing the exact worst thing possible with their points:

Reader Jered wants to know:

  • How do airline awards work when redeeming points for travel on a partners? How much if anything do they compensate each other for award seats?
  • More broadly, “when I am accommodated on another airline, how does that work behind the scenes?” e.g. “[D]istressed United passengers on the BOS-ICN mistake fare having boarding passes for re-accommodation on Singapore Airlines being torn up by the Singapore gate agent because the passengers weren’t ‘worth enough’ so clearly some money is changing hands…”

Accounting for award tickets varies when you’re using an airline’s miles to fly on their own flights. Generallhy speaking the actualy cost of that ticket to the mileage program may be close to the marginal cost of carrying an additional passenger, such as $50 for a domestic flight. It’s a little bit more complicated than that, but roughly speaking the cost to provide a saver award seat to a member of an airline’s own program is very low.

It’s more expensive to provide a saver seat on an airline partner, although less than the actual cost of a paid ticket (which may be what a standard or rule-buster style award would cost on an airline’s own flights).

Generally speaking a first class award — which is more expensive to provide than economy or business — will cost hundreds of dollars per segment. Of course, these payments get netted out. United provides award seats to Lufthansa for their Miles & More customers to fly in, and Lufthansa provides award seats to United for their MileagePlus members to fly in. There’s accounting going both ways, and not just for award seats but for lounge access and indeed settling up over the entire transatlantic operation (as is the case for joint business venture partners).

The question of irregular operations, and how compensation works when passengers run into trouble with their flights, is a completely different matter — although airlines definitely do pay each other to accommodate each others’ distressed passengers.

As a general rule, the airline flying a passenger will receive what the airline that was supposed to fly the passenger would have received for the flight segment(s).

When an airline endorses a flight coupon over to another airline, that airline submits the coupon – and the value attached – back to the original airline for payment (IATA Revenue Accounting Manual 2.5.1).

Sometimes an airline won’t endorse the original coupon but will simply provide a Flight Interruption Manifest or ‘FIM’ which is basically a substitute flight coupon. it doesn’t contain the original ticket’s value on it.

I always assumed when a FIM is provided to a passenger, that the airline is going to pay the new carrier full fare for transportation. That’s not quite right, although the new airline – which doesn’t know the value of the original coupon – is going to bill full fare (IATA Revenue Accounting Manual 2.6.1).

What happens then is generally the issuing airline is going to reject the value of that FIM, research it and re-issue credit in the amount of the original flight coupon.

To take the Singapore Airlines scenario in the original question: When a passenger flying Boston – Seoul – San Francisco on United misconnects in San Francisco, and United tries to put that passenger onto the Singapore Airlines San Francisco – Seoul flight, whether via coupon endorsement or via ‘FIM’ United is ultimately going to pay Singapore only a few hundred dollars for the one-way San Francisco first class flight segment (on a $1700 mistake fare roundtrip ticket). That’s what Singapore wasn’t interested in.

Award tickets are a little bit different. In the event of irregular operations on an award, the ticket coupon doesn’t carry value based on the cost of the ticket. But it’s still possible for an airline providing transportation to get paid by the original carrier. That’s because — and my knowledge of this is old, so the specifics may have been superceded (but this was accurate in the past) — an award ticket is presumed to carry a value of 50% of the full fare for the segment (IATA’s Revenue Accounting Manual 2.5.6).

IATA makes an interesting observation about these tickets (re-typed manually by me):

This rule assumes the value of the passenger to a carrier as a frequent flyer generating a lot of revenue even though the ticket that he is holding now is an award ticket. It is easy to assume that this coupon has no value and as a result will cost the “Forwarding Member” the equivalent of 50 percent of the one-way fare. However in determining this, one must accept that a frequent flyer ticket is not reflecting the value of the coupon but the value of the passenger as a loyal customer. In fact there is a value attached to a reward ticket.

I know there are some of my readers that are expert in this, managing revenue accounting for airlines and across airlines, so I’d appreciate chiming in with clarifications or corrections if needed.

I’ve shared this before but it really bears repeating — the best advice comes down to: spend time planning vacations, take more trips, work while you’re gone, and experience new and unusual things.

  1. Planning vacations contributes more to your happiness than actually taking them. You may need to go on vacation to justify all of the planning time.

  2. You get all of your relaxation benefits on the trip itself, but don’t expect to be relaxed when you get back. We quickly snap back into the stress of daily life, sans any benefit from the vacation. Go in knowing you’ll enjoy yourself while you’re gone, but don’t set the bar for “needing a vacation” that you expect to be reset, relaxed, and in a different place with work upon your return.

  3. Being on vacation can actually be stressful. We put pressure on ourselves to enjoy, quickly, in a compressed period of time. After all, unless you travel frequently, you only get one shot per given period of time and you have to make the most of it.

    So take more trips. Don’t make them one-shot deals. Avoid the stress where each trip has to be perfect. Don’t try to do everything, it’s better to leave some sites unvisited and have some experiences left for the future. Leave yourself longing for more.

  4. People actually enjoy trips more when they’re interrupted by real time, as counterintuitive as it seems. Many short trips get interrupted by returning to work in between. For longer trips consider staying connected.

  5. Look for intense or unusual experiences, things you’ll remember specifically. You’ll get more lingering value out of the trip that way than just a general sense that you must have been relaxed but where did the relaxation go?

  6. Make travel part of the trip. And since planning contributes to happiness spend time working through contingencies so you know how you’ll handle things like missed connections along the way.

It can be really hard to get seats together for flights during the holidays. Flights are full. More families are traveling together so more people are trying to sit together (compared to solo business travelers). And more and more airlines are holding back the number of seats they assign for ‘free’.

For most passengers, your ticket doesn’t come with a ‘seat’. Obviously that isn’t literally true, since safety rules require all passengers to be seated. But there’s a limited number of seats on the seat map that airlines will let passengers reserve in advance unless the passenger:

  • is paying the exorbitant full fare
  • is an ‘elite’ frequent flyer doing 25,000 miles or more a year (usually) on the airline
  • pays a fee for a ‘premium’ seat which sometimes just means an aisle or being closer to the front of the plane which is only better in that you can get out from being trapped in a metal tube more quickly.

Here are things that you and your family can do, though, to make the process of travel smoother and secure seating together:

  1. Confirm your seat assignments when you book your tickets. Do not wait to call later, or until check-in.
  2. Check to make sure your seats haven’t changed. Look at your reservation every few weeks. Your seat assignments might not have ‘stuck’ especially if you bought tickets through an online travel agency. Or your seat assignments might have changed somewhere along the way (perhaps there was a schedule change or change of aircraft). Finding this out sooner rather than later increases the likelihood of getting it fixed.
  3. Keep checking back. There may not have been seats you could reserve together for free when you booked your tickets, but that can change. Check bag especially as the day of flight approaches — when airlines upgrade frequent flyers, those passengers are moved out of coach, freeing up seats (although mostly freeing up ‘premium’ seats that those passengers get for free).
  4. Use This pay website will email you when desirable seats open up on your flight (you can set up one alert for free without a paid subscription).
  5. Keep asking (anyone and everyone). Your chances are not necessarily better at the gate or customer service counter than at check-in, but it’s another bite at the apple and if you haven’t asked someone yet to help you then you haven’t annoyed them yet!
  6. Trade with another passenger. Nobody else really wants to sit next to your kids, now matter how cute they are. It’s hard for them to argue that they should sit next to your spouse or underage children, since that’s creepy.
  7. If you can’t secure seats together, at least get as many aisle seats as you can. At least don’t assign yourselves middle seats, those are tough to trade. People will almost always give up middle seats, and aisle seats are the best trade bait.
  8. If sitting together is important, then take that into consideration when making your booking. Look at seat maps before you purchase. Make- sure you know what seats are available to you.

If all else fails, if it’s important to sit together and you don’t want to go through the stress and hassle of dealing with matters at the airport or onboard the plane, then consider the cost of an assigned seat part of the cost of the ticket and buy seating at the time you buy your ticket. That’s not great for the family budget, but neither is being separated especially with young children in tow. Sometimes the best option isthe one that is ‘least bad’.

If you’re traveling this week in the U.S., best of luck to you! Here is my nickel’s worth of free advice as you prepare to depart along with 40 million other Americans for the Thanksgiving holiday (fortunately they won’t all be flying).

  1. Give yourself lots of time. Wednesday and Sunday are amateur days. Everyone else will slow you down. Flights instead of being 80% full are 100% full (that alone would be a 25% increase in people) and frequent travelers are replaced by occasional travelers who don’t know the drill as well. Be patient, across the whole process — getting to the airport, parking (if that’s your thing), clearing security, boarding while other passengers try to sneak bags into the overhead bins on that wouldn’t fit in a shipping container.

  2. Avoid checking bags. That’s counterintuitive since flights are full and overhead space is scarce, but it’s one less thing to get messed up — and you’re much more flexible changing plans and routings without worrying about bags (e.g. you might even fly into a different nearby airport without your bags being routed somewhere else).

      That reinforces giving yourself lots of time. You want to use whatever privileges you have — elite status, co-branded credit card holder — to board early. You don’t need to be first, or even 20th, you just need not to be last. The goal isn’t to sit on the plane the longest, it’s not to be in the final stream of passengers being asked to gate check their bag.

  3. Be proactive. If things look like they’re going south, ask the airline to protect you on a different set of flights. Not all will, but if an agent tells you they can’t you might try another agent.

  4. Avoid long lines and long hold times, look for everyone’s help at once. If you’re at the airport, and find yourself in the customer service line for rebooking, call the airline on your phone while you wait — you may get rebooked before you hit the front of the line. Hold times may be long, elite status helps here. And ditching the customer service line for the airline’s club is often the best move (I’ve been told by Alaska Airlines club agents that they can’t do ticketing due to union rules, but this applies with other US airlines). Agents are friendlier and lines are shorter in the club.

  5. Find alternate routings. When things start to look like your flights won’t go according to plan, be armed with alternatives to suggest to agents rather than just taking whatever is offered (or being told nothing is available) — you may be willing to fly more circuitously than an agent expects or think more creatively (or take an airport overnight along the way if you have to, which an agent may not suggest since they won’t be authorized to cover your enroute hotel stay).

  6. Know when to bail. If you’re facing significant delays and cancellation due to weather, other people at your connecting points are as well, and airport hotels will fill up (and certainly get increasingly expensive as fewer and fewer rooms remain). Consider bailing early, grabbing a room, and waiting it out… rather than sleeping in the airport.

      There are extra costs along the way and sometimes you just have to eat them. Airlines usually won't help with expenses when the cause of delays or interruptions is weather. But your credit card company might. Save receipts — for hotels, extra ground transportation, even meals — and after your trip see whether the card you used to purchase tickets will let you submit a claim for trip delay or baggage coverage.

Let’s all be careful out there!

Reader doug asked about “fuel dumping on award and paid tickets[.]”

What he’s asking about is the idea of adding a flight segment to a ticket that you do not intend to fly but that has the effect of reducing the fuel surcharges you have to pay for the ticket.

This is soemthing airlines doubly frown upon:

  • Ticketing a flight you don’t intend to fly
  • “Tricking” their pricing systems into charging you less.

Nonetheless, it is a technique that generates savings. And I explain how it works with both paid and award tickets in some detail in these posts:

I reached out to Chase about the removal of Korean Air Skypass as a points-transfer partner.

For many members, Korean Air is too obscure to matter. For me, it’s essential. It’s one of my favorite transfer partners, and something that sets Chase apart from key competitors.

It’s hard to get a lot of detail over the weekend, but I reached out to Chase and did get a quick note that suggests Korean Air will return as a points transfer partner, although I wasn’t yet given a timeframe.

Chase is not currently processing point transfers to the Korean Air SKYPASS program. We will update the Ultimate Rewards Web site when the functionality returns.

(Emphasis mine.)

So while I don’t like that it’s gone, there were some technical challenges that took these transfers off-line a couple of months ago. I don’t know the details yet behind the removal of the functionality to transfer points to Korean from the Chase website. But it sounds like this isn’t gone for good.

Reader Jered asked how many elite members of United’s MileagePlus program there are.

And the easy answer is I do not know precisely, these are closely-guarded numbers. But I do have some “bigger than a breadbox” sorts of estimates.

In other words, I have a general idea of the size of the elite pool, within a few hundred thousand members. It should give an idea of roughly what percentage of total members are elites, and how the relative size of each elite tier looks compared to each other.

I do have some knowledge of old numbers, but these are from when programs were much smaller — before United and Continental merged, before Delta and Northwest merged, before American and US Airways merged.

Roughly speaking, the combined American-US Airways program is about 100 million members. United’s program should be in the 80-90 million member range, and Delta SkyMiles should be in the 75-80 million member range.

Not all of these are active members of course, this is the size of the total member file, in rough ballpark numbers. We do know that, even after de-duping the US Airways and American member file that the program should be about 100 million strong — definitely the largest frequent flyer program in the world.

So how many are elites?

Taking United’s MileagePlus, there shouldn’t be more than about 2 million total elite members. I’d guess it’s less rather than more, closer to 1.5 million, but that’s just a guess.

  • Premier Silver, 25,000 mile flyers, represent the largest percentage of elites… in fact, they should be more than half.
  • Premier Gold members should be a bit under half the number of Silvers.
  • And 1Ks and Global Services members likely represent no more than about 10%, probably closer to 8%

These percentages should roughly hold across major carriers, in the limit. For instance I’d guess that American has 50,000 – 60,000 Executive Platinum members and maybe 15,000 Concierge Key members [I'm not sure whether these would be additive or not, Concierge Key members now receive Executive Platinum status as well].

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