Mileage Pro Reviewed

I’ve been promising a review of Randy Petersen and Tim Winship’s new book, Mileage Pro, for some time.

I read it about six weeks ago, and really did enjoy it. It’s absolutely the best introduction to the miles and points game I’ve ever come across. But I didn’t actually learn anything from it.* They’re quite upfront about their target audience, and it’s not the expert with over 10,000 posts on Flyertalk. Even so, I absolutely enjoyed reading it and I even gave a copy to my father-in-law — who poured through it voraciously.

(* Strictly speaking that isn’t true — I learned that you can swap miles into Delta via Points.com on p.94, and though the book and I agree that this is rarely advisable I didn’t even think this was possible since Delta’s participation in the program is so limited.)

My recommendation, by the way, isn’t bought and paid for — even though this blog gets a mention in an appendix. 🙂

But if you want other perspectives, David Rowell reviewed the book, so did the Charlotte Observer, and Randy himself blogged the story of how it all came together.

The book is at its best relaying the history and color of programs. It’s good context for someone like me who came along late to these programs, sometime in the late 90s but not seriously until around 2001. Having this sort of context is useful as you evaluate claims about how much ‘worse’ programs are today than in the good old days. Sure there were some lucrative offers at the beginning, but no alliance-wide awards. Which is better is hard to say, but the story is much more complicated than ‘old days good, current times bad.’

The book is less good with offer causal analysis, explaining the whys of a program’s decision-making (which is secondary to the book’s purpose anyway). From page 7:

    Because the airlines believe car rental companies get extra business from the airlines’ mileage incentive programs, the airlines charge the car rental companies for the miles.

That may explain why car rental companies are willing to pay for the miles but it certainly doesn’t explain why airlines charge — they charge everyone whether it benefits a company’s bottom-line or not. One doesn’t say “grocery stores charge for milk because it builds stong bones and makes people healthy.” Grocery stores are in business to sell a product and mileage programs are too.

It’s difficult to write a book like this. It’s especially tough for it to be current, with the way that frequent flyer programs change their rules all the time. On the one hand it can be written so generally as to not be useful. On the other it can be so particular that it’s outdated before it hits the bookstore.

The book strikes a nice balance — it isn’t a rehash of airline award charts — but I had to feel for the authors. Almost immediately after the book hit the shelves on piece of advice became outdated. In the chapter, “The Best Frequent Flyer Advice You’ll Ever Get” number 6 says

    Delta Platinum Medallion members get club membership for free allowing them, because of the Skyteam alliance, to also visit the airline clubs of Continental and Northwest.

But Delta killed this very benefit, which was perhaps the only truly distinguishing thing the Skymiles had to offer to their top tier elites.

The way that details change over time and vary across programs explains the frequent use of words like ‘usually’ and ‘most’ to describe program practices like upgrades. It would be too easy to get mired in the details of specific programs, fortunately this book doesn’t fall into the trap and draws out the important lessons rather than confusing a reader with an array of mileage prices and rules.

Still, there’s so much to the arcane details of these programs that no one can get everything right. I’ve made mistakes myself. A reader once asked me a question about qualifying for American Airlines status based on segments, and I replied that it wasn’t possible. They then got very confused, since they were sure it was based on American’s website but they also knew everything I said had to be right (heh). I was thinking about Executive Platinum status, which couldn’t be reached through segments, and they were just asking about Gold which of course could.

The chapter on the best frequent flyer advice suggests a status match if you have elite status but want to fly American. It mentions the American challenge that lets you earn status with fewer miles over a shortened time frame, but incorrectly suggests that you need to already have status in order to participate.

So the book isn’t perfect. It calls United’s Ameniti program “Avanti” (p. 118).

And outdated is the claim (p. 51) that American Express Membership Rewards points can be transferred to USAirways, that relationship ended December 31 (after the book was published). Fortuntaely — and not noted in the book — points can be transferred to USAirways (and Star Alliance) partner Air Canada, and new since publication is the entry of Airtran as an American Express transfer partner. The list of Diners Club transfer partners has become similarly dated already.

I suppose this is just an argument for frequent updating and new editions!

Speaking of Airtran, the book notes (p. 115) that Airtran permits upgrades to business class from full fare tickets for a small additional payment. It doesn’t mention that Airtran permits these upgrades from any fare. It’s a reasonable omission as Airtran describes this as “a special promotion” though it’s a promotion that’s been running for as long as I can remember and one that doesn’t have a specified end date.

I do wish the book would take more firm stands. True statements like “not all programs are equally generous” with award availability are followed with “there are no definitive data on redemption success rates.” (p. 25) Fair enough, but it’s also true that Continental award availability is relatively bad, while American’s availability is relatively good. And I’d go a step further and say that across the board Skyteam partners don’t offer nearly the redemption opportunities as oneworld or Star Alliance (though Qantas is a oneworld member and quite stingy in the premium classes).

Similarly the book does a good job outlining issues to consider in picking a rewards credit card but doesn’t come down firmly as to which one to choose in any given situation. (For that you might check out my primer on the subject.)

One of the fun ‘way-too-inside’ games to play is guessing which author wrote which chapter. I’m willing to bet money that Randy Petersen wrote chapter 6 on award redemption, if only because of the statement

    Here is a simple, if hard-to-believe fact: On any given day, 100 percent of airline seats are available for award redemption.

Randy is fond of saying that any seat on any plane is available with miles using anytime awards, and that in the early days of frequent flyer programs all awards were those anytime awards, at higher mileage pricing than current saver awards.

To a certain extent that’s true, but it isn’t as meaningful as it seems. Would concerns about an ability to redeem miles disappear if you could use ten times the ‘normal’ miles for any seat? Or 25,000 miles and a $1000 co-pay to use your points on any domestic itinerary (that might normally cost $300)? 50,000 miles for a $150 roundtrip ticket is silly.

Pricing matters and the price of premium class anytime awards has been going through the roof — 250,000 miles for a business class ticket from the US to Europe with Continental OnePass or Delta Skymiles.

One of the things I was happiest to see is that Randy has apparently come around to seeing things my way on whether to save your miles or burn just as fast as you earn. The August 2003 cover story in Inside Flyer (subscription required) was on saving your miles for retirement. I’ve long explained why this is a bad idea, that your miles will never be worth as much in the future as they are today. Now Mileage Pro agrees (p. 77) “Saving miles for travel during retirement — a common strategy — is a very risky proposition.”

I really enjoyed the book. It was a great read, an honest read (unlike some travel books), and a great introduction to the subject. It’s one that frequent flyer fanatics will enjoy reading, and will pass on (or by extra copies to give) to friends and family that ‘just don’t understand’. But I’ll never see eye to eye with everything that the authors say, and you can read about our differences here on this site and decide for yourself how best to earn and spend your miles and points.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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