Tag Archives: frequent flier

Now Boarding: United changes its frequent flier program

Photo by Todd MacDonald

You used to be able to take 35,000 frequent flier miles and travel to Hawaii, which was the best use of miles since Hawaii is so far and so expensive.

That was the game plan for me and Jon to do over this Thanksgiving, now that we’ve reached the 35,000 mile mark on United.

However, United quietly – very very quietly – released new changes to its frequent flier program that made it impossible for me to get to Hawaii for 35,000 miles. In fact, it will be 40,000 miles… ONE WAY.


The “saver” version is 20,000 miles one-way, so you could theoretically get a round-trip for 40,000 to Hawaii, but nobody is ever that lucky. In fact, I was just looking online around Thanksgiving, which is five months away, and no such ticket exists. Perhaps if I looked for next April I’ll be lucky.

I checked other airlines to see if anyone else has jumped on the baggage cart, but it seems only United has done this. However, others, like American, are allowing you to book one-way tickets using miles, for 12,500, a nice change from when you had to book a round-trip only for 25,000.

The key? Don’t rely on your miles to get you somewhere but use them for a flexible trip way off in the distant future. I don’t doubt that other airlines will start to add more restrictions to their awards programs as well. They are still a great way to fund a trip that can otherwise cost a couple thousand dollars, so use them wisely.


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Cool Tools: Miles or buy?

George Clooney's character collects 10 million miles in "Up In the Air"

My friend John was debating on Facebook whether he and his partner should spend $200 each on a plane ticket or 12.5K miles for a flight from Chicago to San Francisco. Lots of opinions came in, mostly – “no! spend the money! the miles aren’t worth it unless you’re traveling” overseas, more than five hours, etc.

It’s a constant debate: is it worth $200, or $300, or shell out your miles? $300 is still a good chunk of money, and if you’re flying with someone else as John is, it’s $600 for two of you.

A single flight in the 48 states is 25,000 miles, and a ticket is usually around $300 or less except maybe around holidays and hard-to-get places. I always save my miles for overseas flights, but those can add up: the Caribbean in high holiday season (like between Christmas and New Year’s) is 60,000 miles, but any other time, even February, is only 35,000. Same with Hawaii. Europe can sometimes be as low as 40,000 miles depending on when you fly, but normally you have to budget aroune 60,000, or $800.

John pointed me to a cool tool: “Miles or Buy” (though slightly outdated – it lists now-defunct Northwest Airlines) that will help you decide whether you should buy a ticket or trade in your miles. It is sort of like a “Pick your Own Adventure!” book, in that it guides you through your entire flight purchase decision from where you’d like to travel all the way to helping you search for the ticket price on Kayak. The most useful portion of the tool, however, is this calculator which determines the CPM (cents per mile) of a ticket and whether it’s worth buying the fare or trading in miles.

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On My Itinerary: London and Sweden by frequent flier

italy wedding I love out-of-the-country weddings, not because they cost me at least $2,000 instead of $400 to a domestic destination, but because it makes me, the tourist, be part of a local celebration for a couple days. This summer, my friend’s wedding in Gothenburg, Sweden marks my third destination party and the second one completed on frequent flier miles.

That’s right, twice now I have flown to these weddings on frequent flier for what ended up costing less than if they were married in Chicago or Florida and if I paid regular domestic fares. Between Jon and me, we’ve amassed 120,000 miles on American Airlines and are trading them in for two tickets to London, since American does not fly to Stockholm. We’re spending four days in London visiting with my British friends and checking out the town (Jon’s first visit) before jetting up on our favorite discount European airline, Ryanair, to Stockholm to check out that city and visit another friend of mine, and then taking a train to Gothenburg in time for a day-before-wedding luncheon. The cost of our Ryanair tickets are currently quoted at $180 for the two of us, to fly from London Stansted-Stockholm and Gothenburg-London. Throw in a train ticket and our actual travel will cost us less than $300, total, to journey through two countries in 10 days. The last time I did this was to a wedding outside Florence (see picture – there’s Tuscany in the background); I flew into London for 60,000 miles and then took EasyJet (my British friend calls it “QueasyJet”) for $50 USD to Napoli to meet my traveling companion. The third European wedding was in Paris, and prices had dropped by then, so I paid about $500 for a round-trip ticket, but the next year I returned to Paris for my fellowship on a frequent flier ticket.

The drawback to taking frequent flier flights to Europe is you have to snag the seats early. So it’s the end of January and we are not expected in Gothenburg until August, but already the frequent flier seats on several flights returning from London to the Washington area are booked. If I’m not completely committed to the dates yet, sometimes I will hold the seats over and over as long as possible. That takes a calendar alert and a lot of coordination, boredom and persistence, but it is worth saving a couple thousand dollars.

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Cool Tools: Yapta

is my new favorite search tool for airline flights in that it eliminates the need to surreptitiously scour flight search aggregators during work hours without colleagues watching over my shoulder (I used to have a rear-view mirror on my desk, but the cleaning staff broke it, even though the office manager claimed they did not).

Here’s how it works: Type in your trip (date, time, to/ from, number of travelers) and Yapta pops up a number of flight options, like a regular search. But – and here’s the part that makes it so ubercool – you can pick the flight you want to “watch” and it will e-mail you an alert when the price decreases. I tested this out on an upcoming trip Jon and I have to my friend’s wedding to Sweden in August, where we will arrive via London before EasyJetting up to Scandanavia. So far I have received two alerts on my selected flight dropping $25 so far. (I am aiming for a $500 ticket and selfishly hoping the economy continues to keep my travel prices and currencies low).Yapta

If you’re like me and occasionally dabble in some self-masochistic behavior of checking flight prices AFTER purchasing so you can wallow over the wasted money, Yapta also alerts you on this. Enter the price you paid, and when the flight drops below your price, Yapta will instruct you how to get an actual refund – or for $15, it will get the refund for you. Yes, it really will. Yapta also just started tracking frequent flier mile flights for five airlines – Alaska, Continental, Delta, US Airways, and United. How’s that for my first Cool Tool.

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