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June 2000 Vol. 15, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Frequent Flier Finesse

airline mile strategies that pay off

from the June, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Many of those distant dive spots may seem beyond your budget, but they’re not if you’re a savvy user of frequent flier miles. Some divers I know ignore frequent flier miles completely or rack up miles on several airlines but never get enough on any one to do them much good. We may fly similar distances, but I’m the one getting to use the shorter business class line at the ticket counter and munching delicacies and drawing a cold one in the airline’s comfy VIP lounge. Meanwhile, they’re sitting with the huddled masses in sardine-like rows of plastic chairs left over from the Inquisition. I get priority boarding, upgrades, and opportunities to fly worldwide for free. My pals often pay the same fares; sometimes they’re paying a good bit more! What’s the difference? I scheme and plan.

The new alliances created by most major airlines are one great opportunity. The alliances permit you to earn miles from an airline of your choice no matter which of the alliance’s member airlines you fly. And these miles qualify for elite level status — the source of those upgrades and perks, including seat assignments in roomier spots like bulkheads and exit rows.

Alliance options include Star Alliance (United, Singapore, Air New Zealand, Thai, and Lufthansa are its heavy lifters) and oneworld (American, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, British and Iberia are the heavies here). Continental and Northwest have also formed a mini-alliance, as have Northwest and KLM.

Become familiar with each line’s rules and restrictions, which can get complicated. For example, Qantas only gives 70% of miles flown on economy coach fares, and Cathay only awards miles on fullprice coach (and you don’t want to go there — full price for cheap seats). British and American bestow miles on each other’s flights, but NOT on each other’s transatlantic flights, so for a trip to the Red Sea, American to London connecting to British to Cairo, or using Iberia all the way, gets you the full oneworld mileage. (Likewise, using Northwest/ KLM via Amsterdam, or, say, Lufthansa via Frankfurt, also gets full elite-qualifying miles for the respective alliances they belong to.)

The same vagaries that taketh away miles bestoweth as well. For instance, most airlines now have socalled codeshares, where one plane is booked by as many as four different airlines, which means that you may think you’re flying on Excellent Air, only to find yourself boarding Bumpyair’s recycled hauler flying as Excellent’s flight. (You’ll earn your miles, however, from the airline with which you book your seat.)

This can work to your advantage: Air New Zealand, for example, has more comfortable seating than United, but they often codeshare, an important consideration on those long, butt-busting flights. There are a number of ways to manipulate the alliances. Headed to the Solomons? The shortest way may be through Fiji. But fly the Qantas flight to Brisbane, Australia, as an American Airlines codeshare — and earn 100% of your miles — and then fly Air Solomons 701 to Honiara as Qantas 371, earning elite-qualifying miles (even if it is at the reduced rate of 70% on this shorter segment). With this round trip, you’re already 2/3 of the way to Aadvantage Gold/oneworld ruby status!

Codeshares and how they work for you are illustrated by a typical Los Angeles-originated flight many Fiji-bound divers use. Flown by Air Pacific (if you remember to use your AA FF mileage number, you may eventually get miles posted to your account), it also flies as Qantas (70% of miles if you fly on any discounted coach fare) and American. (Of course, it’s still the same crowded, older Air Pacific 747!) Fortunately, the fares usually are matched by all partners, but there may be limited seats for that codeshare. While one price (or upgrade) may not be available on the seats on the flight that American is selling, it may be available on the seats offered by Qantas, so planning is essential.

A sterling travel agent can help make sense of it all, but many agents won’t bother, and you will certainly have to instruct the best of agents of your intent. You’ll need a strategy. First, select the airline combo you are most likely to use based on your home airport and your destinations, and stay with it (that’s why these are called “affinity programs”). Plan early to get those limited-capacity lowest fares. (Yes, they claim they are nonrefundable. However, for a $75 fee they are usually reusable within a year as credit on another ticket, and you can buy a ticket up to a year out.) Keep your boarding passes; copies can verify your mileage accumulation later if an airline employee forgets to post your miles. Be aware of mileage expiration dates, which range from never to as little as three years if there is no account activity.

For more information, you can call the airlines, read airlines’ inflight magazines, or ask your agent when you’re ready to book. Good starting places for the Internet-connected include the alliance’s websites ( and, where you can link to each of the airlines involved. The airline sites also go into detail about their frequent flier programs, allow you sign up online, and let you access your accounts to see how you are doing.

You can also accumulate miles with hotel stays, auto rentals, flower gifts, affinity credit cards — you name it — so look for benefits everywhere you spend money. Some airlines even allow you to earn miles when you buy securities, a house, or groceries — or offer credit cards that allow you to earn a mile per dollar spent. If you already use the card to pay your telephone bill and the telephone bill earns five miles per dollar spent, well, you're definitely earning a passing grade in savvy frequent flying. For an advanced course, check out the WebFlyer website ( and really hone your skills. You may find those distant dive spots are closer than you think.

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