Once upon a time I asked a homebrewer what type of beer they brew.
That was a mistake.
People who brew their own beer are very excited about it, and will never hesitate to tell you — in endless detail — every mundane aspect of their last six batches of beer. I was more looking for an answer like “a dark beer” or maybe even “it’s sort of like a Belgian, but I brewed in southeast Chicago instead”. I wasn’t looking for the chemical composition of their latest yeast harvest.
People who like to analyze travel rewards programs — we’ll call them Airline Rewards Strategy Enthusiasts, or ARSEs for short — are very similar to homebrewers. We are an eclectic bunch who will talk for ages about why it is advantageous to analyze seat charts before choosing a seat, or why Clooney’s Up in the Air should be selected for preservation as a culturally significant film by the Library of Congress. ARSEs really worry about How to Optimize Logistics Efficiently (or, “HOLE”).
Anyway, you don’t have to be an ARSEHOLE in order to benefit from travel rewards programs. You don’t need to carry seven airline credit cards or religiously track airfare comparison sites. You can be lazy, make a few small changes to how you travel, and ultimately save some money and avoid some headaches.
Unless you’re flying 150,000 miles a year — in which case this post isn’t for you — your life isn’t going to be particularly better off by micromanaging different travel programs.
So rule number one: don’t change your habits too much. If the airline you typically fly is forcing you to make three stops to get to a destination when you could spend $750 less for a direct flight on another airline, just buy the cheaper ticket. Airlines win when you start acting irrationally like that. Don’t let them win; as an occasional flier, your job is to take as much advantage as you can without changing how you’d normally act.
When you do travel, you should always be banking the miles somewhere. In other words, you should always sign up for a frequent flier or traveler account with the hotel or airline. Every now and then you’re just going to be stuck flying or staying somewhere you typically wouldn’t, and you might as well put those miles somewhere.
The goal is that after a few years of forgetfully doing this, you’ll realize that you’ll be able to fly somewhere free, or stay somewhere free. That’s neat. Again, this ties back into not changing your habits much: you’ll accumulate miles by just acting normally, and after awhile you’ll pleasantly find you can spend those miles on something you actually want to do.
Don’t change your habits much, but do think about trying to fly with one airline and stay with one hotel chain. In most cases, the prices are going to be somewhat comparable across companies, so it’s worthwhile to book your travel on one specific company.
How do you settle on those companies? I fly Delta and stay at Starwood properties (SPG) for three main reasons:
Where do you live? This is probably the number one thing for airlines. If you live in a hub — an airline’s main base of operations — then you should probably fly that airline. SFO isn’t a hub for Delta, but Delta has a pretty good enough presence for me. Also: take a look at where you fly frequently. To get home to visit family, I end up flying through a lot of Delta hub cities.
What can the alliance give you? Airlines and hotels are like some goddamn complicated Game of Thrones episode where everyone is trying to sleep with and/or kill everyone else. Most companies are part of an alliance, which means you might get status and points if you spend money with another company in the alliance. For example: there’s a direct KLM flight to Amsterdam from San Francisco that I use tons because it means I can get to all of Europe in two flights (not to mention Amsterdam is the most beautiful city in the world). KLM’s part of the Delta SkyTeam alliance, which means I get miles for flying it. Another example: Delta and SPG themselves have an arrangement so that I earn miles when I stay at a hotel and earn points when I fly. Not a bad gig.
How’s the experience? Okay, your mileage may vary on this admittedly hipster point, but I’ve found this is actually a relevant question for me. Most airline and hotel websites and apps are fucking horrible. It can lead to additional stress that honestly, I don’t want to deal with when I’m running around an airport. Delta and SPG both have a pretty good design sense. This isn’t really about pixels, though: I think this extends to an experience thing as well, which is I think why Delta has wifi on every plane, lots of in-seat TVs and power, and pretty good customer support. SPG has good support as well (and both are available via Twitter), and they have classy, trendy joints like the W Hotel chain (you can tell whether a hotel is classy by how much cocaine is done in its lobby, which is par the course for W hotels). Again, your mileage may vary quite a bit on this one, but I tend to think that people who care about experience will make me less likely to commit felonies at 30,000 feet.
At some point if you start traveling more, you’ll want to more aggressively figure all of this out. It kind of is a racket, and before long you’re going to be that dude writing blog posts about travel rewards programs like some sort of huge jerk you are. But it’s worth spending some time figuring stuff out if it means that you’ll be able to spend the next 10 hour flight in first class instead of having your knees pressed against your forehead back in coach.
This usually means thinking about signing up for credit cards that give you points you can spend on flights and stays. Just remember rule number one, though: don’t change your habits too much, or else The Man wins. No amount of frequent flier status is going to make you better off if you can’t pay your bill every month. The APR on your cards is going to be so much more expensive, so don’t be stupid.
Anyway, I feel slimy after writing all this, so I’m going to go take a shower now. After ten showers I should be able to make gold status.