The Insider's Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs
The growing popularity and complexity of frequent flier
programs has created a small industry of advisors and
Without a doubt, the two pre-eminent gurus in the field
are Randy Petersen and Tim Winship. They've joined
forces and pooled their knowledge and expertise, creating a
book to share this with all of us.
Their book is a must have for everyone who participates
in frequent flier programs.
It seems for many of us, the
more we know (about frequent flier programs) the more we realize
we don't know.
Whether you're a very active
frequent flier or an occasional traveler, you need to buy and
study this book. You're sure to benefit by many times the
book's $19.95 cost.
A joint venture by the two
pre-eminent experts on this complex topic, 'Mileage Pro' is a
great opportunity for us all to learn from their accumulated
knowledge and pooled experience.
About the Book
The paperback book
measures 5 1/8th" x 8", and is 5/8th" in
thickness. It has 206 pages.
The book is printed onto
standard quality white paper. Apart from small sepia
cartoons at the start of each chapter, and a tiny black and
white photo of each of the two authors, there are no
illustrations or pictures. But, hey! You're buying this
book for the information it contains, not for any pretty
The book, published just a
couple of weeks ago on 22 Nov, sells for $19.95
and is available
from the publisher. It is not currently stocked by
Strangely, although the book
has a contents listing 18 chapters, there is no index. So
if, for example, you want to find out information about dining
programs (which isn't mentioned in the contents but does get
mention in several places in the book), there's no way to
quickly find this information, short of reading all the way
through the book. This is a strange omission and hopefully
one to be corrected in future editions.
What the Book Contains
The book starts off with
some interesting history of the evolution of frequent flier
programs. Interestingly, although American Airline's
Aadvantage program is generally believed to be the first
frequent flier program, there were airline antecedents to this,
plus United already had a program it was about to launch.
Indeed, the big daddy of all affinity programs was the Green
Stamps program, which at its peak saw the program organizers
printing three times as many stamps as the US Postal Service.
Although the book's title
would suggest a focus on frequent flyer - ie, airline -
programs, it covers not just airline programs but also all other
travel affinity type programs, eg, those of hotels and rental
cars, and more generic programs operated by credit card
To some of us, the book may
contain a fair number of obvious ideas; to others of us, the
ideas may be new and startlingly revelatory. All of us, no
matter how knowledgeable we are, can benefit from an occasional
complete read through this book. I found myself reading
about things I'd forgotten about or overlooked in the past, and
so benefited both from the reminders and checklists for things I
already knew as well as from the new ideas I did not know about
Chapter 17 is a very useful
chapter, with summaries of the salient points of 23 different
airline programs, 14 different hotel programs, four (only four?)
rental car programs, two credit card programs and one
miscellaneous program (Amtrak). It also has what would
have been called in a former age a bibliography, referring you
to other websites and newsletters for more information.
Which program is best?
While it is very difficult
to identify any one program as the 'best', the book helps you to
understand the differences between the different programs so
that you can both choose the best programs to match your travel
patterns and needs, and then use your selected program(s) to
The book contains some
excellent suggestions, any one of which pays for the book
several times over. For example, with hotel programs that
allow you the choice of earning miles into an airline partner
program or points into the hotel's program, the authors
recommend the latter in cases where you can subsequently convert
the points into miles. As they sensibly point out, this
strategy preserves your options for the future, and at no
Sometimes better to forego
frequent flier miles?
The authors also cut through
the hype of frequent flier program benefits when they say 'In
some cases, you are better off buying a cheaper product and
foregoing miles. Do the math.'
So, if one does the math,
how much is a mile worth? In quick summary form, the
authors say that, on average, a value of a frequent flier mile
is approximately 1 cent.
They do note, however, that
you'll get much more 'value for money' if you redeem miles for
more expensive tickets and upgrades.
But this is a slippery
slope, and sometimes you may be playing directly into the
airline's hands if you do this. For example, to upgrade
from a coach award to a business award for a trans-Atlantic
flight may mean going from an award that costs 40,000 - 65,000
miles up to an award that costs 85,000 - 120,000 miles - in
round figures, twice as many miles. Now the good news,
such as it is, is that a business class ticket will generally
cost you four or more times as much as a coach class ticket, so
in theory, paying twice as many miles to get a four times more
valuable ticket sounds like good value.
But the other way of looking
at it, if you have a limited number of miles and may
opportunities to cash them in, is that one way you can travel
twice as often as the other way (or you can travel as many
times, and have a partner travel with you).
On the other hand, if - like
many frequent fliers - you fly too much already and have too
little spare time, you'd probably prefer to enjoy the greater
comfort and much nicer experience in business or first class,
rather than have your miles expire, or depreciate.
Depreciate? How do
miles depreciate? There seems to be a slow but steady
trend for mileage awards to require more and more miles to be
earned, and also for all manner of nuisance fees to be added to
the cost of your otherwise 'free' ticket.
Keeping track of your miles
Here's a sobering statistic.
The authors estimate that 7% - 8% of all travel entitlements are
improperly recorded. In my own experience, while I
generally get full credit when flying on the airline that
operates the program I'm having the miles placed in, whenever I
switch to a partner program, my chances of getting the miles
successfully credited drastically drop. What really annoys
me is when I check at the airport, and have the person enter my
frequent flier number into my record, and still the credit for
the flight disappears.
How is it possible in this
age of computerized booking, linked computer networks, and
closely linked airline alliances, for miles to go missing?
One has to suspect that no airline is strongly motivated to
correct the problems which plainly exist.
And, when you don't get
miles credited, forget any hope of the airline being able to
look back in their records. Oh no. You'll have to
flood them with paperwork (much of which you've probably lost,
and some of which doesn't even exist these days with electronic
commerce and paperless tickets) to get them to grudgingly and
slowly credit you for the miles you've fairly earned.
What to do? There's no
easy solution, and the authors simply restate the obvious - keep
fastidious records of flights and other mileage earning events.
What the Book Doesn't Cover
Although the book crams a
lot of information into its 206 pages, there is plenty more that
has been omitted. For example, although it makes passing
reference to there being 2700 different companies who
participate in the American Airlines Aadvantage program, it
doesn't list them.
The book is decidedly light
on tabulated data and 'decision tree' guides or bullet point
lists to help you choose which programs would be best for you.
The book's narrative is
interesting, well written, and helpful, but sometimes the
narrative style makes it harder to extract the key elements of
data one needs. So which really is the best or worst
airline mileage program? Maybe that's not a fair question
to ask or to seek an answer for, but more side by side
comparisons would be helpful.
The book does give some
issues to consider in selecting the programs which are
subjectively best for each person. But - and this is a big
but - it omits to then give the data for each program. For
example, it talks about the varying levels of minimum miles
awarded per flight. But nowhere does it provide any data
on the different minimums for the various frequent flier
programs. Providing this information would be tremendously
helpful, because the airlines themselves don't necessarily
provide simple summaries of the key features of their programs;
instead you have to dig around to find it, in different places,
on each different website.
It would be an obvious thing
to expand the data listing of some details of each frequent flier
program provided in chapter 17. But currently there is
only extremely limited data for each program - its name, a
contact phone number and website, miles expiration policy,
pooling miles policy, and whether the airline is a member of an
alliance or not. This very brief data barely scratches the
surface of what we all want to know when evaluating our program
The slightly unstructured
nature of the book's information presentation is made worse by
the lack of an index. For example, and as mentioned above,
if you were to want to find information on dining programs,
there's no way to conveniently find it other than reading all
the way through.
Sure, a lot of the
information the book omits can be found on the internet, but
that's not the point. And, sure, a lot of information is
likely to change over time, but that's not the point either
(and, for the writers and publisher, including this would
provide a great lever to encourage people to buy updated
editions). In reality, everything in the book is somewhere
on the internet. If people buy the book to get
a complete standalone and ordered presentation of all data that
would otherwise take a lot of surfing to try and piece together,
they may be disappointed. But if they buy the book seeking
a strategic overview of what mileage programs are all about and
how best to approach them, they'll be very pleased.
If you're looking for a
complete and definitive guide to everything you are likely to
want or need to know, this book will disappoint. But -
like the classic question, 'is my glass half full or half empty'
- while the book could have been developed much further, we can
perhaps simply accept the book for what it currently is, and be
appreciative of that.
About the Authors
competitors, Randy Petersen and Tim Winship sensibly realized
that by joining forces, and creating a book that combined both
their slightly different perspectives, they'd end up with a
product much more valuable to its readers than if they'd written
a book each, independently.
This is innovative thinking
- to collaborate rather than to compete - and we as readers
benefit from the combined product.
Randy Petersen publishes the
InsideFlyer magazine and has several travel related websites
Tim Winship publishes
FrequentFlier.com and contributes to Frequent Flier magazine
This is a good book and
gives a strategic overview of how to best approach frequent
It does not contain as much tactical information and factual
data as I'd hope for, but the
information it does contain is interesting, well written, and
It is far from a definitive
and encyclopedic explanation and analysis of every last little
twist of frequent flier programs. But it does give some
helpful and high level advice, and tells you what to look for
and consider when you then go off and do the necessary research
to choose and manage your own frequent flier program
from the publisher for $19.95.
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9 Dec 2005, last update
19 Dec 2013
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