Last century, in 1979, Texas International Airlines introduced an innovative marketing scheme that used mileage-tracking technology to offer free flight upgrades to loyal passengers.
Three years later, Texas International Airlines flew its last flight but its “frequent-flyer” program really took off.
There are now hundreds of similar programs around the world, with hundreds of millions of members who’ve accumulated trillions of miles between them.
On paper, the miles are coveted, with programs offering apparently luxe incentives – upgrades! Valet parking! Special security lanes! – but in reality, the spread of FFPs and diversification of ways one can accumulate points has diluted the concept’s value.
First up, many airlines make only the cheapest and most inconvenient seats available for redemption. Throw in a tonne of fine-print conditions plus hidden fees, charges and expiration dates and it’s no wonder many flyers, myself included, don’t bother with FFP at all.
But countless other flyers are still hooked. To help their cause, an army of “points hackers” – the frequent-flying nerds of the world – is taking the airlines head-on and beating them at their own game.
In November, Chicago’s Frequent Traveller University (yes, like aerosol cheese, it really is a thing in America) hosted a two-day event in Sydney at which hundreds of frequent flyers forked out $299 each to learn about strategies, tools, tips and tricks points hackers use to squeeze the most of FFPs.
Couldn’t make it? Didn’t know about it? Had better things to do? No need to despair because we quizzed the most important speaker and a few other frequent flyers on how to get the most of out FFPs.
Matt Graham, editor, Australian Frequent Flyer
How often do you fly? Once or twice per week.
What FFP are you a member of? Too many! But my mainstays are Qantas, United MileagePlus, Virgin and KrisFlyer.
Which has served you best? United Mileage Plus. As a gold member, I get free lounge access whenever I fly any of the 27 Star Alliance airlines, like Air New Zealand and Thai Airways.
Sweetest freebie you ever scored? A few years ago, I flew around the world for 140,000 Qantas points using a Oneworld Award. I got to stop over in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Dallas. It took me less than a year to accumulate the points.
Are the FFPs of low-cost airlines worthwhile? No. Most low-cost airlines’ FFPs are just cash-back schemes. They don’t offer any benefits to frequent travellers. But some allow you to credit the points to ‘real’ FFPs. For example, you can earn United Airlines miles for Eurowings flights.
Is filling in surveys online an effective method to score miles? Not really. The number of miles you’ll earn is rarely worth the time. But filling in the occasional survey can be an easy way to prevent your points from expiring if you’re not actively using them.
Do you ever buy or sell points? I never sell them as it goes against the terms and conditions of almost every FFP. But many airlines do sell points and it can be a cost-effective way to get upgrades if the amount you’ve paid for the points is less than the retail price of the airfare. I recently bought points from United Airlines when they were offering 100 per cent bonus miles on purchases.
What’s the most annoying fine-print trick in FFPs? Surely this would have to be the “carrier charges” that many airlines add on when customers try to redeem their points for a “free” flight. Qantas is notorious for this – they add as much as $540 to fly from Perth to London business class.
Peter Hook, publicist, Kakadu Tourism
How often do you fly? About 30 times a year.
Which FFPs are you a member of? Qantas, Virgin, KrisFlyer and Vietnam Airlines.
Which has delivered the most benefits? Qantas – because of the flights available that suit my business needs, plus opportunities to boost points through purchases within Australia.
How do you usually redeem your points? I fly frequently between Darwin and Sydney for work. It’s a long flight and usually comes after a long drive from Kakadu, so using points to upgrade to business class really makes a difference.
Are the FFPs of low-cost airlines worthwhile? It’s very hard to use points with low-cost airlines, especially if you’re targeting specific flights, but it’s not so much of a problem if you’re flexible with dates and times.
Do you use credit cards to accumulate miles? This really is the key to getting free flights. By signing up with banks that offer 100,000 bonuses, then paying school fees and other big-ticket items with an Amex, it provides significant points.
Is changing credit cards regularly – and taking advantage of sign-on bonuses – a good idea? Absolutely. It’s a pain but it is worth it. I just signed up with a bank that offered a big sign-on bonus and strong points conversions. But you need to keep on top of renewals because some offer fee-free only for the first year and punitive annual charges for subsequent years.
Any other tricks or tips? Double and triple-dipping. For example, getting bonus point deals from Woolworths, then using a credit card that adds extra bonus miles. The key is buying things you would have bought anyway, getting double or triple miles and taking advantage of special promotions.
Nick Serati, co-founder thriftytraveller.com
How often do you fly? Constantly. This year I’ll clock up more than 100,000 miles.
Which FFP has paid off the best? American Airlines AAdvantage – even though I rarely fly with them. They offer welcome bonus offers and, because they have co-branded Citi and Barclays credit cards, it’s fast and easy to amass a tonne of miles. They also have some of the best airline partners in the industry through their membership of the OneWorld airline alliance. I’ve used it to get free flights with Qantas, Etihad and Cathay Pacific.
Sweetest freebie you ever scored? Using AAdvantage to fly business class with Qatar Airways from Paris to Doha with only $150 taxes and fees. It would have cost thousands if I paid out of pocket. And it was the first time I had been onboard an aircraft with a full bar – a bucket-list experience for a points nerd like me.
Do you use credit cards to accumulate miles? Yes, this is a big part of travelling around the world for free. But you need to be financially responsible and pay your credit card bill in full each and every month because any interest you get hit with on credit cards will wipe away the benefits.
Is changing credit cards regularly – and taking advantage of sign-on bonuses – an effective strategy? Yes, it’s the easiest and most effective way to get the most out of every dollar you spend. We’re living in a time where being loyal to one FFP is becoming less and less valuable. I have miles in at least 30 FFP accounts. Some of them have expiration dates and some don’t. Using a platform like AwardWallet to manage all of your loyalty accounts is almost a requirement for success.
Michelle Hespe, publisher, Inflight Magazines
How often do you fly? At least once per fortnight.
Which FFPs are you a member of? Qantas, Virgin and KrisFlyer
Sweetest freebie you ever scored? I just booked return tickets for my partner and I on Qantas to Hobart and didn’t pay a cent. That felt good!
Which FFP do you believe to be a waste of time – or downright dodgy? I wonder if they aren’t all somewhat dodgy as I fly so often and rarely score 100 per cent free flights. But I’m particularly displeased with United Airlines’ MileagePlus. I travelled back and forth from Chicago for 10 years and thought I’d accumulated enough points to fly around the world for free. But as things turned out they expired at the end of each year. You really need to read the fine print.
Do you use credit cards to accumulate miles? No, and that’s probably where I’m going wrong. But you’ve got to ask yourself if all the hidden fees and charges don’t negate the benefits? And I know for a fact they make it hard to turn your credit card points into miles. I had to go into the bank recently to do this. The teller couldn’t work out how to do it and had to get her manager and even then they had to Google it.
Are the FFPs of low-cost airlines worthwhile? Is this a trick question?