My thoughts on flight hacking and airline loyalty after 7 years of traveling

Lounge at Hong Kong International Airport

For the past 7 years, I have been working location-independent. When you have the freedom and privilege to go wherever you want whenever you want, you should make use of it. I did that extensively. As a side effect, I got pretty hooked on “flight hacking” and collecting airline miles. It has become both a hobby which I can spend ridiculous amounts of time on, as well as a tool to improve the quality of my travels while spending as little as possible (for that enhanced quality).

There are different points of views on whether airline loyalty and points hunting is economically wise. The answer to this depends a lot on one’s individual preferences and personality. Since I can get really excited about spending many hours on tweaking itineraries, looking for the best booking classes, calculating my mileage earning, eating and drinking for free in lounges, hoping for an upgrade to business class or wishing that the flight would be overbooked so that I can volunteer to take a later flight and receive a significant compensation, the driving factor for me is not only economical, but mostly that I get a lot of pleasure out of it. Having said that, I am quite sure I also benefit in monetary terms. But more about this below.

I want to summarize a couple of thoughts, suggestions and best practices about airline loyalty for those who wonder whether they should put effort in earning miles and achieving elite status with an airline. Please note that this is not an introduction for total newbies, but rather a text aimed at those who are familiar with the basic principles of airline loyalty programs.

I’ll do it in a list format but it is not necessarily ordered by importance/relevancy.

  • If you don’t fly often, if most of your trips are charter flights to typical vacation hot spots, or if you mostly fly short distances (in economy class), you probably would waste your time thinking about loyalty, miles and status. As a general rule, the more you fly, the more you can benefit.
  • If you do a couple of lengthier flights per year but are limited to certain dates — such as typical vacation periods when the fares are the most expensive because demand is so high — you can collect award miles (= those miles that can be redeemed for free flights or upgrades later) and you could even try to achieve airline elite frequent flier status. But the latter is probably financially not smart, because you’ll end up paying a lot more for tickets of a specific airline/alliance just so you can reach the amount of flown miles required to be awarded elite status.
  • The more flexible you are in regards to the dates and even destinations, the easier it is to score the best deals and to gain elite status with as little financial investment as possible. In my case, I often simply let availability of deals within my alliance of choice guide my decisions regarding both dates of travel and destination. Although I also have a continuously updated list of potential destinations, so I can quickly jump on a deal if it comes up.
  • Once you have elite “Gold” status with one airline and therefore within the whole alliance in which the airline is a member (Star Alliance, oneworld or SkyTeam), it can be pretty easy to acquire the same status level with the other two alliances with zero effort and no need to fly: From time to time, airlines offer so called “Status Matches”, which means they give frequent fliers of a competing airline the corresponding elite status level in an attempt to make them switch over for good. Usually, Status Matches are not offered between airlines that belong to the same alliance. But it is totally possible to do a Status Match with an airline from each of the other two alliances and thereby becoming (temporarily) an elite member on all three alliances. Over the past years, thanks to my Star Alliance Gold card and status match campaigns, I held the Gold equivalent with Alitalia (SkyTeam), Airberlin (oneworld) and Delta (SkyTeam), thus receiving all the benefits such as priority check in, fast lane, priority boarding and lounge access on flights with any airline belonging to the respective alliance. So once you have gained elite status with one airline, keep your eyes open for Status Match campaigns. You can check the website StatusMatcher or just search for Status Match opportunities online to learn which airlines run campaigns at any given moment.
  • If you embrace the flight hacking and mileage hunting game (yes, it kind of is a game), the total amount that you pay for flights and associated services will likely increase. That’s the whole reason why these loyalty programs exist: Because airlines successfully use them to get customers to spend more. From a customer perspective, this is only a bad thing if you end up leaving more money on the table without that the quality and quantity of your trips increases. Then you are doing something wrong. Ideally, what happen is this: Your total amount paid for trips and associated services increases modestly, but you fly more (compared to the time before you cared about miles and status), and the quality of these flight experiences is significantly improving. It is admittedly hard to put an objective value on intangible premium services offered by airlines, but a good metric is simply whether the enhanced experience makes you look forward to the flight. When I know that I won’t have to line up for the economy bag drop, don’t need to wait in a long line to go through security, can spend time in the lounge and have a glass complementary champagne (or 3), can reserve a better seat for free, can be the first on the plane, get my luggage first, and that I will earn miles that I can benefit from later— without that I paid more for my ticket than any other passenger who booked at the same time as me — I get pretty damn happy.
  • In the U.S., the best way to earn airline award miles that you can redeem for free flights or upgrades are actually not flights, but credit card sign-up bonuses. There are people who at any given time possess a dozen or so active credit cards. They usually sign up and perform a couple of purchases in order to reach the minimum spending limit for the sign-up bonus. They pocket the bonus (which can be up to 100.000 miles for some cards that subsequently can be transferred to various airline and hospitality loyalty programs). Then they often cancel the card after a year or so in order to avoid paying another yearly fee. And of course they always pay off their credit card balance before the interest kicks in. Sadly, in most (if not all) European countries, sign-up bonuses are rarely very high and the spectrum of available cards offered is much smaller. So flying a long-haul round trip in business class solely paid with miles earned through credit card sign-up bonuses is pretty much impossible for most Europeans (although earning some award miles through purchases with an airline-branded credit card can still be worth it). However, for organized individuals living in the U.S. who are willing to invest some time and who have a good credit score, that’s totally doable. There are many blogs which inform passionate travel and mileage hackers about the latest credit card offers, mileage sweet spots and airline news such as The Points Guy, View from the Wing, Frugal Travel Guy, Loyalty Lobby, Cranky Flier and Travel Codex. And of course there is the Flyer Talk forum.
  • Using miles to book free “award” flights requires some smartness and rough calculations. You can either waste these miles or score an amazing deal compared to if you would have paid for the flight with cash. A simple example: With United’s Mileage Plus program, a one way flight within Europe in economy class cost 15,000 miles (plus taxes and fees). But a one-way flight from Bangkok to New Zealand cost 17,500 miles in economy and 30,000 miles in business (plus taxes and fees). Only slightly more miles but essentially 4x or 5x the distance. Paying for the one-way in Europe with cash would maybe cost you 100 Euro. Paying for the one-way from Bangkok to New Zealand with cash on the other hand could set you back with 500 Euro or more in in economy and more than 1000 Euro in business class. You see the difference. Therefore, knowing when to use miles as payment for a flight and when to rather pay with cash is essential in order to maximize the benefits of this whole mileage game. Also, if your goal is to accomplish elite status with an airline, you must think strategically: Only flights that you pay for with cash get you closer to elite status. Flights paid with award miles usually don’t count.
  • If you aim at getting the best deals while simultaneously maximizing your mileage earnings, you’ll often find yourself not flying the shortest/fastest routing. In most cases, at least when it comes to the legacy airlines that offer a proper loyalty program and are member of an alliance, direct flights are more pricey than a routing with a connection. Or, sometimes a fare might be really promising, but the booking class wouldn’t earn you any status miles. If you attempt to reach elite status, it might be wiser to book a different fare with possibly a less straight forward routing. In both cases, the result is that you end up sitting at planes or airports for longer times than if you had taken the direct flight. Therefore, you should really love airports and flying, and you should be the type of person that can entertain yourself during this time. Personally, I do a lot of reading during my travels, as well as writing, programming (which I am learning right now), thinking… in short, for me time on the plane or at the airport never feels like wasted time. However, if the thought of spending additional hours in the air just to earn more miles feels absurd to you, then this whole undertaking is nothing for you. Then it is better to simply book the shortest fare at the best possible price point, no matter which airline.
  • If you fly a lot in your job without having to pay for the trips, ensuring that you earn miles on all these flights and possibly even reach elite status which you then can benefit from for leisure trips is a no brainer. Don’t let that opportunity go to waste.
  • Choose the airline loyalty program that you focus on wisely. It does not make sense to heavily concentrate on a program of an airline/alliance that you hardly ever get the chance to fly with because their presence in your region is weak. Neither it is not automatically the best choice to use your “home carrier’s” program (even though often this is the case), if that offers unsatisfying earning conditions. So it is good to compare a bit before you put your eggs in a basket.
  • Over the past years, the appeal of most airline loyalty programs for budget-focused travel hackers has decreased significantly. Nowadays, in many programs, the cheapest tickets earn much less award miles than in the past. However, there are still many loop holes, sweet spots and tricks in order to maximize earnings, and finding these is half the fun. And thanks to the drop in fares over the past 10 years or so, accumulating enough status miles for elite status through paid-for flights is easier and less costly than ever — if you follow some of the basic rules detailed in this blog post.

That’s it for now. I might update this post later with additional remarks. If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. You can find my contact details at the bottom of this site.

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