In 1990, my wife and I moved from the U.K. to the U.S. with our two young children. I remember being asked by our travel agent what date she should use for our return trip. I said “never, it’s a one-way trip”! A high technology company hired me as a technical consultant in Silicon Valley. As part of my job, I traveled often – domestically at first and then, within a few years, internationally. My manager was well versed in the American Airlines AAdvantage travel awards program. He traveled much more than I did, living in Southern California and attending company and customer meetings across the U.S. As a result, he was an AAdvantage Platinum elite member. His generosity was outstanding and would treat me to First Class using upgrade coupons he received. With colleagues like this, I was in heaven – literally! He encouraged me to sign up for AAdvantage membership during a visit to the airline’s Admirals Club lounge in San José airport. I joined United’s MileagePlus program the same year. This is how I got started on a fun hobby my wife and I refer to as #upgrademylife.
So, after almost thirty years I should be a points millionaire by now, right? Well, collecting miles and points during the early nineties was tedious. I had to actually get on a plane and travel somewhere – what an inconvenience. There were airline credit cards available, but I had no one educating me how useful they were. I used my bank’s no-fee Visa card for business expenses and checks for everything else. It took a lot of time to collect enough miles to get free flights for all the family members. So, I just kept saving miles and not taking much interest in them. We eventually spent most of them on a trip to Disney World traveling first class with American.
One frequent flyer benefit when you travel a lot with one airline is you can earn elite status. Traveling as an elite flyer comes with benefits that you can use on every flight you take. These benefits may include priority check-in and boarding, upgrades, free checked bags, and free food and beverages. Also, you earn miles at an accelerated rate based on combinations of flight distance, ticket class and amount spent. Traveling for business, I regularly attained AAdvantage Platinum and Premier Gold elite status. This definitely improved my travel experience when flying. By the late 90’s, I had traveled enough with American to earn Million Miler status, and recently achieved United’s Million Miler stats too. I’ll discuss this aspect of airline awards programs in a future post.
A related aspect of business travel was getting to stay at many hotels around the world. Hotel chains have their loyalty programs too. Each program comes with varying points earning and redemption rates. And, of course, multiple levels of elite status and related benefits. Unfortunately, during my early career I wasn’t able to focus my stays on just one or two chains. My corporate travel agent booked my business travel. I could only stay at specific hotels per place. So, it took a lot of trips to earn enough points to get a free hotel night. But, I remember you could buy Starwood Gold membership for $20 per year in the early 90’s. Today, that takes 25 nights or 10 stays in a calendar year to achieve. However, with improved planning, I have now achieved Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum status over the past few years. The benefits of this status include regular upgraded rooms, free breakfasts, and lots of bonus points.
Now if all the above sounds like a very bleak environment for collecting miles and points, it wasn’t really. Flying was a lot less stressful due to lower levels of security requirements. Another reason that it wasn’t the Dark Ages of Frequent Travel was that airline awards programs were simpler. It’s a more complex environment today, with airline award programs shifting to revenue-based models. Changes in the hotel industry, for example Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood, is causing uncertainty for loyal fans of their respective award programs. In addition, frequent devaluations within award charts are being announced regularly. Fortunately, there are many good strategies to improve your earning and redemption power to counter these changes.
So, you may ask, what is the point of all this nostalgic time travel? I want to give you a sense of my early experiences collecting miles and points. From this background, I will fast forward to today and share my experiences from the past few years. The environment for collecting miles and points for free travel has never been better. Financial and travel companies are in a heated battle for your business. They are willing to deliver rich rewards for your loyalty. In future posts, I’ll discuss how credit card sign up bonuses can supercharge your miles and points balances. Also, I’ll share with you some tips I’ve learned about smart use of credit cards for shopping and bill paying. In addition, I’ll cover how to use your airline, credit card and hotel miles and points effectively. Along the way, there will be reviews of places, hotels and restaurants that we visit. And, more…
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So remember, #upgrademylife is the name of the game – play well my dear readers!