The Infrequent Flier: A Guide to Air Loyalty Programs

Not every business traveler racks up air miles, speeds through customs with panache or spends months on the road. In fact, many of us travel casually - once or twice a year for work. No gold status. No upgrade vouchers. Just a carry-on, a ticket and maybe some nerves. Sound familiar? This series is designed to share our travel-savvy expertise with tips just for you – the Infrequent Flier. Ever hear crazy stories of your more traveled colleagues flying the most roundabout routes just to pick up points? Instead of a direct flight to Orlando, they pop over to Los Angeles, through Dallas, then Miami and eventually end up in the Happiest Place on Earth, after the Longest Day on Earth.

Why would anyone pass over a direct flight for a series of puddle jumps cross-country? As your frequent flier friends might tell you, nabbing the benefits of elite status is getting harder and sometimes call for serious, time-sucking measures. But who cares about racking up miles when you hardly fly in the first place?

Well, airlines want your infrequent business, too. They’ve dreamed up plenty of incentives for your allegiance, from free flights to brewery tours – no matter how often you don’t fly.

Upgrades require a little strategy

Getting freebie upgrades isn’t easy for anyone anymore and if you’re only traveling a couple times a year, you probably won’t get bumped from the crowded economy class up to cushy first class. Getting listed as Suitable for Upgrade, a code in the airlines’ seating system that can score you more leg room, helps. But you’ll have to explain why you should be listed as such when you book your tickets – it’s usually easier to use an agent in this case.

Unless you want to buy an upgrade, or ask very, very nicely for a first class seat at check-in, keep these booking tips in mind:

  • Avoid business travelers – it sounds counterintuitive, but if your plane is booked with your peers, you have more competition for the best seats. Instead, book the unpopular routes on the road warrior trail, take afternoon, evening or red-eye flights when your colleagues usually fly in the morning, and travel on weekends.
  • Timing is everything – if they haven’t sold out the best seats, airlines will sit on them (ahem) until about six weeks before the scheduled departure. Book around that time when the back of the plane is full.

Miles lead to free flights

Depending on the program, you can get a big chunk of air miles for signing up for a loyalty credit, debit or membership card, which could lead to a free flight. Some offer discounted buddy passes, too. Like the idea of flying to Honolulu with your sweetheart for $99? Mahalo!

Most cards offer between 5,000 and 30,000 bonus miles when you sign up. Some give you up to 10,000 each year just for using the card. And, of course, for each dollar you spend, you get more miles credited.

There are fees associated, though, and interest rates vary. We recommend you choose the card loyalty program based on where you’d like to go on vacation. For example, Alaska Airlines operates daily flights to Hawaii, and British Airways has its hub in London – the two most popular places to fly using air miles.

They also lead to free… socks?

If you’re not interested in flying for fun, loyalty programs provide some cool – and weird – alternatives.  Besides the Burberry umbrellas to a six-piece Paula Deen Soup ‘N Spice Stew set, you can now cash in your air miles for more creative things.

For instance, use your points for a ‘sockscription’ – a delivery of socks scattered over eight months – from Lufthansa for 21,000 miles. Trade in 14,700 on American Airlines for a brewery tour of Brussels. And, if you want a leather vest signed by George Clooney, you’ll need 177,000 miles at Air Canada.

No matter how little you travel, airlines want your business. And with incentives like George Clooney’s vest, you may be flying the roundabout route to the Longest Day on Earth in no time at all.

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