Start here

Frequent Fliers Outsmart Stingy Reward Miles Programs

United Mileage Plus

One of America’s most cherished consumer benefits is about to go through a radical change—and its driving its customers to cook up new strategies to get the most for their hard-spent money.

Two of the country’s biggest airlines are changing their frequent flier reward program earning capability to dollars spent rather than miles flown (Delta’s change will take effect Jan. 1 and United on March 1).

For example, a business traveler who regularly racks up at least 30,000 miles on United per flight to Asia will see that number plummet to 12,000 miles once the programs change. But, he can outsmart United and take his business to its partner Singapore Airlines to retain the larger amount of miles, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Alaska Airlines is an attractive option for Delta customers on certain routes. It’s still offering rewards based on miles flown on Delta, but keep in mind flights need to be booked through Alaska and not through Delta. Virgin Atlantic pays 100 percent of miles flown on economy fares, and is also a good option for Delta customers.

Maybe this workaround won’t last for long, though. Delta and United have posted notices on their websites stating that changes may be coming, and both airlines are in negotiations with their partners on what mileage earnings will be. Partner airlines declined to discuss future changes.

The new rewards programs will solely benefit people who fly on the most expensive business and first class fares and have top-tier status. A spokesperson for American Airlines told the Wall Street Journal that the airline doesn’t plan to convert to a fare-based program…yet.

2 Steps to Make Frequent Flier Miles Work Better For You

  1. Airline Choice

These days, only frequent business travelers are benefitted by staying loyal to just one airline rewards program. For those who fly less, immediate travel goals should be the driving force in choosing who you fly with. Whether you’re aiming for a free trip to Europe, Hawaii, or just trying to get home for the holidays for a decent fare (ha!), pick the airline that best suits your needs.

Here are the best airlines for redeeming miles in economy to the region you want to fly, according to Daily Finance.

Mainland U.S. flights: Southwest Airlines (20, 969 miles)

Hawaii: Delta (65,643 miles)

Europe: American (77,049 miles)

Mexico: JetBlue (32,679)

Asia: United (104,470)

South America: Delta (87,275)

Australia: American (75,000)

  1. Credit Card Choice

Choose the credit card that will help you earn the miles the quickest with your airline of choice. The biggest differences are: bonus offers (and how much spend is required to earn them), category bonuses (choose one that gives more points for travel), and free checked bags (at $25 a pop, that saves you $200 in one trip for a family of four).

Overall, American Express is the best card to use for earning the most points through travel. If the merchant doesn’t accept American Express, Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card is the best to use for United miles and the Sapphire Preferred Card is the best to use for redeeming points for travel.

Why Online Deals Aren’t the Cheapest

We live in an instant gratification society, so it’s not unheard of that people prefer to conduct their lives with the ease of a click. From banking, to shopping to booking travel, consumers may think they’re saving time and money, when really they may be doing anything but.

So, with all the information online marketers are able to gather about their customers, are online companies using this plethora of data to their advantage (and to their customers disadvantage)?

A study by computer scientists at Northeastern University found that price steering price steering (also known as price discrimination), which is when companies extend behind-the scene personalization to prices to charge different amounts for the same product, is much more ingrained in online travel booking that we could have imagined, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Out of 16 top e-commerce sites, the study found that six used pricing discrimination and did not alert the consumer of the differences in prices.

Two popular travel sites were guilty of price steering. Cheaptickets and Orbitz charged users an average of $12 more per night on hotel rates if they weren’t logged onto the site, while Travelocity charged mobile Apple users an average of $15 less than others. The study also found that and Expedia steered random users to pricier products.

Factors such as prior browsing, purchase history, the location of the store and whether or not the customer is using a mobile phone could influence what a customer sees on the company’s site.

Price Discrimination 2

Vice President of corporate affairs at Orbitz Worldwide Inc. Chris Chiames told The Wall Street Journal that the company clearly states its loyalty program and other deals.

“The Northeastern study states that ‘overall, most of the experiments do not reveal evidence of steering or discrimination,’ and so we are curious as to why a handful of exceptions to searches on thousands of hotels is the basis of this paper’s conclusions, or even worthy of a story,” Chiames told The Wall Street Journal in an email. “Would you be as interested in a Kmart ‘blue light special’ deal that was made available to shoppers who happen to be in a certain store at a certain time?”

But, the company didn’t advertise that users could receive discounts for simply logging in. On both Orbitz and Cheaptickets, which is also owned by Orbitz Worldwide, registered users were shown a tab labeled “members only” that offered lower prices.

This isn’t the first time price discrimination has been identified. It’s basically been on the surge since online shopping became the norm, and in 2012, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that Orbitz was charging Mac users up to 30 percent more than PC users. However, the recent study by Northeatern University has found that this discrimination is no longer taking place.

Expedia and, which both hail from Expedia Inc., don’t practice price steering but rather use a marketing strategy called A/B testing, The companies continuously refines the pricing methods by randomly placing shoppers in a group that highlights either more or less pricey hotels. The customer has no idea which group they’ve been placed in and may or may not fall victim to higher rates.

Looks like there are, in fact, still instances when talking to a live person is beneficial–just watch out for those over-the-phone booking fees airlines often charge these days.

cooktravel logo

Clients of Cook Travel-Ovation can rest assured that they’ll be spared the frustration of fare anomalies and complicated procedures that most online agencies and booking engines provide.

Algorithms act on mathematical impulse, agents act on the individual and unique needs of their clients.

 Don’t book with an algorithm, book with a live agent.

Which Day is Best to Buy Airline Tickets?

Best time to Buy Airline Tickets

If you’re one of the avid travelers who swears by scoring great deals by buying on Tuesdays, be prepared to change your ways.

New research shows that Sunday has now been touted as the best day to buy an airline ticket, travel writer Scott McCartney wrote in The Wall Street Journal Wednesday.

The revelation was discovered by a deep dive into a 19-month period of ticketing sales from Airlines Reporting Corp., a ticket-processing company that handles about half of all tickets sold. The firm found that domestic and international round-trip tickets showed that the lowest average price was on Sunday. A similar study by Texas A&M confirmed the results, and people can save about $60 by making the purchase over the weekend.

Prices continue to rise because of an increasing demand for a limited number of seats. Social media has also contributed to the shift of cheap days, as it’s able to lure customers in with last-minute deals at any time, converting leisure shoppers browsing the Web into ticketed passengers.

But, don’t give up on Tuesdays, altogether. It’s the busiest day for ticket sales and the cheapest day of the workweek to buy. About 21 percent of price drops happen on Tuesday and about 19 percent happen on Wednesday, according to Yapta Inc., a firm that alerts travelers and travel managers when ticket prices decline.

The day and time of day you actually fly is important, too. Tuesday is the best day to fly for less, as fewer people travel on that day, and no one wants to fly at 4 a.m., so if you’re a night owl, you can shave money off your ticket.

As you may have noticed by your inbox, carriers still send out sales and emails on Tuesdays, but most stay open through the weekend to accommodate leisure shoppers. Waiting until 1 a.m. on Wednesday to snag leftover deals from Tuesday may also be beneficial, according to CBS News. For more dedicated money-savers, calling the airline or talking to a ticket agent in person could also save you a significant amount of money.

A study by the ARC found that the cheapest time to book a domestic trip is 57 days before departure, although most people don’t buy that early—with an average purchase date just over a month before they flew, when prices had already started to climb.

International fares didn’t fluctuate much between 10 months and three months before departure. Once the three-month advance purchase was up, airlines began raising prices. Most people waited too long to get the lowest price on international trips, with most passengers purchasing the flight a mere two months before departure.

The average consumer takes a good deal of time choosing which flight to buy, spending an average of 12 days shopping for airline tickets before they buy, according to Hopper, a Cambridge, Mass. Firm that analyzes prices and flight searches in large reservation systems found.

Consumers often watch prices go up and down, hoping they’ll stay low. But, fare increases are much more common, rising an average of 5 percent in a 12-day period. Leisure markets, like Florida and Hawaii, tend to have fares stable fares, but business-oriented destinations like Chicago and Washington, D.C. tend to have more price volatility, the firm found.

Uncertain fare-watchers should take advantage of the 24-hour ticketing cancellation policy that the Department of Transportation imposed on airlines. Booking sites don’t feature this rule prominently on their fare rules, but it applies to every ticket booked on Delta, United, US Airways and JetBlue. American lets you hold a reservation for 24 hours without paying, instead.

People may not realize that they have to plan more in advance to get the best deal because just two years ago, that wasn’t the case. In 2012, domestic tickets were their cheapest at 42 days in advance, but in years past, airlines have consolidated and cut capacity, creating more demand for each seat.

And if you haven’t booked your holiday ticket yet, you’re probably out of luck. The cheapest day to buy for Thanksgiving was Oct. 10, and the cheapest day to buy for Christmas was even earlier on Oct. 8, according to Orbitz. Christmas flights are 5 percent more expensive this year. 

But, booking early rarely yields significant savings for holiday travel. Airlines know that they’ll fill the seats, so they start their prices out high and end even higher.

It’s just the way the travel industry works these days.

Which credit card has the best travel rewards?

Credit Cards

If you’re an avid traveler and you’re not using a credit card to accrue reward points, you’re sorely missing out on up to 6 percent in discounts with an American Express Gold Rewards. 

It’s been long-contended that American Express has the best cards for the premium traveler to carry. By amassing points within the American Express Membership Rewards program or the Starwood Preferred Guest program, you’ll get the advantage of points-to-miles transfer options with a plethora of airline mileage programs –meaning your odds of finding available seats on the flights increases significantly.

The Membership Reward cards has 18 transfer partners and lets you buy up to 500,000 miles a year at 2.5 cents with great transfer bonuses throughout the year. The Starwood Preferred Guest program has 41 transfer partners and offers a 25 percent transfer bonus “every day” and on “every airline,” often amounting to a free upgrade.

But, what happens when the merchant doesn’t accept American Express? First Class Flyer’s Matthew Bennett rounded up the two best backup cards for the savvy business traveler to carry: the Chase Ultimate Rewards card or the Citi ThankYou Rewards card.

The Citi ThankYou Rewards has ten airline partners: Air France, Cathay Pacific, Ethiad Airways, EVA Air, Garuda Indonesia, KLM, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways. It allows you to buy up to 100,000 miles at 2.5 cents per mile.

The Chase Ultimate Rewards Card has six airline partners: British Airways, Korean, Southwest, Singapore, United and Virgin Atlantic. It eliminated the option to buy points last year, probably due to the surge of signees who took advantage of the bonuses and don’t reciprocate value. United is the best airline to trade in points for with this card, but die-hard United fans fare much better with Amex cards or one of United’s four MileagePlus cards. But, Chase Rewards does have ongoing bonus-mile deals at gas stations, office supply stores and other similar offers that come and go.

For a cheat sheet on multi-airline credit cards or for information on ticketing strategies for bringing down the price of an award flight, check out Matthew Bennett’s October issue of First Class Flyer. 


How In-Flight Rage and Knee Defenders Became the Norm of Air Travel

In-flight rage

“Me first!” has replaced “Safety first” as the air travel industry’s unofficial logo, according to consumer advocate and USA Today columnist Christopher Elliot, and it’s driving flyers bonkers.

It’s apparent now more than ever, with the recent three plane groundings in eight days over the most trivial of disputes – reclining seats.

Yes, it’s easy to smirk when hearing the news of the latest silly airline tryst. But, how would you feel if you were one of the hundreds of well-mannered, time-strapped passengers who had to endure an extra four-hour delay all because of a fight that’s pretty much nonsense?

The most disturbing part may be that in-flight rage is actually pretty rare. Last year, airlines carried 826 million passengers, and yet there were only 167 reports of unruly passengers, New York Times travel writer Joe Sharkey wrote.

Passengers struggle to find the slightest bit of comfort in the hellish ordeal that is the modern-day flight, and when they don’t get it, calamity ensues.

Whether it’s due to unanticipated hassles from the travel industry or unrealistic expectations from the customers, selfish behavior flares up during periods of high anxiety, like summertime and the holidays – putting people into “survival” mode, according to experts.

“In this state, people are highly reactive and self-focused,” Erin Olivo, assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University told Elliot. “They are hyper-vigilant about potential threats to their comfort or safety, and they don’t care about anyone else.”

Being in a foreign place, away from friends and family, can trigger “me first” behavior in some people, like pushing to the front of a line or hogging arm rests on the plane, Michael Brein, a psychologist who specializes in travel told Elliot.

Two products are even helping to facilitate “me first” behavior among travelers:

Create-A-Space is a $40 portable seat partition that sits on a coach-class armrest and is marketed to help you “feel first class” every time you fly. The Knee Defender, which Americans became more familiar with upon news that flights were being diverted because of it, costs $21 and stops the seat in front of you from reclining.

Is the airline the villain for driving its customers to create a culture of selfish behavior with tiny seats and lackluster customer service? Or are the passengers at fault for their inability to simply behave?

Obviously, since this seems to be a fairly new issue, the airlines are likely to blame, but their revenue management departments probably disagree.

A divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” provide an even deeper explanation, says Sally Rudoy, a New York-based psychotherapist. It rewards a select few passengers and enriches the travel companies, but is bad for the masses.

“Creating tiers of service for which you can charge premiums – like first class, business class, economy plus, and gold car members – stirs up anxiety about where you (as a) customer rank in the world,” she told Elliot.

So, what’s next? Is it even possible for airlines to remove another inch or find even more “services” (like bathroom usage and carry-on privileges) to charge fees for?

At this point, we don’t even want to know.

How to Find a Good Travel Agent (and When to Use Them)

Good Travel Agent

A great travel agent is hard to come by. He or she must be trustworthy, knowledgeable, attentive and eager to find you the lowest price on the best option for your trip.

The world has gotten to be a much smaller and specialized place. The trick is: no one agent can do it all.

If you’re looking for a discount on Business Class to Europe, don’t consult with a Caribbean cruise specialist. If you want to whale watch in Alaska, don’t work with an agent who books ski lodges every day.

Travel doesn’t apply to the one-agent-fits-all mold. Be sure to find yourself an agent who speciliazes in where you want to go and what you want to do.

But, how do you find a trustworthy agent? Here are three questions to ask an agent you’re considering working with, from consumer advocate and USA today columnist Christopher Elliot:

  1. Ask for references: a competent agent should be willing to supply you with a short list of clients and their phone numbers.
  2. Verify the travel agent’s professional memberships: most reputable agents belong to either the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA). This signals that the agent pledges to adhere to basic ethical and business standards.
  3. Look for accreditation: make sure your travel agency has an acceptable rating with the Better Business Bureau.

But, when is the best time to use a travel agent? Some trips are so simple to book that you shouldn’t bother to use an agent. For a simple transaction like a roundtrip flight or hotel booking, it would be easier to book yourself over the phone or online. Also, travel agents aren’t able to help when redeeming award miles and discounted packages on sites like LivingSocial, Groupon or Travelzoo.

A good travel agent is worth his or her worth in gold for the following situations:

  • Complicated Itineraries
  • Large discounts on long-haul International  Business and First Class flights
  • Large group or corporate travel
  • Theme park travel
  • When you want more options than what you can find online
  • When you don’t have the time to plan an elaborate trip
  • When you don’t know a lot about a faraway destination
  • If you expect to need an on-the-road advocate in case of cancellations, delays or other mishaps
  • If you need an expert for special occasions like a destination wedding or anniversary cruise

For more travel tips, watch Christopher Elliot on USA Today’s Travel channel.

The Gross Truth About Traveling

Sneezing Passenger

If orange juice and multivitamins are your go-to staples for staying healthy while traveling, you may want to rethink your defense strategy.

Research shows that disease-causing bacteria can linger on airplane surfaces for up to a week, according to the American Society of Microbiology in Boston.

The study tested if two types of bacteria that can lead to scary health problems – E. coli and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – could survive in various places on a place like window shades, leather seats and plastic tray tables. Researchers exposed the pathogens to airplane-like conditions and found that MRSA survived a whole seven days on the seat-back pocket, and E. coli lasted four days on the armrest.

But, even though porous materials like the seat-back pocket harbor germs for longer, you’re more likely to transmit bacteria to your hands when you come in contact with flatter, less porous surfaces like the plastic tray tables window shades, the study’s author, Kiril Vaglenov, said. The cloth tends to trap bacteria in the small fibers and makes it difficult for the bacteria to transfer to skin.

Another germy place on an airplane is the bathroom, which is typically shared with 50 to 75 people on each flight, said University of Arizona Professor of Microbiology Charles Gerba, Ph.D. The sink and door handle can get pretty gross over the course of a long flight, and a lack of proper cleaning in between flights can contribute to the overall nastiness.

“They turn planes over so fast, and there are no rules or requirements for disinfecting or cleaning airplanes,” Gerba told Women’s Health. “They pick up the litter, but they don’t really disinfect [planes].

Protect yourself on your next flight using Gerba’s tips:

Use Hand Sanitizer

It’s your best line of defense since most germs are picked up through direct contact. Make sure to bring hand sanitizer in your carry on and use it before eating and after using the restroom.

Minimize Contact

One of the most dreaded sounds on a flight is someone in proximity to your seat coughing profusely, but most viruses are transmitted through hand-to-face contact. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible, which adults do at an average of 16 times per hour.

Wipe Down Your Tray

“Everyone uses the trays to eat, drink and play cards,” Gerba said. In another study, he found norovirus and flu bacteria on tray tables. Pack disposable disinfectant wipes and wipe down your tray before using it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers