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Maximizing Your Frequent-Flier Awards

September 08, 1993|JOE BRANCATELLI

Frequent-flier awards are as close as business travelers ever get to a free lunch. But the elegance and sophistication of the meal is up to you.

Manage your programs wisely and you'll be feasting. Get sloppy and you'll end up with table scraps.

Blinded by the lure of free travel, too many business travelers lose sight of one basic fact: Frequent-flier programs are a business strategy, not an act of airline noblesse oblige.

The awards you "win" are not really free. You pay for them with your loyalty to the airline sponsoring the frequent-flier program. The more frequently you do business with them instead of the other guys, the more valuable your awards.

Recognizing that unspoken equation is the basis of intelligent management of your frequent-flier programs.

Mileage concentration. Suppose you fly a total of 80,000 miles over the next few years, and let's say you travel 20,000 miles on each of four different airlines.

At the 20,000-mile level, most frequent-flier programs reward your loyalty with a round-trip, advance-purchase domestic coach ticket. At current fares, such a ticket is worth about $350--not chopped liver, but not caviar either.

Suppose, instead, that you chose to fly all 80,000 miles on a single carrier, such as Continental Airlines.

As a reward for accumulating 80,000 miles, Continental's OnePass frequent-flier program will give you two unrestricted round-trip coach tickets to Europe. If you use those freebies to fly to Paris, you've earned an award worth about $5,300.

That geometric progression--an 80,000-mile award is worth 15 times more than a 20,000-mile award, even though you only had to fly four times as far--is what leads savvy frequent fliers to concentrate their miles in as few frequent-flier programs as possible.

Travel partners. Anxious to tap the loyalty-building power of the frequent-flier plans, international airlines, hotels and car rental companies have all flocked to the party.

USAir is primarily a domestic carrier, but its frequent-flier plan allows members to earn miles by flying any of 10 international airlines.

Five hotel chains offer miles in TWA's frequent-flier program.

Four car rental companies give miles in United's MileagePlus plan.

Playing the travel partners is a nearly cost-free way to concentrate miles in your chosen frequent-flier plan.

After all, you've got to stay in a hotel and rent a car anyway, so why not patronize the chains prepared to help you win free travel?

Keeping track of the maze of overlapping partnerships isn't difficult. The newsletters included with your monthly mileage statement always list the available partnerships.

The success of frequent-flier programs in swaying business travelers' buying decisions has extended mileage partnerships beyond the travel arena. For instance, long-distance phone companies are joining the programs because business travelers are also heavy long-distance users.

To induce you to use its network, Sprint will give you miles in TWA's frequent-flier plan. Call with MCI and you can earn miles in the Northwest Worldperks program.

Play your cards right. Your credit and charge cards, that is. Most frequent-flier programs offer a so-called affinity Visa or MasterCard that awards one mile for every dollar of purchases charged to the card.

Many of these cards carry higher interest rates than standard Visa and MasterCards, but even that isn't a problem. Since you are probably traveling on an expense account and receive timely reimbursement of your expenditures, just make sure to pay your affinity credit card bill in full before your balance "rolls over" and begins accruing the inflated rates.

The loyalty-building power of the frequent-flier plans has even forced American Express and Diners Club to play the game. Although neither card participates directly in a frequent-flier program, both now operate plans that offer one credit for every dollar charged.

What are the credits good for? Mileage in frequent-flier programs, of course.

Business Travel Notes

* Commuter carrier Wings West, which flies under the American Eagle name, has announced it will discontinue flights to Visalia on Dec. 18. Under the federal "essential air service" subsidy program, Wings West operates four daily flights between Los Angeles and Visalia via Bakersfield. The flights have been Visalia's only scheduled airline service.

* Budget Car and Truck Rental says it is opening two rental offices in Moscow. Unlike other major chains there, the Budget locations will rent only American-made cars, minivans and four-wheel-drive vehicles. Business travelers will also be able to rent chauffeur-driven autos, Budget said.

* American Express is offering international business travelers a lucrative perk: a free companion ticket for each full-fare ticket purchased for first-class or business-class travel. The promotion runs through April 30 and is valid for flights on Air New Zealand, Alitalia, British Airways, Iberia, Sabena and SAS.

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