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Strategies to Get Air Mileage From Package Tour Flights

Savings: Consumers need to look beyond fine print and ask whether they can count on frequent-flier miles when the tour company arranges flights.

December 15, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Frequent-flier miles can save you money. Package tours can save you money. But if you take a package tour that bundles air fare and lodgings into one price, can you still get credit for frequent-flier miles?

Maybe yes, maybe no. And often the issue isn't directly addressed in tour company brochures. Which is why, if you're a consumer considering a tour, you need to ask this question.

The answer depends on the tour company and the airline involved. Sometimes a simple itinerary change can capture 10,000 miles that would have been lost. Sometimes a package tour offers no mileage credit, but carries such a deep discount that it's still the most economical choice. And frequently, even after you've decided to take a tour, there are still mileage strategy decisions to be made.

Here, gleaned from tour operators and travel agents, are a handful of guidelines for the mileage-conscious tour customer to keep in mind.

1. Many tours rely on charter flights or airlines without frequent-flier programs, and thus yield no miles. One example is Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, a Westlake Village-based company that sent more than 300,000 people to Hawaii in 1996. A spokesman notes that about 60% of the company's Los Angeles and San Francisco customers headed for Honolulu and Maui are placed on American Trans Air, a carrier that offers charter and scheduled flights, but has no frequent-flier program. So what attracts these travelers? The up-front prices, which begin as low as $399 per person for round-trip air and seven nights in Waikiki.

2. Travelers can get mileage credit on many, perhaps most, air-inclusive tours that use major airlines. At Trafalgar Tours, a New York-based firm that sent more than 100 tours to Europe last year, a spokeswoman reports that most of the company's tours use major carriers who grant tour customers the same mileage credit they would get as individual fliers. Contiki Holidays, an operator that specializes in travelers 18 to 35 years old, reports a similar setup, as does Glendale-based African Travel Inc.

But there are at least two key exceptions to remember. One is that some foreign-based carriers, including Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (both of which are allied with American Airlines' mileage program), give no frequent-flier miles for coach-class travel, whether you're on a tour or not. Thus, flying the same route with a different carrier could be a valuable move, if the price is comparable.

A second exception: Some U.S. carriers, in agreeing to provide large volumes of discounted seats to tour operators or others, may stipulate that those seats will carry no mileage credits. Discount agencies known as consolidators often sell these sorts of tickets. And so do some tour operators, often those at the low end of the price spectrum.

Because of such contracts, "some operators may have a slightly lower fare, but they may not provide miles," notes David Herbert, president of African Travel Inc. Because these contracts can vary from year to year, it's important for travelers to ask tour operators about them before booking.

3. Though you can often accumulate miles by buying a tour, you generally can't use previously accumulated miles toward the purchase of an air-inclusive tour. But there's an alternative.

If you want to use mileage credits toward covering the cost of a trip, as many mileage-rich travelers do, look for "land-only" packages that leave air arrangements to you. Trafalgar and Contiki are two examples of companies with such offerings.

Beyond that, some leading tour operators design and price most of their tours as land-only products (and then maintain "air desks" to help clients find the flights they need). Two examples are Collette Tours, a Rhode Island-based company that sends about 125 tours annually to more than 50 countries, and Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco company that yearly runs about 140 tours to exotic spots worldwide.

"Many of our travelers are professionals who are otherwise traveling quite extensively on business. So they're using these miles [to buy vacation air tickets]," says Geographic President Jim Sano. "We feel it's an important marketing tool to do land-only." He warns, however, that some tour operators effectively "penalize you for going off and doing your own air arrangements."

Whenever considering a tour, Sano and others counsel, try to compare the air-included and land-only prices, check to see how the difference compares with available air fares, and book your travel accordingly.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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