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TRAVEL INSIDER

Frequent-Flier Deals Not Always the Wisest Choice

Airlines: Choosing a flight solely because you can earn or use miles may not pay off in the end.

May 23, 1999|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; Christopher Reynolds 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 send e-mail to chris.reynolds@latimes.com

Frequent-flier miles can be a fine thing, and it makes sense to keep them in mind whenever you choose a flight. Thanks to accumulated American Advantage miles, for instance, I'm flying free to New England for a family vacation in July.

But there are times when the smartest thing a consumer can say is: Miles, schmiles.

As vacation season approaches, consider the following scenarios. In each case, the now common consumer reflex to think about frequent-flier miles could be the beginning of trouble.

* You're planning an international trip and are determined to log all miles with your preferred carrier. That's often wise. But if there's a code-share airline relationship involved, you have some questions to ask.

Code-sharing, as many a confused traveler has learned at the airport, is a cooperative marketing strategy between two different airlines. Basically, Airline A operates the flight in an Airline A jet, but the flight is double-listed in computer reservation systems--both as an Airline A flight and as an Airline B flight. Both airlines sell tickets, and each airline sets its own prices, but everybody ends up on the same plane.

Now flash back to early May, when I called American Airlines to ask the cost of the cheapest seat for a round-trip flight between LAX and Manzanillo, Mexico. The American answer, for flights on June 15 and 22, was $593. The flight in question was a code-shared route, so I'd actually be flying on an Aero California jet. But like a good mileage collector, I knew that through the code-share deal I'd get American mileage credits.

Still, the price seemed steep. A few minutes later, I called Aero California directly and asked for the same flight, same dates. This time the price was $343--a full $250 lower than American's fare for the same flight. And I could still get the American Advantage mile credits, as long as I gave my American Advantage number to the Aero California gate agent. How many American passengers knew they could have walked onto that jet for $250 less, without losing any credit? Not many, I'd guess.

This practice is not unique to American Airlines. Teresa Winchester, an agent at Seaside Travel in Long Beach, says the strategy is common among major carriers. Within three minutes at her computer, she had two more examples.

One was a Qantas round trip between LAX and Sydney, flying Dec. 26, 1999, and Jan 12, 2000. The Qantas price: $1,596. The American code-share price for a seat on the same flight: $2,423.

The second was an Air Canada round-trip flight between LAX and Montreal, flying Aug. 12 and 20. The Air Canada price: $487. The United price: $531.

"You can see a pattern here," writes Kelly Monaghan, a veteran airline-watcher and the author of "Fly Cheap!" As Monaghan notes, "the foreign partner in the code-share agreement usually has the lower fare. . . . Sometimes an airline reservation agent will be very upfront, other times you have to ask. Always ask!"

Those varying code-share prices are a concern for every traveler, not just hoarders of mileage. And I'd go beyond Monaghan's advice and suggest that anybody considering a code-shared flight should call the airline that's actually operating the flight (or have their travel agent check) to see if there's a savings in going straight to the source.

(This isn't such an issue on domestic flights, travel agents say, because the major carriers don't rely much on code-share agreements for routes within the U.S., and price discrepancies are less likely.) Here are a few other situations in which the urge to get and spend miles can be counterproductive:

* You're planning a short trip and are determined to earn your air miles with your preferred carrier. If you're heading to Las Vegas from LAX and your preferred carrier is Delta, for instance, you might look right past Southwest Airlines. And it's true that Southwest's frequent-flier program can't take you as many places as Delta's SkyMiles can. But Southwest's low-end prices are in the same $78-$88 range as Delta's for a round trip, and Southwest has 18 daily departures for Vegas from LAX, compared with Delta's four. Adapting to fit Delta's schedule could deprive you of precious gaming hours. Is scheming to use Delta instead of Southwest really worth 500 SkyMiles?

* You're planning to use mileage credit to pay for a flight within the continental U.S. Since airlines typically value frequent-flier credits at 2 cents per mile in many of their dealings with large clients, it makes sense for you to use the same yardstick. Thus, if you spend 25,000 frequent-flier miles ($500) for a short-haul flight to a well-priced city (San Francisco, for instance), you're selling yourself short. If you spend it on a transcontinental trip in peak travel season, you're striking a much better deal.

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