I’ve never been the sort of traveler to obsess over frequent flier points, or to spend hours trying to game the system. Where my time is concerned, quite frankly, I’d rather have more of it than save a few bucks or get the occasional free upgrade.
But my friend Craig Ballantyne of Early to Rise recently turned me on to a couple of cool “mileage hacker” newsletters. And when an opportunity came up to attend Europe’s first Frequent Traveler University conference in Amsterdam, I signed up immediately.
The cost for the weekend was a bargain. And I welcomed the excuse to get off the island for a few days and check out a new city.
My biggest frustration with the travel hacking newsletters I was subscribed to is that they’re all American-centred.
The scene is very different here in Europe. We don’t get the amazing credit card bonuses that American — or even Canadian — residents are offered. And so strategies for racking up miles are very different as well.
I was hoping FTU Amsterdam would give me a quick summary of European-based strategies that I could use. And I wanted a few questions answered that I didn’t feel like spending hours and hours researching on my own.
I was not disappointed.
These seminars typically attract 200 to 300 attendees in the US. But because this was the first European FTU event, the ratio of speakers to attendees was quite good. It was easy to corner the experts during breaks, or in the bar at the end of the day, to ask specific questions.
And that was the most useful thing for me: tips on which airline loyalty programs offered the best benefits, the easiest ways to get elite status, and the best ways to use your miles once you have them.
That stuff matters, because even within a major group like Star Alliance, each airline is competing against each other, and each one’s program is different. But earning elite status on one alliance airline gets you benefits like lounge access, priority check in, etc on all the others.
Some airlines are also better for award flights than others. And some, like BA, impose high fuel charges and taxes on award redemption flights. So knowing which program to credit your points to and which airline to cash them in on can make your miles go a long long way.
Sure, it’s possible to research this kind of thing online. But there’s a lot of competing information out there, and a lot that only applies to North America. I don’t have that kind of time
Although seminar attendees also received complimentary upgrades to Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum status, the sessions on hotel reward programs were not as helpful for me.
When travelling in Europe — and in a lot of other places too — I generally prefer to rent an apartment on HomeAway or Air BnB, especially if I’m in town for more than two nights. I like staying in a smaller local neighbourhood, away from the big touristy hotel districts. I find it gives me a better sense of how people live in a place. I can buy groceries and make breakfast at home, avoiding the never ending search for restaurants. And I never get anyone banging on my door in the morning to kick me out and clean my room.
Although I travel a lot, I tend not to stay in a lot of hotels.
That being said, it was helpful to understand how these programs work, and to learn which ones have the best “earn and burn” potential.
The most useful takeaways for me from this weekend were:
Air Miles Programs
- I should focus on British Airways Executive Club as my main program.
- Use Avios mostly to get upgrades, and not for straight up award flights on BA, as the fuel surcharges tend to be high.
- British Airways Silver status (which I currently hold) is the most useful to have — it equals One World Sapphire, and BA Gold status isn’t worth the extra spend. I want to focus on keeping this status.
- With Star Alliance, Lufthansa is the carrier that I use most frequently. It’s pointless to try to accumulate Miles and More miles by flying economy with Lufthansa — it’s only a viable option if you’re spending on Business or First Class fares. So Lufthansa can be a good option if I’m buying Business or First Class tickets outright. But Miles and More points do expire.
- For elite status, focus my Star Alliance efforts and points on Aegean. They have the lowest qualifying requirements for Star Alliance, and the benefits of course transfer to the other carriers in the network.
American Express is the only real option for those of us in Europe, but the specific benefits differ slightly from country to country.
- The best points for spending are actually earned on the basic Green Amex card.
- Amex Gold isn’t really worth much in terms of benefits or points — and that’s the card I currently have.
- As I suspected, it’s worthwhile for me to pay the yearly fee for Amex Platinum, mainly for the Priority Pass lounge access card and a couple of the other benefits.
But the Platinum card annual fee is only worthwhile if you’re two people or a family, and not a single individual. With any such card, it’s important to think about how you’ll offset the fee. Add up the benefits that you will use, and take into account how you value them.
I tend to fly Business Class for long haul or overseas flights, and economy for shorter flights within Europe. So the Priority Pass benefit is a significant value for me, because I can still access a lounge and get some work done even if I’m flying on economy class, regardless of carrier.
My British Airways Silver status also gets me lounge access with any One World partner, regardless of ticket class if I’m flying a One World airline. So I have a few extra options there too.
With Amex Platinum you get two full card (each with Priority Pass membership), and some supplemental cards. So it’s possible to use the Platinum for the benefits, while charging your spending to the Green card for the points.
Those are a few of the major things I took away from the conference.
I learned a lot more about the advantages and disadvantages of the different airline programs and alliances, and I got some extra information about hotel programs too.
Best of all, I was able to use this knowledge to craft a strategy that meets my personal needs and my current travel habits.
The crew will be doing another FTU Europe event again next year, so watch for the announcements and put it on your calendar.
It’s a great way to get up to speed on this stuff so you’re making the most out of all these competing travel offers and plans — especially if you want to ask more personalized questions.
And you’ll benefit from it even if you never have any intention of becoming an obsessive travel hacker.