Trip Coach: May 30, 2006

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Tim Winship, Editor & Publisher of frequentflier.com, answered your questions about frequent-flier miles.

Tim Winship : Good afternoon, fellow travelers! This being the day after the Memorial Day holiday -- the busiest weekend of the busiest season for travel -- it seems fitting that we should be discussing the ups and downs of flying.
I look forward to your questions. 
 
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Singapore:
I am trying every-which-way from Sunday to get two business class awards or upgrades for the long-haul transpacific segment using 180,000 OnePass miles on any affiliate carrier for travel between Singapore & Lafayette, LA. My dates are flexible (Nov-Dec) and I am willing to purchase a revenue ticket and use miles to upgrade. I have even paid $140 to AwardPlanner.com and they have not been able to come up with anything for the past 30 days. They say they have tried all the hubs. Do you think I have a snowball's chance in Hades and/or do you have any suggested strategies? What do you think about the service offered by Global Pass? Thanks!

Tim Winship : If you have AwardPlanner working on your behalf to secure award seats, you can be pretty confident that they're pursuing every option -- different partners, different routings, different dates.
I'd be inclined to develop a Plan B (a trip which I know there's award availability for) and have the AwardPlanner folks continue trying to find seats for your first choice.

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Carrollton, GA: I have never used frequent flyer points, but I've accumulated 30,000+ points on Delta, and given their financial situation, think I should take action soon. What advice can you give me, a first timer, about redeeming points?

Tim Winship : There's no need to make any moves based on Delta's bankruptcy. While there's a small (very small) chance that Delta won't survive the restructuring process, your miles would probably be transferred into another airline's program in the event Delta failed outright. That's what happened when other major airlines -- Eastern, Pan Am, TWA -- liquidated.
Of course, the way to avoid any risk whatever is simply redeem the miles now and take the award trip as soon as possible. But again, I wouldn't recommend that.

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Washington, DC: How can a non-elite flyer (e.g. not platinum, gold, silver, or whatever) use frequent flyer miles to upgrade?

Tim Winship : All airlines which have two or more classes or service (i.e. coach + business and/or first) offer one-class upgrades as awards. Check the award chart of the program in which you have miles for specific mileage requirements. Typically, there will be an award which permits you to upgrade from full-fare coach to the next-highest class of service, and a separate (higher priced) award that permits upgrading from discounted coach.
Caveat: depending on the program, sometimes the cheapest coach fares cannot be upgraded using miles. Confirm with the airline before purchasing your ticket if you're planning to upgrade.

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Waterbury, CT: I am interested in going to Ireland June 2007- when is the best time to book award miles- I have not had luck in redeeming miles for Europe in the past two years.

Tim Winship : Most airlines begin allowing bookings 330 days before the departure date -- that's when seats first become available for sale in the rservations systems.
So by all means, start trying then. But since availability can change at any time -- either because other passengers cancel their bookings or the airline adjusts award seat inventory -- it's worth checking back often.
And toward the end of the award booking window, say within two weeks of the flight's departure, the airlines often make new award seats available if it looks like the flight in question won't be sold out to revenue passengers.
As you've discovered first hand, award travel to Europe during the summer months is a challenge. If you have any scheduling flexibility, your chances would be considerably better in May or in the fall.

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New York, NY: : Are airfares higher this year, I cannot seem to find any bargains?

Tim Winship : Absolutely. And it's probably a good thing, too.
As the recent airline bankruptcies prove, airfares over the past few years have been unsustainably low. Even low-cost JetBlue lost money over the past two consecutive quarters.
As consumers, we should be prepared to pay a bit more. In exchange, we'll benefit from a more stable travel industry. And we might even see some improvement in the level of comfort and service we receive when we travel.
Lastly, it's worth bearing in mind that ticket prices, when adjusted for inflation, are still very low by historical standards.

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Evergreen, CO: I have many Delta Skymiles (400,000) that I would like to use for an international flight. When I check flights, anywhere they travel to, up to 12 months ahead, they only only offer SkyCHoice (250,000 miles) instead of any SkySaver (which are 100,000). What would you do, give up, formal complaint, etc...?

Tim Winship : Many frequent flyer program members share your frustration. And it's not confined to Delta, although their being in bankruptcy seems to have exacerbated the problem.
What can you do? Not much.
As a consumer, you're more likely to get Delta's attention by taking your case to the media than by sending a letter to Delta, which will almost certainly be routed to their customer relations department.
In the longer term, I'm cautiously optimistic that airlines will be forced to operate their mileage programs to a higher standard of accountability and, specifically, to increase award availability.
But for now, the best bet is probably to readjust your expectations. With award seats more difficult to obtain at the lower mileage levels, the programs are delivering less value than ever before. If that means disengaging from the programs, so be it. Perhaps that would compel the airlines to fix the problem sooner rather than later.

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Hendersonville, NC: How many months in advance is needed to secure a good rate for airline travel. I have a projected vacation between now and 30 June 2006. Can I get a better rate by securing a ticket now or wait a few days before my departure?

Tim Winship : There's no way to predict what will happen to airfares over the next 13 months. My guess is that they will rise steadily, somewhat faster than the overall rate of inflation.
More important than the long-term trend is the fundamental distinction between advance purchase and walk-up fares.
Generally, tickets purchased 21 or 30 days in advance are cheaper than those purchased 14 days in advance, which are cheaper than those bought seven days in advance. And tickets purchased within seven days of travel are the most expensive.
So, since you can't accurately predict the optimum moment to buy a ticket, at least be sure to make the purchase 30 or more days in advance. And avoid buying a ticket within seven days of departure. (Don't confuse walk-up fares with last-minute Internet-only fares. The latter are cheap fares, advertised at the last minute, usually for weekend trips.)

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Nashville, TN: From the first week Continental started offering service to Buenos Aires, and for several months after, I saw no more than one or two dates with open mileage seats for this coming June or July. I was checking from three different Florida airports for departure. It wasn't any better on the phone. I finally gave up and bought a ticket on Copa since it was two hours less of flying time. Are there some routes that the airlines just never really open up to frequent flyers? Unfortunately, I'm not an elite member since I'm usually buying discounted coach seats on my own dime.

Tim Winship : Award seat availability reflects demand by revenue passengers. The more likely a flight is to sell out to paying customers, the less likely that flight is to have seats set aside for award travel. Some flights on high-demand routes are pretty full year-round, and award seats are always in short supply.
Very generally, newly launched flights tend to have more award seats available because the airline hasn't had time to generate paid bookings. So I'm a bit surprised CO was so ungenerous with seats on the Buenos Aires service. My guess would be that they had strong advance bookings and wanted to minimize the chances of displacing revenue passengers.

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New Bern, NC: I leave in a small town with an airport serviced by US Airways. I've never had much luck flying our of this area using frequent flier miles. Is there a secret? Also, I read the articles this month comparing the different mileage programs, but there was no mention of the American Express program. How do you feel about credit card dollar for miles?

Tim Winship : There is no particular secret to earning and using frequent flyer miles. Rather, it's a matter of understanding how the programs work and doing everything possible to squeeze the most value out of them.
Living in an area served by a single carrier, with limited flights, can be a challenge when it comes to redeeming miles. The key may be flexibility: looking for low-demand routes during off-peak periods.
The key benefit of the Amex card is points which can be converted into miles and points in a number of airline and hotel programs. That "multi-currency" feature is a nice benefit for those who participate in many programs. But the card is expensive, and if you manage to consolidate your earning in a single program, you're probably better off using the card associated with your primary program.

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Scarsdale, NY: I've ben reading a lot about fuel surcharges and wondering whether my planned trip to Thailand this summer may be impacted - I haven't booked yet but I want to be sure that I don't end up seeing a great advertised price and then get lumped with massive surcharges.

Tim Winship : Ticket prices for summer travel will reflect current fuel prices, whether via a surcharge or simply a higher ticket price.
Just be sure to compare "all in" prices, including any and all fees and surcharges, before committing to booking your flight.

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Milwaukee, WI: I'm flying to Burkina Faso this July to visit my brother, who's stationed in the Peace Corps there. I'm flying on Air France from O'Hare to Burkina, via Paris, and want to know if there's any way of trading my Northwest frequent flyer miles for Air France miles in order to get either a seat upgrade or a pass to the lounge at the Paris airport.

Tim Winship : Air France and Northwest are partners in the SkyTeam alliance. So while you can't trade your NW miles for AF miles, you might be able to redeem your NW miles for a free flight or upgrade on an Air France flight.

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Atlanta, GA: Suggestions on how to use my 400,000 Delta FF miles to take a round the world trip that I have been planning for more than 20 years. Delta only allows 5 stops per trip. To avoid returning to my point of origin, can you suggest any way to use 2 RTW tickets to visit more countries? Trip can start as early as November, but March 07 is my target date: China, Nepal, Australia, Thailand, Russia, Egypt, India are group 1 and S. American is Group 2.

Tim Winship : I normally suggest that travelers are best served by plotting out their own itineraries.
But because of the complexity -- the number of possible carriers, their route networks, and the RTW restrictions -- this is a case where I'd strongly recommend calling the SkyMiles service center and having an agent assist you.
In situations like this, it's well worth the "service fee" charged for phone bookings.

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Greene, ME: : Which airlines give the best value for transatlantic flight along with comfort for the long trip?

Tim Winship : Value-conscious flyers swear by Icelandair for Europe trips. Of course, you'll have to travel via Reykjavik.
Otherwise, look for sale fares on the Internet and in the Sunday travel section of your local paper.

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Tim Winship : Great questions! Thanks to all for participating.
Best wishes for a safe and hassle-free summer, wherever your travels may take you.
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