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Frequent Flyer Resolutions for 2008

The past year was a depressing one for the traveling public, featuring flight delays, lost bags, long security lines, and other problems. It’s no wonder everyone’s discussing an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

For frequent flyer program participants, 2007 was bad news: increased award prices, stricter mileage expiration policies, more fees, and generally an ongoing devaluation of the frequent flyer mile.

There’s every reason to expect that we’re in for more of the same in 2008.

That’s the background against which I find myself thinking about 2008 and considering how best to manage my travel during the year. It explains the defensive nature of the following five specific resolutions I hope will serve me well during the new year. Maybe they can help you, too.

Cut back

My first resolution is to continue my gradual disengagement from mileage programs. Sure, I still plan to earn miles during the year—it would be irrational not to. But I will inconvenience myself less to do so, and I will give more consideration to the alternatives.

Case in point: my use of credit cards. I carry two cards in my wallet, a MasterCard linked to my primary airline program, and a Visa card that awards a cash rebate linked to my retirement account. Frequent flyer miles or money set aside for retirement? For years, I opted for the former. But last year I used the Visa card for at least half my charges. In 2008, I expect the proportion of Visa charges to increase even further.

Aim for elite status

It remains to be seen how much business travel will be on my agenda in 2008. If it’s at all possible to accumulate at least 25,000 miles during the calendar year—the qualification requirement for entry-level elite status—I will make a concerted effort to reach that threshold.

As a practical matter, that means focusing my mileage-earning on airlines that award elite-qualifying miles in a single program, thereby maximizing my chances of earning elite status and the upgrade perks associated with special status.

Yes, that’s somewhat at odds with my first resolution. But because of the pervasive discomfort associated with flying, especially in coach (see next resolution), even the occasional elite upgrade would be meaningful. If I have to fly for business anyway, the only extra effort is in assuring that I focus my flying in one program.

Redeem for upgrades

Even with less emphasis on earning miles in 2008, I’ll still have plenty in my account. The challenge will be in redeeming them.

The inability of mileage program members to readily book award seats is a fact of modern travel life. It’s likely to get worse as the major airlines continue to cut back on their domestic flights—which account for the great majority of frequent flyer awards—in favor of overseas operations where there is less price competition.

I am deeply averse to cashing in twice as many miles for rule-buster awards. Eventually I may have to relent and adjust my expectations, replacing restricted awards (25,000 miles for a domestic coach award, for example) with unrestricted awards (50,000 miles for domestic coach) as my base award expectation. But until then, or until restricted coach awards can be had with a minimum of aggravation and inconvenience, I’ll concentrate on using my miles for upgrades. They’re generally more available, and they represent solid value—assuming you don’t overpay for the coach ticket being upgraded.

It’s not just a matter of upgrades representing good value, or that they’re more attainable than free coach seats. In today’s travel environment, they’re also more desirable. The more crowded coach becomes, the more meaningful the extra legroom in one of the forward cabins.

Use miles for international flights

Another redemption strategy for 2008 is to book more international awards.

Because airlines are disproportionately increasing their overseas flights, these routes should have better award availability than domestic flights. With less competition in the overseas market, international ticket prices are more expensive and award tickets therefore represent a better return-on-investment for miles.

Pick up the phone

The airlines have done a great job of training us not to make reservations by phone. Today, because of bonuses to book online and fees to book by phone, the great majority of airline bookings are made on the airlines’ own websites or via the online travel agencies.

That’s fine for reserving paid flights, but the airlines’ online award booking applications leave much to be desired. According to my own admittedly unscientific test bookings, award seats can often be secured through an airline’s call center even when that same airline’s website shows no award availability.

The implication is clear: If I find myself unable to book an award trip online, I’ll log off the computer and call the airline’s toll-free reservations number. If the agent is successful in booking my award flights, I’ll be charged a service fee—an irritating policy that is part of the airlines’ recent nickel-and-diming approach to revenue generation. But $15 is a small price to pay if it makes the difference between being able to pay with miles and being forced to pay cash for the ticket.

Hopefully, these five resolutions will provide me with a happier new year flying the increasingly unfriendly skies.

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