I read an article on time.com today about the pain of using Frequent Flyer Miles. (link HERE) What I like to call, "miles you can look at, but you can not use."
I recently switched my frequent flyer mile program from United to Southwest. Now I haven't actually used my southwest free flights yet, but from what I can tell so far they are
1. much easier to use
2. have fewer blackout dates (I think 9 total in 2010)
3. have a larger number of seats/flight available to rewards passangers
4. require less miles/flight (a direct comparison would be about 19,200 miles SW vs. 25,000 miles United for a US round trip flight)
5. make it easier to get and understand miles. (SW uses a simple point system. 16 pts = 1 round trip. Each one-way part of a flight gets you 1 pt, thus a roundtrip flight earns you 2 pts. You must get 16 pts within 2 years, and you have 1 year to use the flight or pay $50 to keep it for longer. If you have the SW credit card you get 1 pt for every $1,200 you spend. That's about it. Oh and the annual fee is a bit less than the equivalent United card ($1/1 mile))
Now really, it's that third point that will get ya. I recently used the last of my United miles to buy two round trip coach seats from Houston to Italy. Let me detail for you below the very painful process that I went though to get these seats.
First, let me say that it has taken me 3 years to acquire 110,000 miles. Sure, I fly a lot relative to most people (8-10 times per year maybe), and I charge a lot to my credit card, but still 110,000 miles takes a while to acquire... and this also includes the 37,000 that I've gotten free over the years from promotions and compensation. So, by the time I reached 100,000 miles, I was excited. I was actually at 103,000 in November, and I was like "good, I'm gonna stop using this United card, I have the miles that I need, and I'm gonna switch to Southwest." And that's just what I did, I switched. Now you may be thinking, but above she was just talking about 110,000 miles, not 100,000 or 103,000. Ah Ha!
When I decided that Jeremy and I would be going to Italy for a vacation, I thought, perfect, I've got my miles and I'm ready to go. Apparently, in the past year, since I looked last, United changed their overseas mileage flights from 50,000 (for coach) up to 55,000!
Had I known this, I wouldn't have switched to my Southwest card so soon. And at this point, I was ready to book my flights, I didn't have time to rack up another 7,000 miles. So what did I do? I had to buy them. Yep, I was buying miles so I could get a "free" flight. How ridiculous is that! And if you're curious 7,000 miles on United will cost you about $260 (and two days of waiting). So before I continue, we may as well add this up now.
7,000 extra miles needed to hit 110,000 - $260
2 years of United gold card ($1/2 miles) - $280 ($140/year)
1 year of United silver card ($1/1 mile) - $65 (I think)
Taxes for "free flights" ($65/flight) - $130
Convenience fee for using my "free flights" ($25/flight) - $50
TOTAL = $785 for my "free" flights
If you're an optimist you're saying "okay, $785 for two flights to Europe isn't bad at all. That's still at least half price." True, and for my sanity, I like to think of it this way. However, you still can't get at least a little annoyed by the large price tag just to get my free flights. Even if you ignore the $260 for the 7,000 miles that I had to get because I missed the rate increase, you're still looking at $525.
Okay, so I had my miles, I had my dates, I was ready to call United. (side note here, unless you're a genius with the United online system, the dam thing is impossible to use). First guy on the phone - useless. This guy could barely understand where I wanted to fly to and from, let alone get my dates right. Frustration sets in about 2 minutes into the call.
Hang up... call again... hope to get someone who speaks a little English.
Person two - useless. At least with this guy we could understand each other... for the most part. However, it was very clear that he didn't know the system well. The hardest part about flying from the US to Europe is the flight across the Atlantic. There are hardly ever the 55,000 mile seats available on these flights. But if you get a smart enough person, they know that there are a number of good connection options to try. This guy didn't know that. He was determined to send me to Italy via Chicago to Frankfurt. When there were no flights available though that connection, he pretty much gave up.
Hang up... call again... hope to get someone smarter.
I should say here that this went on for two days straight before I finally got someone who was, in my mind, like a flight god(dess).
The flight Goddess...
By day 3 of trying to use my miles, I had learned a few things along the way. The most important, that I needed to have about 20 different departure/return flight combination in mind that would work for me, cause there was no way that I would actually get the flights that I wanted. As soon as this woman answered the phone I knew I was in luck. Sometimes you just know. She spoke great English, and instantly knew what I wanted without me having to explain much. (plus she told me that she'd been doing this for like 15 years... perfect!) She even said to me "okay, let me put you on hold and see what I can do." Within 3 minutes she was back on the phone with some options. I told her what would work and what wouldn't (days, times etc.) and within another 5 minutes we had flights! Perfect! It's really amazing how easily this part of the process can go if you get the right person on the phone.
So now, I finally have my flights to Italy, it was fairly painful, but I still saved over $1000, so that's a bonus, and heck, I'm going to Italy for 16 days, so I can't be too upset.
I'd like to say here that this was my first bad experience using miles, but that's just not true. Every time I've tried to use miles (United in particular) it's been a disaster, same with my mom. Why is it to use miles, especially over the summer, you have to book like a year in advance? That's just not practical. And as a side note, I've also realized that United now charges you to change your miles itinerary even if you keep the same departure/arrival city, this was not the case 2 years ago. Ugh, I'm just glad I switched to Southwest. I hope to have a better flying experience with them.
Did I mention, 2 bags fly free?