Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

An Interview with Frequent-Flier Legend Randy Petersen

Wendy Perrin | April 23, 2014
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One of my longtime favorite travel visionaries is Randy Petersen. He’s the founder of a cornucopia of frequent-flier sites and services—including Milepoint, FlyerTalk, BoardingArea, and InsideFlyer—that I’m not sure how we ever lived without. He has helped millions of people travel for free. He’s a really nice guy.  And he collects tequila. But the biggest reason to like Randy is this: Even with all his miles and expertise, he still relates to ordinary travelers—those of us who do not have the bandwidth to obsess over arcane award charts or sign up for 18 credit cards but would just like to be able to get a free flight now and then the way the airlines promised.  Here Randy shares some of his wisdom:

 

If you could sit next to any famous person on a cross-country flight and enjoy an in-depth conversation, who would you want that person to be?

I’m a realist and understand it would have to be someone living today. With that in mind, it would be John Paul DeJoria—for three reasons:

* He’s been a serial entrepreneur with a lot of successes and failures as the co-founder of the Paul Mitchell line of hair products.

* He’s the co-founder of Patrón tequila and, because I collect tequila myself (175 different kinds), I’d like to hear his take on the topic.

* He’s been active in charitable causes, and I’m always interested in what motivates others to give and dialogue on how to help others.

P.S. I considered many entrepreneurs and philanthropists in answering your question, but the tie-breaker was the tequila!

 

What’s the magic frequent-flier tool that people don’t know about but could really solve their problems?

The tool is your fellow man. While technology is a great equalizer for the knowledge-deprived, it’s really your fellow man that is your best tool. This is clearly evident in the social communities that exist on the Internet. I’ve never seen a problem that a traveler didn’t have a chance to solve thanks to a fellow traveler’s advice, suggestions, and sharing of a similar experience. It’s funny: In a way, travelers are the most generous people in the world with their time and their knowledge. This is why I always encourage anyone with a frequent-flier-miles problem to know that Google is your friend. Your problem can be resolved easily by finding the advice of your fellow man—although I guess a Twitter shout-out to solve your problems is not magic.

 

Airlines have been devaluing their miles right and left. Are mileage programs committing suicide?  What can save them?

Mileage programs are not going to die the death of a thousand cuts, regardless of both self-inflicted wounds and changes in consumer habits over time. They will be saved by the same saviors who have existed over the past 33 years: the program members. No matter what the headlines might say about how certain people feel, there are far more people who have enjoyed the travel-related benefits that keep these programs alive. Even in an age of social media, the “silent majority” that belongs to these programs remains generally content.

 

Given all the mileage devaluation, what’s the simplest way people can make the most of their miles nowadays?

Treat your miles like money. Some people will let miles burn a hole in their pocket. Others will put them in a jar in the cupboard and save them for rainy days. Others will be as tight-fisted with them as that uncle of yours is with his money. If we treat miles other than what we think they are, we’ll be happier.

 

If we’re supposed to treat our miles like money, how much is a mile really worth and what’s the smartest way to spend them? 

It’s simple math: Earn miles at about one to two cents per mile. Spend them at two to three cents per mile. A mile is worth slightly more than two cents…if you are breaking the piggy bank.

 

Given travelers’ frustrations with mileage programs and the temptation to give up collecting miles altogether, what advice would you give an airline that wants to keep travelers loyal?

Remember that you are the keeper of many people’s dreams. (When redeeming our miles, it might be that we only want enough miles to go on vacation to Disney World when school is out, but we still dream of taking a shower in the first class cabin of an A-380 while cruising at 33,000 feet.) Broken dreams are the most powerful way to topple a program. Broken dreams can topple governments. The most basic rule of any business is to treat your customers the way you would like to be treated as a customer. This seems to be lost at times. For instance, recently AAdvantage announced a change to their program with no advance notice. They were within their rights to do so. But what airline executive would want to be treated that way as a customer?

 

If you were an airline and you wanted to make a splash with a new loyalty program, what would you do differently?

Not have one. Imagine if Apple had an airline—an Apple Airways that concentrated on product, that did not ask customers what they want but knowingly delivered it to them, that found ways to entice them to pay a premium price for service and schedule, and that, more than anything, delivered sizzle with the steak. I’m not one to think that loyalty programs are needed for every enterprise; they are, however, great when you can’t do other things well.

 

What’s your favorite secret hiding place in any airport in the world?

This has to be a trick question. Who in their right mind would have a secret hiding place in an airport?  I’m tempted to say The Bridge airport lounge in Hong Kong, but that’s only for premium passengers. The rest of us need to hide in plain sight, and I do that at Lefty’s at the Denver Airport. Almost once a week you’ll find me slipping in and out of there only to order the handmade potato chips. Have I told you I love potato chips?

 

What is something that people would be shocked to learn about you?

That I don’t know the difference between Boeing and Airbus aircraft. I’m not an #AvGeek guy and clearly view airplanes the same way I view taxicabs: They’re transportation. Truly, I could not pick out what a 777 looks like on the tarmac. But I do know that a 747 has that bump on the top.

 

So many miles-and-points bloggers have learned from you, but what have you learned from them?  Choose any three bloggers (e.g., Gary Leff of View From the Wing, Ben Schlappig of One Mile at a Time, Seth Miller of The Wandering Aramean) and tell us the most important thing you’ve learned from each.

Having worked with more than 150 bloggers, it’s hard to pick just three, so I’ll go with your examples.

* Let’s start with Seth Miller. From Seth I’ve learned that I’ll never be the smartest guy in the room. Seth is a mashup of smarts, experience, quick thinking and, in his own manner, a true New Yorker (a little brash—which never wears on me). Seth really is wicked smart.

* From Ben Schlappig I’ve learned that enthusiasm can drive great storytelling. When I helped him get started with a blog, he was only a college sophomore, and I wasn’t sure if he knew how to write, but he had an unparalleled enthusiasm for the topic, and that has continued to translate into his written words today. He is truly one of the more important success stories of any blogger today.

* And, finally, Gary Leff. From Gary I’ve learned that grace and style can define a blogger. Likely the classiest blogger alive, Gary has the ability to magnetize topics in an honest manner, make time to address readers, and, most important of all, actually know what he is writing about. Kidded to be a cyborg with his work ethic, Gary is legitimately the dean of the contemporary group of bloggers in the road warrior space.

 

Can you leave us with a priceless nugget of travel wisdom?

The key word in this question is “wisdom,” so, with that in mind, I’ll pass along a parallel from a line in the movie Wall Street that seems to apply here: “First lesson in business is: Don’t get emotional about stocks. It clouds your judgment.” My travel wisdom: “First lesson in travel is: Don’t get emotional about miles. It clouds your judgment.”

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6 Comments

  1. DebbieT

    Wonderful peek into this man, and as a novice “miler”….. I appreciate the final comment….

    Don’t get emotional about miles. It clouds your judgment.

  2. Maureen

    Great article! I’ve been one of Randy’s fans & followers for years. He is always friendly, kind & so generous with both his time and advice, that he has set the tone for many bloggers who have followed in his footsteps. Your interview captured the Randy we all know & love. Thank you!

    Congrats too on your new web adventures Wendy: wishing you continued success in all that you do!

  3. Mark K

    While I usually just skim through interviews about RP, I actually found out a thing or two in this one… and I work with the guy every day!

    Awesome interview and I’m really loving the new site.

  4. GringoLoco

    Nice interview of a great man who gave us an incredible Party in Paradise (PiP) all those years ago…

  5. chris m

    I’ve interviewed Randy at least 100 times and read at least 1000 stories about him or including his quotes. This is the best of the bunch! Good job! I’m very excited about your new site…

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