The coronavirus pandemic has raised a lot of questions about air travel: routes, rules, restrictions, refunds, how much to spend, where to sit, when to book. And not least of all: What about my miles? Frequent travelers want to know what the current airline industry landscape means for all those points and miles they’ve been racking up or have had to re-deposit back into their accounts due to canceled travel plans.
We invited miles-and-points expert Gary Leff to speak in our Zoom chat last week about air travel in 2020 and 2021. Gary reports on this topic every day at his View From the Wing blog, and he works directly with travelers at his Book Your Award flight-planning service.
Here are the four things he wants to make sure travelers know about airline miles now, in his own words:
1. Your miles are generally safe, unless the airline goes out of business.
“Even if an airline goes into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the frequent-flier programs are incredibly valuable. They’re often the most valuable part of the airline. United Airlines was just able to raise private funds for an airline at the $5 billion level now, backing the loans with its frequent-flier program. People were willing to put up $5 billion knowing that there’s substantial revenue there. American, for its part, is expected to put up its frequent-flier programs as collateral for a $4.75 billion CARES Act loan. The Treasury Department considers it to be pretty good as well. So your miles are generally going to be safe, as long as the airline itself remains in business.”
2. It’s going to be a pretty good time for frequent fliers in the near- and medium term—until airlines recover and fill their planes again.
“For paid tickets, up until now, there haven’t been a ton of great offers. That’s largely because there hasn’t been an opportunity to really incentivize travel. The airlines haven’t been using their loyalty programs to really drive business. Concern for health is a binding constraint. Restrictions on international travel are binding constraints. Once the circumstances of the world change, we’ll really start to see deals and mileage offers. The fact that there are empty seats will lead airlines to use their primary marketing programs to encourage filling those seats.
I think that award availability will be pretty good for a while too. As the airlines recover and print more and more miles (and eventually they will, and seats will begin to fill up), those points that we’re all earning very quickly will probably become worth less in the future. So I think it’s a good idea to earn and burn miles within roughly the same time period—meaning, earn those miles and then use them in the near term, rather than saving them for the future.”
3. For travel in the distant future, it’s generally better to use miles or points than to pay money, unless it’s for the most exclusive accommodations or remote flights.
“One of the things that I really like about miles is their flexibility. Certainly ticketing policies have been more flexible recently than they have been in the past, but mileage bookings have long been very flexible. If you need to cancel, you can put the miles back in your account, usually for a modest fee. Hotel bookings with points are also often very cancel-able as well, so they give you a lot of flexibility and peace of mind. You make a booking, and then if things don’t work out the way that you want, you can change often at the very last minute. (But always check the cancellation rules when making a reservation.)
I like taking a wait-and-see approach on booking paid flights right now. To folks who may have booked far in advance in the past, I’m saying to them: Wait, hang on to your cash. Except for flights to the most remote places, planes aren’t completely selling out. Holding off is often a good idea.
For mileage tickets, though, you may want to book the best available flights you see today. Because planes are empty, you might find your ideal seat. If you find a good but not ideal seat, you can keep checking for availability to improve and then pay a modest fee later to improve your trip.
4. Schedules will change, and that could be to your advantage.
“Schedules are going to change, so don’t assume that the flight that you book today is going to operate exactly the same way ten months from now.
Because the schedules aren’t real, the one advantage of a schedule change is that you may book a sub-optimal schedule with miles, and most airlines—certainly U.S. airlines—will be pretty darn flexible in terms of giving you an alternative. I’ve often used schedule changes to improve my itinerary.
Mileage tickets are very low-risk. They often aren’t exactly what you want the first time out, but if what you booked has changed, the airline will usually open up revenue inventory. At that point, you won’t be limited to what was available as an award, and then you can kind of get the schedule that you would have wanted.”