The Navigator: Frequent-flier programs’ rules spur boom in ‘mileage consultants’

Columnist February 22, 2012

Christine Ballentine is a loyal US Airways customer, and she has been saving up her frequent-flier miles for a trip to France this summer. But turning them into a ticket hasn’t been easy.

“US Airways is telling me that they have flights into Nice but no flights to get me home,” says Ballentine, a legal secretary in Philadelphia. “It’s very frustrating. It’s like a part-time job, trying to figure out your options.”

Actually, it’s closer to a full-time job.

Ballentine is one of many air travelers who are irked by their inability to do what airlines promised they could when they signed up for their frequent-flier programs: redeem their miles for free airline tickets. Now, many are turning to professional consultants to help them navigate the odd and confusing world of travel loyalty programs.

“Awards seats are definitely scarcer,” says Brian Kelly, who operates ThePointsGuy.com. “And with over 17 trillion — yes, trillion — loyalty points out there, including frequent-flier miles, hotel points and credit card points, this sector of the travel industry has definitely grown.”

Several recent surveys show why demand for these services is high. A 2011 study by the market research firm Colloquy found that Americans accumulate an astounding $48 billion in rewards points and travel miles but fail to redeem at least one-third of them. And a study by IdeaWorks the year before noted that award redemption rates for airline tickets are low. It singled out US Airways as the stingiest airline: Only 4 percent of its traffic came from frequent-flier awards, compared with 14 percent for market-leading Southwest Airlines. (US Airways’ redemption numbers were unchanged in its latest annual report.)

The problems aren’t unique to US Airways, of course. Ed Holdren and his wife are trying to fly from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Honolulu this fall using their United Airlines frequent-flier miles. “The only seats available during a five-day window are on flights that first fly to San Francisco, 400 miles north of us, and then fly to Los Angeles, 100 miles south of us — and then to Hawaii,” he says. “I asked the ticketing person, who by the way was in the Philippines, if she had any idea about the geography of California. She was clueless.”

Ryan Lile runs the Savvy Traveler (www.savvytravel.net), a Los Angeles-based company that helps frequent travelers turn their points into tickets. He charges clients $75 an hour for services that also include travel management, advice on accumulating rewards and general travel tips. “Mileage programs have become increasingly complex in terms of redemption possibilities,” he says.

Janae Bourgeois, an executive assistant to the chairman of a nonprofit organization based in Baton Rouge, La., hired Lile to make the most of her boss’s award portfolio. For example, between January and February, the chairman took four trips and wanted to keep costs down by using points to pay for some of them. To arrange that herself, Bourgeois says, she’d need to be a student of airline award programs, learning the rules, spending hours searching for available seats and knowing the ins and outs of airline alliances.

“Ryan helps us with this because he’s familiar with the average cost of a particular international route, and he also understands the value of miles much better than we do,” Bourgeois says.

Lile’s accomplishments include scoring rare Singapore Airlines first-class tickets using award miles, finding impossible-to-book seats on Air New Zealand’s Los Angeles-to-London route and maneuvering his way around obscure rules restricting United Airlines frequent fliers from booking seats with certain airline alliance partners.

It’s about as difficult to determine the size of this fledgling consulting business as it is to redeem miles for a Christmas Eve flight to Hawaii. In other words, it’s practically impossible.

Airlines don’t track the number of awards redeemed through consultants such as Lile. Kelly, who’s a former consultant, predicts that more frequent fliers will hire mileage experts as the economy rebounds. “Many of the bookers I know are already at capacity,” he says.

I admire the gurus who memorize every program rule and know where the free tickets can be found. That’s insider knowledge worth paying for. Many travelers agree, preferring to spend several hundred dollars per ticket for a consultant rather than pay the fare.

But not all do. Dotti Cahill, a Jacksonville, Fla., nurse, couldn’t find a business-class ticket from San Francisco to Bangkok using her miles, so she turned to a consultant who quoted her a rate of $375 per ticket. “Too expensive,” she says.

My problem is with the airlines. That these points are hard to redeem, a long-standing reality of air travel, is bad enough. That some airlines now charge fees and taxes on top of that is offensive to some loyal air travelers, who expect a “free” award ticket to actually be, you know,  free.

When Dan Zacharia tried to cash in 100,000 miles to book a round-trip business-class ticket to Europe on Air France, for example, the airline said that it would happily take his miles. But there was a little matter of taxes and other “surcharges” that would set him back $900. For about the same amount, Zacharia could buy an economy-class ticket on his desired flight.

“I understand that I may have to pay some taxes, but it shouldn’t come to $900,” says the college professor from Syracuse, N.Y. He sent an e-mail to Air France, which responded that taxes apply to all tickets. No exceptions.

Frequent-flier programs shouldn’t be this complicated. It’s yet another reason to think twice before pledging your loyalty to any airline.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate and the author of “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.” E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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