Traveler loyalty programs have grown
increasingly complex in recent years. Most frequent travelers belong to
multiple airline and hotel loyalty programs and now most large banks and
credit card providers are offering their own points reward systems
redeemable for travel and other prizes.
Tracking and managing your points and miles in
this constantly evolving world is challenging, and redeeming those
points and miles can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience.
Perhaps that's why many frequent travelers seek help in managing their
portfolios of points and mileage accounts.
Using a mileage/points tracking program
Mileage tracking and management services have
been around since frequent traveler programs began, but more players
continue to enter this arena. USATODAY.com's Miletracker,
GoMiles, MileageManager, mileBlaster, Points.com, Traxo and TripIt are
some of the many websites offering mileage/points tracking/management
Mileage tracking programs can consolidate all
your frequent traveler awards programs into a single place for better
tracking and visibility to be certain the correct number of points have
been deposited in or debited from your account. Many of these systems
can claim missing points or miles on your behalf. Some programs will
tell you when travel suppliers are running special offers that might
substantially boost your miles or decrease the cost of award redemption.
Most programs can also alert you when you've reached a new award level
and warn you when your mileage expiration dates are approaching.
Some mileage/points tracking programs are free to
use, others exact a modest annual fee. You generally need to provide
these programs with the passwords to your mileage/points accounts in
order to utilize their services.
Hiring a mileage manager
Another way to manage and maximize your points
and miles is to hire a "Rewards Trip Specialist" like Pam Keystone.
Keystone's company, The Art of Vacationing.com,
specializes in rewards trip planning. "My business is to help people
maximize the value of their points," she says. Keystone is just like a
travel agent though she only arranges award travel using miles or
Keystone came up with this idea when she worked
for the Marriott Vacation Club, where timeshare property owners earn
millions of points in the Marriott Rewards program. Keystone says those
mileage millionaires often struggled with the redemption process.
Travel loyalty programs can be quite complex,
particularly those offered by hotel chains and credit card vendors that
partner with many travel suppliers. For example, Marriott Rewards points
may be redeemed on 30 different airlines.
To further complicate award redemption, once
you've converted your hotel or credit card points into miles on one
airline, you can often use those miles on that airline's partner
airlines. For example, if you convert Marriott Rewards points to United Airlines
Mileage Plus miles, you can use those miles on 27 additional Star
Alliance carriers. This may help you find award seats when those seats
are not available on United flights, but it also greatly increases the
time, effort and knowledge required to find and book that award travel.
Keystone says many travelers give up when the
airline tells them no award seats are available, but she keeps calling
until she finds an airline with open seats. Keystone says she enjoys the
challenge of trying to help her clients get the greatest possible value
from their reward program points.
Keystone charges a flat rate for her services
based on the number of flights, the length of hotel stay and the number
of travelers. Her fee for a typical one-week trip for two is $295. She
has been in business for a year and a half and currently has about 200
regular customers. Though many of her initial clients were Marriott
timeshare owners, she now handles customers with points in many awards
programs, like Starwood Preferred Guest or American Express Membership Rewards.
About 85% of the trips Keystone books are
international, with many in first or business class. London, Paris and
Prague are currently the hottest international destinations. Hawaii,
Phoenix and Palm Springs make up most of the other 15% of her award
Keystone always explores options with partner
airlines, multiple travel dates, different routings and alternate
gateways to locate the best deal. Most airline telephone agents don't
know or won't check these options when a customer calls to redeem miles,
says Keystone. "Even when I am on the phone with the agent, I have to
tell them the routes to check."
Most airlines now offer a multi-tiered award
redemption schedule. This often eliminates blackout dates and allows
travelers to book award travel on any flight though they may pay double
miles for that flight. Keystone says the airline agents often don't tell
a customer they could pay half that amount of miles if they flew a day
earlier or later. Keystone's goal is to book all award travel at the
You may also get a different story from every
agent, according to Keystone. "You can call three times and two will
tell you there are no seats and the third will tell you there is a
seat." Sometimes Keystone will hang up and call back again to get a
different person. "I'll call many, many times until I find that one
agent who will really look and try to find the seats."
For most people, the time spent on hold waiting
to reach an airline agent can be very discouraging. John Drewes, a
Keystone customer who runs a financial planning firm in St. Petersburg,
Florida, says it's too time-consuming to run his business and spend many
hours on the phone booking a trip. Drewes says he would often be up
till 3 a.m. talking to airlines to get the right seats before he hired
Keystone. Now he just makes one call.
"Pam does all the legwork," says Merrill Cohen,
an attorney in the Washington, D.C. area. "It's much easier to rely on
an expert to book your award travel and it is well worth the fee."