Randy Peterson says he's not a junkie. Even though he has accumulated more than 8 million frequent flier miles, has become a member of 70 mileage programs worldwide and has gone to great lengths to get miles -- including taking up new addresses in other countries that would normally exclude him because of his North American residency. The rest of the world would call this addiction, but not Randy. He just says he's the frequent flier industry's biggest fan.
The editor and founder of InsideFlyer, a monthly magazine that gives the official word on frequent flier programs around the world, Peterson knows almost every trick in the book on how to earn miles and points. He should. He's been following the industry since the early '80s, when frequent flier programs were almost footnotes in airline brochures -- a far cry from today's market, which has grown to include one out of every 10 people in the United States. In the past year alone, according to Peterson, the airlines gave away more than 10 million free tickets.
Salon spoke with Peterson by telephone from his office in Colorado Springs, Colo., about the best ways to earn frequent flier miles, what to do when miles are about to expire and the inside secrets the airlines don't want their passengers to find out.
What do you recommend for getting the most out of frequent flier programs?
One of the major mistakes people make is to assume that all frequent flier programs are the same. Oftentimes people find out too late that the program they chose at random isn't right for them. For instance, I know some people who wanted to go to Hawaii for free, so they signed up with USAir's program -- only to later find out that USAir doesn't have a free Hawaii award. If they had picked the program based on what they wanted to get out of it, they would never have joined USAirways. But they didn't learn this until they were 17,000 or 18,000 miles into the program -- a little late to start all over again because they were close to their first award.
The first thing people have to do is decide what they want out of their frequent flier program. It can bring you free travel, but is that what you want, to fly somewhere for free? And if so, where do you want to go for free? If you want to go to Africa, then choose a Delta program because not every airline flies to Africa. If you want to choose an award just for the domestic United States, TWA and AmericaWest start their domestic awards at 20,000 miles, whereas American, Delta and United start at 25,000 miles. That's a pretty big difference, which could take you three, four or five months to earn.
I think the half hour or hour you spend before joining programs will return hundreds of thousands of miles and hours of free benefits.
What are the biggest misconceptions about frequent flier miles?
That they're God-given. The major problem with frequent flier programs is that there are a lot of new people joining who aren't heavy-duty fliers. They've flown once or twice, filled out an application because the stewardess has given it to them, gotten an award and then they think that their miles are like money. Well, they're not. Just because you've got enough miles for a free award doesn't mean that you can always go wherever you want to go, when you want to.
How long do you recommend booking in advance?
There are two bits of advice: Book early or book late. Domestically, it's three months in advance and internationally, it's six months. This "book early" philosophy is still sound but the newest advice to pop up is to book late. It always befuddled me how airlines could fly a plane at 33,000 feet without wires hanging from the sky, but yet didn't know how many people they had on the plane. Today things have changed somewhat: Airlines have invested a lot of money in new technology, and within the last week before a flight, they know how that flight is selling and they'll actually make more free seats available. It's common to call three months in advance to go to Europe, be told there are no free seats available and then try four or five days before that date and find out there are seats available. People do change their minds a lot and if you really want to get an award, you have to be pretty persistent and call every couple of days. Through technological advances, they can now e-mail that information to you, whereas before it was difficult to send you a letter or even phone you -- they didn't have the manpower.
Is earning frequent flier miles without even traveling a big trend?
Could you conceivably earn lots of miles without ever taking a trip?
One of the fastest growing segment of today's frequent flier programs is
not frequent fliers but infrequent fliers, who travel, at the most, one time a year. Those are people who are
learning that by getting a credit card or switching to MCI or dining at
their favorite restaurant, they can earn miles. The message is that you
can earn free travel without ever really leaving your desktop or changing
your personal lifestyle. Statistically, 42 percent of all miles earned in frequent
flier programs come from these non-travel miles -- dining at restaurants,
credit cards, telephones, car rentals, hotel stays. Seven years ago, it was
only 3 or 4 percent.
If you can't take a trip, what are some other things you can do with your miles?
With frequent flier miles you can get free car rentals, hotel
stays, exercise equipment and stereos. Two of the other growing trends of
the industry are auctions and lifestyle awards where you can bid your miles
or cash in your miles to go to the Super Bowl or go to the MTV Music Awards.
Airlines seem to be setting tighter and tighter windows -- if you don't
use them, you'll lose them. Is this a trend we'll see continuing through
The big trend toward expiring miles happened back in 1988 and since
then, there have been no additional airlines really jumping at that. There
are three major programs that have expiring miles: American, United and
Northwest airlines. Those three airlines expire their miles three years
after the year in which you started earning them. I often suggest, if you
are not really a frequent flier, and you don't spend $10,000 a month on a
credit card and you don't talk $500 worth of long distance calls a month,
you may want to consider programs like USAir, TWA, Continental or Delta.
With these programs, it can take you as long as you want to earn that free
award because you don't have to worry about what I call the "treadmill of
expiring miles," and that is, as soon as you get close to that award, the
miles you earned three years ago start to expire and now you're caught in
Is there anything you can do if you're in a situation where you're so
close to getting an award and your miles are about to expire?
The first thing you can do is learn about the program you belong to.
For example, in Continental's program they allow you to purchase up to 20
percent of the miles necessary for an award. So if an award you want is
25,000 and you have almost 20,000 but it just seems like you're never going
to get to 25,000, you can buy the other 5,000 miles if you want to. Also, I
think you want to remember that there are a lot of great offers out there;
check your e-mail or your mailbox, you're going to be inundated with
offers. For instance, if I were to call MCI today and transfer any of my
personal phone bills to MCI, they would give me 5,000 frequent flier miles
with almost any airline I chose. That's a big chunk of miles. Also, with
certain credit cards, you can get a 2,500 mile bonus.
One of the problems of the industry is that people don't read all the
mail that the airlines send them. There are some great offers in there
where you can bite off big chunks of miles -- 2,500 miles here, 5,000 miles
there just for making a decision. And remember that these programs were
designed to change your behavior. That is, if you are an AT&T guy, they
want to make you go to MCI; if you're an American guy, they want to make
you think about flying Continental; if you're a Holiday Inn guy, make you
think about staying at Best Western.
If you can't use your miles, is it possible to give them to a friend?
That's actually easy. In the early days of frequent flier programs,
transferring awards to anybody was strictly taboo, but for the last six or seven
years now all major programs allow you to give your miles to anyone you choose
-- to charity, to relatives, to business associates, anybody you want. You
can do anything you want with your miles except for pooling them, i.e.,
combining one person's 8,000 miles with another person's 18,000 miles to
get a free award. You can't pool miles except in a couple of programs:
British Airways has a family program where spouses and kids can combine
their miles for redemption. In most major programs, you cannot add miles
from one person's account to another's.
Basically, three things are illegal: You can't sell your award, buy
somebody else's award and you can't barter (for example, exchanging a free
award for dental repair). The airlines have their own mileage police and
every day hundreds of people get busted at airports on what are called
Have all these passengers flying for free created any hostility with
the passengers who actually pay for their seats?
There's a growing uneasiness about the number of free seats available, and the haves and the have nots among the miles. It's kind of an unofficial caste system. A typical scenario is two guys sitting next to each other: One guy has paid $278 for a coach ticket and gotten an upgrade, and there's some other
individual in first class who paid $2,000 to be up front. And it's like,
"What are you doing here, this is first class, you're really not a
first-class passenger." And that's really the pinnacle of the uneasiness
between the two crowds -- it's the uneasiness of how certain people get to
certain places in a plane.
The hostility may also arise when someone calls up to get a free award.
The airlines will say there're no free tickets available and then they'll go on
to say, "however, we've got a lot of seats available that you can buy for
$800 or $900." And the little frequent flier guy is looking at that
situation and thinking: You tell me there's no seats, but you're
willing to sell me one, how can that be?
Tell me something about frequent flier programs that the airlines don't
want us to know.
The chairman of American Airlines was quoted years ago as saying the
success of frequent flier miles is that people can only aspire to
travel for free. What he said is true -- in reality they can't all travel
for free. That's why I often advise people to become more educated: If you
do know blackout dates and know that airlines' inventories change, you can get
what you want out of these programs.
So in a way it's still too good to be true?
Yes. However, I still rank it as one of the ultimate ways to get
something for nothing because when I use an affinity credit card to buy
something at a gas station or a supermarket, I'm not paying more because of the type of credit card I'm using, yet I'm earning miles. When I
buy an airlines ticket and earn frequent flier miles, the airlines don't say
to me, "Gee, if you want to earn miles it's $414 dollars; if you don't want
miles, it's $350."
What's the most outrageous thing you've heard about someone trying to
accumulate frequent flier miles?
A man once rented a car seven times in the same day in order to earn the
car rental bonus. The car rental company had a weekend special for
$19. So he rented a car, drove it around the circumference of the airport,
returned it, rented another one, returned it, seven times in one day just
to get the various mileage bonuses. At the time, the car rental company
was giving a 2,000-mile bonus for each car rental and the guy figured it
out: It was a lot more than if he ever flew those distances.