Frequent flyer points: keep them under control

In the perfect world of the business traveller and frequent flyer, all your travel is done with one airline. That's the sure way to maximise your points and achieve perk-laden status levels.

And in the new order of the Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme, you're not only rewarded for choosing Qantas but you're in many ways penalised for booking even with erstwhile 'partners' such as British Airways and Cathay Pacific.

The Curse of the Vanishing Points is a horror story for many airline loyalty schemes.

But in the real world, you'll often end up flying with many different airlines over the course of a year.

That's sometimes dictated by your company's travel budget and the lower cost of tickets in this competitive market. Other times, it's all about a destination that can't be reached using your airline of choice – especially when there are new clients to be wooed and won.

That's no excuse not to collect frequent flyer points by signing up for the (typically free) loyalty scheme of each airline. However, as the months tick by and the trips mount up, you'll eventually have odd bundles of points scattered across several airlines, and often not enough points to actually do anything with.

Turn molehills into a mountain

This is especially true with overseas airlines operating out of Australia. It can take a lot of travel to earn enough points for even one free trip when an airline's shortest flight from Australia is back to its distant home hub.

But don't let those points go to waste. If rule number one of the point-savvy traveller is to take advantage of all good opportunities to earn points, rule two is never let those points expire.

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And The Curse of the Vanishing Points is a horror story for many airline loyalty schemes. After a defined period of inactivity, during which you either earn new points or use your existing ones, all your points can be wiped from your account.

With Qantas this is 18 months, although of course any regular traveller will still be clocking up points, and it's insanely easy to earn them when when you're not flying (via credit cards, debit cards, online shopping and even the weekly grocery shop at Woolworths).

So what's the best strategy for making use of those stray points?

Tech, tips and tricks

First up, consider an app such as AwardWallet. This not only keeps track of your points balance in all airline and hotel loyalty schemes, it can send alerts when the perilous use-by date of your points approaches so you can take action.

Secondly, be aware of the alliances between airlines that let you credit the points earned on flight on Airline A to the frequent flyer scheme of Airline B.

Done right, you can can funnel all of those points into your primary frequent flyer account.

You might not earn as many points when forwarding them to a 'partner' program as you will using an airline's own scheme, but if you rarely fly that airline, it's better to have a 50 per cent serve of points you can use than a 100 per cent allocation of points you can't.

Qantas's membership of the Oneworld alliance opens up points-earning with scores of foreign airlines including American Airlines, BA, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, JAL, LAN/TAM, Malaysia Airlines and Qatar.

Virgin Australia's smaller clutch of partners through its own bespoke network includes Air New Zealand, Delta, Etihad, Singapore Airlines and Virgin America.

Both airlines also have individual arrangements with the likes of China Eastern, Fiji Air, Hawaiian and South African Airways.

Germany's Airberlin has the rare trait of letting you send your points to either Qantas or Virgin Australia.

A 'currency exchange' for points

There's also a new and highly innovative wrinkle in the frequent flyer fabric: as of this week you can directly convert Singapore Airlines frequent flyer miles into Virgin Australia points, and vice versa.

Think of it as a 'currency exchange' for frequent flyers, but with one pleasing difference: both airlines enjoy the same conversion rate of 1.35:1. For example, if you've racked up 10,000 Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles these can be magicked into 7400 Virgin Australia Velocity points. In the same way, every 1.35 Velocity points becomes 1 KrisFlyer mile.

Let's say you rarely fly to Singapore, but a new pitch or project sees you jetting there twice from Sydney or Melbourne in economy. You'll pick up around 9600 KrisFlyer miles on SQ's mid-range discount economy return ticket – and there's not much you can do with them once you're back in Australia.

But turn them into 7104 Velocity points with Virgin Australia and that's more than enough for a business class upgrade (4900 points) from a flexible economy fare on a Sydney-Melbourne or Sydney-Brisbane route. And it's within 3000 points of being bumped up to business class (9900 points) from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to Perth.

While no other airlines allow this kind of points conversion – the VA/SQ exchange is a world first – you can look at other ways to use those spare points, including online frequent flyer shops.

As a rule of thumb, toasters and the like deliver the lowest value for your points but a gift card for a department store or other retail outlet is far more flexible. Another alternative is using airline points to book a hotel.

But in the end, anything you do with those spare points is better than having them disappear.

Do you have stacks of points spread over many airlines? What's your strategy to keep on top of this – or do you write it off as being all too hard?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

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