29 September 2010

Miles and miles and miles. . . .

Since I am focused on earning flight miles, one may ask if I ever use any of the redeemable miles that I earn.  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  You may not think that I would waste an opportunity to earn flight miles by taking a free trip.  For a long time, that was true.  But, once I had accumulated a million redeemable miles in my account, I decided that I should use them (for good reasons, of course) rather than let them sit and devalue over time.

Obviously, I have used miles for upgrades.  When I am out of Systemwide upgrade coupons, I switch to miles where I can for upgrading.  But have taken free trips as well over the years.  Generally, I have done it once a year.  Ususally it's for a trip where I can plan in advance, want to ensure that I am traveling in premium class for the trip, and my dates are pretty set (little flexibility).  Or it's because I've got plans to travel to a general area twice in a short period of time, and I don't feel like paying for two tickets. 

I think the first free ticket I ever used was to go to Auckland, New Zealand for a long weekend in First Class.  United was scheduled to end the route soon, so I wanted to take advantage while I could.  I also used a huge chunk of miles (400,000) a few years ago for a First Class trip flying around the world (that was quite a planning endeavor as I had planned the trip so as to be able to try and secure the flight segments just under a year in advance of the actual trip).

Having a lot of miles in the bank also allows one to try and use the system to one's advantage.  Often, when picking dates for a trip, the Saver Awards are not available yet.  But, the Standard Awards are available for booking -- they are the equivalent of buying a full fare ticket.    So, I'll go ahead and book the Standard Award.  I'll then just keep checking for the Saver Award availability.  If they become available, I'll then cancel and rebook.  As a 1k member, I don't get charged for returning miles back into the account.

I'll probably use up miles more now with the relatively new feature that you can upgrade just about anyfare with miles with a copay.  Nice when I am out of Systemwide coupons for upgrading and I can still earn flight miles.

25 September 2010

Where in the World to Go

Planning is at least half the fun of travel.  Typically reservations are made within three months of departure.  I wait for that window to see what the fares will be for various destinations.  But before that, I'm thinking about  where would be a good place to go.  I usually try to have a purpose, if even only a little one, so as to have some focus to the trip (something to look forward to exploring).  Last December, after Christmas, for example, I went to Germany (flight destination Frankfurt) to continue exploring the Christmas markets of Germany -- some were still open after Christmas Day.  That trip was memorable and not just for the sights.  There was a fair amount of snowfall during my stay in Berlin.  My plans had me flying from Berlin to Munich to catch a Lufthansa flight to JFK.  To help make sure I made that connection, I went to the Berlin Airport early and hoped to get on an earlier flight to Berlin.  Turns out, you can't just show up at the Lufthansa gate and try to get on an earlier flight.  Unlike United gate agents in the States, Lufthansa gate agents cannot just move you to the flight or even put you on standby.  I had to first talk to a Lufthansa ticket agent, who had to move me to that flight officially.  That's the only way I was going to show up on the earlier flight.  It eventually worked out and it was a good thing -- had I stayed on my original flight, it would have landed just as the flight for New York was departing.

January's trip was to London (inexpensive fare and easy upgrade).  February was Singapore, with the hope of checking out the new Marina Bay Sands Skydeck and shopping and casino complex.  Turned out that it was behind schedule and not open yet, so I went to check out the brand new casino that just opened on Sentosa Island.  That trip was also memorable because it was the first time I had ever gotten stuck overseas.  My trips to Singapore require a plane change in Hong Kong.  United has inbound flights from Chicago and SFO and the Chicago plane goes to Singapore and the SF plane goe to Vietnam.  The return follows the same pattern, so even though my plane got to Hong Kong on time, I was subject to the whims of the Chicago plane, which decided to have a mechanical problem that could not be fixed within the allotted time for crew validity.  So they eventually had to put all of us up overnight (at their expense). 

That's one thing I do not like about the Singapore destination -- I am dependent upon a flight from Chicago and it is subject to delays and problems often associated with O'Hare.  The other thing that makes the trip a little tough is the schedule.  You get into Singapore (if on time) close to midnight.  And the departure for the return is very early in the morning.  This year, however, I discovered melatonin, which seem to work for me and helps to ensure I can sleep on the plane (if in business class) and also overcomes some of the jet lag.

May was a trip back to London and a short stay outside of London at a hotel castle (Thornbury Castle).  June was a trip back to Frankfurt and a stay in Baden-Baden and a visit to Strasbourg in Alsace.  That trip was more of a short vacation than a mileage run, but the destination was selected because I had plans to go back to Germany in early July with some friends and I decided I wanted to leverage a Eurail pass over both trips.

The July trip was back to Germany with friends for a real vacation.  But the trip did not count because it was on a free ticket.  I'll discuss my approach to free tickets and using miles in the next post.

September was a trip back to Singapore and the Skydeck was open, as was the casino.  Trips are tentatively set for November and December to finish off the year with flight destinations I've been to, but with intent to see places that I had not yet explored.

We are now caught up with the big trips.

23 September 2010

The Overall Approach

Since the first time I earned 100,000 miles and made 1k status, the annual goal is to maintain that status.  I kind of fell into the 1 million mile mark that way with about an even combination of work travel and personal travel.  As work travel declined, my strategy had to change.  Instead of frequent travel, I had to plan for maximizing earned flight miles during leisure travel.  Long flights over long weekends became integral to earning enough miles at an adequate pace. Out of San Francisco on United, it means only a few destination -- non-stop flights to London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, and continuing flights to Singapore.

I usually want to spend at least a little bit of time at the destination, so avoiding a lot of connecting flights is important to save time when on a long weekend trip.  Hence the preference for long flight segments.   I focused on long flights with good miles earned per dollar spent on fare.  So destination costs were compared when planning trips.  Traveling to Europe in winter can be cheaper for the 10,000 miles flown versus the longer flight to a warmer destination like Sydney for the same time period.  I also avoided taking codeshare carriers crossing the oceans since they don't count for United flown miles.  The only exceptions I made were where I needed to get somewhere that United did not fly (e.g., Gernamy to New York a couple of times).

Also, maintaing 1k status was extremely important for getting those all important upgrades while paying cheaper coach fares.  I don't get upgraded all the time, but I do manage to make it to business class most of the time (there have been exceptions lately, which makes the trip a little tougher).  But there is no doubt that riding in business class makes all this travel cumulatively less tedious and tiring.  It also give me a chance to catch up on a lot of movies.  The new, upgraded business class seats on many of the planes has made the flying a bit more comfortable -- so much so that it also adds to the considerations when planning trips.

Next:  shooting for 2.150 million in 2010. . . .

21 September 2010

A VERY Brief History. . . .

I joined United Mileage Plus in 1988 when I moved back to the Bay Area from Washington DC.  I reached the 1 million mile mark in August 2002, about five years after making 1k status continuously.  That was mostly through travel via work and leisure split about 50/50.  For that, they gave me Premier Executive for live (2nd-tier elite level) and my guaranteed meal choice (not always recognized or offered).  I reached the 2 million mile mark in November 2009.  There was a gradual decline in work travel and more of an effort on my part to fly for miles traveling for leisure.  For that, they gave me Red Carpet Club membership for life and choice of a gift (I chose the 160GB iPod).

Since then, work travel contribution has been irregular and leisure travel has dominated my flown miles.

20 September 2010

2 Million Miles and Counting

I'm hoping this will be a different kind of travel blog.  The Internet is full of travel information.  It's great and I love using it.  It's helped me figure out so many things.  This will be from the perspective of someone who:

-  Likes flying and considers the journey as much as the destination as part of the adventure;

-  Is not striving to gain miles any way possible -- it's about actual flown miles earned;

-  Differentiates vacations from "mileage runs" -- vacation and work travel do contribute, but trips to pick up chunks of miles have a very different pace and different considerations.

With the merger of United and Continental, I'm anticipating travel will become more varied as new destinations open up.  While airline alliances are good, they don't help with this effort.  United is very specific about what this is about -- miles flown on United.  As I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, United has been the default carrier choice (and no, they aren't paying me -- at least not yet!).

Along the way, I'm hoping to share some interesting experiences (especially for those who don't have the chance to travel so much), offer some advice for those with similar aspirations,and just have some fun with this.

So, seatbelt fastened, electronics off, seat and tray table in the upright and locked positions, and we'll see where this goes. . . .