The Brancatelli File



June 24, 2004 -- Very early on Tuesday morning, my desk phone, wireless phone, toll-free number and fax machine all started ringing simultaneously. Such a confluence of cacophony could only mean one of two things: A plane had gone down somewhere in the world and cable-news producers were desperately searching for background or a national newspaper had run a frequent-flyer program story in their Tuesday editions and all-news radio stations around the country were looking for sound bites for their morning-drive broadcasts.

Thankfully, all was well in the skies on Tuesday morning. The callers were indeed radio types looking for their angle on a frequent-flyer program story in The New York Times. Chris Elliott, who runs his own and several other travel Web sites, put together a good, balanced piece highlighting the fact that travelers are incensed that their 25,000-mile and other restricted-level awards seem to be harder than ever to claim.

How could that be, wondered the morning talkers who called me. Aren't the airlines being creeps, they asked in so many words. How dare the Big Six promise a free ticket at 25,000 miles and then not deliver, they pontificated.

So I responded with my No. 1 frequent-flyer program sound bite: What part of restricted did you think the airlines were kidding about?

Then I offered up my No. 2 sound bite: Frequent-flyer programs are unregulated lotteries and anyone who tries to plan a holiday around a restricted award is a fool.

To be honest, this is one time I see no problem with how the Big Six are acting. They don't promise you the seat of your choice at the restricted levels of the frequency programs--and no law or regulation requires them to give you one. In fact, to be blunt: There is no law or regulation that says that any airline has to make even one seat a year available at the restricted levels of their frequent-flyer programs.

Confronted with those two brutal realities--the Big Six tell you up front that there are no guarantees and no regulatory body compels the airlines to make even one restricted freebie available--I'm actually shocked that any traveler gets a seat anywhere, at any time, at the restricted levels. The fact that something like 85 percent of all the awards that the Big Six redeem is at the 25,000-mile, super-cheap, restricted level is nothing short of a miracle.

To me, that is the end of the discussion. If you want to live in the fantasyland of the restricted award levels and argue about what the airlines don't really owe you, fine. If you want to parse the ethics of it all, lots of luck. And if you want to bitch and moan about why you and the kids can't go to Orlando or Hawaii next week on restricted awards, have at it.

For the rest of us, I prefer to dwell on these two crucial points: First, there's nothing wrong with spending double miles for an unrestricted award when you've earned the miles logically. Second, don't spend miles this summer on an award until you've checked out the price of buying the seat you want.

Let's start with the double-miles issue. I have long believed that spending double miles for the guaranteed availability of the exact itinerary you desire--the seat you want on the flight you want in the class you want--is, in fact, a good use of your program. Why? Because intelligent travelers accrue miles properly. They don't fly silly itineraries to rack up extra miles. They don't buy superfluous products and services just to earn miles. They don't do stupid things like charge thousands of dollars on frequent-flyer credit cards and then pay 13 or 14 percent interest on the balances.

When you accrue your miles wisely, as a byproduct of the travel and shopping you'd be doing anyway, the miles are free perks for your loyalty. And since they cost you nothing to earn, you shouldn't have any qualms about spending as many of them as you need to get exactly the travel reward you want.

Should you first try to get the itinerary you desire at the restricted level? Of course. But if it's not available and if an acceptable substitute can't be found, then spend the double miles and congratulate yourself for getting free travel on your terms.

Now, about the buying-your-tickets angle. The realities of the marketplace--if not the actions of the frightened fools who run the Big Six--are driving down the cost of leisure-travel tickets dramatically. As I mentioned last week, Continental and other Big Six carriers are selling prime-time business-class seats to Europe and elsewhere this summer for less than $2,000. You'd be crazy to spend 200,000 miles on an unrestricted award ticket to Europe in premium class when you can buy at those prices. Ditto domestic seats. Coast-to-coast flights for leisure travelers are selling for as little as $200 roundtrip. Why would you burn miles now when the seats are so cheap?

Given the state of the fare structure, there will be plenty of times this summer when cashing miles will make more sense than buying. But with prices in such chaos, do yourself a favor and check the fares before you plunk down those miles.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.