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Frequent flier miles: Use ’em while you’ve got ’em

By JOLENE CARPENTER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 3, 2010

 

I fully understand that some people are leery of frequent flier programs, and even more jittery about redeeming the miles they accumulate. They fear they will be hoodwinked; that just as they are about to hit "redeem miles" on their favorite airline’s website, their dreams will be dashed when a message pops up that says, "Ha ha... Chump! Your air miles can’t be used for these dates or this itinerary!"

Or something like that.

Other folks are just procrastinators.

Me? Maybe because I grew up in the Midwest, I naively expect people and companies to do what they say they are going to do. I don’t worry about blackout dates; I just don’t try to travel on the most popular days of the year.

I accumulate thousands of miles a year by using a Delta SkyMiles American Express card, and as soon as I get enough to take the trip I want, I redeem them.

I live in the Washington, D.C., area, and my family lives in Michigan, so I get back there about once a year on air miles.

But that’s not the fun part. In April, I redeemed 100,000 air miles for a round-trip flight to Italy in business class. My cost was $117 in taxes and fees. And it wasn’t a simple trip, because I flew into Verona in northern Italy and returned via Naples in the south after touring the Amalfi Coast. (The only part of the trip not covered by air miles was a $99 EasyJet ticket from Venice to Naples.)

The trip would have cost about $1,000 in a low-grade economy class and about $4,000 in business class, according to a SkyMiles representative.

The irony is that my travel companion, Sue, who made the same trip from Orlando, paid $1,200 and took the seven-hour transatlantic flights to and from Rome on Alitalia in what she dubbed "Bambini Class" due to the number of wailing babies surrounding her.

On my outbound flight on Air France, I was seated in what looked like a Barcalounger next to a handsome English businessman in another Barcalounger. Just two of us to a row! We chatted about airline service around the world over our delicious French crudites and complimentary champagne, followed by complimentary French red wine with dinner. In fact, there was so much complimentary alcohol that my seatmate’s nose and cheeks turned red. (We were both drinking the free wine in the hope of sedating ourselves so we could sleep from dinner to breakfast, we assured each other. And it worked.)

My return flight from Naples would have been similarly deluxe had it not been delayed five days by the belching Iceland volcano.

When I rebooked, business class was only available for the Naples-Paris leg of my journey. That meant I was in Bambini Class for the transatlantic return. Oh, how I missed business class! Whereas the flight attendants were at my beck and call before, now I couldn’t get anyone’s attention even by repeatedly turning the call light on and off. Why was no one keeping a watchful eye on my glass? Where was the hot towel and the little package with the ear plugs and eye mask inside?

There was no room to stretch out and the seat was so stiff it made my tailbone sore. To add insult to injury, when we landed, the flight attendants stood in the door between business class and coach so that we, the great unwashed, would not disturb the elite as they collected their carry-ons and laptops.

But I digress. The point is that without disruption from the volcano, my trip would have been perfect. It was so easy to book on the SkyMiles website, I called the airline just to make sure there was no mistake. No, they said, you’re good to go.

While I was in Italy, I used my SkyMiles American Express card when I could and those charges earned more air miles. This would have been even more clever if American Express wasn’t so often refused by merchants in Europe.

A final word about redeeming miles: Keep a keen eye on when they expire. Had I not used mine this year, in 2011 I would have been back to zero and Italy would have remained a dream.

carpenter.jolene@stripes.com

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