Of Miles and Malls

In Con's Corner by Con JagerLeave a Comment

Want to travel to Ireland, Scotland, England but are having a hard time with airfare? Expensive, even in coach? Not enough frequent flyer miles for a free ticket or upgrade? Maybe this blog post will help: it’s different from my usual travel story, and describes a way to generate more miles out of stuff you do already: a lot more miles, so you can travel cheaper or even in style, up front in Business or First Class!

Everyone knows about frequent flyer programs but, within those programs there’s an oft-overlooked trick to earn tens of thousands more miles while keeping your feet on the ground – and without paying a penny extra. In the original “Kung Fu” TV series, Master Po once said to Kwai Chang Caine: “Will you walk with me, Grasshopper?”. Let us walk the road to mileage enlightenment, but unlike Caine, do make sure you have good shoes, and let’s find out how shoes can make you fly!

I joined my first frequent flyer program in 1985. Until recently, I’ve had international jobs, flying all over the world, Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, huge distances. This continued for decades, and I built up serious stockpiles of miles on several airlines as well as hotel points on frequent stayer programs. It became my hobby, or rather, obsession! Ask the family: they’ll roll their eyes but hey, everyone enjoyed the benefits Dad scored. We did some otherwise unaffordable family vacations, flew the kids back and forth on miles during the money-sucking college years, and miles have spoiled my wife and me on our personal trips, sitting up front – or even laying down, loving all the space and seats converting into almost-real beds, getting some decent sleep on those long international overnights!

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And the food, ooh the food – and beverages – so ono, as my Hawai’ian friends used to say! It’s like being back in the Golden Age when air travel was special, and quality service was a matter of pride for the airlines, rather than slapping packets with 3 pretzels on your tiny tray table with the guy in front of you reclining, knocking over your soda, and the harried flight attendants asking whether you want to spend 5 bucks on a half tin of Pringles. Life is different up front…

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However, my business flying days ended with a job change, and that’s just fine: personal travel is a lot more fun than business trips! We still buy the occasional air ticket, usually when an airline wants a silly amount of miles for a free ticket: I always do the comparative math. This ticket buying earns us some miles but not very often and not very much (although of course I do use an airline credit card for bonus miles). So, replenishing the mileage stores in ways other than flying became my next obsession.

The two fastest ways to earn miles without flying are: credit cards and online shopping. The credit card angle is based on what is called “churning”: apply for new cards and get bonus miles. The offers typically get you a nice chunk by meeting certain conditions, like spend $2,000 in the first 3 months to earn 30,000 or more miles. Plan this only when you know you can meet these conditions. And, important, cancel those cards by the end of the typical first year free, so you avoid paying (often steep) membership fees. The downside is that it requires good management so as not to miss a cancelation deadline and, applying and canceling all the time can affect your credit score. This can be a factor when you’re younger and are looking at car loans and mortgages. But: car paid off, house on a long mortgage, good income? Churn away! I do this only occasionally myself anymore but have jumped onto the second option bigtime: online shopping via an Airline Mall!

Almost all airlines offer online Malls these days. Here are links to a few US ones: Alaska, American, Delta and United. The Europeans have them too, such as British Airways (which now owns Ireland’s Aer Lingus). If you’re not a member of any yet, do join, it’s free. Some people say well, I don’t fly enough, my miles will expire. Not so, Grasshopper. Another oft-overlooked benefit of Mall shopping is that a purchase counts as “program activity” and prevents expiration!

Note that most airlines are part of a worldwide alliance, or have direct partners if they’re not, which opens up a lot of travel options. For example, except for Mexico and a bit of Canada, Alaska Airlines does not fly overseas – but they have an amazing array of partners. To get to Europe, you can use their mileage program to book on Air France, American, British Airways, Delta, IcelandAir and KLM.  A good example of a smaller airline providing worldwide access, as do many other programs.

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Shopping via those Malls does take extra time. But it’s worth it: some shops get you a mere 1 or 2 miles per dollar but others go up to 7, and during promo periods they might even double that: I recently got 14 miles per dollar on a $100 pair of shoes I was going to get anyway, and I used a discount coupon online too. The shoes earned me 1,400 miles and since I paid the $100 with an airline credit card, presto, another 100 miles, for 1,500 miles total! At the industry consensus standard value of 2 cents per mile, that’s worth $30 – but you can do much better than 2 cents by using miles on international Business or First Class tickets. I once scored a value of 11 cents per mile, on a First ticket I could obviously never afford otherwise. And man, once experienced, it’s rough going back to normal life!

Speaking of normal life, once we landed at London Heathrow and were held for quite a while taxiing to the terminal. The pilot announced we had to wait for a special permission plane first. Looking out the window, I snapped this shot: quite a special plane indeed! And part of many alliances too, but you can forget about using miles to get aboard this puppy – although flying it doesn’t earn the President any miles either!

Here’s how I go about Airline Mall shopping.

First, I decide what I want to purchase online. And don’t think these have to be big purchases. It can be small stuff; it all adds up. We get drugstore items, books, music (yes, iTunes is on the Mall), DVDs, car parts, DYI items, bed & bath stuff, clothes, shoes and more. Even Groupon is on the Mall! Alas, not good old Amazon.com with their excellent Prime program: boy wouldn’t it be nice if they were!

Second, I figure out what the stuff costs direct via their own websites or alternate sites like Amazon. Then I search for them on the Mall (most airline malls have hundreds of shops participating) and check the price. If the same or within pennies, I go via the Mall. I have my accounts set up, so I don’t have to type in my numbers and info every time, and when you get to the online shops, your accounts there still work. I do focus on one mall but have a couple of backups, in case a shop is not in with Airline A and only plays nicely with Airline B. And things change too:  sometimes shops drop out temporarily but often come back. Do pay attention to shipping costs and return policies, as you do with all online shopping, but a shop accessed via a Mall has the same terms & conditions as direct. Also, these shops usually – both not always – honor the same online coupons or free shipping offers too, so keep an eye on that. Again, the trick is to not change your behavior or amount of money spent, but be prepared to spend extra time to take these detours.

Third, place your order and wait for your items to arrive – and the miles to start rolling in. Simply by playing this game, I earned enough miles last year for an off-peak roundtrip Business Class ticket to Europe. Mum, I’ll be there for your birthday! And I won’t be all jet-lagged either, flying in style compliments of buying books and toothpaste online! Well, OK, and some more shoes. Who doesn’t need shoes? And a new computer. But we needed one anyway. Really. We did. The double miles offer was a coincidence. I didn’t change my behavior. Did I? Hmm, like Caine pondering Master Po’s cryptic guidance, I’ll have to reflect on that, Grasshopper – in the comfort of my spacious seat upfront where I’m writing this story, shoes off, and can fold open my laptop without having the screen pushed right into my face by that guy in front of me reclining!


DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no clearing streets to get cars and trucks out of the frame, and no Photoshopping. It’s true travel. Note that my opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.

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