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From scoring lounge access to rewards cards: How to make air travel better

Stephanie Rosenbloom | NYT/ 11 Oct 18 | 11:07 AM

Photo: Shutterstock

The beauty of flying — of seeing lakes and mountain ranges from thousands of feet in the air; of nodding off to sleep in Boston and waking up a few hours later in London or Rome — can occasionally be forgotten amid long airport lines, cramped plane seats and baggage fees.

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Whether travelling with a spouse or partner, children or solo, the most frequent of fliers know how to ease the pain points and maximize the joys. Below, a primer on how to make air travel more affordable, fun and comfortable so you can once again marvel at being able to soar.


Getting Better, Even Free, Seats Faster


As many travellers know, one of the smartest ways to rack up miles is with a credit card that earns you points for the things you spend money on every day.


Summer Hull, the founder of the travel blog Mommy Points (its new home is at The Points Guy) said the best deal in family travel nowadays is the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass. It allows someone to fly with you for free (excluding taxes and fees) when you purchase or redeem points for a flight. If you earn the pass early in a given year, Ms. Hull explained, you can use it for the rest of that year — as well as the entire following calendar year. To get the pass, you must fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year. The points from Southwest’s Rapid Rewards credit cards count toward that, making it achievable even for travellers who don’t have a lot of paid trips on Southwest.


For those who want a credit card rich with travel benefits, there’s the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, the best travel rewards card according to Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products. The fee is a hefty $450 a year, though the card earns three times the points per $1 spent on travel and restaurant dining (and one point per dollar spent on other purchases).


Among the card’s other advantages are a $300 annual statement credit as reimbursement for travel purchases like baggage fees; free airport lounge access through Priority Pass Select (more on that below); reimbursement for the application fee for expedited security programs such as Global Entry and T.S.A. PreCheck; reimbursement for trip delays and lost luggage; and the ability to transfer points to hotel and airline loyalty programs like United MileagePlus, British Airways Executive Club, Marriott Rewards and World of Hyatt.


Members can also use their card, points, or both, to book trips — airfare, hotels, rental cars — through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards online portal. In August, Chase said it was improving Ultimate Rewards by partnering with Expedia, allowing card holders to use Expedia’s inventory of flights, hotels and vacation rentals, car rentals, and experiences and activities. The new Ultimate Rewards has been rolled out to members of some Chase cards and will be available to Chase Sapphire users in the coming months.

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When it comes to using points you accrue, some of the biggest wins can be had by booking business or first class award tickets, often through international rather than United States carriers. You will need to find out which international airlines have relationships with your domestic carrier, sign up for the international carriers’ frequent flier programs, and then get your ticket through whichever partner charges the fewest miles.


For example, explained Gary Leff, the founder of the miles and points blog, View from the Wing, a domestic first class ticket to Hawaii on United Airlines costs 80,000 miles if purchased through United’s MileagePlus. If you were to buy that same first class seat through KrisFlyer, the frequent flier program of United’s partner Singapore Airlines, it would cost only 60,000 miles.


To find these sorts of deals, familiarize yourself with award charts (available on airline websites) and alliances. For instance, airlines such as Delta, Korean Air and Hawaiian Airlines are in the same alliance. If you were to join Korean Air’s loyalty program, you could search its website for awards that Mr. Leff said would allow you to get a Hawaii first class award ticket on Delta, Hawaiian, or Alaska Airlines using Korean Air’s miles for about the same miles that each of those programs would charge you for coach.


On some airlines, upgrading an award ticket to the next class of service doesn’t cost many more miles. Edward Pizzarello, the founder of the travel blog Pizza in Motion and the podcast Miles to Go, said that a business class award ticket on Lufthansa (a United Airlines partner) requires 70,000 United MileagePlus miles one-way, but for an additional 40,000 miles, you can have a first class seat on Lufthansa, which he described as “a truly unbelievable experience."


Scoring Free or Discounted Fares for Children


Flying as a family can be cost prohibitive, but there are occasional deals, so keep your eyes peeled. For instance, Ms. Hull said that Scandinavian Airlines has typically offered an annual deal where children fly free (not including taxes and fees) to certain Nordic countries with just one paid adult ticket.

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Travelling internationally with an infant? Flying with a “lap infant" (usually defined as under 2 years old), can still cost hundreds of dollars, even if you don’t buy a seat for your baby, Ms. Hull said, because you are typically required to pay 10 to 25 percent of the adult fare. But some loyalty programs allow you to use miles for your infant’s fare if the adult is also using miles for the trip. British Airways, for example, charges 10 per cent of the miles that the adult award ticket costs, she said.


In general, remember that children can earn frequent flier miles, so you may want to register them for your preferred program. Some airlines (including JetBlue, Lufthansa, and Etihad) allow families to pool their miles and score award tickets faster.


Fool-proofing Your Itinerary


Many credit cards with annual fees come with trip delay coverage — reimbursement for hotel rooms, meals and misplaced bags — that people often don’t realize they have.


If your flight is delayed a certain number of hours, or overnight, the issuers of these cards will provide several hundred dollars in expenses (for things like lodging and toiletries) for each purchased ticket. Such cards typically pay you for lost baggage as well.


Airlines will rarely put you up in a hotel room, and even if they do, Mr. Leff said, “I don’t want to stay in the hotels they’re offering." He goes online and books himself a hotel room instead, then sends the receipt, along with receipts for meals, taxis or ride-sharing, to his credit card company.


A number of things are excluded from coverage, though, so read the fine print. In order to be reimbursed, you typically have to provide proof of your delay, along with receipts for related expenses. The process isn’t always smooth. In some ways, it’s “no different than dealing with the cable company," said Mr. Leff.

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When delayed at the airport, he tries to look up flight alternatives himself because the agent at the gate or on the phone may suggest only itineraries that the average traveler would want. Sometimes, Mr. Leff said, when a phone agent says “We have nothing available," what he or she really means is “nothing a sane person would want is available."


As a rule of thumb, if he doesn’t get the answer he’s looking for, his maxim is “Hang up; call back." He says it’s the frequent flier’s version of “If Mom says no, ask Dad." You can also talk to an agent at the gate, at a check-in counter, at a kiosk, or in a lounge.


“So often people feel powerless in travel," Mr. Leff said. “Having a few of these tactics just changes that mind-set."


Ordering Airport Meals, Snacks and Sundries


Hungry, but short on time before your flight? At some airports, food apps allow you to order a meal, snack or coffee and have it delivered to your departure gate, or elsewhere in the terminal.


American Airlines, for one, has an option integrated into its own app that allows users to pre-order food from airport restaurants so they can skip the lines. And AtYourGate and Airport Sherpa are apps that enable passengers at a few participating airports to request food — even souvenirs and sundries they may have forgotten (phone chargers, flip-flops) — through their smartphones and have it delivered to their gate.


Bypassing Lines with Expedited Security Programs


“If you travel with a family and don’t yet have PreCheck," said Ms. Hull, “you just like being miserable."


T.S.A. PreCheck is the Transportation Security Administration’s expedited screening program that allows members to use designated airport lanes where they are not required to take off shoes and belts, or remove things like liquids and laptops from their carry-on bags. Often, you receive PreCheck after applying and being approved for Global Entry, the security program that allows members to scan their fingerprints and passports at automatic kiosks instead of waiting in lines. A background check with fingerprinting is required for enrollment.

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A number of rewards cards — Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige and certain American Express cards, among them — offer statement credits to customers who charge the application fee ($100 for Global Entry; $85 for PreCheck, each for five years). Yet even if your card doesn’t cover such fees, Ms. Hull said, it’s less than $20 a year to avoid a longer, slower, domestic security line. “Kids 12 and under can piggyback with approved adults in the PreCheck line," she said (though they do need to get approved for Global Entry if traveling internationally).


You may also want to sign up for a free program called Mobile Passport Control, which saves users the time it takes to fill out a paper declaration form. Rather, they use a free app that works at more than two dozen airports, as well as a couple of cruise ports. No background check is required.


Clear is yet another expedited security program ($179 a year for individuals). It’s not a government-run program, though it allows you to skip the identification checkpoint. Instead, you go directly to a kiosk where your iris or fingerprints are scanned, after which you’re led to a physical screening line.


Flying Early, Yet Fare-Shopping Until the Last Minute


Flight delays and cancellations build up throughout the day, and as things get pushed back there’s a risk flight crews will run out of allowable work hours. Want the best chance of taking off? Leave early.


Booking early may also be a good idea. Mr. Pizzarello’s strategy is to make an initial reservation that works, yet may not be ideal. Then he refines it later. For example, travelers can use miles to initially book an economy ticket when there’s no availability in business class. Then it’s simply a matter of checking back to see if business class inventory becomes available. Lufthansa, for instance, often opens up its premium seats a week or two before departure, Mr. Pizzarello said. You may have to pay a change fee and some additional miles — but maybe not if you have elite status, the agent agrees to waive the fee, or there’s been a schedule change. So ask.


To find out when better seats become available, you may want to consider signing up for ExpertFlyer. The paid “pro" versions (from $4.99 a month for the Basic plan) give users detailed information like flight awards and upgrades, flight availability and seats. You can try the seat alert feature for free, receiving a notification when a preferable option turns up.


Scoring Lounge Access


Given that some airports are outfitting their common spaces with pretty eateries, power outlets, table top tablets and children’s play areas, hanging out in communal spaces can be more relaxing than a crowded domestic lounge with busted power outlets. Still, what you often get with an airline’s domestic lounge is slightly better customer service, roomier bathrooms and free snacks.

ALSO READ: Airlines, hotels redraw the loyalty line as customers look beyond rewards


If your plane ticket doesn’t allow you access, and you don’t want to pay an annual membership fee, you can opt for a credit card that includes lounge membership as a benefit. American Express Platinum cardholders, for example, can use the American Express Global Lounge Collection, which includes the brand’s popular Centurion lounges, among others. And Chase Sapphire Reserve card holders receive Priority Pass Select lounge membership, which, in some places, also includes meals or discounts at airport restaurants, as well as discounts on stays with partners like IHG hotels (owner of such brands as Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts). Frequent fliers of certain carriers may also get access with airline-branded credit cards like the United MileagePlus Club Card.


Keeping the Kids Entertained


Unless you’re flying an airline with individual entertainment screens throughout coach, Ms. Hull recommends having a tablet for the kids with entertainment options downloaded. They need not be iPads, she said; Amazon Fire Tablets are less costly.


She also likes children’s headphones with volume limiters, like Kidz Gear KidzControl Volume Limit Wired Headphones (about $18). For more options, check out this guide from Wirecutter.


Grown-ups with a bigger allowance may want to try Mr. Pizzarello’s pick: Bose QuietComfort20 Acoustic Noise Canceling headphones (about $250), which are also Wirecutter’s favorite noise canceling headphones. He said they can go for 16 hours before needing a charge. And, perhaps more important to some travelers, “they shut out the entire world."

Stephanie Rosenbloom is the author of “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude" (Viking).


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