From free flights to room upgrades, there are loads of travel-related freebies and discounts available to people who participate in frequent flier and other travel loyalty programs.
But many travellers don’t have the mental bandwidth to keep track of all
the programs he or she has joined – let alone all of the special bonuses that
can help them earn rewards faster. In the US, more than 70 million travellers
belong to frequent flier programs, but only six million redeemed miles for
flights in 2009, according to the consulting firm Market Platform Dynamics.
Back in the (sexist) 1960s, everyone who watched a James Bond movie took
it for granted that his boss M would have a female assistant like Miss
Moneypenny to book travel and track expenses. Nowadays, we all rely on
computers, not secretaries, to keep tabs on our budgets and you don’t need to
be a globetrotting super-spy to see the world. Here's a rundown of a few cutting-edge
digital tools that help monitor your airline miles, credit card points and
other reward programs.
Best bill-paying tool
that also monitors your mileage program
Web-based, personal finance management services, similar in purpose to Quicken and Quickbooks software, are increasingly
adding travel-related features to their offerings. PageOnce, available to US residents, remains
the safest online service for bill-paying and managing personal accounts, partly
because it does not store your checking account details, so no hacker can
potentially come in and steal the information to drain your savings.
It takes some effort to input the membership numbers of your various
loyalty programs. But after you've set things up, the site will continuously
fetch the latest points balances, expiration dates and reward opportunities
from all your flight, hotel, car rental and credit-card programs. Unlike other
programs, you can sync PageOnce data with downloadable apps for iPhone,
Blackberry and Android devices, allowing you to access your information on the
go -- helpful if you want to request an upgrade for a hotel room or airplane at
a moment's notice.
monitoring tool that helps you budget for your vacation
Mint, owned by Quicken, is PageOnce's
largest rival, with the same type of personal finance management and data
security. Unlike PageOnce, Mint doesn't currently have mileage tracking as a
service, though that functionality will be added soon. Yet Mint does uniquely
have a tool to help US and Canadian users plan their vacation budgets. Go to
the site's vacation budgeting estimator and punch in your destination, the
number of days you'll stay, the duration of your trip, number of people travelling
and related information. The tool will then estimate how much plane tickets,
hotels, rental cars and other major expenses will cost.
Most comprehensive and
internationally-minded rewards tracker
Neither of the above mileage-and-points tracking tools is as
comprehensive as the specialist site AwardWallet,
which supports all of the world's major loyalty programs and is available to
travellers worldwide. Founded in 2004, the free tool covers every large
national travel company, from Amtrak to American Express to Diners Club, except
for Southwest Airlines. AwardWallet alerts you when miles and points will
expire, and these alerts are more timely and helpful than Mint's, given the
site's actionable advice on how to keep miles and points active. AwardMiles
also can also let you manage accounts for multiple family members. It has an
unusually intuitive way of displaying any elite status you've earned, too.
newcomer is the first ‘cash and reward search engine’
I'm also keeping an eye on new-this-year competitor service UsingMiles, which attempts to offer a
similar tracking service to AwardWallet and also e-mails when your miles are in
danger of expiring. I like its interface, but am disappointed that it doesn't
support award programs for several major travel companies, such as Air Canada,
Air France, American Express, Amtrak, Best Western, Hyatt, JetBlue and Virgin
Atlantic. (Despite having "miles" in its name, UsingMiles also helps
people track hotel, rail and rental car rewards.)
To its credit, UsingMiles tries to outdo AwardWallet by attempting a new
trick: becoming the world's first search engine for cash and award travel,
meaning that you can enter the name of your airline (or hotel chain or rental
car company) and find products on which you can spend your award points. You
can also compare the value of using points versus cash to make sure you're
getting a solid deal. But the search engine has a similar problem in that it
misses several a few major companies (Air France, LAN, etc) and thus misses the
complete picture of travel opportunities you may be missing out on.
Best service for
beginners learning the loyalty redemption game
One problem with all of the sites mentioned above is that they assume
users understand their frequent flier programs and how to max out their
rewards. The Travel Hacking Cartel charges
a monthly fee (from $15) in exchange for text and e-mail alerts about travel
reward opportunities along with marvellously straightforward (and mercifully
brief) videos to help you get up to speed on the basics of earning travel
points. The site is run by Chris Guillebeau, a writer and entrepreneur who has
visited more than 150 countries and thus learned a lot about frequent flier programs.
Best service for folks
who understand the basics and want to kick up their award-redemption skills a
couple of notches
MilePoint, a site that also debuted
this year, offers a similar service as the Travel Hacking Cartel, but for free.
MilePoint delivers lessons from Randy Petersen and other loyalty program gurus
on everything you need to know to earn and redeem frequent-flier points
quickly. The trade off for getting free information is that you have to put
more work into making sense of it. The information is presented in a much less user-friendly
format than the Travel Hacking Cartel (no videos, no e-mail or text alerts and
no step-by-step guides). But it's hard to argue with free.
Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel