‘Mile Runners’ are in it for the long haul

A group of frequent flier hustlers is so obsessed with wracking up miles they are willing to do absurd acts such as flying around the world in 48 hours or going through Detroit five times on a single trip just to earn freebies.

For $320, Randy Petersen accrued a marathon of 35,000 miles for the following flight sequence: YXU-DTW-ATL-SFO-JFK-DTW-ATL-SEA-YVR-MSP-DTW-NRT-LAX-DTW-MSP-YVR-DTW-YXU-DTW-MSP-YVR-DTW-JFK-NRT-ATL-MSP-YVR-MSP-DTW-YXU. That’s a roundtrip flight from London that passes through Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, Detroit (again), Atlanta (again), Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Detroit (third time), Japan, Los Angeles, Detroit (fourth time), London (again), Minneapolis (again), Vancouver (again), Detroit (fourth time), New York (again), Japan (again), Atlanta (third time), Minneapolis (third time), Japan (third time), Minneapolis (third time), Detroit (fifth time) and finally back to London.

Petersen, who co-founded the frequent flyer community MilePoint.com, seems to think the upgrades are worth hours of sitting on planes and in airports. “It’s a ratio of travel time vs. distance flown vs. cost vs. end game,” says Petersen. “A mileage runner for value always wants to accrue miles at a low cost and then redeem at a high cost.”

Is the multiple-leg jog throughout airports around the world worth perks like a priority boarding, access to airport lounges, and maybe a few free tickets? It’s a question Shira Levine examines for Fox News.

10 budgeting mistakes even smart travelers make

don't overpack if you are on a travel budgetWhen traveling, it’s easy to go overboard and spend more money than you expected. What’s important is that you spend your extra cash having fun experiences instead of on mistakes that could have been prevented with some planning. Read these 10 common money mistakes often made by travelers to help save money on your next trip.

Mistake #1: Overpacking

This is a mistake that can rack up travel costs for many reasons. First of all, depending on what airline you are flying with, you may be charged a fee for each bag you bring. Not only that, but travelers must pay not only based on how many bags they bring, but also on how much they weigh. Once you are off the plane and at your accommodation, if you have brought more luggage than you can carry yourself you will have to consider porter and bellhop costs. Just do yourself a favor and only bring items you can see yourself using and wearing multiple times.budget travelMistake #2: Not knowing the exchange rate

If you’re looking to save money, it’s a good idea to do a little research and figure out what destinations will give you the most mileage for your dollar. For example, many regions in Canada, Australia, and Western Europe have strong currencies, meaning you may end up losing money in the exchange. However, if you plan a trip to, say, Hanoi, Vietnam, or Prague in the Czech Republic, you can end up saving a lot of cash.

When traveling, you should also pay attention to what currency exchange offices offer the best rates. For instance, airport currency exchanges are usually not the best places to change your money.

Mistake #3: Forgetting to check the weather of your destination

Last June I went to Paris, France, traveling under the assumption that France is always hot (on television the French always seem to be sipping wine in sunny vineyards and relaxing in little clothing in quaint little cafes). If I had checked the weather beforehand, I would have known that shorts and sleeveless shirts were not practical for when I was going, and I wouldn’t have had to buy new clothing, a jacket, and an umbrella that I ended up leaving behind anyway.

The moral of the story? Check the weather of your destination before you leave so you can pack appropriately and save yourself from having to buy a whole new wardrobe.

Mistake #4: Not knowing international phone rates

If you really don’t need your phone, leave it home, as you can save a lot of added costs. There are many other ways to stay in touch with people at home, such as e-mail or web chat (find areas with free Wi-Fi or see if your hotel provides it). If you must have your phone, invest in an international calling plan. While every phone company offers a different plan, I have always found that services such as Skype and PennyTalk offer the best deals. Another low-cost option is to purchase a local SIM card in the country you are visiting.

budget travelMistake #5: Traveling like everyone else

Not only is traveling during high-peak season more crowded and chaotic, it’s more expensive. If there’s an activity you love, try an off-the-beaten path destination to do it instead of following the crowd. Instead of going away in the summer, find a destination that offers your ideal weather in the spring. This can not only save you money, but can also introduce you to new, unexplored destinations.

Mistake #6: Not knowing the tipping etiquette

Tipping etiquette differs from country to country, so don’t just assume that just because in your home town you leave 20% gratuity when going out to eat you must do that everywhere. For example, an article on MSNBC.com says that tipping in Fiji is discouraged, while a server in Mexico will expect a 10%-15% tip. Know the customs before you go to avoid throwing away money unnecessarily.

Mistake #7: Not purchasing travel insurance

While travel insurance isn’t free, it can also end up saving you a ton of money if an emergency does occur. Hospital bills, cancelled flights, and natural disasters aren’t cheap and you can get very affordable travel insurance plans at Access America and World Nomads. Also, if you have health insurance or a travel credit card at home, call their customer service numbers to ask what you are already covered for abroad.

Mistake #8: Not knowing your transportation options

While taxis may be the most convenient way to get around a place, they are often the most expensive. Using public transportation options such as trains, buses, tro-tros, tuk tuks, and metros can save travelers literally hundreds of dollars. If you are unsure of how to get to a place ask your accommodation to help you plan the cheapest route. Also, before even stepping on the plane to go abroad, contact your hotel and ask them what the most cost-efficient method to reach the hotel from the airport is, what stop to get off at, and specific walking directions.

Mistake #9: Not taking advantage of frequent flier programs

If you travel regularly, it pays to either signup for a frequent flier program or apply for a credit card that will give you miles. Having loyalty to specific airlines may be difficult for some people to commit to, however, it can lead to free flights and discounted travel.

Mistake #10: Always being a tourist

This is an easy mistake to make, as when people are in a place for the first time they usually end up being drawn to all the flashy signs and salespeople offering experiences at must-see attractions. While you should see the big sights, there are often free museums, open air entertainment, and complimentary attractions in every place you visit. This goes for restaurants, too. While the big, sparkling venue with the extensive (and pricey!) menu in English may look good, wouldn’t it be nice to have an authentic (and budget-friendly) dining experience at a smaller, local eatery? Street-food is also a money-saving option, as well as grocery stores (bonus if you’re accommodation has a kitchen or serves free breakfast). Also, ask your hotel when museums, restaurants, and attractions offer discounts and promotions, such as free entry on Monday nights at an art gallery or complimentary tapas at a Spanish restaurant with a drink purchase.

Tom Stuker becomes first frequent flyer to pass 10 million miles, United celebrates

Ryan Bingham exists in real life, and his name is Tom Stuker. Mr. Stuker, an automotive consultant based in Chicago has been flying United for over 20 years, and this Saturday afternoon, somewhere between Los Angeles and Chicago he officially crossed the line over 10 million frequent flyer miles.

To celebrate, the folks at United hosted a private celebration at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, shutting down a section of a C concourse Red Carpet Club for a celebration with Mr. Stuker’s family, United CEO Jeff Smisek, Mileage Plus President Jeff Foland and a few dozen people from the community.

For his part, Tom Stuker doesn’t seem the least bit weary from his 10 million miles of travel. At just under six feet tall and with a steady, affable smile, he emerged from the Los Angeles flight full of energy and to the cheers of scores of waiting media and friends. In the Red Carpet Club he floated around the room mingling with assorted, eager miletalkers and accepting pats on the back from the wayward executive or marketing agent, effortlessly smiling as the media soaked up his glee.

Among the gestures that United made in recognition of his efforts came a single-edition, titanium Global Services membership card, a scale mockup of the upcoming United 787 and a framed certificate stating his achievement. The most impressive gift, however, was Tom Stuker’s name on the side of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, similar to the achievement that Ryan Bingham received in Up in the Air.

Perhaps most moving was the humility with which Mr. Stuker accepted his praise. His speech, hand written on three pages of wide rule notebook paper, was a reflection on his time with the airline and a heartfelt thank you to all of the staff with whom he had become friends over the years. He spoke of the difficulty during the United bankruptcy and the subsequent merger, moving himself nearly to tears on several occasions, but remaining gracious and optimistic the entire time.

The underlying theme of Mr. Stuker’s speech, however, kept returning: it was not only a milestone for one frequent flyer but rather for the entire airline — years of work building one of the world’s largest airlines, weathering a merger, a rough economy and an ultra competitive market. For everyone in the room there was much to celebrate, and for this one brief afternoon there were smiles on the faces of Jeff Smisek, the ramp workers and the flight attendants alike.

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[Editor’s note: it shall be noted that Tom Stuker flew all of his 10M miles on United while Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air earned his miles in various means — but we still think that the comparison is bang on. Judge away.]

Five business travel challenges for small companies to overcome

business travelRegardless of economic conditions, owning and running a small business isn’t easy. It’s always tough to find clients, allocate your funds effectively and maximize your bang for the buck. And, business travel is a big part of this. When you go out on the road, you know you’re committing some serious cash to the endeavor, and you want to make sure you get as much value out of it as possible.

Part of this has nothing to do with what you’re spending: you want to make sure the reasons for your business trip are smart. But, you also need to keep an eye on the expense side of this to ensure you aren’t spending unnecessarily. Business planning covers the first aspect of this, and travel planning addresses the second.

So, how can white collar travel folks spend more intelligently on business travel? Here are five ideas:

1. Forget brand: are you loyal to a particular airline? Cut those ties. Sure, you’re thinking that accumulating miles can get you free business travel later … and there is some truth to that. However, you could be spending more than the price of a ticket when working toward that benefit. Also, there may be constraints on when you can take free travel.
2. Stay a little loyal, though: even if you aren’t buying on loyalty, you should still enroll in the loyalty programs for every airline, rental car company and hotel you use. It may take longer to accumulate benefits when you spread your purchases around, but the free perks you receive won’t come at the (literal) expense of your travel budget.

3. Shop around a bit: time is money, and the hours you spend looking for a flight are hours you could sink into other business activities. So, look at your effective rate per hour (i.e., how much your time is worth). Let’s say, for example, that an hour of your time is worth $100. If you could spend an hour to save $250 on a flight, that’s a good return – swallow the pill and do some comparison shopping for airfare and room rates.

4. Look at alternatives to airline loyalty: some online travel agencies have loyalty programs. Remember to join them, as you can accumulate benefits with them as well as with the airlines. As with airline choices, though, don’t choose a particular booking site just to accumulate points. Cash comes first!

5. Play the credit card game: use a branded credit card to make your travel arrangements. Choose one for the airline you use most. So, if you have a Delta card and wind up flying American Airlines every now and then to save money, you’ll still accumulate some benefits with Delta. Just don’t forget to pay the card off at the end of the month!

[photo by codepo8 via Flickr]

Five good reasons to screw up your frequent flier mile strategy

business travel frequent flier mile strategiesThere isn’t much that’s precious to a business traveler (except time off the road) – at least not that you can touch. Maybe that’s why road warriors find frequent flier miles to be so important. They are at once a visible reward for suffering the slings and arrows of business travel, an indicator of class in an implicitly hierarchical community and a ticket to leisure travel later. If they accumulate in one place, they can become pretty useful … which is why they white collar travel folks make the flying decisions they do.

Mileage balances can influence decisions about airlines, flight times and payment methods. They can make a three-hour layover seem worthwhile. They can lead to absurd decisions which, at the moment of purchase, appear to be completely rational.

So, when decisions that run counter to this mileage-accumulation philosophy become necessary, the questions from other business travelers can be swift and judgmental. For the past two years, my miles have landed all over the place, and now that business travel is again a part of my life, that trend seems likely to continue – a prospect that would have horrified me back in 2002.

Why the change of heart? Here are five reasons I’ve abandoned the traditional business traveler’s frequent flier mileage strategy:1. Business comes first: if I can maximize my time at my destination, get better flights or use a more convenient airport, I get more out of my trip (from a business perspective). That’s what matters most to me. Period.

2. Status benefits really aren’t worth it: the time and discomfort associated with adjusting my schedule to accumulate miles, I’ve found, is ultimately more painful than flying coach from New York to London on a crowded flight. The eventual upgrade cure is far worse than the inconvenient and uncomfortable air travel disease.

3. Price matters: nothing is more important than getting to the right place at the right time, but price comes next. Travel expenses aren’t like billable hours or closed deals: they don’t benefit me or my business. Is it really worth paying extra to score some extra miles?

4. Stress sucks: after business objectives and price, I tend to value the path of least resistance. Working on the road is hard enough: making it worse to attain platinum status sooner isn’t sufficient reward for the necessary sacrifices.

5. Loyalty shouldn’t be displaced: obviously, frequent flier programs are brand loyalty plays. Like other business travelers, though, I have other loyalty considerations, such as my business and the people important to me back home. Some things are more important than early boarding.