The announcement came quietly last week, amid bigger, louder clamor over another airline’s new branding. Delta Air Lines will be changing its mileage program for the 2015 status year, and in a very big way. Coming up, passengers will soon be required to spend a minimum amount of money on the airline per year in order to reach elite status. So, for example, for one to reach Platinum status, it will soon be required to earn either 75,000 miles or 100 segments and spend a minimum of $7,500 on the airline per year. The full qualification table pulled from Delta’s announcement is below
This change shouldn’t be a surprise for regular travelers. Skymiles has been eroding for several years now, and this is the next step in completely trivializing the program. Options for low-cost mileage redemptions have nearly evaporated, and many passengers are holding onto stockpiles with nothing to buy. One disgusted passenger on the forum Flyertalk puts it this way:
“[Delta]… rarely has the seats to begin with. It’s of such limited utility to me that anytime I see even the most mundane 25,000-mile award within the U.S., I’m tempted to grab it.”
Delta’s spin on the change, for their part, is that they need to make room for their most valuable customers. From their release last week, they state:
“These changes are a result of considerable research that we’ve conducted including conversations with hundreds of customers, many of whom expressed a desire to see the Medallion program truly target our best customers”
Delta would never release data on the ranks of their Skymiles program, but this suggests that their stables may be bloated with elite (and thereby costly) travelers and that they need to be thinned. It makes reasonable business sense: reward the travelers who spend the most money on the airline.
But what about the budget traveler? Delta is effectively moving its focus to high-paying passengers with this change, and budget travelers – some of whom are the biggest fans of the airline – will be left in the cold.
Proof will come when the budget travelers shift their business away from Delta and the costs of running their elite program drop over the next two years. If elite ranks stagnate and the frequent fliers keep coming, the airline can move forward with a smaller, more robust and profitable mileage program. And if membership spirals down to a handful of deranged loyal fliers, they’ll know that their mileage program is officially dead. In the end, that may have been part of the plan.
Tom Stuker took the term “frequent flyer” to new heights this year, logging just over 1,000,000 miles in 2012 all on United, all in first class. The 59-year-old Chicago native and New Jersey resident says he’s flown a total of 13 million miles, much of that in his capacity as an independent consultant and sales trainer for automobile dealerships around the world.
This year, Stuker says that about half of his trips were for pleasure, but how much fun it is it to fly 20,000 miles per week and did he actually see anything or did he spend the entire year in transit simply to break this milestone?
I caught up with Tom via Skype from Lombok, Indonesia, on Friday to find out.
So we have just a few days left in 2012, how many miles will you have logged for the year?
I’m going to finish the year just over 1,050,000.
Did you fly mostly for business or pleasure- what was the point of all this travel?
Once I realized I had a truckload of miles, I thought, ‘I may as well try to get to a million.’ I didn’t want to end up with 938,000 when 1 million is such a sexy number, so towards the end of the year, I planned it out and made it there.
It was about 50/50 business and pleasure. I took a lot of the year off just to travel. I flew with my wife more than 200,000 miles just on long weekend trips, so that consumed a lot.
How many miles did you fly last year?
About 825,000, most of that was business, that’s why this year I decided to take more time off.
Why are you so loyal to United?
I’m very brand loyal, they’ve been very good to me and I’m very good to them.
How much did you spend buying all these airline tickets this year?
A lot. I never disclose exactly how much I paid for my tickets. I have a contracted rate with United. I fly predominantly all first class and I give away a lot of my miles to close friends and relatives.
So does United give you a special Batline to use to book flights?
I have a special Batline. I book everything on the phone – I’m old school. It’s a hotline for Global Service people.
It’s very expensive to fly first class, are you paying for first class tickets or do you pay for coach and they upgrade you?
I pay a negotiated rate for first class travel. They know me by name when I call United.
You have so many miles, shouldn’t you be able to redeem all your miles and travel for free?
I have – I’ve taken plenty of free trips. I took two free trips last week. I make sure all my relatives get miles when they need them. And I spend miles on other things too.
People are going to read this and wonder how well off you are. Are we talking Bill Gates or Mitt Romney territory or just comfortable?
I have just enough money to afford a good life of travel. I have two homes. I have a pretty good business. I work to live but I don’t live to work. I get a lot of criticism for traveling so much.
People say I have no home life. It couldn’t be any further from the truth. My two boys are grown. My wife and I, we both love to travel. We do everything together and we spend a lot of quality time together.
In order to hit more than 1,000,000 miles in a year, you’d have to average almost 3,000 miles in the air every day. How is that logistically possible?
I don’t know how I did it myself. Between time on planes, connections, transfers, booking travel, it comes to about 80 hours per week. How did it happen? I don’t know, the year flew by – no pun intended.
How many flights did you take?
I never added it all up. I had some time off at the beginning of this year and I said, ‘I’m going to fly 12 days straight.’ On January 12, I passed 100,000 miles, so I got off to a really strong start.
I did a lot of work in Australia though, and just going back and forth there is 20,000 miles right there. I got to Hawaii 4-5 times per year and we’ll leave on Friday night and come back on Sunday. That’s 10,000 miles.
You visit Hawaii from New York just for the weekend?
Two or two and a half days, yes.
And you’d spend only 3-4 days in Australia?
I’d get in on a Tuesday morning and leave Friday morning, so that’s three days.
What’s the longest you ever stayed in one place this year? Did you stay a full week anywhere at all?
I don’t think I’ve been at home for a full week in about 18 years. I’ve been married and divorced twice but it had nothing to do with all the flying.
But why not travel and stay in these places a bit longer? Go to Hawaii and stay for a week or two, explore, get comfortable there?
First of all, I’m ADD. I can’t pay attention too much. I lose focus. I get what I want from a destination and move on. Relaxing to me is weird. I’m not a lay-by-the-pool person. I relax by planning trips and communicating with people from all over the world on Skype and doing other things.
Some would argue that you traveled a lot but didn’t see much. How do you respond to that charge?
I would say, ‘look at my photo albums.’ My wife and I have flown 2.5 million miles together. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve done desert safaris, I’ve been to the top of the Burj Khalifha, I’ve been on the pyramids, I’ve done a safari in Africa, elephant trekking in Thailand, I walked the China Wall. OK, so I’ve never been to Antartica! So shoot me!
Let me guess – you haven’t been to Antarctica because United doesn’t fly there?
That’s one reason plus I’m not a cold weather person. I’ve been to every state, every Canadian province. I did four days in Rio – that was enough for me. I’ve been to every island in the Caribbean. All over South America. I did three or four days in Buenos Aires.
How do you pass the time on all these flights? Do you talk to neighbors, watch movies, work, read?
A combination of all those things. I’ve met so many amazing people flying in first class. I read magazines and newspapers until we get up in the air and then sometimes I try to get work done. I think my company was built on airplane cocktail napkins. I can’t watch movies because I’ve already seen every damn one of them.
I understand your going to be the star of a reality TV program?
It’s called “Car Lot Rescue.” It’s something like “Kitchen Nightmares” but at car dealerships. I go in there, find problems, address them like a bull in a china shop, get push back and solve their problems. That’s going to be on Spike and it debuts February 10.
What’s your least favorite destination?
I wasn’t too excited about Greece. The history is phenomenal but I found the people there to be a little on the rude side, which will offend all the Greeks who read this.
I’m surprised. Greece is one of my favorite places. Where were you?
Athens, Mykonos, Santorini. But there are rude people in New Jersey too, so New Jersey isn’t the friendliest place either. Australia and New Zealand are the friendliest places.
Speaking of rudeness, what kind of rude behavior have you seen on flights this year?
Even in first class, I’ve seen everything from people clipping their nails, polishing their nails, people who take their shoes and socks off. People who won’t put their seats up to let people get to the bathroom. People who will kick my chair because my seat is reclined.
What are your travel plans for 2013?
I’m going to London a couple times. Vegas. Phoenix. We’re taking a long weekend in Buenos Aires. And this is all just in January.
Why go all the way to Argentina just for the weekend?
I’ve been there before; I just want to revisit some places I haven’t been to. I want to go to a new tango place.
A British expat named Fred Finn claims to be the world’s most frequent flyer with 15 million lifetime miles. Do you want to take that title away from him?
He says he has 15 million miles and I’m not going to call him a liar. He gets paid for appearances as the world’s most frequent flier. I don’t mind being number two, with 13 million miles. I think he’s about 70, so he’s got a dozen years on me. God willing, if I live to 70, I’ll probably pass him but it’s not on my bucket list. I fly for one reason, to create memories, not miles.
Banking frequent flyer miles, business travelers save for travel gear, clothing, sports and recreation equipment, personal vacations and more. Now, Virgin Galactic is allowing their frequent flyers to trade miles for a ride in space.
Virgin Galactic plans to send its first spacecraft, SpaceShip Two, on a suborbital space flight later this year. In a lottery, Virgin Galactic is allowing their Atlantic Flying Club members to redeem miles for a chance to win a trip on a the spaceflight.
According to the terms and conditions of the drawing, “Once Virgin Galactic launches it’s first flight to space, Flying Club will draw a winner from all the entries received.” You don’t need to have two million miles to register for the drawing, but you will need to have the miles in your account if your entry is selected as the winner.
The price tag: two million miles.Short on miles?
Virgin Galactic will allow members to buy up to 30,000 miles for $27. At that rate, a ride in space has a value of $54,000, not a bad price compared to the $63 million that the Russian space agency charges NASA for a ride to the international Space Station.
A combination of promotions on American Airlines makes January a particularly fruitful month for members who want to join their elite ranks. Usually, passengers need to fly at least 25,000 miles to reach gold status on the airline, but a double miles promotion (until the end of January) has reduced that to only 12,500. In addition to that, residents of Illinois, Texas and California can earn an additional round of double miles for flying select routes through the end of March, effectively earning some passengers triple miles.
This means that instead of the normal 3490 elite miles that one would accrue between Chicago and Los Angeles (round trip) a total of 10470 miles can be stacked up — or 40% of the way to Gold Status. And once you reach gold status? A whole host of benefits are available.
For many, this elite status is what helps make traveling easier and justifies a full carriage of longer, more interesting travel in the years to come. Some even go out of their way to take a mileage run and accrue that status, though you should carefully consider your future travel plans (and balance sheet) before you make that commitment. For me, our Huffington Post offices and editors in California were worth making the trip to Los Angeles once or twice this month. And if it fits into the equation of your long term travels then it might be worth your time too.
Make sure you travel before the 31st of January for the global double miles promotion. You have until the end of March until the geographically based promotion runs out.
There’s a whole pseudo-science on the web regarding the art of earning miles and points by means of credit card applications. Many in the mileage running and hoarding business use credit cards heavily to earn special bonus or signup-miles by applying at certain times or hitting minimum spend limits. With a decent credit score it’s a fairly easy game to play, though I’ll be the first to admit that the full ramifications of cyclically applying-for and canceling credit cards are still unknown. Still, that doesn’t stop many from churning out the applications.
Recently I came across the most outrageous example of this sort of activity from a blogger named Ben from The Man From 1000 Places, who actually applied to thirteen credit cards in one day in order to reap a total of more than 500,000 miles and points. Ten of those applications have currently been approved while another three are still pending. With a score in the high 700’s before the application, Ben expects his credit rating to take a brief hit but return to his normally high rate after 6 months.
With the 500,000 points, a wide variety of travel rewards and upgrades are available to the savvy hoarder. Round trip, business class tickets between North America and Europe, for example, cost 100,000 miles on American Airlines, and though the blogger wont be receiving all of the miles in one specific account he’ll be able to combine several of them.
In order to keep those points, he’ll will need to pay $233 in annual fees and then cancel most of the cards to prevent more annual fees. The only other trackable cost is his credit score. Gary Leff, co-founder of frequent flyer community milepoint.com and author of the ViewFromTheWing blog suggests:
Applying for credit generates a consumer-initiated pull of your credit score, and every time you apply for credit it’s an indication you might NEED that credit, and may be a bigger risk.
In the long-run you might well improve your score by having more available credit that you aren’t utilizing, and over time as the accounts age by having more older accounts. But the short-run effect of several credit pulls and a younger average age of accounts will make a big dent in your score.
If you see your score drop below 750 you’ll begin receiving higher interests rates on major purchases like mortgages, and those costs will likely exceed any benefits you get from signups. So it’s important to stay away from plenty of new card signups leading up to a home purchase or refinance. Individuals with more borderline credit may experience problems with auto loans.
Taking the time to apply for and earn the cards thus might be a decent way to get some extra points, as long as the financial preparations are made and the credit cards are properly disposed of. Hopefully there’s no long term financial impact beyond the credit score.