What points and miles beginners can learn from the art of kung fu

Feb 2, 2020

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My nieces are interesting kids. Since they were little, they gravitated to the Chinese martial art of kung fu. For years they’ve studied with local masters and have talked to me about the discipline whenever I’m willing to listen. I realized the other day that three of the tenets of kung fu — technique, speed and power — are also the keys to successful award bookings. Here’s how you can apply the skills of this martial art to your next flight award or hotel booking with points.

Technique

You don’t need a kung fu master to tell you that the more educated you are on a topic, the more successful you can be in applying that knowledge to real-life scenarios. That’s true in the martial arts and it’s equally true in the miles-and-points game. You need to understand loyalty programs, experiment with what works when booking awards and then refine your technique so you nearly always find a way to get the award trip your heart is set on.

Continually learning about the “craft” of award redemptions is important so your technique will eventually take you from practitioner to “grandmaster.” If you’re just getting started in this hobby, TPG’s beginner’s guide to points, miles airlines and credits is required reading.

And, don’t think that there’s just too much to learn. TPG’s own Samantha Rosen wrote the beginner’s guide. She came to TPG with an interest in miles and points but no kung fu-level skills. She devoted herself to learning the nuance of points and miles and now she’s mileage-running halfway across the globe, flying Japan Airlines first class using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles and staying at fancy places like the Conrad Tokyo with Hilton Honors points. Samantha will be the first person to tell you that if she can go from zero to Tokyo, you can make your travel dreams come true as well.

Conrad Tokyo (Photo courtesy of Booking.com)
Conrad Tokyo (Photo courtesy of Booking.com)

How else can you get fluent in the award-booking world? TPG has a ton of resources. Here are some of my favorites:

TPG also has a variety of Facebook groups like TPG Lounge, TPG Women and TPG Family. These are terrific, supportive private groups where you can ask questions or just lurk and learn.

And, if you’re on the hunt for cash or points flight deals, sign up for TPG’s deal alerts on Twitter @tpg_alerts.

And, if you’re a small-business owner looking to maximize your expenses and earn miles and points, listen to this Talking Points podcast with TPG’s loyalty and engagement editor, Richard Kerr. And, join the TPG Small-Biz Facebook group.

Learning about airline and hotel loyalty programs, as well as credit card points, will help you get a baseline. Then, you’ll continually hone your technique for snatching up the best award flights and hotel redemptions that work for you.

Speed

Speed is the second component of successful award bookings. Award availability changes quickly. You need to be ready to make a booking as soon as you see flights that work for you — especially for sought-after tickets like Lufthansa in first class, Etihad’s A380 first-class apartments or routes to Tahiti.

Etihad First Class Apartment (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)
Etihad First Class Apartment (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

The same holds true if you’re contemplating booking a flash sale, such as those from JetBlue and Delta. Those low-price tickets — on cash or points — will go fast, so lock them in! Remember, when booking with an American carrier (or any carrier operating flights within the United States), you have a 24-hour window during which you can cancel the tickets with no penalty. Here are the 24-hour hold and cancellation policies of American, Delta and United. And, here’s the guidance on this topic from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In most cases, you can cancel a flight-award booking and redeposit the miles by paying a fee. That fee is usually around $125–$150 for the first award ticket and a lesser per-ticket fee for all other tickets on the reservation. Of course, there are ways to avoid cancellation fees when you book an award flight. The easiest way is to wait and see if the airline makes a flight change and then cite that change when you ask the airline to cancel the ticket and waive any fees.

Another powerful way to avoid the fee for redepositing your miles is to earn elite status with the airline. One benefit of elite status is that change and cancellation fees are often waived or reduced. Here are credit cards that help you earn airline elite status faster as well as status match and challenge options for 2020. And, here’s a valuable discussion about whether or not you should buy hotel or airline elite status.

When it comes to booking a flight award, acting quickly is just one key to success. It may be worth it to make a tentative booking — even if you need to cancel it later and pay the redeposit fee. I go that route when I’m booking a flight with hard-to-find award seats. You may decide it’s worth it as well. Think of it like a trip insurance policy — just pay the redeposit fee and you’ll get your miles/points back.

Power

Power is the third leg of the stool in both kung fu and our miles-and-points world. How can we become powerful award bookers? We should leverage every available tool to book the best award flights and hotel stays.

For me, determining what miles and points are worth is paramount and gives me the knowledge I need to make award-booking powerplays. I use TPG’s monthly mile-and-point valuations as a guide but here’s why those valuations don’t always rule my world.

Once I have a good idea of what my loyalty currency is worth, I can make excellent decisions about how I spend those miles and points.

I also try to use tools that will give me an edge over everyone else competing for the same award flights that I want. ExpertFlyer is one tool that can be indispensable as you research and plan award flights. (ExpertFlyer is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures.)

What can a subscription to ExpertFlyer do for you? You can check data for more than 400 airlines, search for awards and upgrades, consult seat maps, find flight timetable information, be alerted to aircraft changes, set up seat alerts on specific flights and search for awards and upgrades.

You can try the ExpertFlyer Premium Service for free for five days. Here are some ExpertFlyer resources:

Of course, you can also rely on someone else’s kung fu when you need to. Consider hiring an award- booking service like Book Your Award.

Both knowledge and tools will make you a more powerful award booker and give you the confidence to plan those complex round-the-world award tickets.

Bottom line

It’s interesting to think about the convergence of kung fu and loyalty currency redemptions. It’s funny how much crossover there is between the two “arts.” And, I do think redeeming frequent-flyer miles, hotel points and credit-card points is an art. When done correctly, these redemptions will lead to once-in-a-lifetime trips to some of the most fascinating places around the globe.

Featured image by FatCamera/Getty Images

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