Frequent flyer programs are a big business in Australia, and savvy travellers who use them wisely can save plenty of money.
The Qantas Frequent Flyer rewards program has almost 13 million members, while Virgin Australia’s Velocity program has just passed 10 million, with many people part of both schemes.
Reward programs have copped criticism in recent years for watering down their offerings, but it’s not all one-way flying.
This month Woolworths and Qantas improved their partnership’s points conversion by 15 per cent, with people now able to earn 1000 Qantas points by spending $2000 at Woolies — but it’s still about half as generous as it was in 2015.
Points specialists who keep a close eye on frequent flyer programs say there’s still good value available if you earn and spend your points the right way.
GET A GOOD REWARDS CARD
Millions of Australians amass extra points through credit cards linked to flight reward programs, but make sure you pay off the debt in full each month — otherwise the interest bill will wipe out any points benefit.
Pointhacks.com.au spokesman Daniel Sciberras said consumers should also check the annual fee.
Some cards offer travel credits or other benefits that offset their annual fee, and several offer sign-on bonuses to new members.
“For instance, the American Express Qantas Ultimate card can earn you up to 120,000 Qantas points when you spend $3000 or more on eligible purchases within the first three months of approval,” Mr Sciberras said.
“Look for a credit card that earns you at least 1 point per dollar spent, with some cards offering up to 2.5 points per dollar.”
TAKE FLIGHTS, NOT APPLIANCES
It may seem easier to use reward points to buy stuff at online stores or gift cards, but this strategy packs a puny punch compared with redeeming points for airline travel.
“Redeeming points on products generally aren’t good value compared with flights, especially long-haul international flights in premium cabins,” Mr Sciberras said.
“You should be looking for at least 2 cents per dollar for an ideal redemption value and this isn’t something you are likely to get with products. Most of them fall between 0.4 to 0.8 cents, while flights are between 1.5 and 14 cents per point.”
Steve Hui, founder of Iflyflat.com.au — the Points Whisperer, said using points to get gift cards was also “poor value”.
“You always get more bang for your buck by flying,” he said.
It may not be appropriate at a dinner party, but double dipping pays off handsomely for point collectors.
Check your points program’s website to find out its partners that allow you to multiply what you earn.
The Qantas-Woolworths partnership is one example, while Velocity also has a pile of partners offering multiple points per dollar spent including BP, flybuys and hotel groups.
Mr Sciberras said extra points were available through financial products such as banking, superannuation, insurance and energy bills.
FOCUS YOUR SPENDING
Where possible, make every purchase earn you points.
This may involve joining a few different loyalty programs — most are free — but don’t spread yourself too thinly.
Mr Sciberras said it was generally good to focus on one or two airline programs to maximise their benefits.
“However, should you be flying an airline or transacting with an on-the-ground retailer that is outside of your current frequent flyer programs’ partners, then there is no harm in joining that airline’s program,” he said.
“Your goal should always be to ensure that you are earning points for every flight or on-the-ground transaction that you make, and not leave any points on the table.”
Mr Hui said it was good to join multiple airline programs if you planned to use them again.
He said people should be aware that points on big carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Emirates could expire after a few years: “three years is the norm”.
BUSINESS CLASS OFFERS A BIGGER BANG
“You get more bang for your buck if you fly business class rather than economy,” Mr Hui said.
He said the cash cost of a business class seat was typically four times as much as economy class, but the points cost was only about double.
“For double the points you get four times the cash value. That’s pretty consistent across all the frequent flyer programs.”
Travellers previously got better value from points by flying overseas rather than domestically, although recent program changes have narrowed the gap — and the destination decision often depends on personal preferences.
“It depends on the ticket price,” Mr Hui said.
“If there’s a sale on and it’s really cheap, sometimes it’s cheaper to buy it and not use points.”
Also compare discounts when flying domestically. A great deal might be worth snapping up, and you can use the points later.
Some people buy an economy ticket then use their points to upgrade to a different class if a seat becomes available.
Mr Hui said this was not a good idea, and it was better to book business class flights in full using points for value and certainty.
“It’s common that everyone thinks upgrades are cheap, but they’re not,” he said.
“It’s normally the same as buying business class outright and upgrades are basically a waiting list.”
NEVER USE POINTS TO PAY EXTRAS
Airport charges, taxes and other costs can also be covered by frequent flyer points, but this strategy is an expensive way to waste frequent flyer points.
“That’s a really common mistake — people think it’s like they’re using points but it’s not,” Mr Hui said. “The value of a point for this is around 0.5c, compared with 1.3c when using classic rewards.”
Originally published as How frequent flyer points can take you further