There are certain situations when it’s annoying to have only one passport. For example, say you have upcoming trips to two countries with little notice and you need to send your passport away for a visa, effectively stopping you from going on your other trip. Or, say you want to visit a country that is on unfriendly terms with other nations, like Israel, but you’re worried the stamp might cause problems when trying to get into other countries in the future.
Too bad you can only have one passport, right? Wrong.
A little-known secret is that, according to Section 51.2(b) of Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations (22 CFR), certain frequent travelers actually can qualify for two U.S. passports. It states:
Unless authorized by the Department no person shall bear more than one valid or potentially valid U.S. passport at any one time.
In plain English, there is an exception to the requirement that “no person shall bear or be in possession of more than one valid or potentially valid U.S. passport at any one time.” But who qualifies for an exemption? In short, very frequent travelers, especially those that often visit countries that require visas, who cannot send their passport away for an international visa without essentially grounding them from doing business.
The U.S. government permits people that can prove a heavy travel schedule to have a second passport, typically only valid for two years. This allows them to travel abroad while sending the second passport to an embassy for visa applications.
According to Russ Varecha of RushMyPassport.com, a service that helps people apply for passports:
“A quick rule of thumb to determine if you qualify for a second passport is whether you meet one of the two requirements. Are you planning to visit a country that will deny a visa due to the fact that your passport contains markings or visas showing you traveled to certain other countries? Or do you need a passport for immediate travel because of delays in getting a travel visa or some other foreign governmental process that required you to submit your original passport?”
Lee Abbamonte, the self-proclaimed youngest American to visit every country in the world, says that having a second passport was invaluable in his near-constant travel to far-flung corners of the globe.
To apply for a second passport, complete an online application form (DS-82) and send in the requested documentation to a passport office.
American Airlines announced Tuesday that it will start doling out frequent-flier miles based on the fare customers pay and not on the distance they fly. American’s move closely mimics changes already made by Delta and United, the USA’s two other big traditional carriers.
“American Airlines has spent the last two years being singularly focused on integration. Now we’re at a point where we can begin to look ahead and lay the foundation for the future of the AAdvantage program to ensure we’re rewarding our most loyal customers with the benefits they value the most,” Suzanne Rubin, president of American’s AAdvantage frequent-flier program, says in a statement.
Starting sometime in “the second half of 2016,” non-elite American customers will earn 5 miles per every dollar spent on the base fare and “carrier-imposed fees.” Elite customers will earn more, with Gold members earning 7 miles per dollar, Platinum 8 miles per dollar and Executive Platinum 11 miles per dollar. The earning levels closely mirror how Delta and United award miles.
Making sense of Delta’s frequent flier changes
United: Fliers earn miles based on fare, not distance
American detailed several other changes, including changes to the miles needed for many frequent-flier awards. Unlike “redeemable” miles that can be cashed in for free flights, miles that count toward earning elite status on American will still be tied to distance flown. But the carrier is tweaking that too, making it easier for customers buying expensive fares to rack up those miles even faster. American customers earn elite status by accumulating at least 25,000 miles in a calendar year.
But it’s the change in how American awards “redeemable” frequent-flier miles that appears to cement a fundamental shift in the nature of loyalty programs at U.S. airlines. Launched in the 1980s – first by American and quickly matched by most others – airline frequent-flier programs have since become commonplace among American consumers.
For decades, the programs run by the big traditional “legacy” carriers handed out miles based on the distance their customers flew. But that began to change last winter.
Delta became the first of the big carriers to tie mileage-earning to fares rather than distance. United followed Delta’s lead about three months later, making nearly identical changes to its loyalty program.
Low-cost carriers — including Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America — already employ a “revenue-based” system of earning frequent-flier points. Still, it’s been the change at Delta, United and now American that’s being viewed as a fundamental shift among the three big network carriers that control much of the U.S. market.
American stood pat with its traditional set-up for more than a year after its rivals changed. Still, it was widely expected that the airline would eventually follow suit once it had finished the heavy lifting in its merger with US Airways. US Airways made its last-ever flight last month, among the last moves in a merger that has left American as the world’s largest airline.
“I definitely think it’s because of the merger. And they’ve basically said as much,” says Brian Kelly, who tracks airline frequent-flier programs via his The Points Guy website. “To their credit, they’ve handled the merger beautifully.”
American’s switch to fare-based earning will begin sometime in the second half of 2016, though Rubin said in a call with reporters that the exact date has not been determined.
Despite that uncertainty, Rubin said American wanted to detail some of its planned frequent-flier program changes now because the carrier is “eager to be transparent” and to give customers advance notice.
Once the changes to earning miles begin in 2016, Alaska Airlines, Spirit and Frontier will be the last big U.S. carriers left to still tie redeemable frequent-flier miles to distance flown.
But while American has followed Delta and United in tying frequent-flier miles to fares, it did not match one other big change made by its rivals since 2014.
Delta and United now require customers to hit minimum spending thresholds to attain elite status. Previously, fliers on those carriers could earn elite status simply by flying a minimum of 25,000 “elite” miles in a calendar year. Now, both those carriers require customers also to spend a minimum of $3,000 in airfare — or spend $25,000 in an airline-branded credit card — to attain the lowest level of elite status.
American did not add such a requirement in its latest program change.
When asked if the carrier might add such a requirement down the road, Rubin said only that American would “continue to study that element of the program.”
Kelly said he thinks American may not be quick to add it.
“Now would’ve been the time to do it,” he says. “This will be a differentiator for them.”
Overall, however, “most of the changes are not good,’ Kelly adds about the changes announced by American on Tuesday. He says appears to have shifted more awards into higher-mileage categories. With the proliferation of airline credit cards, “billions and billions of miles have been pumped into the system. There’s going to be inflation” in the cost of frequent-flier award tickets, Kelly says.
But he’s quick to add that “there are a couple of bright spots” to the changes.
“I really like the changes for EQMs (elite-qualifying miles), Kelly says, saying American now offers “richer” elite qualifying options than both Delta and United. Beyond that, the changes are likely to help corporate travelers but work against bargain-seeking leisure customers.
“For passengers buying expensive tickets, they’ll likely get more miles under the new system,” he says. “Most leisure fliers will earn less.”
Other highlights from Tuesday’s announcement:
New low-mileage award for short flights: American create a new award category for flights under 500 miles. It’s “MileSAAver” award for those flights will now by just 7,500 miles each way, down from the current 12,500. The new awards will become available in March. Examples of sub-500-mile flights include Washington Reagan-Boston; New York JFK-Cleveland; Philadelphia-Montreal; Charlotte-Orlando; Chicago O’Hare-Memphis; Dallas/Fort Worth-Kansas City; Miami-Savannah, Ga.; Phoenix-San Diego; and Los Angeles-San Francisco.
Changes in earning elite status: In changes beginning Jan. 1, American is phasing out its system of “points” that count toward elite status but will enhance how members earn “elite qualifying” miles. Customers who buy “full fare” first and business class tickets will earn 3 “qualifying miles” per mile flown while discount first and business-class tickets earn 2. Full-fare coach tickets earn 1.5 miles while discounted tickets earn 1 mile.
So, for example, a customer buying a full-fare first class ticket on a 1,500-mile one-way route will earn 4,500 miles that count toward elite status. The same flight in discounted economy would earn 1,500 qualifying miles.
The points system is being discontinued, but customers will still be able to qualify by “segments” — which are equivalent to a single flight. A round-trip flight with a connection in each direction woudl be the equivalent of 4 segments. Fliers earn status be flying 30 (Gold), 60 (Platinum) or 120 (Executive Platinum) in a calendar year.
Mileage award levels changing: American will roll out a new award chart, increasing the miles needed for routes between some regions while reducing them on a handful of others. The changes will take effect in March.
Premium tickets on trans-Atlantic routes and cross-country routes are among those seeing increases. First-class tickets on American’s three-cabin cross country flights will now go for a minimum of 50,000 miles each way, up from the current minimum of 32,500.
Rubin says the routes are being “adjusted to match increased customer demand, including routes that feature our world-class A321T and 777-300ER aircraft.” American has rolled out cabin upgrades to those aircraft, including first and business class cabins that feature lie-flat seats.
At the other end of the spectrum, tickets to Mexico and the Caribbean will now be available for as little as 30,000 miles round trip in coach – a decrease of 5,000 miles round trip (or 2,500 miles each way).
Upgrades: Beginning Jan. 1, members who qualify for Executive Platinum status for 2017 and beyond will receive four “systemwide upgrades,” down from the previous eight. However, they’ll be able to two more (up to a total of four additional) for every 50,000 elite miles they earn beyond the 100,000 it takes to earn Executive Platinum status.
Upgrades (2): American’s Gold and Platinum elite members will now earn four 500-mile upgrade certificates for every 12,500 elite miles earned, up from the current 10,000. American says it increased the earning requirement to coincide with its increased elite-mile multipliers for high-fare tickets.
Miles and points collectors know a good deal when they see one, but sometimes promotions fly under the radar. Here are six promotions to consider this month that will fatten up your points piggy bank.
1. Earn up to 125,000 miles with American or British Airways (valid until Jan. 31, 2016). To celebrate the five-year anniversary of the partnership between oneworld members American Airlines, British Airways, Finnair and Iberia, the airlines are offering big bonuses for most tickets between North America and Europe. The bonus miles start at an additional 2,000 for the cheapest roundtrip fares, but skyrocket to 25,000 miles roundtrip for more expensive business and first class tickets. A total of five roundtrips would give high rollers enough miles to redeem for a free business or first class ticket to Europe or beyond. Be sure to register before jetting off.
2. Copa Airlines offering free status matches with upgrades, and up to 150,000 bonus miles.Panama’s Copa Airlines just launched its own frequent flier program after previously using United’s MileagePlus program. To lure new customers, Copa is offering status matches to many elite fliers. This automatically gives qualifying customers elite status with Copa, which offers elites complimentary upgrades on its flights. Higher membership tiers come with Star Alliance Gold status and regional upgrade certificates. Separately, a new promotion awards 1,000 bonus miles for flying to one of Copa’s newest destinations (like New Orleans or San Francisco). Fly to 10 cities, and you can rack up 150,000 bonus miles. Register for the program and promotion on Copa’s website and fly between now and March 31, 2016.
3. 2x miles with American and Japan Airlines (valid until Dec. 15). Fliers winging their way to Asia with either American or Japan Airlines can earn double miles on first and business class fares. Some economy class fares are also included in the offer, but typically exclude the cheapest tickets. Registration for this offer is key.
4. Double Premier Qualifying Miles for some United fliers (ends Dec. 15). This deal isn’t for everyone, but it is worth checking to see if you qualify in case you missed the email. United is targeting some fliers with an offer to earn double Premier Qualifying Miles (the miles that help you reach elite status) for flights between now and Dec. 15. Check your eligibility here by entering code TB5M74.
5. Sign up for a NextIssue app trial for $15 and pocket 2,000 American miles. This iPad app gives you access to dozens of popular magazines like Men’s Health, People, and Time. Sign up for the trial month for $15 and receive 2,000 American Advantage miles after it’s over. You can cancel the NestIssue app trial after one month if you want, and keep your 2,000 miles. Considering Aadvantage miles are commonly valued at about 1.7 to 1.8 cents each, and this offer gives you 2,000 points at well less than a penny each, it’s a very good deal.
6. Buy Alaska Airlines miles and receive up to 40 percent bonus (ends Oct. 6). Buying miles is rarely a good proposition, but Alaska’s deal offering up to a 40 percent bonus on purchased miles can be worthwhile for some customers. If you buy the maximum number of miles, it would cost $1,182.50 for 56,000 miles. That is more than enough for a one-way business class ticket between North America and Asia on partner Cathay Pacific, which would be way more expensive if you paid in cash.
Is there anyone reading this who isn’t involved with at least one frequent-flier program? Didn’t think so. Frequent-flier miles are embedded in our DNA. We struggle to acquire them through flying, through credit cards and through any promotion we can find. We boast about the “free” trips we get. And we keep coming back for more.
But many of us are getting a bit more savvy — maybe cynical is a better word — about frequent-flier programs. We’re developing a sense that they aren’t really as helpful as when we first enrolled. That the deck is stacked against us and the stack keeps getting higher. And there’s plenty of evidence to support our cynicism.
Occasional and somewhat-frequent leisure travelers may get hit the worst, but a word of warning to all you road warriors: Don’t be too smug about your insider tricks and tips for gaming the system. The airlines have stacked the deck against you, too — and the house always wins.
It’s the most one-sided contract you’ll ever make
When you enroll in a frequent-flier program and hit that “agree” button, the fine print you commit to is the most one-sided contract you’ll ever enter.
Yes, those frequent-flier contracts are even worse than wireless phone or cable TV contracts. You agree that the airline can change the rules any time it wants without any input from you. One-sided contracts are called contracts of adhesion, and frequent-flier contracts are the super glue of adhesion contracts.
The airline actually owns ‘your’ miles
The worst of the one-sided provisions is that you don’t even own “your” miles — the airline owns them. That’s true even though it regularly offers incentives for you to “buy” miles it “sells” you.
In most real-life situations, “buy” and “sell” strongly imply change of ownership, but not with frequent-flier miles. That means you can’t transfer them to anyone else (without paying a fee of more than the miles are worth). On some airlines, you can’t even bequeath them to a surviving spouse.
And if you do something the airline doesn’t like — repeated use of hidden-city or throw-away ticketing, for example — it can nuke your miles and kick you out of the program.
Most big airline programs favor business travelers
Frequent-flier programs are called “loyalty” programs, but some loyalties are better than others. Big airlines know that they get something like 80% of their revenue from about 20% of their customers (or close to that; I’ve seen various estimates within that range). The 20% consists mainly of frequent business traveler “road warriors” who travel a lot and pay top dollar for tickets, so their loyalty is vitally important.
On the other hand, airlines also know that a large percentage of their lowest-fare tickets are bought by leisure travelers who choose the cheapest available flight, and the airline’s view of them is “loyalty, shmoyalty.”
‘Free’ trips are hard to score
A study by IdeaWorks found that reward-seat availability for major North American airlines ranged from highs of 100% for Southwest, 91% on Air Canada, 87% onJetBlue, and 80% on Alaska; to 75% on United, 67% on American, and a dismal 58% on perennially low-scoring Delta.
In isolation, those figures aren’t bad, but they overstate the real-world situation. They cover direct domestic flights in coach/economy between large airports. Real-world experience suggests that success rates are much lower in business/first class, especially on intercontinental trips, and on connecting-flight awards with decent itineraries.
Awards are often hidden
On airline websites, award travel on “partner” airlines is sometimes hidden and not displayed. Also, miles required for a seat on any given flight may vary depending on which airline’s program booking engines is used.
Often, the only way to get a straight answer is to call an airline’s frequent-flier office. And even then, you may get incorrect information. If an agent says “no” to a request, you may do well by calling back a few minutes later and talking to another agent.
The fees are outrageous
Years ago, once you had an award ticket issued, you could change flights and dates as often as you needed, provided only that the origin and destination remained the same and space on your preferred flights was available. That’s no longer true. Now, even a minor change invites a change fee of $75 to $150; you even have to pay up to $75 to change to a different flight on the day of travel. And if you cancel the trip completely, you have to pay up to $150 to redeposit the miles in your account.
These fees are nothing but gouges, pure and simple. If anything, they’re even bigger gouges than change fees for purchased tickets. With purchased tickets, airlines can at least claim an “opportunity cost,” but changing a frequent-flier award costs an airline virtually nothing. After all, the seats are on a “space available” basis.
The fuel surcharges are crazy, too
International award trips on most airlines based outside the U.S. (including even Air Canada) aren’t really “free” any more: Most of those airlines impose a stiff “fuel surcharge” or an “airline-imposed fee,” which is just a fuel surcharge in disguise, on award travel.
For the most part, airlines based in the U.S. do not impose those fees, even when trips are on a foreign partner airline, but American socks award travel on partnerBritish Airways with the fees. Those charges vary from a few hundred dollars to close to a thousand dollars on a premium class trip.
Fortunately, U.S. airlines do not impose those fees on domestic awards. At least not yet. But remember a basic rule of the airline business: Nothing catches on faster than a bad idea.
Miles aren’t worth their asking price
Most independent observers place the value of airline frequent-flier mile at somewhere around a penny or a penny-and-a-half per mile. Presumably that’s close to the price airlines get when they sell miles to banks for inclusion in credit card programs. But when they try to sell miles to you, the big airlines charge more than three cents — about two to three times what the miles are worth. They even charge up to one-and-a-half cents per mile to transfer miles you’ve already earned or bought.
You’re better off buying a coach seat than using miles
If you generate most of your miles through a credit card, you’re often better off buying a domestic coach ticket. These days, you can buy a round-trip ticket on most routes within the continental U.S. for less than $500. A long-haul trip generally requires at least 25,000 frequent-flier miles, so you’d have to charge $25,000 on your card to earn those miles. But some high-payout credit cards earn two miles per dollar charged, so $25,000 worth of charges would give you $500 cash back, enough to buy a ticket without worrying about award-seat availability.
Overall, the “highest and best” use of miles is for premium cabin travel. The cash prices for those tickets are out of sight, so, for many, frequent-flier miles are the only escape from the cattle car into a comfortable flight. But if you’re a more typical coach/economy flier, you are often better off buying a ticket and conserving miles for occasions when they’re the best option.
Elite status isn’t what it used to be
For road warriors, the most important frequent-flier reward is not so much the miles as it is the elite status that provides special check-in lanes, reduced baggage fees, and — most importantly — space-available no-charge upgrades. But even that benefit is eroding.
Airlines are handing out elite status to more and more travelers, while they cut back on the number of first-class seats on typical domestic flights. These days, just about any departure gate with a display screen lists far more travelers eligible for upgrades than available upgrade seats. Only the super-platinum types can count on an upgrade; for the others, it’s a crapshoot.