My Final Fling

Two years ago in Los Angeles  I had my final fling.

My wife was 32 weeks pregnant at the time, and so she was safely tucked away on the farm in Australia. I’d been saving it up for years and now it was time to break the seal.

For the sake of my marriage let me make it clear that I’m talking about travel, not treachery.

You see I’d spent the better part of the previous decade in a metal tube flying somewhere, and in the process I’d attained a rather pompous pinnacle: platinum status with Qantas.

However, with a young family on the way, I made the conscious decision to curb my travel. Family comes first. Yet for my final flight fling, I came first — specifically Seat 1A aboard Qantas’s big bird, the A380.

I thought I’d be sharing the rarified air with Justin Bieber, or Shane Warne , or at the very least Daryl Somers. Nothing. Just a bunch of old rich dudes (And their old rich wives, who all seemed to be wearing the same uniform: pearls, upturned collars and funky glasses).

But my personal Qantas trolley dolly was excellent. He poured me expensive cognac, had the chef cook me a beautiful steak just to my liking, and when it was time for a little shut-eye, made my bed and fluffed my pillows. He even gushed that he “loved my book” (which totally outshone my wife who ventured that it was “okay in parts”).

Now, to get up to the pointy part of the plane I used up every single one of my points on an upgrade from the back of the cabin — and as I’ll explain in a moment, that’s generally how to get the best bang from your Qantas points.

The Honest Truth About Frequent Flyer Points

After the Aussie dollar, frequent flyer points are a quasi second currency, and they’re tracked just as closely by most travellers. They are promoted as being a reward for ‘loyalty’. Yet let’s get one thing clear: frequent flyer programs are the airlines’ way of rewarding the loyalty of its shareholders, not its customers.

In Qantas’s case its frequent flyer scheme is a humongous cash cow.  In fact in 2012 they earned 60 percent of their profit from points!  It is not designed to save you money. And to keep us all chasing our tails looking for the best deals, they’ve (deliberately) made the process of earning and using points utterly confusing. Just like Wiley Coyote chasing the Road Runner, most of us never quite get there. But let’s give it a go.

How much is a ‘point’ really worth?

It changes depending on where you earn a point  and where you spend it. To take one example, Qantas sells $100 gift vouchers for 15,100 points. So in that regard each point is worth a bit more than half a cent (0.6). Though it varies significantly depending on how you earn the points. If you use the points to upgrade to Business or First Class like I did for example, each point is worth more like three to four cents.

How much do I have to spend on my credit card to make it worth my while?

If you’re spending less than $12,000 a year on your credit card and hope to earn enough points for a flight, you need to stow your tray table and apply the oxygen mask.  You’re getting hosed, especially when you consider that most credit card rewards programs charge a hefty annual fee.

To make points pay, you really need to spending around $60,000 a year on your credit card. That’ll earn you the equivalent of around $1,000 in frequent flyers.

OK, so how do I use my points?

Once you’ve laid down $60,000 (or whatever) to get your points so the next step is using them.  And in most programs you need to use them within a certain time period or they’ll expire.

Qantas has a range of different options for booking seats, all of them confusing, and ultimately designed to get you to buy more expensive tickets. I’ll refer you to the Qantas frequent flyer page, which details — and I really mean details — your options.

There’s so much fine print and double meaning, they’ve run out of symbols on the keyboard to cover their asterisks. In their 81 words of explanation, they use nine different symbols for footnotes (^, +, *, **, #, ##, ≠, ?).


Making Your Points Pay?

These days my frequent flyer ‘status’ has slipped all the way down to ‘bronze’, and the days of filet mignon and cognac are a distant memory. But I don’t care.

Over the last decade the airlines have become stingier with their frequent flyers. I’ve worked out I’ll save more money by hunting down the cheapest airfare — on any airline at any time — and pocketing the savings.

Two years on, I’m more likely to be sitting in seat 72D (next to the dunnies), while my son pokes a rusk like a branding iron into the head of the poor old poddy calf sitting in front of me in Cattle

Who Are The Real Winners from Frequent Flyers? 

1) Comparison Websites 

For every click that ends in a new rewards card (complete with complex points schemes) those credit card comparison sites get paid upwards of $100 in commission. Because the sands shift so much, point chasers keep switching to new cards — and it’s a multi-million-dollar a month business for the comparison sites.

2) Credit Card Companies 

The purveyors of plastic gladly pay Qantas, Virgin and the rest for their frequent flyer rewards schemes because they encourage people to spend money they don’t have, chasing rewards they won’t redeem. The real money is made from Aussies spending $6 billion a year on credit card interest.

3) The Airlines

What helped Qantas through its recent (and ongoing) financial turbulence was its frequent flyer scheme. As already noted, in 2012 it generated a staggering 60 percent of Qantas’ profits. The airline earns over $1 billion a year by selling points — by far the most profitable part of the business.