SmallChange

Have air miles will... land you on the wait list

Seat redemption can be frustrating, whereas cashback cards can get you free ice cream

There is a commercial for Emirates airline starring Jennifer Aniston as herself, befriending a young boy on a plane.

She is so charmed by him that she follows him back to where his family is seated, in economy class, and offers her first-class seat to the boy's mother, so she, bazillionnaire Jennifer Aniston, can sit with her new friend and enjoy Emirates' in-flight entertainment with him.

The commercial is funny because it's absurd. Everyone knows that Aniston has a private jet.

But if she really likes hanging out with kids in cattle class that much, she can swop with me any day.

I don't think it's an understatement to say that flying economy has become an increasingly hellish experience over the years, as tough competition and thinning margins have forced airlines to pinch every penny (and sometimes even punch a face or two).


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

This has meant everything from cramming more seats into their planes, to making passengers refill their own water bottles throughout long-haul flights to save on labour.

I'm ready for my upgrade.

But seeing as I don't earn a fraction of what Aniston does, the only way I can attain the luxe jet-setting life is through accumulating and redeeming air miles.

Thankfully, there are many credit cards in Singapore that reward users with air miles.

About two weeks ago, United Overseas Bank and KrisFlyer added a new product to the mix. The KrisFlyer UOB Account is a current account with a debit card, which rewards users with air miles for every dollar they spend, at earn rates corresponding to how much they have saved.

Generally speaking, miles cards give you more bang for your buck than cashback cards.

That is, if you spend, say, $2,000 a month on a miles card, it would, at the end of the year, reap you enough miles to redeem a flight of a much higher value than whatever cash you would have earned from spending the same amount on a cashback card.

So it seems like a no-brainer.

The husband-and-wife team behind Get.com, Mr Pedro Pla and Ms Grace Cheng, recently gave me some encouraging tips.

Besides running a website that compares credit cards and other financial products, they are also "travel hackers" who are now travelling around the world with their two toddlers, on business-class flights redeemed with their credit card miles.

"Travel hacking... is a skill that anyone can acquire, and is especially useful for those who love travelling but are not the type of elite frequent travellers who fly several times a week to chalk up miles in return," they said.

"We fall into this group and have earned the bulk of our one million miles from the ground, which means that we earned them as credit card reward points or miles when we use our credit cards to pay for purchases."

A common misconception, they added, is that one needs to spend a tonne of money on flights or on many credit cards in order to earn free or cheap travel. "However, that cannot be further from the truth. You just need to set your own goal of how many miles you need to redeem for a free flight to your dream destination, and then use the best credit cards to help you earn the most points or miles per dollar spent on your card."

Sounds totally achievable, right?

And yet I still haven't been able to throw myself into the air mile chase. Every time I think I should make that leap, I am reminded of the reason that has held me back.

I've read several horror stories about how difficult it can be to actually secure an award seat - a seat awarded to someone who's accumulated miles, rather than a revenue seat that is paid for.

According to many experienced mile chasers online, you are most likely to succeed in redeeming an award seat if you book at least nine months in advance.

My husband and I tend to be able to plan our holidays only about six months in advance, because of our work schedules. But then, the available award seats would have been taken up, and everyone else looking to redeem miles would end up on a wait list, which can take ages to clear.

Online forums are rife with stories from people who say they have had to physically show up at the airline's ticketing office and cause a scene in order to clear the wait list and secure the seats they wanted to redeem. Many manage to do so just two weeks before departure. That's a nail-biting wait if you have already booked accommodation, restaurants and tours, which, if you're a control freak and mega planner like me, you would have done months ago.

UOB said at the launch of its KrisFlyer UOB Account that it is expecting some 200,000 people to sign up for the new product over the next five years. That's 200,000 more people I have to compete with for a limited number of award seats on Singapore Airlines (SIA) flights.

When asked by a reporter if SIA or any of its partner banks could do something to address the frustrations so many have faced over this demand-supply imbalance, the airline's senior vice-president of marketing planning Tan Kai Ping said: "We have inventory set aside for redemptions... When you hear about people not being able to get seats, it's because everybody wants to go to London on a night flight during the school holidays around Christmas. There's one flight and one plane but that plane always has no seats."

I think that means I shouldn't expect the odds of claiming an award seat to tilt in my favour any time soon.

Cashback cards may not give you back as much in rewards, but they sure are convenient, and as a working mother, convenience reigns supreme in my book.

When I use my cashback card at FairPrice at the end of a long week and find out from the cashier auntie that I can take home my tub of Haagen Dazs for free, that is just priceless.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline ' Have air miles will... land you on the wait list'. Print Edition | Subscribe