Frequent Flyer Tips from the 2 Million Mile Club

The movie "Up in the Air" might be fiction, but it's plenty believable for many businesspeople — especially the reality of spending so much time traveling. Just ask Gary Leff, who as CFO of a university research center in the Washington D.C. area, is flying more than 300,000 miles a year to visit current and potential partners. Or Robert Hartwig, who as chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, finds himself boarding planes 15 to 20 days every month. Both men are close to logging 2 million miles on American Airlines, which will give them Lifetime Platinum status. All that experience makes them experts on all things air travel. If fact, Leff is the incoming president of FlyerTalk.com, an online community for frequent fliers, and writes a blog called View From The Wing.

We asked them both for some tips:

Robert Hartwig

Forget the Idea of Sleep

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Robert Hartwig, chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute

Few people like to get up hours before the sun, but Hartwig says a pre-dawn trip to the airport is worth it for one simple reason: “You arrive to your destination on time.” Why? Early morning flights have fewer delays since congestion builds as the day progresses. A bonus for the exhaustion: You can save money since you eliminate a hotel night, not to mention dinner out.

Take the Internet with You

Pack a wireless card and you’ll find that even the taxi ride to the airport can become work time. It might cost you (or your company) $60 a month, but if you’re in transit as much as Hartwig, that’s a small price to pay. Airport Wi-Fi is spotty, after all, and even Internet connections at some hotels can be a problem. “It’s essential,” says Hartwig of his Wi-Fi card.

Stop Angling for the Upgrade

Hartwig likes to get upgraded—who doesn’t?—but it befuddles him that some business travelers avoid coach-only JetBlue and Southwest Airlines even when flying them is by far the fastest way to go. On some routes, he points out, JetBlue or Southwest are the only airlines with direct flights, so that first class comfort on another airline will require you to change planes. Remember, catching a connecting flight also ups the odds of a delay. “I would rather fly Southwest in coach than another airline in first-class and add three hours to my trip,” says Hartwig. So suck it up and consider the discount airlines.

Savor the Quiet Time on the Flight


Not to rest, of course, but to catch up on work. Hartwig’s at a point where he often gets more done at a mile high than he does in the office. And why not. He’s stuck in a seat and he can’t use his cell phone. “There are so only so many things you can do and work is one of them,” Hartwig says. So he responds to emails, firing them off when he lands, and he brings along printouts so he can work even when the flight attendant makes him close his laptop. And if Hartwig ends up sitting next to a chatterer, he makes it known that this is not a social event. “Sometimes they try and start a conversation,” he says. “But once I open the laptop, it’s clear that I’m not going to talk.”

Gary Leff

Smart Business Travelers Always Carry on

Gary Leff, incoming president of Flyertalk.com

Checked bags can get lost or damaged. Just as important, though, is that the process is a time suck. “If I fly 200 flights a year and wait a half-hour each time, it amounts to a 60 hours a year waiting for bags,” Leff says. “Frequent fliers don’t check bags.”

Finding room in the overhead, however, can be hard since more people are carrying on their bags to avoid luggage fees. To up the odds of snagging the room in the overhead, Leff suggests that you ask your airline what order the plane will board before you book your ticket. Most airlines board coach from back to front, he says, and getting a seat in the rear actually ends up being a time saver. “It will take a few extra minutes to get off the plane if you’re sitting in the back,” he says, “but three more minutes is better than waiting 30 minutes for your luggage.”

Milk the Frequent Flier and Hotel Reward Programs

Power travelers know how to work the mileage and hotel point programs all the time. “The most important thing is you want elite status in one airline program, which gives you priority boarding and occasional upgrades,” says Leff. “Membership in a hotel program can help you get your Internet charges waived, upgrades to suites, free breakfast, etc. In most of the programs, once you hit certain milestones, you get lifetime status in the program.” And some are more generous than others. With American Airlines, for instance, miles obtained from hotel or car rental partners count towards lifetime status.

So, in short, earn miles every chance you get, even when you’re shopping. For example, Leff uses Evreward.com, a site that awards you miles when you shop at its partners, which include stores such as Macy’s and Barnes & Noble.

Bring Plenty of Gadgets and Supplies

Savvy business travels make sure they have TSA-approved laptop bags so that they don’t have to remove their laptop for the x-ray machine at security. But what about an extra adapter, a wireless router, and a power strip? Leff says to pack them too. You’ll likely need the adapter on your flight since lots of power ports won’t let you plug in with the adapter that came with your laptop; there are plenty of places online to help you figure out what kind of adapter you need. And you’ll be glad to have the additional gear when you settle in. Says Leff: “They allow you to be more flexible with your laptop in the hotel room.”

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