Frequent Flyer Club

What Frequent Flyers Know About Getting Free Stuff From Airlines

Ted McGrath/Megan Chong

Full disclosure: As I started writing this, I was sitting in the Cathay Pacific lounge under the Hong Kong International Airport, waiting for a flight that was almost a day late. The lounge was lovely, but after the first 10 hours or so, even the free tea and dumplings started to wear thin. I tell you this, because -- no matter what you do, as if you needed to know -- while flying is amazing, air travel sucks.

The technology and difficulty of propelling you through the air leave you at the complete mercy of the airline. No matter what the cute video you watch on the taxiway says, airlines regard you mostly as mass and money. I know this far too well: I’m up to about 40,000 miles in the first half of the year, on an average of a flight every other week -- and this has been a relatively light year for me. Status or no, I know full well that to the airlines I’m basically a talking suitcase. Even if you manage to book the lie-flat studio bed in international flagship first class, you remain a body packed in a metal tube. Cargo, in other words.

The good news is, there are ways to turn the system to your benefit. Airlines learned some time ago that the best way to make sure passengers (and their far wealthier employers) keep giving money to them, rather than to their competitors, was to encourage loyalty and tamp down on passengers’ unhappiness. You can’t do anything about the weather (or in my case, Beijing air traffic control). But you can make your experience a lot more pleasant if you follow a few tips.

frequent flyer
Megan Chong/Ted McGrath

Join the airline's loyalty program.

This is the first, easiest step. You see all those people getting on the plane before you, sitting in the nice seats, getting free drinks and snacks? You see the glassware and utensils made for human adults and not preschoolers on a field trip to the local paint factory? Almost none of those people are actually paying for that.

Some get their very wealthy companies to float the crazy money (and I mean crazy. A month out, American is offering a one-way from JFK to Shanghai-Pudong for $468, while bumping up to first class will cost you an extra $11,500). But for the most part, those passengers at the front of the plane are there because they have put their butt in a bunch of seats (this is actually how people who know how to do this talk) and flew around a bunch for credit, and now they, in the eyes of the airline, are better than you for the duration of the travel experience. The miles they fly might earn them free stuff and upgrades faster than the miles you fly, because airlines are capitalist and the rich get richer and exit row seats are for closers.

Join the program. Get the credit card. Learn the difference between a bonus mile, a status-qualifying mile, and a 500-mile upgrade. The ideal situation is that you live in a hub city and can focus on flying just one carrier. I don’t, and so I’ve got two very active mileage accounts, plus a handful of others for the assorted carriers, often based overseas, that I occasionally have to fly. No matter what your situation, this at least gives you a chance to start building up lucre and cred for the future. If you don't want to be sitting next to the bathroom eating stale pretzels for the rest of your life, then you might as well start now.

Megan Chong/Ted McGrath
Megan Chong/Ted McGrath

Use your miles, uh, frequently

Don't save them up for that big trip around the world you're never going to take. America’s airlines are in some kind of insane collusive plot to continually devalue miles, a game to which they've recently added the sadistic step of also judging you based on how much money you (or your company, which is the real point) have spent. So your miles keep losing value the longer you wait. Some airlines, like Delta, now let you pay for part of your flight with miles and the rest with cash. Miles are money. Don't waste them.

Megan Chong/Ted McGrath
Megan Chong/Ted McGrath

When in doubt, ask for stuff. And when not in doubt.

This goes double, especially when you’re being put out. Flight's delayed? Ask for meal vouchers. Flight's really delayed? They better put you in a hotel. Then demand a better hotel. Ask for miles too. And money. The airlines call this "goodwill." They don't always give it, but they will almost always only give it to people who ask for it. After one delay, for the asking, I got 19,000 miles -- the equivalent of $190. On another recent inconvenience, I got $600 in flight credit. On another, $100 cash. Be one of those people. Ideally, one of those people who’s also a member of the loyalty program.

Megan Chong/Ted McGrath
Megan Chong/Ted McGrath

Be nice to everyone. Also, be a little entitled.

This is difficult to pull off, but it's really the key to happiness in the air. Yes, everyone is probably having as bad a day as you -- hence the being nice part. And, yes, it's a privilege, nay, a full-blown, miracle that you get to strap yourself to a seat blasting through the sky at 500 mph to travel farther than all your ancestors combined going back to the Olduvai Gorge. But you (or your company or whatever) paid whatever you paid for this experience, and so you should be getting every possible benefit that you can get, reasonably, if it's not too much trouble. I mean if you don't, someone else will, right? Might as well be you. Nicely.

Megan Chong/Ted McGrath
Megan Chong/Ted McGrath

Harness the power of Twitter to annoy

The people you follow on Twitter are really annoying (Twitter is, in fact, really annoying), especially when they shift without warning from tweeting about the news, sports, and political commentary for which you chose them and start tweeting at airlines about trivial, ephemeral bullshit. You know why they do this? Because it works. Airlines have teams who respond to Twitter crazily well, and fast. Way faster than waiting on hold or for a gate agent on a cloudy day in Chicago. If you aren't a celebrity, you do this at will and get all the benefits without pissing off your fans. If you are famous, use your DMs.

(Fun fact: Commuter planes that claim to be the airline you're flying probably aren't the airline you're flying. They're a subcontractor with a name like Chattahoochee Airways or GoGoWheedotcom that's licensing out their equipment and crew to a real airline, and the pilot and flight attendant are all basically high schoolers and make about as much money per hour as you did in your first job at Chick-fil-A. This doesn’t make any difference in terms of frequent flier miles or any of that, but it’s good to know when you’re trying to raise hell.)

Megan Chong/Ted McGrath
Megan Chong/Ted McGrath

Finally, leverage the snack cart

You can probably use the bathroom in Business Class if the cart is blocking the aisle to your bathroom, just so you know. And if you ask for both the pretzels and the cookies, and a soda and a water, the flight attendant will probably give it to you.

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Jonathan M. Katz is a frequent flier who feels very guilty about the carbon emissions, but this is how he sees the world and makes a living, you know? Many previous flights were to Port-au-Prince, where he authored The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. He is currently jetting around for a new book on American empire. @ him @KatzOnEarth.