“There are no free lunches in life” – a business mantra cum life mantra that we all have heard all our life. While over the years I have realized it’s not entirely true, when it comes to air travel, most people seem to agree that there are indeed no free lunches.
Unless, ofcourse, you are standing on the wrong food kiosk!!
Before we get into which counter in the food court you need to be on, one needs to first figure out what free means to them. The definition of free can be very different to different people. What is free to me, might be a huge cost to the next customer. The one thing that you have to spend, to get that free lunch, is time. Depending on how big your appetite is your time investment will vary proportionally. If all you want is your annual boys party Delhi-Goa return flight or you want to visit your folks during thanksgiving and just need a Boston – Houston return flight or may be all you want to do is fly Gatwick – Munich for the Oktoberfest, the time you need to invest would be the same amount of time you spend on your morning coffee. However, if you want that first class ticket on Etihad Residence, or that suite on Singapore Airlines, you will have to spend a little more than coffee time to get there.
The issue is that most people don’t believe that to be true. But it is. There are 5000 registered airlines in the world and for a world of 200 countries, that averages 25 airlines per country. Now, without exaggerating the numbers, you can expect each country on average to have 5 airlines, if not more. Full service, low cost, chartered, there are all kinds. USA has 5 major airlines, and a bunch of smaller ones. That might seem too little for a passenger load of 800 million people. Now contrast it with India, which has 7 major airlines and again a bunch of other small airlines, for a load of 100 million customers. And each airline is in a mad scramble to gain and retain customers. That’s where the customer wins. Unless ofcourse, you are a United airlines customer and the flight is overbooked.
Enter Frequent Flier program (ffp). Frequent flier programs were designed to entice customers to stick with a single airline. It was United airlines that first come up with this idea, way back in 1950’s. Soon enough, all airlines caught on. With time the plans have changed, and the more seasoned players may think it has only gotten worse, which would be true, but still there is lot of free seats to go around. Soon enough, benefits from other sources also started to pour in. Shopping, hotel stay, and most important peg in the wheel – credit card companies. And the customer wins again.
Airlines around the world are on track to make a 30-billion-dollar profit in 2017. And paying customers like us have to wonder, if there is anything for us. Fortunately, there is. With the correct combination of frequent flier program and-or credit card subscription, most of which are free, anyone can get a free flight ticket or may be even more. There are people who travel thousands of miles per year without spending a dime, while some of us pay through our nose to fly a small distance of 500 miles, once a year. A smart flyer would take a few minutes of his time and would do it for free – including you. And airlines and credit card companies do not mind at all. The programs are there for the benefit of the customers. They will find some way of making money in the long run, may be change the programs a little more, increase the fee on that free credit card and so on. But for now, the short run, the paying customer can benefit from the system, designed to charge them at every corner.
The next question is obviously – which frequent flier program and credit card is right for you. The honest answer – it depends. It depends on the size of the free lunch you are looking for. Just like seats on an airline, not all FFP’s were created the same. So you need to pick the one, that gives you the most comfortable journey.
Now you may think that travelling economy in a crammed seat is a losing proposition, but at the end of the day, that crammed seat costs real money. And there is no harm in saving that money for other things, like an extra round of beer with friends in Goa, or a special gift for your folks during thanksgiving. Free money is after all free money.