Are frequent-flier points worth it? Plus, how to fly right

The other day I jumped at an offer from an airline I frequent. Normally I ignore email offers, but this one grabbed me.

It was a chance for frequent fliers  to buy double miles at half the cost. Comes in handy when you’re like me: I used most of my miles to help cut the cost of my RTW trip.

My nephews

I had just under 15,000 miles left in my frequent flyer account.  It would take a lot of groceries to hit the big 25,000, the minimal amount needed for a ticket to North Carolina, where my sister (affectionately called my sista, because that’s the way all our relatives with Nu Yawk accents would say it) and her family live — an otherwise grueling eight-hour car trip.

(My credit card earns me miles, so I use it for everything. And I hold my nose and pay the annual fee.) So I paid $118 for 8,000 miles, supposedly the price for 4,000.

Was it worth it?

I guess. It’s doubtful I’d find a fare to North Carolina for such a low price when I want to visit. Especially spur-of-the-moment.

But there’s the rub with frequent flier miles. Sometimes they’re useless if you wait until the last minute to book — if everyone else happens to be flying, too. Unless you plan months in advance (Do you know anyone who books winter holidays over the summer; or summer holidays in winter? I sure don’t.), there may be no seats available for weeks. And you’ll end up having to buy a regular ticket anyway.

That’s happened to me just once, and it’s been close a few times.

Courtesy/Fairmont Southampton

I generally try to travel in the off-season if I possibly can, when demand is down.  I’ve gotten some real bargains by visiting Europe, Canada and Bermuda in the dead of winter.  The hotel my partner and I stayed at in Bermuda — the Fairmont — offered luxury rooms at a nice, off-season price. Even though it was winter, daytime temperatures were still in the 60s and we weren’t wrestling with the summer crowds.

Ditto with Italy’s desirable Amalfi Coast. It’s a zoo from May to September, with over-the-top costs and crowds. In early March, when we went, it was quiet  and certainly not Mediterranean swimming weather. But still beautiful. And so was the bill, relatively speaking.

But if you have to go when you have to go, here’s how to get more for your buck.

For a possible starting point on airfares, check out the offerings on ITA Software, which provides similar travel technology to airlines like American and Southwest, discounters Kayak and Orbitz, and travel site TripAdvisor.  You can’t buy from this site; if you see an attractive fare, let the airline or a travel agent know.

George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com,  a popular airfare alert site that seeks out and lists the lowest fares, offered these tips when I interviewed him.

He says having more flexibility with airports and schedules may save some cash. Depending on on the route, and when you buy, alternate airports in your area can be cheaper.

Consider traveling at odd hours — taking ”red eye” overnight flights or the first flight of the day to save money. And keep an eye out for weekend airfare deals, which airlines usually issue in the middle of the week. Plus, sign up for fare alerts if your favorite airline offers them.

As far as hotels, I’ve found  it literally pays to know what you’re getting into. Take a good look around the Net. Google as many reviews as possible. I always start with Trip Advisor. When I find a prospect, I go to its website, and then look at Kayak or Expedia to see their going rate.

I’ve had good luck with Expedia, but that’s because I’ve really scoped out my destinations by the time I book there.

I’ve found the discounters are usually cheapest; but sometimes the best rate is from either the hotel website, or the hotel directly.

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