Qantas today unveiled major changes to its Frequent Flyer program, adding options to fly on any day where seats are available and an expanded range of other products to its traditional use-points-and-fly-if-you're-lucky approach. Where can the best deals be had and how can you ensure you get the flights you want? Click after the jump for our initial impressions, and add your own best advice in the comments.
Five million Australians are members of Qantas' Frequent Flyer scheme, so the changes would seem bound to have a major impact. In truth, despite the addition of Any Seat awards (get any vacant seat using a higher number of points) and Points Plus Pay (add cash if you're slightly short of the points total) to the existing system (Classic Awards), the same basic principles still apply to getting frequent flyer seats. Of these, the most important are:
The further in advance you book, the better the deals that will be available, whatever booking option you use. If you want public holidays (particularly Easter, Qantas' busiest period), early booking is critical. For major overseas routes (such as Sydney-London), it's not unrealistic to look 12 months in advance or more.
Flexibility pays. If you're not wedded to a particular set of dates, you'll get a lot more choices. Tough for family weddings, but potentially not impossible for holidays if kids aren't involved.
Loyalty pays. Qantas offers more Classic Awards seats to higher ranked (platinum and gold) frequent flyers.
Check all your options and weigh them carefully. Frankly, it's a waste of time to spend money on a seat that you can purchase at a discounted rate anyway. With online booking, it's easy to check what the cash cost of a given trip is and weigh it against the use of your points.
Qantas doesn't make complete comparisons particularly easy, since you can't compare different types of award flights in one screen. But it's worth going through and checking the Classic, Any Seat and standard prices before making a booking.
The general principle Qantas is promoting is to use Classic for onger-term bookings, and Any Seat if you need a particular reservation or are in a blazing hurry. How well this works will vary a lot by destination.
We tried booking a flight from Sydney to Melbourne for next Monday (a traditionally competitive day), and couldn't get any morning flights with the Classic system (where the price would be 8,000 points with taxes, or 14,000 points with no cash payment). The Any Seat options ranged from 13,396 (note that this marginally less than the equivalent Classic booking but lacks any flexibility) for the afternoon flights to a whopping 52,274 points for morning flights.
Bear in mind that the latter is getting close to what a Classic economy seat from Sydney to London would cost (assuming you could find one). The cheapest paid-for seat available for Sydney-Melbourne was $450. Yeah, that's a lot of money, but my gut feeling is that 50,000 points can still be better spent to get you more than $450 in value.
Advance booking definitely opens up your options. Looking at the same booking for three months hence, all the morning flights were available in the Classic system. Any seat also had virtually the whole day covered with a range of points options.
When booking in any of the schemes, check the flights carefully to make sure you're getting the airline you want. Jetstar flights are included, which is essential given that Qantas itself doesn't cover all Australian destinations anymore, but this could result in your having a slightly different flight experience than you'd anticipated.
Don't forget to compare costs properly. Classic seats can be booked using points alone or points plus tax payments; Any Seat bookings are points only. The number of points you spend also impacts the flexibility; cheaper seats (in points terms) can't easily be changed.
One more piece of advice? The store doesn't look particularly good value for tech products. For instance, a 1GB iPod shuffle can be had for 12,700 points. However, those points in the old system are worth at least a $125 flight — possibly more on a less competitive route — while the Shuffle itself can now routinely be had for $60. Sure, points are money you don't have to spend, but by spending them on flights, they're more money in your pocket at the end of the day.
Angus Kidman has possibly spent more time on planes than anywhere else in the last eight years. His points total rarely tops 100,000, but only because he keeps spending it.