Nicholas Kralev was a diplomacy reporter for the Washington Times for several years, and flew all over the world on the newspaper’s dime — but newspapers haven’t been the most thriving businesses over the past several years, so he had to make the most of a modest travel budget. And like many readers of this blog, he doesn’t like flying coach. So he learned the ins and outs of airfares, frequent flyer programs, upgrades, bonuses, and began to think strategically and methodically as he planned out his travels.
His travels also earned him a regular column in that newspaper, “On the Fly,” which was both a personal journal of his frequent flyer experiences, and a platform for offering advice to the public on how to make travel more comfortable — which frequent flyer programs were more generous than others, who offered the most generous upgrade schemes.
The column was also a soapbox of sorts. Last year I ran into Kralev at the Fresno airport, and we chatted during our flight to Los Angeles and then in the Red Carpet Club about a topic I had recently blogged — frequent flyer programs and Haitian disaster relief. I had argued that Hilton HHonors was being exceptionally ungenerous in their scheme to allow members to donate points to charity. It was far better to redeem points for a paid stay, and then give the money from that stay to charity, than it was to donate points. I argued that redeeming your points for donations was actually cheaper for the HHonors program in many cases than redeeming your points for a room. We actually shared the same flight back to Washington-Dulles and he popped by my seat in the business cabin (he had planned his trip in advance and was in the mini-cabin of United’s 777 business class, I planned mine last minute and was in the main cabin). The next day he contacted HHonors, and the attention he was giving the issue was enough to get them to match all member contributions to Haitian relief. He had gotten them to come out of pocket with a quarter million dollars for charity, just on the basis of writing the piece.
Kralev has left the Times and has been offering paid seminars at which he teaches techniques for getting the most out of travel for the least amount of money. And having been teaching these seminars for a year, he’s now written a book, Decoding Air Travel. I should disclose that about three months ago he sent me a draft, and I offered extensive comments. I wasn’t paid for my review, but he does generously include me in his acknowledgments.
The book is broken down into three sections: booking tickets, the trip itself, and making the most of frequent flyer programs.
In section one, across six chapters, Kralev offers the best introduction to airfare construction and searching out the best airfares that I’ve ever read.
Now, that’s not for everyone. Most consumers will be happy going to Kayak, Bing, or Hipmunk and booking the least expensive trip that matches their general flight preferences. But this book takes you completely through looking up the cheapest airfares, understanding the rules of the fare, and finding flights that (1) match those rules and (2) have inventory available at the lowest price. He explains concepts like same-day confirmed changes, standby, coach airfares that offer confirmed upgrades to first class, and married segments.
In walking you through how to use this information to book the best flights for you — whether that means the cheapest flights, the flights with upgrade availability, or the flights that will earn you the most miles — he gives great examples but I do take exception to his naming the technique “The Kralev Method” I’m not sure he invented it, after all, even if he’s providing the clearest written explanation of it that I’ve seen.
In the second section, the book takes you through buying your tickets, making changes to your reservation at the lowest cost, handling irregular operations (weather, mechanical, and other delays and cancellations), and obtaining compensation from an airline for your inconveniences.
The final five chapters are all about using frequent flyer programs: choosing the right program for you, making the most of airline alliances, obtaining elite status (by flying and by other means) and the benefits of status, the ins and outs of upgrades both domestic and international, finding airline award seats — and because the book is by the guy who brought so much mainstream attention to the issue of United’s “starnet blocking” (programming their computers to tell customers that partner flights are unavailable even when those partner airlines are offering award seats, because United didn’t want to pay for those seats) there’s even a section on that practice. We have to keep reminding ourselves just how bad it got, up until a year ago, because United has not publicly commented on the practice in the past twelve months. Even though award blocking has been an issue only for a couple of weeks in the past year, we have to keep the pressure on the combined United-Continental so that it doesn’t return next year.
Ultimately, I did know everything in the book, but it was still a good read — summarizing the debates between Expert Flyer and the KVS Tool for searching flight availability, reminders not to take ‘direct’ or ‘codeshare’ flights without meaningful cost savings, making changes to your return only after flying the first outbound segment and using schedule changes to get fee-free changes. Lots of great reminders about things I already know.
The most advanced mileage runners probably don’t need this book. But the frequent flyer that’s looking to learn to get the lowest airfares and get the most for their money will likely find it money well-spent. It’s not cheap at $40, but he’s offered promo code V9S696JF for 25% off at this site.
It’s not the book I would have written (and who knows, someday may write). It’s largely about airfares and I’ve always found miles and points much more interesting. His chapter on frequent flyer miles is a very good contribution. It’s less comprehensive but written at a somewhat higher level than Randy Petersen and Tim Winship’s 2005 Mileage Pro which I much liked (and which could use an update). A book about true luxury travel at the cheapest prices, not just airline upgrades but hotel status and the very best point redemptions, going ‘all-in’ on monster deals, and an overall way of approaching travel to succeed where most fails remains to be written. I’m probably not a lucid enough writer to pull it off and still make it accessible. And this is a book that Kralev is eminently qualified to write, and that will be helpful to many.