Air miles in the UAE: make it work and take your flight of fancy

With many airline credit cards, earning enough air miles to qualify for a discounted or free flight simply doesn’t add up to a economical proposition. It takes a cleverly thought-out strategy to make it work.

Ryan Luis, a 31-year-old finance analyst, paid Dh3,000 for an Emirates NBD Infinite card. Because of back problems, he prefers to fly in business class.  Victor Besa for The National
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Years ago, a special sign-up offer on a credit card gave me enough air miles for a free return flight to Cape Town from Dubai (worth Dh5,000). But it appears the airlines have wised up to credit card flyers as it took three years to save the 72,500 miles for my return flight to Australia from Dubai in April, worth Dh5,600.

Plus I had to pay airport taxes and fuel surcharges of Dh1,975. So is an air miles credit card still worth signing up for?

“Air mile cards are the most popular loyalty programme in this part of the world,” says Premjit Bangara, the general manager of travel services at Sharaf Travel. “But airlines have reduced the benefits of credit cards over the last few years.”

Take a UAE traveller with no special airline status earning a salary of Dh18,000 a month and spending $2,000 a month on their credit card.

Then consider a return economy flight from the UAE to London Heathrow. Different airlines require different mile tallies to secure that flight and comparing the cards available from UAE banks can be difficult: some quote miles per dollar, others miles per dirham.

However, on the Emirates NBD Skywards Signature card, it can take the $2,000 spending UAE traveller up to 40 months to build the miles needed for an Emirates fight compared to just five months for Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank’s (ADIB) Etihad Guest Gold Card, which secures a flight on Etihad.

Suvo Sarkar, group head for retail banking & wealth management at Emirates NBD, says that while its card helps customers collect air miles, it offers added extras too.

“Emirates NBD Skywards cards offer more than free flights – customers have access to other lifestyle benefits such as elite hotel loyalty membership,” says Mr Sarkar.

Philip King, UAE head of retail banking at ADIB, says its Etihad Guest Card is very competitive when compared to other frequent flyer credit cards. “We are one of the few co-brand issuers of an airline frequent flyer programme where clients can earn more miles for every dirham spent when compared to other banks.”

To really understand if you are getting a good deal, it’s first worth understanding what an air miles credit card actually is.

Most banks have loyalty programmes, from ADIB’s Rewards to Commercial Bank of Dubai with its Attijari points and HSBC’s tie-up with Air Miles, and points from these can be converted into flights.

But only five banks offer airline-affiliated credit cards, which are effectively an extension of frequent flyer programmes: Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB) and ADIB offer Etihad Guest credit cards and Citi, Emirates Islamic and Emirates NBD offer Emirates Skywards cards.

Air miles credit cards nearly always carry annual fees: ADCB’s two introductory level cards are currently fee-free, while Citi’s Ultima card soars to Dh3,000 per year. So the first rule is – be sure you will need and use an air miles card, as the fees will kill the benefits otherwise.

The Dubai-based events director Juliet Brown, 39, has the Citi Titanium Skywards card, while her husband Gareth has the Ultimate card from Citi. They pay a combined Dh1,200 in fees per year.

“You don’t get many points from travel any more unless you’re lucky enough to fly business class, so it’s hard to get decent miles,” says Ms Brown. “I get a couple of thousand a month from my card and can normally cash in on one flight home to the UK. My husband Gareth just got an economy return flight to Glasgow – he spent 45,000 miles and had to pay an additional Dh1,735 – Dh555 tax and Dh1,180 carrier charges.”

While Ms Brown says they do not book all their flights on credit card miles, they would struggle to manage without them.

“A flight to the UK’s worth Dh3,000 to Dh4,000 on average, so we’re saving Dh1,000 to Dh2,000 on each of our flights. It’s not worth that much but I like to fly Emirates, and I need a credit card, so I might as well have a credit card that gives me Skywards miles.”

Ryan Luis, a 31-year-old finance analyst living in Dubai, signed up for the Emirates NBD Infinite card for the Skywards miles in May 2013. He says: “I fly business virtually every time I travel by upgrading with miles. I paid Dh3,000 to sign up and a Dh1,500 fee annually, but I see it as worthwhile as I have a bad back and prefer business class. I spend Dh20,000 to Dh30,000 a month on my card – I put absolutely everything on it, including my pension payments. I try to pay for the whole bill if I go out and then get friends to give me the cash back.”

Mr Luis received a 25,000 miles sign-up bonus, and another 25,000 if he spent $10,000 in the first three months.

“I had already planned to buy myself a £4,000 [Dh22,500] Breitling watch in the UK for my birthday so I got the full bonus, plus extra miles for international spending. It’s more than double the points to upgrade both ways rather than use them for an economy flight, but a business-class flight to London is worth Dh18,000, around Dh14,000 more than economy, which makes the miles worth more.”

However, Mr Luis admits he cannot always secure an upgrade as platinum and gold members get priority.

“I got stuck flying back from Los Angeles in economy for 16 hours when I’d hoped to upgrade,” he says.

Booking an Emirates economy return ticket to London Heathrow costs travellers 45,000 miles and from 30,000 to 57,500 miles for a one-way upgrade from Dubai.

At a mile a dollar for domestic spending, Mr Luis’s Dh25,000 monthly outlay earns him 6,806 miles. Plus a special 50 per cent bonus for Infinite customers sees him earn a total of 10,210 Skywards miles a month. Even with no special status and only spending in the UAE, it would take him just five months to earn the miles for an economy flight to London or to get enough for a one-way upgrade.

For Ms Brown, spending Dh10,000 per month earns 2,042 miles at 0.75 miles per dollar spent locally on her Citi Titanium card. It would take her 22 months – almost two years – to get a London economy flight and one less to afford that same upgrade.

“The number of miles required to upgrade on Emirates reflects the value of our highly sought after business and first class products,” says Mr Neijb Ben Khedher, a senior vice president at Emirates. “While we don’t fully inhibit the ability for customers to upgrade from our less expensive saver fares, upgrades will require more miles to align with the value proposition of our premium cabins.”

Gaurav Sinha, founder and chief executive of travel communication agency Insignia Worldwide, says travellers don’t have the patience to process complicated redemption strategies.

“There is a disparity between the ‘earning’ and ‘burning’ on air miles credit cards: you earn a mile for every dollar spent, but burn it at 10 cents to get it back in flights, he says. “You may have 100,000 air miles but find they’re not worth a lot. Loyalty in the travel industry is really a one-way street.”

However, what is key with all frequent flyer cards is that while the rate of air mile build up may differ, they all come with added extras.

“The Etihad Guest credit cards are among the most generous on offer, both in terms of how many miles you earn on your everyday spend, as well as the additional member benefits such as complimentary upgrades, free golf and chauffeur services,” says Yasser Al Yousuf, managing director of Etihad Guest.

The banks all claim to offer something unique whether it’s free airport lounge access, valet parking, airport lounge access, roadside assistance or even the option to use miles to pay their annual fee, as is the case at ADIB.

At Citibank, meanwhile, Skywards miles are transferred into the customer’s Skywards account on a weekly basis versus the competition, where miles are transferred on a monthly basis.

“It’s definitely worth it, regardless of a customer’s frequency of travel. Firstly, miles can be used on any airline, hotel or travel provider based on the customer’s choice, they never expire and people in this market travel frequently,” says Devendar Agarwal, head of credit cards and consumer lending at Citi for the Middle East.

At Emirates NBD, customers receive discounts at more than 2,000 restaurants internationally under its flagship Bon Appetit programme, as well as complimentary airport lounge access to 500-plus lounges.

And the UAE air miles credit cards often come out on top when you compare them with those offered by banks for the more established international carriers.

Take that traveller spending $2,000 a month again. To secure a return economy flight on British Airways with a UK credit card, for example, could take between 14 and 31 months.

“Potential reward redemptions for mature programmes become real-time liabilities as they impact the bottom line, therefore many legacy carriers have strict expiry dates and restrictions,” says Mr Sinha.

It’s certainly clear that the more you spend, the more often you fly and the further you go, the more you’ll get out of a frequent flyer credit card.

“Frequent business travellers building lots of miles stand to benefit the most,” says Sharaf Travel’s Mr Bangara.

Emirates NBD’s Mr Sarkar adds: “The crux of the hybrid frequent flyer credit card programmes is that they offer the customer multiple opportunities to earn and spend. Customers can amass miles while shopping or paying bills, as opposed to an airline’s programme, which tends to only reward frequent travel.”

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