Frequent flyer has own take on how to save money

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am


Troy Liu, 28, is well versed in the loyalty programmes of all major airlines, and he uses that knowledge to slash his travel costs. By redeeming membership points earned from frequent-flyer schemes, he has visited more than 40 countries since 2004. Now, he wants to share his money-saving tips with Chinese travellers who may not be as familiar with such programmes as their Western counterparts are.

How did you fall in love with travelling and get familiar with airline loyalty programmes?

In 2004, I travelled to Europe with my wife. It was my first visit to a place outside China and the US. I had accumulated some membership points on Air China for trips to the US, and after the European trip, I realised European airlines also had such offers. At the same time, I felt it would be very fun to go round the globe. I used the points as a tool to visit many places with less money and more comfort. So, since 2004, I have been travelling a fair bit. I've accumulated points from many airlines.

Are there many people like you?

Yes. Airline loyalty programmes have been around for 30 years in the US and many people know how to use them. What I'm thinking of is to tell others they can use these to travel the world. If I liken Chinese people to a one-year-old child in using loyalty points, Westerners are adults already. Many of the foreigners who consult me on travelling are in their 70s or 80s - the oldest was born in 1927 - whereas my oldest Chinese customer so far was only in his 30s.

How do you make a living?

I was an accountant and a stock trader. Now, I rely on my past stock market earnings while offering consultancy services to help travellers make good use of their membership points.

How many places have you been to, and are your flights really free?

I never count; maybe 40 to 50. Since the start of last year, I have been using software to record the flights I take. Now it shows 223 flights, totalling more than 640,000 kilometres. Some 70 per cent of these flights had been redeemed using points. I spend money only on Sino-US or domestic US flights because the airlines charge quite low prices and are more generous in giving points. As for free flights, it depends on how you look at it. To get the points, you have to buy air tickets with cash in the first place. But if you go on frequent business trips, a subsequent ticket redeemed with points is truly free, because your company pays for your business trips while the mileage belongs to you.

How can infrequent travellers make the best use of the loyalty schemes?

You can buy membership points from foreign airlines directly, not necessarily by taking their flights. It's just that the points are quite expensive, though there are promotions sometimes. For example, you can buy up to 100,000 points under one account from US Airways, which cost US$1,800. These points are enough to exchange for a first-class round-trip ticket to Europe on any member airline of the Star Alliance network. This will also give you a free stopover, a chance to travel to one more place. That first-class ticket would cost about US$10,000 if you used cash.

What's your impression of Chinese travellers after years on the road?

Chinese tour groups really have a bad reputation. They're badly behaved and are very loud in public. Once, a hotel I stayed at set aside a separate breakfast area for a Chinese group. It had no choice. Its experience was that those tourists would take away some bread after they finished their meals. I wish Chinese people could be more civilised. The main reason is that Chinese tour groups are usually made up of people born in the '50s and '60s. Their habits and lifestyles are determined by their era. Some people born in the '70s have started travelling independently. Today, few Chinese born in the '80s join a tour group. This is a good trend.

Has there been any change in the way you are treated while abroad?

Now, wherever I go, I hear people say: 'China is good.' When I crossed a US border checkpoint this summer, a guard said China was good and rich, and asked me to visit his country often. In Ethiopia, a store owner exclaimed, 'Good, good', when I told him I was Chinese. Usually strangers would think I'm from Japan or South Korea because independent Chinese travellers are not common. A friend of mine has had similar experiences: a Syrian policeman stopped checking him upon learning he was from China. In a word, our status has changed. But in big cities of developed countries, locals have a bad impression of Chinese tourists because of poorly behaved tour groups.

Any plans for the future?

I want to start a frequent-flyer-related website to give information about the programmes and to allow for the exchange of travel experiences. On the one hand, I hope more Chinese will get to know such schemes; on the other, I hope Chinese airlines will attach more importance to this instead of thinking it's dispensable. In the West, it is a US$50 billion industry. My plans also include a platform to comment on hotels and airlines. and let people share remarks on hotels, but it's hard to find a similar site for flights. For example, Turkish Airlines has new aircraft, but I can't find out online what it looks like. It would be great if a passenger could post a photo of the plane and share his opinions.