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August 30th, 2010
10:33 AM ET

How to use frequent flyer miles for low-cost, high value trips

Chris Guillebeau
AC360° Contributor

As regular readers know, I use Frequent Flyer miles to go all over the world several times a year. I’ve written before about how to earn miles without flying, and how you can become your own travel ninja through mass mileage accrual.

Once you earn miles, however, you need to make a plan for using them. One of the saddest facts in the Frequent Flyer world is that every year, millions of miles go to waste. Help stamp out mileage expiration!

Use your miles… but use them wisely. Here’s how.

Always Consider Partner Airlines

I always say the U.S. has the worst airlines but the best mileage programs. So wherever you are in the world, consider earning your miles in programs like AAdvantage and U.S. Airways Dividend Miles.*

Then, instead of redeeming your U.S. miles for flights on U.S. airlines, take advantage of partnerships to book flights on better airlines to better destinations. If you have AA miles, book trips with Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong and one of my favorite carriers. If you have United miles, book trips with Thai Airways, ANA, Swiss, South African, or Air New Zealand. A full list of Star Alliance partners is here, the list of OneWorld partners is here, and the SkyTeam partner list is over here.

Note that the mileage required to use partner airlines is almost always exactly the same as using the airline in which you hold the miles. There really isn’t any downside to it, but not everyone is aware that you can easily book partner awards—and when you make a reservation, the airlines don’t always advertise this fact, since they usually have to pay the partners for your ticket.

*(Unfortunately, Delta’s SkyMiles program has been devalued so much over recent years that it is now known as SkyPesos in the travel hacking world—so I no longer focus on earning many Delta miles.)

Use Miles for Premium Travel (First and Business Class)

Probably the single best use of frequent flyer miles is for international tickets in First or Business Class. This is because premium tickets usually come with a premium price tag of 4-10x the cost of an Economy ticket—but with miles, the ratio is much lower.

You can also sometimes buy miles outright and then immediately redeem them for a premium ticket that would otherwise cost much more. You can do this now with a new U.S. Airways 100% bonus offer that gives you 50,000 free miles with the $1,375 purchase of 50,000 other miles. With your 100,000 miles you can book a Business Class award between the U.S. or Canada and Europe on Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian, or a few other carriers—including a free stopover. This is for a ticket that would normally start at $3,000, and you can do it an unlimited number of times.

Side Note: The danger with flying First and Business Class is that after you get upgraded or otherwise wrangle your way to the front of the plane a couple of times, it’s hard to return to the back. So just like everything with lifestyle aspiration, be careful. It’s good to work your way up the ladder slowly.

Research Your Trip Before Calling In

When you call up the airline to book an award (many bookings still need to be made over the phone instead of online), the odds of encountering a knowledgeable person are about 50/50. The odds of encountering a friendly person are also about 50/50—so your goal is to find a knowledgeable, friendly person (25% odds). If you hit the knowledgeable, friendly jackpot, you’re in luck, and that person will help you get where you need to go without hiding information from you.

Otherwise, you’ll need to be ready with some alternatives. When you hear that there’s “no availability” for the award you want, ask these questions:

• Can you check availability on all partners? (Sometimes they only do this upon request.)
• Can you check all hub cities? (Sometimes they just check one.)
• How else could we route this ticket? (Options: to/from Europe via Canada, to/from the South Pacific via North Asia, anywhere with an overnight layover that doesn’t technically count as a stopover because it’s less than 24-hours, etc.)
• Can you book an alternate date for now and put in a request for the date I really want?

A knowledgeable + friendly person will already be aware of these things, so they’ll check them for you. A friendly-but-unknowledgeable person will be able to check all of these things once you tell them what to check. An unfriendly person, however knowledgeable, will get upset that you know what you’re doing, so that situation can be difficult—I usually just say “Never mind, thanks anyway” and then call back to talk with someone else.

Round-the-World Tickets with Frequent Flyer Miles

Most of the time, using miles for Round-the-World trips isn’t a great idea. They usually require a great deal of miles (200,000 is the starting point), and you lose the flexibility that almost every other RTW product offers. For my RTW trips, I purchase tickets directly from Star Alliance or OneWorld, usually beginning the trip in Asia or South Africa, where the cost is lower than the rest of the world.

As always, there are exceptions. The exception here is to use a Star Alliance award booked with Air Canada or U.S. Airways miles to travel via the Atlantic in one direction and the Pacific on the other direction—essentially creating a Round-the-World trip on a single destination award. It sounds complicated, but this tutorial from Gary Leff breaks it down. This is one of the best mileage awards out there—you get free stopovers and a complete trip around the world while everyone else uses the same amount of miles to visit a single destination. If you don’t have Air Canada miles, you can earn Membership Rewards points with American Express and transfer them to Air Canada.

Wrap-Up

The most frequently-asked question about redeeming miles is: how to combine mileage between accounts? Unfortunately, you can’t—at least not usually, and not without losing a large amount of the value or paying an unreasonable fee. That’s why most active travelers keep multiple accounts.

As mentioned earlier, the Delta SkyMiles/SkyPesos devaluation means that I no longer focus on earning Delta miles. However, I still have about 250,000 miles in the account for whenever I need to use them. If I could combine SkyPesos with a FlyingBlue (Air France/KLM) account I would, but that’s impossible—so I’ll just wait it out until I see a SkyTeam itinerary I’d like to book with the SkyPesos, making sure to have at least some kind of minor activity every year so they don’t expire.

This year I went through more than 400,000 miles, so my Frequent Flyer efforts for the next few months will consist of earning and restocking for 2011. To start with, I’ll pick up 100,000 miles from the new U.S. Airways 100% bonus offer—it’s not as lucrative as the one last year, but still decent. They also have a “Grand Slam” offer from which I’ll probably earn another 20,000-40,000 or so.

Starwood recently offered a new 30,000 credit card offer that was a great deal if you live in the U.S. and have never had the card. I already have it, but I wrote them to ask if I could have the 30,000 bonus anyway. (Yes, I can be shameless when it comes to miles.) They didn’t give me 30k, but they put 5k in the account to pacify me. 5,000 Starwood points can be a free Sheraton hotel night, so I’ll take what I get.

Otherwise, I’m heading out to see America instead of flying overseas… but of course, I’ll also have my eye on other Frequent Flyer deals that pop up, in order to make sure I’m ready to go in 2011.

Happy travel hacking!

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Editor’s Note: Chris Guillebeau writes for a small army of remarkable people at ChrisGuillebeau.com. Follow Chris's live updates from every country in the world at @chrisguillebeau.


Filed under: Chris Guillebeau • Travel
soundoff (One Response)
  1. up4travel

    Delta will be improving as the alliance with Air France and KLM matures. Booking is improving as we speak. Its a process to get it all alligned and running smoothly. I am one of your 50% who loves to help!

    August 31, 2010 at 3:37 am |