Everything You Need to Know About Frequent Flyer Miles

By Nora Dunn on 15 July 2013 (Updated 19 August 2014) 0 comments

From choice of program, to accumulation strategies, ongoing management, and eventual redemption, there are many tricks to effectively using frequent flyer miles. Here is everything you need to know to become a frequent flyer superstar.

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Choosing Your Rewards Program

Before you even choose your weapon (aka mileage programs and strategies), you need to establish the game at hand. Instead of randomly collecting miles for the sake of collecting them, find a reason to earn miles. Is it a business class flight to Europe? A family vacation to Disney? The more focused you are in your intent, the more targeted and effective your accumulation strategies will be. (See also: Maximize the Value of Your Airline Miles and Points)

Programs Galore

Although generally referred to as "frequent flyer miles," a more accurate term would be "reward miles" or "reward points," since not only airlines, but hotels, transportation providers, and even grocery stores provide opportunities for accumulating points that can translate into free or discounted travel.

Understand the Alliances

Most major airlines belong to an alliance, which allows for accumulation and redemption of miles with different airlines. Thus, you can accumulate miles with US Airways, and redeem them for flights on Swiss Air. Or you can fly with West Jet, but attribute your miles to American Airlines.

The three major alliances are Star Alliance, One World, and Sky Team.

Diversify Among Alliances

To maximize your opportunities (without scattering your efforts too much), choose one airline from each alliance as a focal point for accumulation.

Collect Universal Points

There are a few reward miles programs (like Alaska Airlines and SPG) that provide excellent flexibility in allowing you to transfer your points to airlines and hotel programs spread across all the alliances. Look for ways to accumulate miles into one of these types of programs (such as with a credit card — see below).

Managing Miles

This is where we separate the aces from the also-rans, because managing miles is nor for the faint of heart. But all the effort will pay off, especially if you're enjoying a long-haul business class flight for a fraction of the price of an economy ticket.

Organize Yourself

Despite choosing focal points for major accumulation within each of the alliances, you're going to end up having lots of accounts. Signing up for a hotel program and liking them on Facebook for 1,000 points could come in handy down the road when you find a bonus transfer deal.

But this means you'll also have to organize multiple user names, passwords, membership numbers, and track your earnings. Dust off your spreadsheet skills and don't be wary of joining too many programs; you never know when they'll be useful.

Use a Rewards Management Site

Though not a full substitute for the trusty spreadsheet, using a rewards management site can help you get an overview your memberships, find deals, and transfer miles between programs. The three main sites are Award Wallet, Points, and Using Miles.

Watch for Expiration

Many programs revoke your miles if your account is inactive for too long. But you can keep them going with as little as a periodic $1 online purchase earning miles to that program. Rewards management sites like those above help you to track your expiration dates so you can earn accordingly.

Beware of Transfers and Trades

Although a couple of the programs above allow you to trade miles between users and transfer miles between rewards programs, beware! Most of the time you'll lose too much value per mile for it to be worthwhile. The exception to this rule is with the universal points programs referenced earlier.

Track Your Strategies

When you complete a transaction that earns you miles (be it online shopping, booking a flight, or participating in a promotion), record your activity in your trusty spreadsheet — and double-check that the miles are deposited to your account. Sometimes you need to contact the rewards program to ensure the correct amount of miles are attributed. They're usually quite nice when you call, but don't trust all transactions to process correctly; be ready to enforce your rights.

Earning Miles

Here are some ways and means to earn miles. Combine as many strategies as you can to maximize value!

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

I don't have time to extensively research all programs and opportunities, nor to troll the frequent flyer talk forums for deals. As an answer to this, you can enroll in various membership programs such as the Travel Hacking Cartel, Canadian Freeflyers, First Class Flyer, and The Ultimate Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles to provide a knowledge base, and deliver new deals to your inbox.

Get a Credit Card (or Two)

I've (cautiously) extolled the virtues of credit cards for years now; the main reason being that they are excellent tools for accumulating miles on every dollar you spend.

Choose a credit card with a plush bonus for signing up, and a program that is one of your chosen focal points for accumulation.

Some people apply ruthlessly for credit cards offering sign-up bonuses, then cancel the cards accordingly. Use this strategy with caution (don't overextend your credit, don't get yourself into unnecessary debt, and keep an eye on your credit score); but when done successfully you can earn mega-miles.

Go Shopping

This isn't a carte blanche order. But if you need to buy something (right down to gas and groceries), make sure you're earning for it. Some airline programs have online shopping malls (allowing you to earn various amounts per dollar spent across a huge variety of stores), and some credit cards provide bonus miles for purchases in certain retail categories.

Look for retailers offering mileage bonus deals, and pay for the item with your reward miles credit card to maximize your earnings.

Go Flying

Although the end-game is usually to fly for free (or almost free) — and ideally in business class or higher, sometimes you have to fly somewhere and you don't have the miles to do it.

Or, if you're an eager accumulator, maybe you're interested in doing a "mileage run" and flying a route offering a special mileage deal.

Choose airlines that help you earn miles in one of your focal programs (remember, sometimes you can fly with one airline and earn with another), and sometimes a marginally more expensive flight with an accumulating airline beats out a slightly cheaper flight with a budget airline that earns you no miles.

Remember Hotels

Hotel rewards programs not only offer valuable points and bonuses for staying, but regular promotions that earn you miles without needing to book anything. Some hotel points are also transferrable to airline miles at good value.

Redeeming Miles

This is what it's ultimately about. You've earned the miles, and you want to use them for travel.

Remember Hotels (Again)

Using points towards stays can be quite lucrative. Remember to engineer your accumulation strategy towards your desired travel goals. You can earn miles for redemption towards flights and hotels (and even car rentals) to further cut your travel costs.

Don't Get Sidetracked

Some rewards programs offer goods, certificates, and services in exchange for your points. Most of the time, the value per mile is atrocious for these items; just buy the blender for cash — you'll pay exponentially more for it if you use miles.

Flying for Miles and Cash

If you don't have enough miles for a flight, some airlines allow you to redeem your miles and pay cash to cover the difference. Pay attention to their valuation per mile; sometimes it's worthwhile to pay all cash for this flight and earn miles, using your beefed-up mileage balance for your next flight.

Free Flights Aren't Exactly Free

Even if miles pay for your "full flight", you're always on the hook for taxes, fees, and various surcharges. These vary by airline, airport, and route. You can minimize these fees with a little comparative digging.

Fly in Style

You get much better valuation on your miles when you fly in business class, and on long-haul flights. (And I must say, business class is addictive.)

Not in the USA?

There is much griping amongst non-U.S. residents that the best frequent flyer mile deals are exclusive to the United States. And to a point, it's true.

But all is not lost for those of us in Canada, Europe, and beyond. Canadians can shorten the learning curve with programs like Canadian Free Flyers, and regardless of where you live, there are deals you can participate in. Travel Hacking Cartel founder Chris Guillebeau surmises that at least 50% of the deals he publishes are applicable internationally, and he extends his free flight guarantee to all his readers — U.S. residents or not.

How do navigate the confusing world of airline frequent flyer programs?

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