Frequent Flier Programs for Infrequent Fliers
It's hard to argue with the basic idea of the frequent flier program. Getting credit towards a free flight every time I spend money on a ticket does make it a little easier to finalize travel plans. The only trouble is, I do not generally fly in a way that allows me to capitalize on the benefit. At their root frequent flier programs are consumer loyalty programs and I am, admittedly, a woefully disloyal consumer.
Most people fly infrequently or with whichever airline offers the cheapest fare. Frequent flier programs are not designed for customers like this. Nevertheless, they hang there, a carrot from a stick, beaconing us towards an unrealistic reward.
Even if you fly frequently and are consistent with airlines, changing rules and restrictions make it advantageous to use your credit as soon as possible.
Fortunately, there are several tricks for maximizing miles and using them in creative ways to get the most benefit with the smallest credit. (See also: How to Maximize the Value of Your Frequent Flier Miles)
Earn Miles on the Ground
Most people are aware of the many credit cards available that provide bonus air miles for every purchase. While I am personally not a big fan of credit cards, this is one of the many reasons to use your credit card to pay for everything, that is, if you can do so responsibly.
Besides credit card bonuses, there are several other ways to earn miles on the ground. Both e-rewards and e-miles give airline miles for viewing marketing information and taking surveys. Whether this is a worthwhile use of your time is debatable. However, if you only need a few more miles to attain a reward, these programs offer a no-cost way to do it.
Finally, if you like shopping, mypoints.com and the WebFlyer Milage Mall might be a good solution for building up some additional air miles or hotel credit through purchase you had planned to make anyway.
Trade and Exchange Miles
If, like me, you have miles spread across several different programs you do not frequently add to, consolidating may be the best option. The basic strategy most people use is to find a "common denominator" between various flight programs. For example, If you have a few miles from an international flight with Virgin Atlantic, but the majority of your miles are from domestic flights with American Airlines, you can use the Hilton HHonors reward system to transfer between the two airlines. Keep in mind that when you transfer your Virgin Atlantic miles to Hilton HHonors points, you will lose some credit and that even more will be lost when you convert the HHonors points into American Airlines miles. Another useful "common denominator" program is Amtrak Rewards.
A while ago Wise Bread writer Nora Dunn introduced us to Points.com, a great place to manage reward programs. This service is also a great place to trade and transfer points between programs, informs you of any applicable bonus offers available, and even allows you to buy more points.
Make a Donation
Finally, if you are feeling philanthropic, or that your miles are too insignificant to ever be of use, consider donating them to your favorite cause. Many well known charities accept frequent flier miles donations including the Red Cross, and Project Hero. More examples can be found at this guide for OnePass members. While you generally will not receive a tax deduction for these donations, it is a good way to help out and prevent your miles from going to waste.
It is true that frequent flier miles have the greatest value when applied to the airline from which they were earned. However, for most fliers, this simply isn't practical. With a little research you can consolidate and maximize you rewards and apply them to something worthwhile.