7 Frequent Flyer Rules to Go Farther on Fewer Miles

When it comes to reward travel, most people focus on earning the most points and miles. That makes sense, considering that these loyalty points are scarce, and the more you have the better off you are. But just as with actual dollars, how you spend your points and miles is nearly as important as how many you earn.

Here are the principles I live by to ensure that I am getting the most valuable award flights from my points and miles. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

1. Always Book Low Mileage or Saver Awards

I can't tell you how many times my friends and family have told me that they had to spend 200,000 miles for a business class ticket to Europe because they could not find any low-level award space. I always tell them that they are either not trying hard enough, or they are not being flexible enough when they search for awards. Either way, travelers are almost certainly receiving terrible value from their miles if they don't book flights at the lowest mileage levels. (See also: Get Started With Travel Rewards in 4 Simple Steps)

How do you find low mileage level awards?

If you have some time and patience, search on how to find award space on your airline, as there are volumes written about each airline's specific program. But if you just want to get it done, there are several award booking services that will do the work for you for a reasonable fee. Think of these services as travel agents, but just for those who pay with points and miles.

2. Make Sure to Price the Alternative

Before pulling the trigger on an award booking, double check to see if you can find a paid flight at a reasonable price. If a paid flight costs less than the two cents per mile you would have redeemed, it might be worth saving your miles and purchasing the ticket with cash. If it costs one cent or less per mile, always pay cash and save your miles for a better opportunity. For example, a last minute domestic flight or an international business class award might return 3-6 cents per mile.

3. Be Flexible and Book Awards in Advance

I hate to repeat advice that is so often given, but it can't be said enough. If you can only schedule a vacation a month or two in advance, or you have to travel to specific place on certain dates, using traditional airline miles may not be a realistic option. In fact, the less flexible your travel plans are, the further in advance you need to book an award flight. Award tickets tend to become available as early as 11 months before a flight, and I have booked my most spectacular awards at that time.

4. Consider Fixed Value Programs for Less Expensive Flights

Most airline mileage programs will offer all flights in the lower 48 states at the same rate. That means that a flight from Miami to Orlando is the same price as Miami to Seattle. The exception is fixed value point programs operated by carriers such as Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America. These programs offer any seat for sale as an award, and the points required vary in relation to the sale price of the ticket. So if you need an award flight to a low-cost destination, don't burn a 25,000 mile domestic award.

5. Think Partners

Every major airline frequent flier program boasts how it has partnered with carriers around the world. But the biggest mistake that most travelers make is not searching for partner awards. Unfortunately, most airlines make this difficult by not including all of their partner flights in award searches. Worse, many telephone agents simply haven't been trained on how to search for and book award tickets on some lesser-known partners. In fact, it is not uncommon for telephone agents to erroneously tell customers that they can't even book awards on some partner airlines! Once again, persistent award travelers need to do their own research on how to find partner award flights, or consult an award booking service.

6. Go Comfortably

The best value for award flights is almost always in business or first class, and there are several reasons.

First, a business or first class flight can require as little as 50% more miles than a coach award, but rarely more than 100% more. At the same time, these tickets tend to cost 3-6 times more dollars to purchase.

In addition, travelers can save money by having a far more generous luggage allowance, and time by receiving priority check in, security, and baggage delivery.

Finally, award travel may be the only chance for otherwise frugal travelers to experience the joys of luxury travel. For years I scoffed at those who would spend thousands of extra dollars to travel for a few hours in a slightly nicer seat. But after my first international business class award, in a lie-flat sleeper seat on an overnight flight, I never hesitated to pay an additional 50% in more miles for the vastly improved comfort and service I received.

7. Go Far

Business and first class tickets within North America and to Europe and South America tend to be about double the price of an economy class award. But when you book an award flight to Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East, premium class seats are only 50% more miles than economy

In addition, you can sometimes fly twice as far for only a few extra miles. For example, my trip to Africa last year required 120,000 miles for a business class flight, but if I had stopped halfway in Europe, it would have cost 100,000 miles. So I flew twice as far for only 20% more miles. And finally, Americans receive more miles than those in other countries, largely due to our reward credit cards. So the further we travel from home, the less competition there is for scarce award seats.

You worked hard to earn points and miles, but the fact is that you also need to work hard to redeem them. By following these principals, you can stretch your points and miles further than you may have thought possible.

Have I overlooked any frequent flyer redemption tricks? Please share yours in comments!

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7 Frequent Flyer Rules to Go Farther on Fewer Miles

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