Everything You Need to Know About Frequent Flyer Miles

By Nora Dunn. Last updated 5 April 2018. 0 comments

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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. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

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 United Airlines and redeem them for flights on Lufthansa. Or you can fly with American Airlines, but use the miles you earn on British Airways.

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 Starwood Preferred Guest) 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 could come in handy down the road when you find a bonus deal for transferring the points to an airline.

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.com, and Using Miles.

Watch for expiration dates

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. For example, you can transfer Starwood Preferred Guest points to American Airlines AAdvantage program at a one-to-one ratio. In fact, for every 20,000 points you transfer at one time, SPG will give you another 5,000 points.

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 forums for deals. As an answer to this, you can enroll in various membership programs such as the Travel Hacking Cartel, Canadian Free Flyers, and First Class Flyer 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 a few credit cards provide bonus travel points 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 some hotel points are also transferrable to airline miles at good value. SPG is a particularly good program for travelers who want the option of earning hotel stays or free flights.

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 toward stays can be quite lucrative. Remember to engineer your accumulation strategy toward your desired travel goals. You can earn miles for redemption toward 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 percent of the deals he publishes are applicable internationally, and he extends his free flight guarantee to all his readers — U.S. residents or not.

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