When Airline Miles Aren't Worth the Effort

By Holly Johnson. Last updated 4 September 2018. 0 comments

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So, you signed up for an airline credit card and met the minimum spending requirement to earn 50,000 miles. Now what? With your miles tucked safely in your account, you're probably stoked to start searching for the flight you want. How exciting!

Unfortunately, this is where the dream of earning free flights can turn into a nightmare if you don't know what you're getting into. Anyone who has long been a player in the frequent flyer game will tell you that earning miles is the easy part. No matter how many airline miles you've accrued, limited award availability and archaic rules can make it difficult to redeem your miles in the way you want — or at all.

You may want to go to Mumbai or Phuket or London, but you can only use your miles to go there if you find award availability on dates you can actually travel. If not, well, you may wind up redeeming your miles for something other than airfare — or letting them languish in your account until they expire.

Regardless of how lucrative airline miles can be, they aren't for everyone, and they're definitely not for people who aren't willing to jump through hoops to use them. Here are five signs airline miles may not even be worth your time and energy.

1. Flight tickets to your destination are cheap and plentiful

Before you sign up for a travel credit card to rack up frequent flyer miles, it's always worth checking the current price of the airfare you hope to book one day. You may be surprised at just how affordable travel can be to certain destinations around the globe. And if you don't check, you might waste your time and energy earning airline miles to get there.

This is especially true if you live near an airport that caters to discount carriers like Norwegian Airlines, WOW Air, or even Allegiant Air. You will likely have to pay extra for an assigned seat and luggage if you opt for a discount airline, but their fares can be so affordable that it's more than worth it.

If, for example, you live in Boston and want to travel to Norway, you may be surprised to find that Norwegian Airlines offers one-way flights on a 787 Dreamliner from Boston to Oslo for as little as $264 in early fall.

In another example, WOW Air is famous for offering fares for $99-$150 for itineraries like Cleveland, Ohio to Reykjavik, Iceland, or Pittsburgh to Copenhagen.

If the flight to the destination you want isn't too pricey, it can make more sense to save up the cash instead of dealing with airline programs and limited award availability. Even better, you can sign up for a card that offers flexible travel credit then use your points to cover the cost of any flight you decide to book.

2. Your dates are flexible, so you can wait for a sale

Even if your destination isn't always cheap to get to, you could still wait for a sale. This is especially true if your dates are flexible, or you can book at the last minute since the best deals typically go to those who can travel any time or without much notice.

If you have some flexibility, sign up for a flexible travel rewards card that will let you redeem points however you want. Then, sit and wait for a sale and be ready to pounce when you find one.

And you don't have to do it on your own. Sites like SecretFlying.com and TheFlightDeal.com are great for finding sales abroad and within the U.S., so make sure to check them regularly. You can also follow both on social media and sign up for notifications for sales from your home airport. If you can wait it out, you may be able to find round-trip flights to destinations around the globe for $500 or less.

You can also sign up for the Hopper app for access to their new "secret fares" to destinations like Tokyo, Paris, Barcelona, Costa Rica, and Melbourne. These fares shouldn't be available through online search engines and may be offered at up to $500 off. (See also: How to Save Money on Flights Using Fare Alerts)

3. You need to book tickets for your entire family

Another reason airline miles may not be ideal involves your family size. If you need to book airfare for several people at once, you may face unique challenges when it comes to using your miles. For example, the fact that many airlines limit award seats for individual flights means that you may not be able to find more than one or two seats that are bookable with miles at one time.

You may be able to get around this by opting to pursue airline miles with a program that doesn't limit award availability. However, even this strategy has its limitations, since all airlines may not fly where you want to go.

While airline miles can be lucrative even if you have a big family, from my experience, you will likely need to have a plan for your miles and book extremely early if you want to score several seats on the same flight. If you're not an early planner, you may be better off pursuing flexible travel credit, and watching for prices to drop so you can strike while the iron is hot. (See also: 7 Ways to Save on a European Getaway With Kids)

4. You need to book on specific dates at specific times

Another time you may want to skip airline miles is if you have to book a specific flight at a specific time. This is often the case if you're traveling for a wedding or a work event, or if you have exactly seven days of vacation approved and have to plan your trip during that time frame.

Since frequent flyer programs are often restrictive and may only offer award seats on certain days, you can be left out in the cold if you need to travel on a very specific timeline. In this case, you would be better off pursuing flexible travel credit so you can book the flight you want.

As an alternative, you can also consider flexible travel credit cards that let you transfer points to airlines. With this strategy, you could earn a big sign-up bonus and start racking up points then decide later whether transferring to an airline is feasible. (See also: 10 Flight Booking Hacks to Save You Hundreds)

5. You're not sure when — or if — you can travel

Airline miles are rarely useful for consumers who want to travel but aren't sure they can. If you earn a ton of airline miles and don't find any time to use them, you could end up wasting them or redeeming them in a less than optimal way (e.g. for gift cards or merchandise at a much lower rate).

If you're unsure you can travel enough to use up the miles you earn, you should absolutely consider travel credit cards that offer several options when it comes to redeeming points. Look for a card that lets you book travel direct, transfer points to hotel and airline partners, or redeem for gift cards or cash-back. With all of those options available, you'll be able to use your points whether you travel or not.

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