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How to Get the Most Out of Your Airline Miles

The art of earning and redeeming frequent flyer miles is increasingly discussed these days, with more and more people interested in unlocking the best methods for leveraging their stash. Motivated travelers seem to have little problem earning miles through travel, doing business with airline partners, and spending money on airline-branded credit cards—all activities that earn frequent flyer miles. Yet a lot of people let that valuable “currency” languish in their accounts or use the miles without a thought-out plan of action.


Don’t Let Your Miles Sit Around

Miles are useless if all they do is sit in your account. Use them! Hoarding miles only leads to disappointment when theairline inevitably devalues them or changes what routes or cabin classes you can redeem them for. If you are saving miles with a purpose in mind, at least keep your eye on the airline’s frequent flyer program so if any mileage increases to the award chart are announced, you have time to act and redeem miles at the current, lower price. It’s easy to stay in the loop. Just be sure you’re on the program’s promotional email list or visit sites like FlyerTalk or InsideFlyer to get your industry-related news.

Don’t Always Go For the Longest Trip

It’s easy to get wrapped up in other peoples’ travel dreams —especially when there are mile-and-point bloggers out there who routinely tout the exotic places they’ve been to using frequent flyer miles. That’s all well and good, but while the Maldives and French Polynesia are favorite destinations of bloggers, it doesn’t mean a very long flight is the best way to use your miles.

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Resist the urge to squander miles on trips you really have no interest in taking. Just because you can get to the end of the earth doesn’t mean that you should. Spend those miles on what makes the most sense—even if it’s a short domestic flight.

Go For the Upgrade

For many frequent flyers, the best bang for the mileage buck is premium cabin travel. When compared with what you would pay in cash for business- or first-class tickets, using miles for those same seats is a no-brainer . . . as long as flying in those cabins is a priority to you. Flying in business or first class is especially nice on long-haul trips of eight hours or more,  especially if you’re flying on an international carrier like Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, or Lufthansa.

Use Miles for Last-Minute Flights

Sometimes you have no choice but to book an airline ticket at the last minute. When those close-in flights cost a fortune, it can make more sense to use your miles—even if the airline charges a small fee to book last-minute award travel. Use miles for last-minute trips that would otherwise be cost prohibitive in cash… for example, when traveling to a funeral or a last-minute job interview or simply visiting a friend. Just make sure you have enough miles to cover the whole trip. 

Research Award Chart “Sweet Spots”

If you want to get the most out of your miles, you need to know the sweet spots in the program’s award charts. A “sweet spot” is when the number of miles needed for a trip is less than comparable trips to other destinations or to the same place using another frequent flyer program’s award chart. There are usually some excellent deals to be had with your miles—no matter what chart you’re consulting. You just have to do some research. Sometimes the best deal is short-haul domestic travel in coach. Other times, there may be great deals for business-class travel to Hawaii. Other airline charts may be best for travel to Europe, Asia, or Africa. Study the chart and see if any of the sweet spots align with your travel goals.

For example: In March 2016 American Airlines’ AAdvantage program tweaked its award chart. The number of miles required to redeem an award flight went up in many cases, but it went down for flights from the continental United States to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The former mileage rate was 17,500 AAdvantage miles each way for Saver seats. Today, that same award can be had for just 15,000 miles (and 12,500 during certain off-peak dates).

Insider Tip: If you have your heart set on a trip to Hawaii, take a look at Singapore Airlines’ award chart. The airline charges 35,000 miles round-trip in economy (vs. United’s 45,000 miles), 60,000 miles in business class (vs. United’s 80,000 miles), and 80,000 miles for first class (vs. United’s 100,000 miles). You can convert American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest points, and Citi ThankYou Rewards into Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles.

Take Advantage of Partner Awards

Just because you have miles in one airline’s program doesn’t mean you’re necessarily locked into redeeming awards on that airline alone. Most airlines are part of an alliance that allows reciprocal award benefits. For example, Delta is part of SkyTeam, so you could redeem your Delta SkyMiles on SkyTeam partners such as Air France, Alitalia, or Korean Air. American Airlines is part of OneWorld, so you could redeem AAdvantage miles on partners like British Airways, Cathay Pacific, or Qantas. United Airlines is part of Star Alliance, so you can use MileagePlus miles to also book awards on partners like ANA, Lufthansa, South African Airways, and Swiss. Even airlines that aren’t part of a major alliance often have standalone partnerships with other airlines. Alaska Airlines has a lot of wonderful partners like Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, KLM, Korean Air, and others.

Constantly Replenish Your Miles with Credit Card Spending

It’s easy to constantly replace the miles you use. Sign up for a credit card branded by your frequent flyer program of choice. You’ll generally receive a hefty sign-up bonus after hitting the minimum required expenditures within a certain time frame, and then you’ll continue to earn miles per every dollar spent. Alternatively, in conjunction with your preferred frequent flyer program, use a credit card that earns you flexible points—like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, or Citi ThankYou points—that can be converted into miles or points at many different airlines and hotel chains. This increases your flexibility so you can combine loyalty instruments to get the award you really want.

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