Best Ways to Use Airline Miles

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Few things are as frustrating to travelers as a huge bank of frequent-flier points and not being able to use them. With fewer seats and routes available, airlines are making it more difficult to trade miles for free flights, knowing they can sell more tickets at a premium price. They’re gambling that customers with large banks of points will stay continue to stay loyal for fear of losing the miles they’ve worked so hard to accumulate.

So if you can’t cash in your points for flights, what can you do with them?

Donate Them
At a former job years ago, a colleague needed to fly home for a family emergency but didn’t have the money. A few employees quickly pooled frequent-flier points that allowed him to make the trip. Another time, some extended family members used their combined miles to send a cousin and her new husband on a honeymoon.

If you don’t have a needy co-worker or family member, you can always give them to an organization that will use them to help others. The Fisher House Foundation’s “Hero Miles” program has provided more than 40,000 tickets to wounded, injured and ill service members and their families over the years, while Mercy Medical Airlift provided almost 10,000 free airline tickets to patients in need, thanks to generous mileage donations. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has need of more than 2.5 billion miles in order to send kids and their families to their desired destinations around the world.

Trade Them
On Points.com, you can either trade your miles from one airline for another carrier’s points or even exchange them all together for various products or gift cards from retailers like Amazon or Starbucks. But the exchange rates for miles are fairly high in many cases, and should only be used if you have a large block of miles that are going to expire soon. My friend Tim Wozniak exchanges expiring miles for magazine and newspaper subscriptions.

Use Them For Other Travel Needs
The Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney posted an excellent piece this week on redeeming airline miles for hotel rooms, rental cars and more. Not surprisingly, the elite-level traveler is going to score much better deals than your average flier — the amount of American Airlines miles needed for hotel stays and car rentals is 40 percent less for platinum-level frequent fliers than the rank-and-file. A penny per mile is the typical exchange for domestic flights, car rentals and hotels for most higher-level loyalty programs. One travel expert McCartney spoke to believes mileage programs will eventually evolve into package deals, encompassing flights, hotels, cars and travel insurance.

Whose frequent flyer miles are most useful?

Like airlines, hotels, rollaboards and car services, not all frequent flyer programs are created equal. Plenty goes into measuring the quality of a particular rewards program. How difficult is it to redeem the miles? Can one redeem said miles on a partner airline or for other travel tidbits like hotel stays or car rentals? How many miles are required to make a booking?

It’s difficult to compare all of those data against what a particular traveler may need on a given day, so Ideaworks (link opens a PDF) ran a simple study: how easy is it to purchase an economy ticket with an airline’s miles?

Using a narrow sampling of available routes and itineraries, the study’s findings are pretty dramatic. Among US carriers, Southwest Airlines had the easiest to redeem miles, with 99% of queried itineraries available. Behind them, Alaska Airlines and Continental Airlines scored success rates of 75% and 71% respectively.

At the bottom of the heap? US Airways only returned availability on 10.7% of queried routes, while Delta Airlines wasn’t far ahead with 12.9%. Perhaps that’s why so many frequent flyers are unhappy with their respective mileage programs.

Indicative as these data are, it’s worth nothing that the small sampling taken by Ideaworks doesn’t fully represent the usefulness of each carrier’s miles. Route availability, network, seasonality and elite status all play a role in what routes are available to each traveler

[Via Smartertravel]

Five great ways to use your frequent flyer miles

As the economy shrinks and belts begin to tighten, mileage programs are playing a larger and large role in the everyday consumer travel lanscape. Many travelers are turning to their caches of miles for use in lieu of spending their hard-saved money on a ticket. Similarly, airlines are also paying attention to our mileage accounts, changing many programs to restrict the number of awards that they permit and making our free flights few and far in between.

Let not these pressures cause you to spend your miles unwisely, however. Like any good investment, miles should be managed, earned and used efficiently. Wasting a wealth of miles on an inexpensive ticket is not only a shame, but also a poor return for your time invested in earning these very valuable rewards.

Not sure where to start? Here are five great ways to use your current stash of miles.

High season tickets: We all know that its more expensive to get to Cancun or Europe during the summer months when the kids are out of school. Mileage rewards don’t reflect this swing however – it costs the same number of miles to fly to London in February as it does in July. They are restricted in volume, however, as demand for those high season tickets will be greater. That’s why you need to book your tickets early. Check with your favorite carrier to see when availability opens, but as a rough estimate, you’ll need to think at least 8 months in advance.
Upgrades: Our good friend (and fellow blogger!) George Hobica from Airfare Watchdog wrote an excellent article on using your miles to upgrade your coach ticket the other day. It’s true that not all fares and itineraries are upgradeable, but if you find the right combination of paid coach fares frequent flyer miles, you can score a business class ticket for pennies on the dollar of a normal business fare.

Alaska: The Arctic circle is as close as Albany as far as most miles are concerned. Consider spending your miles on a longer haul, expensive flight instead of a short haul jaunt upstate.

Last minute flights
: Anyone who has tried to fly at the last minute can tell you that airfare prices skyrocket as the departure drops below 14 and 7 days respectively. Conversely, more award availability often opens up. The one caveat to this availability, however, is that fees often incur in kind. Those with elite status can often get around this atrocity, but those with no perks may have to cough up a little cash.

Friends and Family: Don’t keep your 100k miles to yourself – as long as you book the ticket, you can put anyone’s name on the reservation. This is a great way to surprise your girlfriend or parents with a trip overseas or to come see you, all without spending more than a few dollars on tax. Those with fewer scruples can even venture into selling their miles on Craigslist or to a friend, although those transactions are usually “illegal.”

Charity: Almost all mileage programs have charity partners. If you and your friends are all traveled out, why not donate the miles to the Red Cross? It’s better than letting them expire.

A new tool for finding award tickets

Like me, if you’ve ever accrued more than 25,000 frequent flyer miles you know how terrible it can be redeeming them for an award ticket. It seems like 95% of the time, the ideal flight that you want is completely sold out and that the next available flight for you is on a Wednesday. In February. On a tiny airplane with 17 layovers.

What many people don’t know though is that mileage award availability is a fluid system — seats open up and close overnight based upon how many people are booked and the amount of time before the flight. So to stay on top of whether or not seats are available for your particular itinerary, you really have to check every day (if not more frequently) to see if anything has changed.

This can be time consuming and difficult, and until now, only by calling or checking the web every day or subscribing to expensive software like expertflyer.com could you check availability.

Enter Yapta.com. The search engine known for refunding the value of your ticket if the price went down recently announced that they would be hosting award availability from several carriers carriers on their site. They’ve also included a tool that automatically notifies you if seats open up on your ideal flights. Brilliant.

For now the service is only available on Alaska, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways, but if demand turns out to be as strong as I predict, it could expand soon. Log onto Yapta.com and give it a try.

More free miles for Delta passengers

If you’re a member of the Delta mileage program, this year has been good to you. From double miles promotions to generous partner rewards to easy status

Their latest promotion gives members up to 150% bonus on activity (on and off the ground) through year’s end. Rewards are tiered as such:

  • Earn 0-5k miles, get a 50% bonus
  • Earn 5-10k miles, get a 100% bonus
  • Earn 10k or more miles, get a 150% bonus

So you could fly to Europe once (8000 miles) then, say, fly a transcon (4000 miles) and bang, you’ve got 12,000 miles plus a 18,000 bonus, or 30k miles, more than a free domestic ticket. That’s downright generous.

Why would you do this? Conspiracy theorists among the Northwest crowd (who will soon be assimilated into the Delta ranks) claim that this is some sort of underhanded way to sleight the NW crowd and make the DL frequent flyers stronger.

Personally, I think that Delta have figured out that miles are starting to turn into a profit maker. With inherent fuel surcharges and checked bag fees on every itinerary, no flight is free anymore and the airline will still make a few dollars. And all of the time that we spend earning miles and digging around for nearly impossible-to-find award tickets? More time indoctrinating ourselves with the Delta brand. Is that worth a seat on a plane that isn’t even full? You bet.