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.