By Brian Kelly
There are trillions of frequent flyer miles in circulation right now, yet most people who have them don’t know how to use them. Frequent flyer program rules can be complex, yet that mass confusion presents the opportunity to reap huge value from miles -- if you are one of the few people who take the time to understand them.
The first step is understanding that most of what you hear about miles -- either from friends or in news reports -- is false. It is far easier to write a story slamming frequent flyer miles than it is to become an expert. However, I’ve earned and redeemed millions of miles and have traveled around the world in first class for a fraction of the price of coach. I will admit that miles can be frustrating to put to use, but once you get the hang of it, I guarantee you’ll be kicking yourself for not taking advantage of the system earlier.
Here are some common misconceptions about frequent flyer miles:
- They’re impossible to use. Airline websites can be mind-numbingly tedious to use and most don’t show full award availability. So if you simply plug in dates and cities and expect amazing options to show up, you’ll likely be out of luck. Especially as your trip becomes more complex, involving more connections and dates, airline sites basically give up on you. Instead of relying on outdated systems, do your own research. Find out which partners you can fly and leverage sites like Expertflyer.com which give you inside access to award availability. Search the inventory to see if there’s a flight you like, and then pick up the phone to call. It may seem counterintuitive to call to book an award in 2013, but phone reps still have wide latitude to make trips happen, even if the website doesn’t show them as available. Always ask to have the phone booking fee waived since it’s not your fault their website is broken!
- Blackout dates make redeeming them impossible. Most airlines don’t even have blackout dates anymore. What’s more, you can even travel during peak periods – but it may cost you a premium, often double or triple the normal amount of miles to fly. Try being flexible with dates or connections and always check back to see if availability opens up closer to departure, which leads to…
- You need to book way in advance to get award seats. Absolutely false. These days airlines are savvy and have computer models that analyze how well a route is selling, and release award seats throughout the year. Most airlines release an astounding amount of award seats (often at the cheapest mileage levels) in the two weeks leading up to a flight. This makes miles a great insurance policy for any last-minute emergencies, because whereas last-minute airfares are usually high-priced, mileage awards are abundant and at the cheapest redemption levels.
- I shouldn’t bother collecting them since I don’t fly much. Most frequent flyer miles are issued by credit card companies, which buy them in the billions from the airlines. In fact, frequent flyer programs are huge profit centers for the airlines because they also sell them to many businesses, which use them as a sales incentive. In fact, I think frequent flyer miles should be called frequent spender miles because you can earn miles for just about anything. Why not put that home loan – or hair replacement surgery! – on your mileage-earning credit card so you can get the points. Just be sure to pay the balance before you get hit with sky-high interest fees.
- They expire before you get a chance to use them. There’s absolutely no reason to let your miles expire. Many frequent flyer programs, including Delta’s and more recently JetBlue’s, have gotten more flexible and done away with mileage expiration altogether. Even those airlines with miles that do expire have made it very easy to reset that clock. With most programs, you don’t need to fly to keep your miles active – simply buy an item through an airline shopping portal (a single song off of iTunes will suffice) and your expiration clock resets. Also, the miles and points you earn when you make purchases with a co-branded airline credit card will automatically reset the expiration clock each month.
With all the misinformation out there about frequent flyer miles, it is no wonder that so many people get frustrated trying to use them, or simply give up altogether. However, if you take the time to learn the ins and outs of your frequent flyer programs, there’s no end to the value you will be able to reap from your miles.
Brian Kelly is founder of ThePointsGuy.com, a site that offers readers tips on managing their miles.