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Fly Free: Frequent-Flier Miles Secrets

Fly Free: Frequent-Flier Miles Secrets

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Earn miles: Commit to an airline

Although airlines have tightened up in recent years (US Airways and United recently stopped awarding the standard 500-mile minimum for their shortest flights), there’s no reason to stop earning points the traditional way. The more committed you are to one carrier, the better you’ll be treated: American gives its Platinum Elite members a 100 percent mileage bonus on all flights; Gold members are awarded a 25 percent mileage bonus.

Earn miles: Use that credit card

These days, fliers accrue more miles from non-travel-related purchases than from flying. Using a standard credit card to charge expenses is a good way to do it, because once you earn enough points for a ticket, you can buy one without restrictions on award-seat availability or blackout dates. The downside is you can’t combine these miles with the ones you receive from flights.

Co-branded credit cards also yield impressive returns if you’re loyal. And you can merge the miles that you earn with those that you rack up flying. Bear in mind, however, that these cards often come with higher fees (from $85 to $135 per year). Many airlines that offer no-fee mileage cards, such as United, will allow you to accumulate miles at only half the rate of those that do charge.

Earn miles: Eat and drive

Lately, rental-car companies are providing more-tempting deals. Midwest Miles and Northwest WorldPerks members double their miles with Hertz; Continental OnePass users triple their mileage with Alamo. Dining, too, is paying out more than ever: United gives you up to 10 miles for every dollar you spend at participating restaurants (find a list on; Delta’s SkyMiles Dining program offers up to five per dollar (and was recently awarding 1,000 bonus miles for the first $50 spent).

Earn miles: Double-dip with third parties

Many other types of businesses can now add to your stockpile.

• Fidelity account holders who open non-retirement brokerage accounts with a minimum of $2,500 get 5,000 Delta miles.

• New T-Mobile customers receive 7,000 AAdvantage miles.

The list goes on. But the real key is double-dipping. For example, if you use the new Virgin Atlantic American Express Black Card (which gives you 1.5 miles for every dollar you spend) to buy $500 of groceries at Safeway, and you also belong to the Safeway Club (which offers 125 miles for every $250), you’ll actually earn 1,000 miles. Starwood Preferred guests who stay in a Sheraton get two miles for every dollar they fork over, and if they pay with a credit card that earns at the same rate, they receive four for every dollar spent. (Travel + Leisure is owned by American Express.)

Spend miles: Pick up the phone

It’s difficult to secure a trip using points, even if you plan ahead. A limited number of seats on any given flight are released 331 days in advance, and others are added somewhat randomly thereafter, making it a chore to discern what will be available. “The supply of seats is constantly changing,” says Randy Petersen of the website FlyerTalk. “The new rule is to start searching six months from the flight date.”

A better solution is to get off the Internet, dial the airline, and get a professional to sort it all out for you. A $10 or $15 fee can buy you creative options a website can’t replicate, including having an airline reservationist link you through a secondary city or check for redemptions through partner carriers. “The airlines have done a great job training consumers to book online,” says Tim Winship of “Many people don’t even think about calling the 800 number. What they don’t realize is that they only pay the booking fee if the agent is successful.” Ask for a supervisor, who may override capacity controls or bump you up to elite status if you’re close to the award threshold.

Spend miles: Add some cash

If you’re short on miles, airlines are offering ways to let you use your mileage before you’ve accrued enough for an entire flight—or when only one leg in a round-trip itinerary has available reward seating.

Northwest’s new PerkChoice allows you to redeem a round-trip reward seat using a combination of WorldPerks miles and cash (cost: $15 to book over the phone). PerkChoice is valid only on round-trips; Delta’s Pay with Miles is a more flexible loyalty program: members with a gold, platinum, or reserve-level Delta SkyMiles American Express card can use miles to pay part of an eligible fare—without blackout dates or additional fees.

Spend miles: Don’t let your miles lapse

Most accrued frequent-flier miles are destined to expire, typically after an account is inactive for a year to 18 months (down from the former industry standard of 36 months). In 2007, 39 billion miles went poof.

Using reward travel is the obvious way to keep an account active. If you discover that your miles are about to disappear, consider booking any available trip, then paying a nominal fee to change your itinerary later. But if planning a getaway is simply not an option at the moment, don’t worry. “There are thousands of ways to earn a few miles without flying,” says Randy Petersen. Keep your account active by renting a car or booking a hotel with a partner company. A small charge made to an airline-branded credit card will reactivate your account as well. Websites like Mileage Manager keep track of when your miles expire and e-mail you reminders when a given date approaches.

Spend miles: Know when to upgrade

The best return on your miles in straight financial terms is often an upgrade—or even a first- or business-class ticket. One reason: the baseline is typically 25,000 miles to fly within the continental U.S., and those seats often sell out right away, leaving only 50,000-mile seats. Also, in order to limit the number of travelers cashing in on low-level reward seats, many airlines now require a Saturday-night stopover when booking one. But according to George Hobica, your miles effectively become less valuable, since many low-cost fares no longer require a Saturday-night stay.

Do the math to see what your miles are getting you. “I recently cashed in 150,000 miles for two first-class, one-way seats from New York to London on British Airways,” Hobica says. “That would have cost $15,200 on So what’s better—spending 50,000 miles for an inexpensive domestic trip, or using your miles for very expensive seats?”

Spend miles: Be flexible

With financially strapped airlines going under (Aloha Airlines and ATA are the latest to fold), declaring bankruptcy (as Frontier Airlines did in April), or seriously considering mergers, customers need to monitor their miles.

When airlines merge, so do their mileage banks. Passengers who didn’t have enough miles for a free ticket before suddenly will, potentially creating a demand bottleneck. Those who’ve racked up miles with one carrier can appeal to competitors to see if they will honor their existing balance. To reach elite status more easily, you’re better off logging as many miles as possible with one member of an alliance. What happens when an airline shuts down altogether? Sometimes another airline will purchase its frequent-flier program; sometimes your miles disappear. Follow airline news and seek advice from fellow travelers on message boards like the one at

Spend miles: Watch for sales

While most airline promotions offer discounted fares or ways to earn bonus miles, some allow you to stretch your miles when redeeming them.

These special offers are fairly uncommon, but it’s worth checking the websites of your preferred airlines to make sure you don’t miss them. At press time, American Airlines program members could fly from JFK to Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui for a cost of only 30,000 AAdvantage miles—a savings of 45,000 miles. This is a major deal when you consider that the cheapest round-trip domestic-airline fare at press time cost $1,075. Another special: Continental’s offer of a helicopter transfer from Newark Liberty Airport to Manhattan for 20,000 miles (a ride that typically costs $165).

Spend miles: Transfer funds

Many airlines allow frequent fliers to transfer miles to friends and family, usually at a charge of around one cent per mile, with minimum increments of 1,000 or 5,000 miles.

Many experts place the value of a mile at around one cent, so large transfers rarely make sense. But if a friend or relative is just short of a significant reward and won’t be able to earn those last needed miles before a trip, this is the time to help out.

Spend miles: Think beyond air

To allow frequent fliers more flexibility and to address customer concerns about redemption constraints and restrictions, many programs have expanded the ways frequent fliers can use their points.

If your program allows it, consider spending miles on a hotel-room upgrade, which can be obtained more easily than an airline seat. Given that room rates have been rising more rapidly than plane fares, you may save more money. And many non-airline-affiliated credit cards and other programs allow you to choose from a panoply of products besides flights, hotels, and car rentals. Need a new camera? Put your miles to work.

Spend miles: Go 'round the world

If you have the inventory and the time, a Round-the-World (RTW) award is a great way to make the most of your miles. It allows you to circle the earth in one direction, with up to a year to complete the trip, on a single reward ticket. Some options to consider:

• Oneworld includes up to 16 stops and is priced according to your trip’s total miles. So you could stop at Cairo, Dubai, and Auckland during a 27,000-mile New York–Madrid–Sydney–Rio de Janeiro–New York itinerary, and the whole journey would still only cost you 140,000 miles.

Caveat: with only 10 partner airlines, Oneworld’s routes and availability may be limited compared to those of other RTW’s.

• SkyTeam’s RTW gives you six flight segments for 140,000 miles. Be aware, however, that open-jaw trips (landing in one city, making your way to another city, and then departing from there instead) count as half-segments, and that each of these flights may incorporate one stopover of up to 24 hours.

• Alliance’s 20 airlines give travelers the best worldwide coverage, but its RTW requires the most miles: 200,000 for a five-stop RTW trek.


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