Frequent travelers come in many forms. The frugal guy who's always looking for a couch to crash on. The wealthy lady who cheerfully pulls out her plastic anytime she wants to go anywhere. And then there are the travel fanatics—the "mileage geeks." This type is neither rich nor cheap, but man do they know how to redeem. They're often math whizzes, people who pay close attention to fine print, or have just invested a lot of time learning how to maximize companies' point systems. I asked a few of these mileage geeks for tips about how best to spend this inscrutable form of currency. Here's what they said.
Book a Flight
Booking a free flight is the most obvious way to use your miles. But there are so many nuances to this—and ways to maximize—that mileage geeks had a lot to say on the topic.
All the experts I spoke to agreed that it's silly to waste miles on a quick, cheap jaunt when you can trade them for an expensive international flight. They advise to book early to get the best value for your miles, and to call the airline to learn about flights that might not show up on the Internet.
"Airlines are infamous for not having all of their inventory plugged in online," says Edward Pizzarello, a blogger who gives seminars at Frequent Traveler University. "A quick call can get you that trip you've been dreaming of."
Another tip I heard often: Work in one-way flights so you can grab an outbound even before your return date becomes available. Airlines offer their mileage seats in limited quantities about 330 days before the departure date. Once taken, they may not become available again to mileage holders until just before the flight. Plus, if you hold miles on various carriers, you can depart on one airline and return on another.
After those general tips for booking a flight with miles, things get more granular. Jeffrey Ward, the founder of Savvy Navigator, offers this: "If you have a lot of American Express Membership Rewards miles and you want to use them on an airline that's not part of the program, keep an Air Canada Aeroplan account open. I can search for flights on any Star Alliance partner, then instantly transfer my miles to Aeroplan and make the booking. The same is also good for using a Delta account for SkyTeam partners."
Related: 11 Must-Haves for Your Carry-on Bag
Mileage geeks know that each award chart has its sweet spots—and that it pays to know which airlines are in which alliance. Kyle Stewart, who owns the Trip Sherpa travel agency, gives an example: "British Airways, a partner of US Airways, Alaska Airlines, and American Airlines, charges just 4,500 Avios points for direct flights of less than 650 miles. For people living near those hubs, expensive flights like New York to Toronto, Miami to Nassau, or Chicago to New York show how a $400 ticket can be had for very few miles." British Airways also lets you use just 12,500 Avios points to fly American or Alaska Airlines from the West Coast to Hawaii.
The worst airline for booking flights with points? Delta. Stewart calls its SkyMiles program "terrible," especially since the airline took down its award charts and made saver-level award seats harder to get. "Consumers can't even see if they're paying the lowest price," Stewart complains. "And Delta reduced earnings for 90 percent of their travelers and nearly doubled the costs. They are dishonest and customer unfriendly, taking out features of the program without telling their members." The advice: If you've got SkyMiles, redeem them for award tickets on Delta's partner airlines, like Virgin Atlantic.
"The best value from frequent flyer miles almost always comes from redeeming them for international business or first-class tickets," says Ryan Lile, who founded the Frequent Flyer Academy. "Second place goes to redeeming for first-class tickets within North America."
When deciding whether to use miles to upgrade, it helps to study up on airline alliances. Kyle Zuvella, who edits the "Points & Miles" section of The Faraway Guide, recommends using American Airlines miles to fly Etihad's in-air suites. "This is the best redemption out there," he says, "as the Etihad A380 first-class apartments have 80-inch beds, 24-inch TV screens, and chilled Dom Perignon." Just 60,000 AAdvantage miles get you a suite from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, while 90,000 get the same seat from Abu Dhabi to JFK. Then, for no additional miles, you can add a first-class Cathay Pacific flight from JFK to Vancouver.
Zuvella also recommends using Alaska Airlines miles to fly first class on Emirates, and using Chase Ultimate Rewards points to fly Singapore Airlines' ultra-luxurious $23,000 A380 suites.
Not everyone agrees that upgrading is the best use for miles. Gary Leff, who cofounded Milepoint and runs the popular View From the Wing site, says that upgrading used to be the smartest way to spend miles, but no longer is, mostly because mileage-based upgrades have gotten expensive: "U.S. airlines either restrict you from being able to use miles to upgrade on the cheapest fares or require a cash co-pay to upgrade. Free seats are usually a better deal."
Related: 7 Ways to Get a Free Upgrade
Add a Destination
"If you can get a free stopover, travel to more than one city as part of your award," Leff says. "Alaska Airlines allows a stopover even on a one-way redemption. If you're connecting in Hong Kong anyway, why not visit there a few days?"
United, too, allows a free stopover on international round-trip awards, which means you can fly to London, stay there a few days, then fly to Rome and stay there a few days, all for the same 60,000 miles as a round-trip to London. Note, though: American and Delta have eliminated stopovers from their programs.
Give a Gift
Is someone dear to you approaching a milestone? Consider using your miles to give an unforgettable present. You can get a graduate to Europe, newlyweds to their honeymoon, expectant parents to their babymoon, or grandparents closer to new grandchildren. You can also use miles to take someone with you on a trip you're already planning to take.
"The gift of travel is special," Leff says, "and if you can use your miles for business- or first-class saver awards, you're getting really spectacular value, so make that honeymoon gift special." Airlines occasionally offer bonuses on gifting points, too.
A less obvious way to use miles to make someone happy is to send flowers. On United's website, for example, we recently saw a bouquet of sunflowers offered via FTD for 2,400 miles.
Bid on an Experience
"Frequent flyer and hotel points programs can deliver things that you couldn't access yourself at almost any price," Leff says. "You're leveraging the contacts of a large corporation." A friend of his used Starwood's Starpoints and the company's SPG Moments program to nab tennis lessons with Andre Agassi. A few years back, Chase cardholders could cash in points to attend Conde Nast Traveler's 25th anniversary gala along with Richard Branson and Susan Sarandon.
"You couldn't buy that ticket," says Leff, who was at the bash. "Sold-out events, meet-and-greets backstage, cooking classes from celebrity chefs—these are the sorts of things you can't do yourself but that big travel companies can put together for you. They get you something you couldn't have otherwise."
Auctions for experiences can get you especially good value since most people don't know about them, which means the bidding stays thin and you don't have to trade too many miles for a memorable event. In addition to the Starwood program, Delta, American, and Hilton all let you bid on admission to concerts, sports events, and movie premieres.
Shop with Miles
Okay, so most experts don't actually think that spending your miles on merchandise constitutes a decent deal. As Leff says, "You usually want to use miles and points for products that program offers, not what it has to buy."
According to Lile, "Airlines started to push these methods of redemption in recent years mostly because they can tightly control the value of each mile, which ends up being about a cent or less."
Still, if your miles are about to expire and you won't have time to take a trip, or if you've got a small stash that's not enough for a ticket, using points on, say, a subscription to The Economist or a new pair of Ray-Bans is an effective way to clean out a balance that would otherwise go unused, or to generate account activity.
Keep alert for sales: Around holidays, especially, airlines are known to let their offerings go for up to 40 percent fewer points.
Donate Your Miles to Charity
If you're not going to use your miles and there's a cause you care about, consider donating your miles. You can make donations directly via some charities' websites, like Make-a-Wish, to help get sick kids where they yearn to go; and Fisher House, to give airline tickets to wounded veterans and their families. Or you can donate via the airline. United's website has a long list of good causes you can support, and American offers a few, too.
Leff provides a warning, though: "You usually aren't getting a good deal when you donate miles to charity. You're going to do more good using the miles yourself and taking the money you save on travel and giving that to the charity instead."
Also, since miles are technically classified as a gift from the airline and not from you, your mileage donation won't be tax-deductible.
Reserve a Hotel Room or Rent a Car
"There was a time when airline frequent-flyer awards included hotel and rental car," Leff recalls. "In the late '90s, as a vestige of that, United used to send hotel and rental car discount vouchers whenever you redeemed miles."
Though those days are gone, you can still redeem for packaged vacations and hotel discounts. This option works best when you're dealing in hotel points. As Kristina Portillo, the founder of BusinessTravelLife.com, tells it: "I used 90,000 Hilton HHonors points to stay three nights at the Hilton Fiji Beach Resort in Nadi before heading to Vanua Levu for our actual vacation. It was really nice to have the extra days to relax and readjust from the jetlag."
Other hotel programs that can get you in the air: Starwood Preferred Guest's Nights & Flights option lets you buy air miles with Starpoints, while the Marriott Rewards program lets you use hotel points to book flights.
"Occasionally you'll find some options to use airline miles for hotel and car reservations," adds Leff, "but those occasions are rare. So you should only use airline miles for hotels or rental cars if you are particularly points-rich and cash-poor."
Turn Miles Into Employee Perks
If you own a business, you can use miles to make your employees happier, more loyal, and more productive. Chris Lindland, the CEO of Betabrand, a small fashion company, uses accrued points to do just that.
"At a company happy hour last fall," Lindland wrote in a recent blog post, "I learned that many Betabrand employees had never traveled abroad. I thought: With all the money we spend … surely we could amass enough credit-card miles each month to send someone on a short, eye-opening trip overseas. So we centralized spending onto a Capital One Spark card (with double miles!) and started saving up. We've since sent emissaries to Iceland, Ireland, and France, all the while injecting a heaping dose of magic into our workplace."
Every month or so, Lindland announces the next recipient of the travel points. "Every time we do," he says, "the company explodes in good cheer—sometimes in tears."
Of course I tried to interview Christopher Elliott, the ubiquitous travel journalist and consumer advocate, for this piece. His contrarian response is worth considering: "I'm a mileage atheist, so I do not encourage my readers to participate in loyalty programs. Unless you have the time to study loyalty programs as if they are Holy Scripture, your airline will benefit from it more than you will. It's a classic win-lose. For all but the most dedicated frequent traveler, you're better off buying the best ticket and forgetting about the loyalty program, which often seduces you into buying more expensive tickets from an airline with terrible customer service."
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