Because it can sometimes be so difficult to redeem the miles you’re awarded from credit cards or other sources, many people wonder if loyalty programs are worth the effort.
The answer often depends on your tolerance for bureaucracy and your stubbornness to find the best deal.
While this debate will never be settled, those with miles can benefit from a few tips to maximize the value of their mileage.
- Price award seats individually. The key to getting value from your miles is redeeming in the lowest mileage rate. One of my 6 Innovative Tricks to Save Time and Money on Airline Travel is to price airline tickets individually, since airlines often quote the highest fare for everyone even when lower fares may be available to some. Mileage awards work the same way, so always check the rate for a single passenger first.
- Search one leg at a time. Airlines consider your success in redeeming miles to be their loss, so they have conveniently avoided fixing numerous inefficiencies and bugs in their online award search engines. The ideal way to find hidden seats at the lowest mileage level is to search for each leg of your flight individually – because one high-priced flight will affect the whole award.
- Use permitted stopovers and “open jaw” itineraries. Most airline programs permit award itineraries to include some combination of stopovers or an “open jaw,” their term for a trip that continues from a different city than the last flight or returns passengers to a point other than their origin. Gain maximum value from your miles by visiting multiple cities, or even tagging on one leg of another vacation after a “stopover” in your home town during your return leg.
- Consider partner awards. Did you know that the worst way to use your US Airways miles is for flights on US Airways? That’s because their partner awards usually require fewer miles than awards for seats on their own flights. As a member of the Star Alliance, you can use their miles for awards on 27 airlines – including United, Continental, Lufthansa, and Air Canada. All major airlines and several smaller carriers belong to one of the three major worldwide alliances, and partner awards, when available, sometimes require the least miles.
- Consult travel forums. If you have the time, you can search through forums such as FlyerTalk and Milepoint that are frequented by travel experts. There you’ll be able to learn advanced “travel hacks” and seek the advice of more experienced travelers.
- Use an award booking service. If you don’t have the time or patience to become an expert in the hunt for elusive award seats, you can hire one to do it for you. Gary Leff of BookYourAward.com founded his service in 2009 to help travelers who are overwhelmed by the task of finding award seats on complex, international itineraries. Leff says that his typical customer “doesn’t really know how to go about using their miles, but just knows that they should be able to.” If you’ve got a lot of miles and are considering an itinerary complex enough to justify the $250 he charges per couple to find first- or business-class international award opportunities, it might be worth it if you’re too busy, confused, or frustrated to search on your own. Another service to consider is PointsPros.
The airlines love to offer miles for nearly every conceivable transaction, but they seem to make it as difficult as possible to redeem them. You can beat them at their own game by using these tips to extract as much value as possible from your hard-earned miles.