Get the Most Mileage from Frequent Flier Rewards

Four years ago, I became a member of a frequent flier program. I'd just returned from my first trip to Europe, and I had been bitten by the travel bug. My former boss insisted that I sign up — she goes on great vacations every year and always uses miles to pay for her flights.

Flash forward to the beginning of this summer, when I redeemed my miles for three tickets to Europe which cost about $120 each, including processing fees as well as the annual fee on my rewards credit card for the last few years (the card is tied to the airline program and awards points with every purchase made on the card). It's a great deal to be sure, considering that we paid about $1,250 for a ticket the last time we hopped across the pond. This was long before I knew anything about smaller booking sites and how to find cheaper flights.

Some turbulence
Redeeming miles wasn't a piece of cake. In fact, we ended up booking part of the trip through another airline because the available flights that started in our hometown and ended at our desired destination were just plain nuts. Four connections, long delays, and a jaunt from LaGuardia to JFK, and I don't mean a connecting flight between the two airports, I mean we would have had to arrange to get ourselves from one airport to another to catch the next flight. Um, no thank you. An almost-free flight isn't worth that much hassle.

Instead, I used miles to book our flights from JFK to Europe, and booked separate flights with another airline to get us to and from New York. In total, the cost of getting to and from Europe cost $400 per person. Not free by any means, but still a good deal.

Your mileage will vary
I'm not an expert at travel hacking by any stretch of the imagination. This was my first experience redeeming miles, but all in all it wasn't that difficult and I'm satisfied that it's worthwhile. But not all airlines are the same when it comes to frequent flier programs.

The Wall Street Journal reported that although it's easier to redeem miles this year compared with last year, some airlines are “stinger” than others. Consulting firm IdeaWorks made 6,720 requests for a standard-mileage ticket at 24 airline websites to determine success rates of scoring rewards sets. Here's how some of the U.S. carriers ranked:

  • Southwest Airlines Co., 99.3%
  • JetBlue Airways, 79.3%
  • United, 71.4%
  • Continental, 71.4%
  • Alaska, 64.3%
  • American, 62.9%
  • Delta, 27.1%
  • US Airways, 25.7%

International carriers had several standouts, with one filling 100% of requests. Top rankings went to the following airlines:

  • GOL of Brazil, 100%
  • Air Berlin, 96.4%
  • Virgin Australia, 91.4%
  • Singapore, 90.7%
  • Lufthansa, 85%
  • Air Canada, 82.1%

It's not hard to understand why an airline would limit reward seats. With rising fuel costs, it's much more profitable to sell a ticket than to book a reward flight.

Nevertheless, carriers also know that if reward seat restrictions are too tight, they can lose money. According to the WSJ article: “Miles bring in billions of dollars in revenue for airlines when they sell them to credit-card companies that offer loyalty rewards, and carriers have acknowledged they need to loosen restrictions on seat availability or risk losing customers.”

It's a surprising-yet-good sign that overall, 68.6% of queries made by IdeaWorks found available seats, up slightly from 66.1% in 2010.

Maximizing your miles
It seems that airlines are working to find a balance between paid and reward tickets, but there also are ways that consumers can up their odds of cashing in miles for tickets to their chosen destination. Consider the following tips:

  • Book early. Sigh. This is one place I went wrong. I started looking at reward tickets several months before I actually redeemed my miles. Even though I booked four months ahead, there were definitely less seats than when I first started looking for tickets.
  • The more flexible your dates and cities, the better. I couldn't find reward tickets to fly into Madrid and out of Rome, so instead we're flying into Rome and out of Barcelona. We'll hit Madrid in between. You'll greatly improve your chances of booking if you don't have a rigid plan.
  • For greater protection of amassed miles, collect miles for a major airline. Consumer Reports says, “If it files for bankruptcy, its frequent-flier program will probably be bought by another airline. Members of a smaller airline's program could be stranded…”
  • For better seat availability, go with low-fare carriers. According to the WSJ article, low-fare airlines have smaller credit-card tie-ins, meaning members can't amass tens of thousands of miles without ever stepping on board a plane; and the programs are younger with shorter expiration dates, which means less miles accrued per customer. The miles are harder to earn (and keep), meaning more award seats are available.
  • Collect nonspecific miles. Rather than putting all of your miles in American Airlines' basket, you can get a rewards card that offers miles on the airline of your choice, allowing you to shop around for flights. I picked up this tip from Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, who wrote about his card of choice: “I prefer a general travel card instead of an airline-specific card…I want a travel card that I can redeem on multiple airlines, not just one.” He also adds that you should be “merciless” about using your credit card perks, otherwise the card isn't worthwhile.

As I said, I'm no expert. I'm still learning, which is why I'm taking a travel hacking class from Chris Guillebeau this week. (No, I don't get paid to promote that webinar, and yes, I paid $29 like all other attendees!) I'd love to hear about any resources you'd recommend in the comments, as well as your experiences with airline miles. Do you use them, and if not, why not?

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STRONGside
STRONGside
9 years ago

Gotta love Southwest! My wife has an aversion to flying, so we choose to focus more on hotel rewards points, but the philosophy is the same. When I was in college a few of my friends and I were involved in church mission trips. We would all take two week trips each summer, and sometimes over Christmas, for missions projects. We always needed a credit card to purchase these flights. I asked my parents to open a card and add me as an authorized user, so I could begin racking up miles and rewards. I did this, and before long,… Read more »

Kyle @ The Penny Hoarder
Kyle @ The Penny Hoarder
9 years ago
Reply to  STRONGside

Ooo…I love Southwest miles too! I don’t fly but a few times a year, but I’m still able to rack up the miles with all their partners (hotel/car rental, etc.).

SB @ One Cent At A Time
SB @ One Cent At A Time
9 years ago

April, most of the points towards maximizing miles are same as minimizing airline ticket cost!

Still a nice article and a lot to know. Lets hope airlines waive remaining restrictions for using miles

Everyday+Tips
Everyday+Tips
9 years ago

We don’t fly much because we have 3 kids and it just gets pretty expensive. However, my husband has been accumulating points for business, and we hope to use some of them for flights this summer when we take a trip to celebrate my oldest son’s graduation. However, I do have a Capital One card that you can apply the points towards rewards. I don’t buy using miles though. The miles convert to cash for use toward buying tickets, and I just ‘bought’ 3 tickets for Florida over Christmas break (had to pay for 2 of them). I am certainly… Read more »

Erin
Erin
9 years ago

I just did some research and wrote a blog post on travel hacking myself and found that it’s pretty much a “hack” to us frugal folk. Unless you are a frequent traveler who buys airline tickets, rents cars, stays in hotels, and goes out on the town regularly, you’re better off just using a rewards credit card and hope to Zeus you are able to redeem those rewards someday!

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago

April – the travel hacking class is sold out 🙁

Malcom
Malcom
9 years ago
Reply to  smirktastic

I would attend this class if it is a webinar format. How do I get on the mailing list?

Jen
Jen
9 years ago

I love this post 🙂 I try to get as many free flights as possible with some combination of credit card points and airline miles. Credit Card Points: -I flew AZ to PA for a whopping total of $12 RT this past May. -My husband and I flew PA to FL in July for a whole $20 RT because of two free flights from opening the Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card (that was it, just opening it!) Airline Points/Miles: -I have almost enough points on Southwest to take the trip I have planned from PA to Boston this fall -I… Read more »

B
B
9 years ago

It’s gross that a frequent flyer credit card advertisement appears at the bottom of this article, JD. I thought you had said that you weren’t going to do that?

Jay
Jay
9 years ago

Anyone who pays any money for a hacking class is silly and being un-frugal

There are MANY sites on the Internet that provide that information (like flyertalk) and more, for free. Chris just gets his info from there and sells it to you. A huge rip off imo

Lara
Lara
9 years ago
Reply to  Jay

I understand about already being frugal and not wanting to spend thousands to save hundreds. I have been on a rampage with our finances and in 3 years have gotten rid of 65,000 of debt and have only a small student loan remaining. However *I myself* am a subscriber to said website (gasp, i know!!). In the last two months, I have earned and REDEEMED enough points for two round trip flights to Los Angeles – without spending a dime over the 30 dollars I spent on the subscription. Since hub’s family are in Los Angeles, we usually spend about… Read more »

Jay
Jay
9 years ago
Reply to  Lara

You are missing my point. It does pay for me to “hack” – and I do. I’ve accumulated over 300k miles this year alone.

My point is that you are wasting your money paying for advice that is available for free on flyertalk and milepoint, or on blogs like millionmilesecrets and thepointsguy. His site is just a rehash of information out there for free

Simon
Simon
9 years ago
Reply to  Jay

I just cancelled my account with Chris’ TravelHacking.org. The info is free on ThePointsGuy, FrugalTravelGuy, View from the Wing, and a bunch of other sites.

Thanks for the heads up 🙂

Jane
Jane
9 years ago

I’m with American Airlines- because it is the only one out of my town….
I might as well be walking for their availability of seats!

Jen
Jen
9 years ago

I’ve been very pleased with the points program on my USAA card. Points can be used on any airline, and if the combination you want isn’t available, you can convert the points to cash to apply towards the flight you want. You get less “value” out of the points that way, but it increases flexibility.

Vin
Vin
9 years ago

These are some great tips, April. I would, however, be interested in the best combination of credit card/flier program for people who don’t travel enough to really rack up the points. As a financial manager, we travel a lot locally, but very rarely need to get on a plane. What kind of things can I do to get those free flights?

Danielle
Danielle
9 years ago
Reply to  Vin

I’d like to second this. I travel maybe twice a year by plane (for pleasure — I don’t travel for business). I would however travel more frequently if I could get a free flight now and then. What’s the best way for me to rack up points for free flights?

Kate
Kate
9 years ago
Reply to  Vin

Where do you live? In Canada, the best is probably CIBC Aerogold.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago
Reply to  Vin

Actually, let me refine my answer. Without knowing the specifics of your travel patterns and location, it’s difficult to tell. Where do you plan to travel? If you plan to travel on routes that generally fairly inexpensive, then using a card that gets you a certain number of $ credits is useful. For example, you can trade 20,000 points for a 200$ credit. If you plan to fly to far-flung locations, or to locations that are close by but expensive (usually small and/or remote airports), then you want a card that gives you a flat rate per zone. For example,… Read more »

Joseph
Joseph
9 years ago

Here in Canada I use Aeroplan.

If you look closely at the options you can really make your miles go a long way. You can have open jaw trips and free stopovers. Getting to know zones is another key tip.

Example: a rewards flight from Toronto to Calgary is the same # of points as Toronto to Hawaii.

flyertalk is a great resource for learning more!

BBbudget
BBbudget
7 years ago
Reply to  Joseph

We also use Aeroplan (Air Canada). My husband flies about 20 times a year for work which earns miles by flying (the old fashioned way to earn them). By far our larger source of miles is by earning them with our credit cards. For his work travel he has a company AMEX. We pay $100/yr to add on a feature so that every dollar spent on business hotels/meals/rental cars, conference fees etc can be converted into miles for our Aeroplan card. Our personal VISA card is an Aeroplan VISA. It earns 1 mile for every dollar spent, and 1.5 for… Read more »

krantcents
krantcents
9 years ago

When selecting an airline frequent flier credit card, you should consider where you plan to fly. I like United because they partner with Sar Alliance. That alliance gives me access to some of the best international airlines.

Stellamarina
Stellamarina
9 years ago
Reply to  krantcents

And when you travel with international planes you can still have those points with an American airline that gives you better travel perks. For example…when I travel on wonderful Air New Zealand, I put my points on my United Airlines milage points plan. ( They are both members of the Star Alliance.) When I travel with Air Pacific I put the points on my Quantas points plan.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

My travel on paid flight (and revenue hotel stays) is few and far between. My wife and I *live* off of credit card rewards. In the last year or so, my wife and I have accumulated the following, mostly off of credit card sign-up bonuses: 103,000 UA/CO miles (almost enough for two round-trip tickets to Europe) 53,000 Chase Sapphire points (can be transferred to some airlines and hotels, but at a minimum worth $500 cash) 220,000 AA points (almost enough for two business class tickets to SE Asia) 210,000 Capital One points ($2,100 credit toward travel spend) 103,000 BA miles… Read more »

bethh
bethh
9 years ago
Reply to  Dan

It sounds like Dan needs to write a follow-up guest post? How are you getting all those miles?

Dan
Dan
9 years ago
Reply to  bethh

Credit card sign-up bonuses and referrals. It looks like I’ve acquired 10 new credit cards this year.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago
Reply to  bethh

I should add: I can’t run a guest post. If I did, it would spoil everything in Chris G’s arsenal, and you guys wouldn’t pay for it. I say this tongue-in-cheek; as long as I don’t violate any copyright laws, JD shouldn’t have any issues helping you guys be a bit more frugal. Since I’ve never read any of Chris G’s work, that shouldn’t be an issue. JD, if you want me to run a guest post, just say so in the comments and I’ll work one up for you. Unfortunately, I can also run a spoiler: Keep your credit… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one around these parts that doesn’t want to be like Chris Guillebeau, jet-setting around the world and paying for it by telling other people how awesome I am for doing it. I am just not interested in paying Chris to take a “how to be like Chris” class. I know he is J.D.’s friend, and he’s probably a good guy, but the main product he sells is his own image. This is the same thing I don’t like about Tim Ferriss — He’s sold a million book that purport to teach you to… Read more »

bethh
bethh
9 years ago

Tyler, I feel like you do about those guys.

I USED to feel like you do about mileage plans, until I got pointed to a couple of high-mileage bonus plans (75k awarded after charging x in y months). They’re a bit of a hassle and can lead to overspending, however they can pay off in pretty fun adventures. I think they are worth the hassle but I don’t think I’m going to pursue them forever – it can get a bit all-consuming, and quickly.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Tyler, I happen to agree with you about Chris. He’s not doing anything that one can’t figure out on their own. If it were just about FlyerTalk, I’d pay somebody to separate the wheat from the chaff for me. I don’t have time to dig through the various forums. However, there are 3-4 free good bloggers that are worth reading on a daily basis — takes 5 minutes combined. I won’t pay somebody very much to save that kind of time. OTOH, the miles are real. The sign-up bonuses above are worth $2500 in cold hard cash (Capital 1 +… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
9 years ago

The most successful travel hackers view it as a hobby — they find collecting and spending miles fun. I do. I’ve travelled all over the world this way. And I’m just starting. My wife and I are going to Italy next year on air miles and I’m actually planning a 6-week, around-the-world trip with my family of four in 2013, with more than 1/2 of the hotel/airfare covered by air miles. One tip that nobody has mentioned is this: I couldn’t book a flight from my city to Italy online. So, I booked a flight from Seattle to Italy, then… Read more »

MelodyO
MelodyO
9 years ago

I’m in Canada, and we use the TD First Class Travel Visa Infinite card. I guess the person who named that got paid by the letter. We put EVERYTHING on our card (and pay it off in full), and the points we’ve earned have paid for countless vacations for our entire family. We chose this card in particular because there are no restrictions whatsoever on how you use the points. You simply book the travel yourself (if you use their website you get extra points) and they reimburse you for it through a credit on your card, depending on how… Read more »

Nick Costanza
Nick Costanza
9 years ago

We’ve used various ones over the years, and have managed to do most of our flying with points. Our kids went to school across the country from where we live, so this has been very convenient. Id say we’ve redeemed over 300K on American alone. IMHO, stay away from Delta. They have reduced the value of their points to be almost worthless.

slccom
slccom
9 years ago

April, please learn the difference between “Fewer” and “Less.” I really, really hope that there are NOT “less” seats available. The danged things are already too small! I assume that you mean that there are numerically not as many as are available for purchase with money rather than mileage points.

If you can count them, there are “fewer.” If you can’t count them, or are referring to size, there are “less.”

“After a hurricane, there are fewer grains of sand on a beach. Beach-goers will notice less sand.”

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

Personally, I’ve had great luck with earning and burning miles and I don’t fly much on paid tickets. Just this year, I used 160,000 British Airways miles to buy two tickets in business to go to Lima, Easter Island and Buenos Aires. Plus, I used 60,000 points to cover 4 nights hotel and my friend used some of his points to cover most of the other nights. It made a vacation that would have cost me close to $4-5,000 cost only about $500. I’ve also picked up just this year: 225,000+ American Airline miles, 5,000 Starwood points, 60,000 Priority Club… Read more »

Barb+Friedberg
Barb+Friedberg
9 years ago

My folks live in an airline hub city, use the same carrier credit card and fly free ALL THE TIME. Works out great for them!

twiggers
twiggers
9 years ago

Joined the travel hacking game about 12 months ago. I’m not near the ranks of others, because I won’t sign up for a card unless I can meet the minimum spends. Anyhow, this past summer my husband and I flew first class to Europe and we have enough miles to do the same thing again. I don’t bother with Capital One or other cards like that because you’re only getting .01 value. When redeeming a business/first class ticket the value is often much higher. I see it as a hobby….my husband doesn’t like traveling and I’m on a quest to… Read more »

Ric Garrido
Ric Garrido
9 years ago

There are several travel loyalty experts who have been publishing free content on the best airline, credit card, hotel and car rental deals for earning points and miles for several years on BoardingArea.com. BoardingArea is hosting site for these bloggers. Travel hacking is a term that has been popularized over the past couple years. It is a relatively new term to me for something I have been doing over 20 years. My blog is Loyalty Traveler. i have nearly 1,300 articles on hotel loyalty points, hotel program analysis and comparisons. Gary Leff with View from the Wing has artcles back… Read more »

Rob Madrid
Rob Madrid
9 years ago

Wow is all I can say. I live in Europe and it takes my wife about two years to get an economy flight home (she flies monthly), than add in taxes ouch. Credit Cards crap 1 mile per euro, 70,000 need to fly to Canada.

David S
David S
8 years ago

Noobtraveler is a good site for this too.

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