- How do I redeem my miles and what can I get for them?
- Which awards make the most valuable use of my miles?
- When does it make sense to buy a ticket instead of using miles?
- Can I pay part miles and part cash for an award?
- How long do miles last before they expire?
- What should I know about special restrictions on award travel such as blackout dates?
- Can I redeem miles for non-travel awards?
Q: How do I redeem my miles, and what can I get for them?
A: Frequent flyer programs have different procedures for redeeming miles. Some issue certificates that entitle the holder to a free flight; others simply issue tickets, with no intervening certificate. Most airlines now allow members to redeem online, as well as over the phone or in person.
All of the major airlines offer free flights and upgrades on the host airline and on program partner airlines. The miles required for select award categories are typically as follows:
- Free round-trip coach ticket within the continental U.S. - 25,000 miles
- Free round-trip first-class ticket within the continental U.S. - 45,000 miles
- Round-trip one-class upgrade within the continental U.S. - 30,000 miles
- Free round-trip coach ticket between the U.S. and Europe - 50,000 miles
- Free round-trip first class ticket between the U.S. and Europe - 100,000 miles
- Round-trip one-class upgrade between the U.S. and Europe - 50,000 miles
- Free round-trip coach ticket between the U.S. and Asia - 60,000 miles
- Free round-trip first class ticket between the U.S. and Asia - 120,000 miles
- Round-trip one-class upgrade between the U.S. and Asia - 50,000 miles
Levels shown are for capacity- and date-controlled awards, often called Saver awards. Unrestricted or less restricted awards (Standard) are available for more miles, typically at twice the Saver levels.
In addition, some airlines offer reduced Saver awards during off-peak times, usually for only 20,000 miles.
Low-cost or smaller carriers, such as Southwest, JetBlue, and AirTran, have very different redemption levels, with awards based on the number of flights taken, rather than miles flown.
Q: Which awards are the most valuable uses of my miles?
A: The best use of miles is for the most expensive tickets. As stated previously, using 25,000 miles for an $89 ticket probably doesn't represent a good return on your investment, while redeeming the miles for a $2,000 ticket does.
There's no definitive breakpoint for this calculation, but a good rule of thumb is if a domestic ticket could be purchased for significantly less than $500, you should consider keeping the 25,000 miles and using them on another occasion. On the other hand, if there's no more expensive flight on your travel horizon, by all means use the miles for a less expensive one.
As a general rule, upgrades are good value, especially for long-haul flights where the added comfort is extra important. But be aware of any restrictions on the revenue ticket you are upgrading. In some cases you can only use miles to upgrade a full, unrestricted coach ticket (the most expensive available), which undermines the economics of the upgrade considerably. You also may be forced to pay a surcharge (anywhere between $100 and $500) to upgrade a cheaper coach ticket with miles.
Q: When does it make sense to buy a ticket instead of using miles?
A: Again, if the purchase price of the desired ticket is substantially below two cents per frequent flyer mile (e.g., a $500 ticket at 25,000 miles), and you expect to travel on a more expensive flight in the foreseeable future, you are probably better off saving the miles for the pricier ticket.
Q: Can I pay part miles and part cash for an award?
A: Most programs allow you to purchase enough additional miles to bring your balance up to an award level. So in a sense, you'd be using miles and cash (to purchase more miles) for the award. While this option can be attractive if you're only short a few miles, be sure not to overpay. It hardly makes good economic sense to spend more buying the miles than you would spend buying the ticket.
A few airlines do have promotions or ongoing offers letting you pay part cash and part miles for a ticket. These tickets can be good value, but you must do the math to make sure you do not overpay. Read our feature on cash-and-miles offers for more information.
Q: How long do miles last before they expire?
A: The current industry standard is to allow miles to remain in a member's account forever as long as there is some activity every 36 months. Since account activity includes any earning or redemption, miles are effectively eternal.
Among the U.S. airlines we cover, Southwest is the exception, expiring Rapid Reward credits 12 months from the date they are earned. Other low-cost carriers have similar policies. Hotel and other loyalty programs generally do not have expiration dates.
It is best to contact your specific program to find out whether your credits will expire, and if so, when.
Q: What should I know about special restrictions on award travel such as blackout dates?
A: The programs manage their award seats in two ways: 1) by imposing blackout dates during which award travel is prohibited, unless a traveler pays a mileage premium, and 2) by regulating on a day-to-day, flight-to-flight basis how many award seats are available for booking.
Many airlines have removed blackout date restrictions from award flights. To determine whether your airline still employs them, check the member guide or airline website. Planning around blackout dates is pretty straightforward. The bigger challenge is getting an award seat on a popular flight with severely limited award availability.
In general, your best bet is to book well in advance, before those few award seats are reserved by others. Flights are usually loaded into an airline's system 330 days in advance, the best time to book award tickets.
Alternatively, if you book close to the actual flight date, the airline may make unsold seats available for frequent flyers.
Q: Can I redeem miles for non-travel awards?
A: Yes, but you have very limited options.
Certain airlines allow you to redeem miles for hotel or resort stays, car rentals, cruises, train rides, and other non-travel rewards. Check with your airline to see which non-travel awards it offers, if any.
Many major airlines also partner with Points.com and MilePoint.com. Points.com allows you to exchange airline miles for miles or points in other loyalty programs, such as Starbucks and eBay. You can then redeem your new points for non-travel awards; however, the conversion loss will be significant. MilePoint.com allows you to redeem your miles for magazines, as well as discounts on cruises and resort stays.
In addition, most airlines have a charity affiliation and allow frequent travelers to donate their unwanted miles for use by a charity.