How Can I Combine Miles From Four Airlines Into One Account?

Frequent Flyer Q&A
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on December 15, 2003. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: frequent flyer, Frequent Flyer Q&A, ground transfer, Tim Winship.

Dear Tim,

I currently have frequent flyer miles with United, Continental, Delta, and US Airways, and I'm starting to plan a surprise trip for my wife. I have about 28,000 miles combined, with over 16,000 from United.

How do I go about getting these miles transferred to one account? Do I have to buy miles from each airline to fulfill the typical 25,000-mile minimum?

I'm hoping to save as much money as possible on the airfare for this trip next October. A free ticket would be a nice bonus, but I don't know how to go about it. Can you help?

Tom

Dear Tom,

Generally speaking, there is no easy or cost-effective way to transfer miles among different programs. And purchasing miles to "top off" an account is generally prohibitively expensive, especially if you need more than a few miles.

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But because of the particular combination of programs in which you have accumulated miles, there may be a way to get a tad closer to a free trip.

Before getting to the good news, let's eliminate the usual suspects—the options that first spring to mind when the goal is mileage consolidation.

Since the bulk of your miles are in United's program, that would be the account to focus on. You could purchase the additional 9,000 miles needed to reach 25,000 miles directly from United, at a cost of $266.88. But unless the cost to purchase the ticket in question was at least that much, you'd do better to simply buy a ticket and save your 16,000 miles for another time.

(Note: United's miles-for-sale offer officially ends on December 31, 2003. But my best guess is that the airline will extend this program.)

Know your options for transferring miles:

New deals let you transfer miles between frequent flyer accounts

If you want to convert miles, there are four vehicles for exchanging miles among programs: Hilton HHonors' Reward Exchange, Diners Club Rewards, Amtrak Guest Rewards, and Points.com. You can read The Joy of Miles for more information on how these programs work.

A conversion through Diners would result in the loss of fully half your miles' original value. In other words, 10,000 miles in Program A would convert to 5,000 miles in Program B. But the Diners program does not support transfers of your Continental, Delta, or US Airways miles into United miles.

An exchange through the Hilton HHonors Reward Exchange would be even costlier, mileage-wise, burning off a full 70 percent of the original miles in the conversion process. But, as with Diners, exchanges into United's program are not supported.

Looking at Points.com, you may be relieved to discover that, again, transfers to United are not part of the program. Because if they were, you'd lose more than 80 percent of your miles in the process.

I've saved the best for last: the Amtrak program. Guest Rewards allows members to exchange Continental miles into Guest Rewards points in increments of 5,000. Plus, it allows Guest Rewards points to be exchanged for miles in the programs of Continental, Midwest, and United. And the exchange rate is 1:1, which means there's no conversion loss. You'll have to call Continental to exchange OnePass miles for Guest Rewards points; you can convert Guest Rewards points to Mileage Plus miles on Amtrak's website.

So, if you have at least 5,000 Continental miles, you would first convert them into Guest Rewards points, and then exchange those 5,000 Guest Rewards points for 5,000 United miles, bringing your Mileage Plus balance to 21,000 miles.

That will still leave you 4,000 miles short of your goal of 25,000 miles. Circling back to the buy-miles option, you could purchase the remaining 4,000 miles for $143.25. A good deal? You'll have to judge.

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