Consolidating Frequent Flyer Miles Is Possible, but Pricey

The Extra Mile
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 8, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Amtrak, Diners Club, frequent flyer, ground transfer, Hilton Hotels Corporation, Points.com, Priority Club Rewards, The Extra Mile, Tim Winship.

Since the dawn of travel loyalty programs 25 years ago, mileage collectors have found themselves bedeviled by the paradoxical problem of overabundance: too many miles earned in too many different programs.

Mileage overabundance is the result of indiscriminate earning behavior—racking up miles in the program of whatever airline happens to fit the bill for any given trip. With no sustained loyalty or overarching plan to focus on a single airline's program, travelers accumulate a few miles in this program, a few more in that program.

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Then comes the day of reckoning. While the total number of accrued points may be significant, the miles don't add up to a single free ticket because they were earned in different programs. Inevitably, the question arises: How can I consolidate my miles in a single account?

If frequent flyer miles were truly like the currencies to which they're often compared, it would be a simple matter to convert miles from several programs into miles in a single program, just as yen and euros and pounds can all be exchanged readily for dollars. In fact, mileage exchange is often impossible, rarely easy, and almost never worthwhile.

Before addressing the mechanics of the few available options for consolidating miles, it's worth considering the matter from the standpoint of the airlines and hotels that operate the schemes. Rewards programs foster loyalty by doling out awards and perks to consumers who purchase more or less exclusively from the airline or hotel that hosts the program, plus a defined network of affiliated companies. But if American, for example, were to allow members of the program of its archrival, United, to transfer their miles into American's program, the loyalty effect of that program would be diluted. Why bother to fly American exclusively if miles for United flights can be transferred into an American account?

So, except for the techniques detailed below, program operators are understandably reluctant to permit miles in their programs to be freely exchanged among other program currencies.

Points.com

For all the trillions of frequent flyer miles in circulation, there is only one company that is expressly in the business of facilitating the exchange of miles and points among different programs—Points.com.

Points.com members can convert miles and points among a number of retail, hotel, and airline programs, including those of Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, Midwest, and US Airways.

While the Points.com conversion procedure is quick and easy, a significant number of the original miles will be lost in the process. Exchanging 10,000 American miles, for instance, would net only 1,581 Frontier EarlyReturns miles (an 84 percent loss), or 948 Alaska Mileage Plan miles (a 91 percent loss). And some airlines, such as Delta and US Airways, permit miles to be transferred in but not out.

Diners Club Rewards

Other techniques for exchanging miles rely on a middleman strategy: converting miles from one airline program into points in an intermediary program, and then redeeming those points for miles in a second airline program.

The Diners Club Rewards program, for instance, allows program members to exchange 10,000 American AAdvantage miles for 5,000 Club Rewards points. The Club Rewards points can then be redeemed for miles in the programs of Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, Midwest, Southwest, and 13 other programs. Since points convert at a one-to-one ratio to miles in most participating airline programs, 50 percent of the original miles will be lost when converting from American to another program.

Until recently, United miles also could be converted into Club Rewards points. But now only American miles may be converted, severely limiting the Diners program's utility as a conversion service.

Hilton HHonors

Another vehicle for converting miles is Hilton's HHonors program. Through the program's "Reward Exchange" feature, members may exchange miles from the programs of American, Amtrak, Hawaiian, LAN, Mexicana, Midwest, South African, and Virgin Atlantic for HHonors points. And HHonors points may be redeemed for miles in the programs of 29 programs, including Air Canada, Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Midwest, Northwest, and Southwest.

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