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Can I combine miles from different airlines?

SmarterTravel

Dear Tim,

I would appreciate more information on the possibility, or lack thereof, of combining miles from different airlines.

Elaine

Dear Elaine,

With a single exception (and a limited-time one at that), combining miles among different programs is either cumbersome, a bad deal, or both.

Before delving into the particulars, consider the reason for airlines’ not allowing mileage transfer. Briefly, if miles were freely interchangeable among airlines, the loyalty effect would be so diluted that frequent flyer programs would lose their reason-for-being.

Among airlines, only two will allow you to directly combine miles: American and US Airways. In that case, you can only transfer between programs as many miles as you need when requesting an award ticket. And the transferred miles can only be applied toward a free ticket on American or US Airways flights.

And, regardless, the transfer option will disappear on August 23, 2001, when American and US Airways officially end this mileage combination tie-up.

So much for direct, airline-to-airline mileage transfers. There are three alternative ways of converting miles from one program into another:

  1. First, we have the “granddaddy” of mileage-conversion mechanisms, the Reward Exchange feature of Hilton’s HHonors program. Conversion is a two-step process. First, redeem miles from participating airline programs for HHonors points. And second, redeem the HHonors points for miles in one of the participating airline programs. The round-trip (from miles to points, back to miles) can take weeks. And more than half of your original miles will be lost in the conversion.
  2. A second option is Diners Club Rewards, which has both miles-to-points and points-to-miles capabilities. As with HHonors’ Rewards Exchange, you would convert from one airline’s miles to another’s, by way of Diners Club Rewards points. And like the HHonors option, much of your original miles’ value would be sacrificed in the conversion process.
  3. The third option is the dedicated mileage-exchange service, Points.com (http://points.com), launched earlier this year. Unlike HHonors and Diners, Points.com is in the business of facilitating mileage conversion. So the process of exchanging miles (and points) among the participating airlines (and other non-airline programs as well) is quick and easy. But after the exchange, you’ll be left with only 10 to 20 percent of the miles you started with.

So yes, mileage conversion is possible. But in practice, it’s so limited, time-consuming or expensive as to be inadvisable in all but the most unusual circumstances.

Tim Winship
Contributing Editor
SmarterTravel.com

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