In the 25-plus years that I have been associated with frequent flyer programs, as both an insider and an outsider, I have seen all manner of mistakes made by program members trying to earn free travel. My job now is to help consumers make sense of the programs and use them more effectively.
In that capacity, I’d like to point out 10 of the most common mistakes made by travelers, and give my advice as to how they can avoid mileage missteps that undermine the programs’ potential value.
1. Don’t get caught napping
First, and most generally, program members get lazy. As a result, they not only fail to maximize their earnings, they can actually lose what they’ve already earned. A telling example is the shut-down of TWA.
When American purchased the assets of bankrupt TWA in 2001, they did the right thing by members of TWA’s Aviators frequent flyer program: They allowed them to transfer their miles into American’s AAdvantage program. In the months leading up to the November 1, 2001, termination of Aviators, both American and TWA made repeated efforts to contact Aviators’ 14 million members and explain the process of converting their miles into AAdvantage miles. And American continued honoring conversion requests through June 30, 2003, long past the official deadline.
And yet, to this day, I receive e-mails from former Aviators members—some of whom had substantial mileage balances when the program terminated—who are wondering what to do with their miles.
Whether they were never contacted (because their contact information had changed, for instance) or they simply procrastinated beyond the point of no return, these people violated a cardinal rule of program participation: stay engaged. That means reading the member communications, maintaining current contact information in one’s member profile, and keeping up with the developments at the airlines and the programs they host.
2. Don’t skim the fine print
Part of being a successful player in the mileage game is reading the fine print. Not skimming it; reading it.
This level of attention wasn’t always necessary. In a simpler time, frequent flyer programs were pretty straightforward. A typical promotion would offer, for example, double miles for all flights during a two-month period. Today, the promotion headline will still tout double miles. But the fine print will warn that the offer only applies to specified flight numbers, that certain tickets (fare classes X, Y, Z, and so on) are not eligible, and that a Saturday-night stay and pre-registration are required.
To avoid unpleasant surprises, look for red-flag words such as eligible fares and participating properties. Follow the asterisk to the dense terms-and-conditions verbiage at the bottom of the page. And read, read, read.
3. Don’t let miles die
In the past month alone, I received four notes from frequent flyer program members whose miles have expired. “What can I do?” they wonder.
Here’s a better question: How could they have allowed their miles to expire in the first place? Under the current industry-standard policy, in which miles do not expire so long as there is account activity every three years, there is really no good reason for miles to disappear.
Remember that any transaction that affects the member’s balance—earning miles or redeeming them—triggers another three years of life for all miles in that account. Since miles can be earned for so many different activities, you shouldn’t have too much trouble adding a few miles every three years.
The advice above does not apply to Southwest, JetBlue, and a few other airlines that summarily erase points after just 12 months.
4. Don’t redeem miles for cheap tickets
In a recent e-mail exchange with a reader, it came to light that she was several thousand miles short of the 25,000 miles she needed for an award trip because she’d recently cashed out miles for a ticket to visit her niece. I asked her how much the ticket to see her niece would have cost, and how much the ticket for her next trip would cost. The former would have been $198, the latter $550. In other words, miles redeemed for the former had about a third of the value they would have had if she had waited and redeemed for the more expensive ticket.
Or, as I put it to her: “So because you used your miles for a $198 ticket, you will have to buy the $550 ticket.” She had an “Aha!” moment and will forever after use miles for more (rather than less) expensive tickets.
So should you.
5. Don’t overlook the little things
No one needs to remind frequent flyer program members to earn miles for their flights and hotel stays. But many of the ancillary earning opportunities go unused.
In particular, I’m always surprised how many consumers fail to take advantage of miles-for-dining, mileage malls, and mileage-earning credit cards.
The beauty of earning miles for dining and shopping at the airlines’ online malls is that the miles are effectively free. You would have eaten at that restaurant or bought those chinos from Gap.com anyway for the same price. So why not earn miles in the process?
Credit card miles present a greater value-for-money challenge because their fees and annual percentage rates tend to be higher than comparable cards without travel-rewards benefits.
But they can be used cost-effectively. If you’re absolutely opposed to paying an annual fee, consider the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express. The annual fee is waived for the first year, after which it is a reasonable $30. Starpoints can be exchanged at a rate of one to one for miles in many airline programs. And 20,000 points convert to 25,000 airline miles, a 25 percent bonus.
6. Don’t overpay for miles
While miles always should be on the radar, they shouldn’t be the only consideration.
Savvy shoppers compare prices. In many cases, the price is the same with or without miles. But if you can purchase a comparable item or service for less without frequent flyer miles, the cost difference is what you’re paying to earn the miles. If it works out to more than two cents per mile, you may be better off spending less and foregoing the miles.
7. Don’t overlook elite status
Travelers have been grumbling recently about the decline in value of elite status. But upgrades, priority boarding, and a modicum of extra consideration are still welcome perks. And, it’s easier than ever to attain elite perks, with elite-qualifying miles available from an ever-growing list of partners including global alliance partners and, in some cases, credit cards.
Review your program’s guidelines for elite qualification. You may find it’s more attainable than you thought.
8. Don’t diversify
Participating in multiple programs leads to one of the questions I hear most: How can I convert miles from programs A, B, and C into miles in a single program?
You can indeed transfer miles between some programs (see the next section), but it’s a tactic to save for only the most desperate of circumstances.
It’s far better to avoid mileage dispersion in the first place by making it a core principle to focus mileage-earning in a single program. This practice leads to more useable miles, which in turn means more award tickets and a better chance of earning elite status.
9. Don’t convert currencies
Using Points.com, an online company built specifically to facilitate mileage exchanges, converting miles among participating airlines results in the loss of approximately 90 percent of one’s original miles.
10. Don’t give up
Frequent flyer programs have become less generous. The rules have become more complicated, sometimes maddeningly so. And travel itself has lost much of its luster.
But there’s still plenty of value to be wrung from frequent flyer programs, whether you view free travel as a dollar-denominated rebate or as something less effable, such as time out from the treadmill of life or a gift of adventure and perspective.
Either way, you earned it. So you deserve to reap all possible rewards.