How To Use Frequent Flyer Miles (Or, How To Fly Free)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Frequent flyers are lately becoming frequently frustrated, being frequently denied, and are frequently failing to redeem their miles for the tickets that they want at the airline’s base redemption rates.

With many airlines posting negative profits, the neighborhood kid selling lemonade is finding more financial success in business than airlines worth billions. This is causing them to make cuts everywhere. First, they took olives from our salads. Then, they took our salads. Then, they took our free alcohol (bastards!). Now, not even our miles are sacred.

Based on observing young children, the normal human reaction when something is taken away is to throw a tantrum. But, what smart kids learn to do, instead, is to wait until their parents are not paying attention and they take their toys back.

How this translates into reward travel is knowing which airlines treat their frequent flyers the best, knowing how the industry awards FF-travel, and then using that information to get the most out of your miles. By doing that you have the best chance of getting that cramped seat next to an obese, screaming infant for free.

Here are four tips all frequent flyers must know. Then you will be a master of the falling, free skies.

1) Timing is Everything

Flights become available for purchase 331 days before departure. One would assume that this is the best time to book an award ticket. But just ask my high school chemistry teacher what happens when you assume (thanks Mrs. Grad).

According to Randy Peterson of Flyertalk, “Six months in advance seems the magical time when award inventory is fully available.” That time frame is typically as good as it is going to get for using those hard-flown miles.

If, due to scheduling reasons, you can’t book that far in advance, know that 2-3 weeks prior to departure is when the seats of underbooked flights start showing up in the airlines’ reward programs. Since planes are flying fuller than they ever have — 80% full in 2009 as compared to 71% a decade ago — don’t go betting your honeymoon on finding a flight at the last minute.

2) Get off the Internet and Talk to Someone

Yes, we all hate wading through phone menus, waiting on hold, and being directed to finally talk to someone in a far-off land. By the time you finally reach someone who can help you, you’d rather give the innocent representative a “good talking to,” describing how unhappy you are with their company.

Use this to your advantage. Remember that when you finally get someone on the other line, he/she is a real person. They’ve been talking to unhappy customers all day and it’s refreshing to have a pleasant, positive voice to talk to. If you can’t find the rewards flight you are looking for online, call the airline’s 1-800 number and work with the telephone representative to see if there is anything they can do.

They have magical powers that the airline’s website doesn’t. They can sometimes free up blocked seats, book you on a alternate route, or find out if recent cancellations will allow to get that ticket you don’t want to pay for.

3) Know Thy Enemy

Not all airlines are the same. Because I have more Delta Skymiles than miles elsewhere, I used to choose to fly Delta. However, their rewards program is terrible (Dear Delta: give me free travel for life and I will remove this passage promptly). I’ve discovered my far fewer United miles will take me further since their program is simply better. Since learning this, I have opted to purchase United tickets when I can, even if I need to shell out a few extra dollars. In the long run, I’ll end up saving money.

The following graph, from CNN Money Magazine, July, 2010, shows how different mileage programs stack up, and the gaping difference between some over others. For example, finding a domestic seat with Continental using your miles turns out to be successful a whopping 97% of the time. Compare that with the paltry 10% success rate with US Airways. Internationally, American is your best bet at 50%, with US Airways still at the bottom with 11%.

Likelihood of Getting a Seat on a Selected Route
Airline Domestic International
American 66% 50%
Continental 97% 46%
Delta 19% 7%
United 81% 56%
US Airways 10% 11%

4)    Travel Free Domestically

Every airline’s mile program has an accompanying credit card program where you earn miles for every dollar you spend. Most offer between 25,000-30,000 miles just for signing up for a card — enough miles for a roundtrip domestic ticket.

In general, the cards have annual fees between $65-$85, but even these are negotiable. If you try calling the credit card company and asking (along with the threat of canceling the card), many will either reduce the fee or make it disappear altogether. Over the years, I have tried this a half-dozen times, and in every one of those attempts, these fees were either reduced or removed. When dealing with the credit card representative, remember to always adhere to the advice from tip #2.

In 2006, I received 25,000 miles when I signed up for United’s Mileage Plus Visa from Chase Bank. After canceling that card in 2007, I applied for another in 2009 and was given another 25,000 miles. Since there are nearly a dozen cards all offering enough miles for a free airline ticket, some research and planning will result in free domestic travel every year. (Of course, remember that your credit score is affected by both the number of cards opened and closed, as well as the number of cards open at any given time, so make sure you keep this in mind during this process.)

Pay attention to the cards that require minimum purchases before giving you the miles. As long as you pay your cards off on time, and avoid doing exactly what the card companies want you to do — incurring debt — the payout is free travel that could save you thousands of greenbacks annually.

Just because the rules are changing to make rewards travel trickier, it doesn’t mean you need to lose out. It just means that you need to do some legwork to get the same deals you did a few years ago.

By Luke Armstrong


About the Author

LukeArmstrongLuke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)

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