Frequent flyer miles can be a great tool to help families travel on the cheap. My own family saves thousands of dollars on flights and other travel costs every year thanks to miles and points. The frequent flyer programs of most major airlines, however, have gotten increasingly complex. The good news is that some of this complexity creates greater and more diverse opportunities to earn and spend miles. The bad news is that complexity can create chances for customers to make mistakes along the way or even to give up on miles entirely. Don’t be one of those flyers!
Most casual travelers are probably making a couple of mistakes with miles that can easily be corrected. Here are 10 of the most common frequent flyer mistakes I see, with tips for fixing them so you can earn and redeem more miles for free travel.
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10 Common Frequent Flyer Miles Mistakes
1. Writing off Miles Entirely as Too Much of a Hassle or Time Drain
So many people don’t dive into frequent flyer miles because they think it will be a hassle – the passwords, the tracking, time to sign up for programs, etc. Luckily, everything is really so simple these days.
Signing up for a new frequent flyer account can be done on every major airline’s website in a matter of a minute or two. Some even allow you do to it in the process of booking a flight. The Southwest miles I can earn on a single highly discounted roundtrip fare from my hometown airport to Dallas are worth about $22 in free travel to me ($88 when I’m booking for my family of 4). Aren’t those kinds of savings worth a couple of minutes of your time?
Worried about tracking all those passwords? There’s an app for that. If you already use a password manager like 1Password or LastPass, those are great, but there’s something even more powerful meant just for tracking frequent flyer miles — AwardWallet.
Simply create a master AwardWallet login. Then link all your frequent flyer accounts for everyone in the family in a single dashboard. The app displays mileage balances for most major programs so you can see how many miles with every airline everyone in your family has. I use the app to track not only accounts for my husband and kids but also for my parents so we can help grandma and grandpa score free flights! (A basic account at Award Wallet is free, but 10 first time users can upgrade to Award Wallet Plus free for 6 months with my code free-ztqfuc so use it while it lasts!)
2. Being Loyal to the Wrong Program.
A lot of us probably fly the same airline by default. But have you thought long and hard about why you fly the airline you do? Maybe it’s because you live in a major carrier’s hub city and you don’t have a lot of choices. Maybe it’s because you have earned elite status on an airline and like the perks. Or maybe you aren’t loyal at all and chase the cheapest fare on each trip. Whatever the reason for your loyalty patterns, just make sure your reason is a good one.
More importantly, however, make sure your loyalty will eventually be rewarded when it comes time to redeem your miles. If you find you can’t spend the hard earned miles you are earning when the time comes because an airline’s program is too restrictive, then it’s time to question your loyalty.
3. Forgetting about Airline Alliances.
Just because you have miles in one program doesn’t mean you need to fly that particular airline when you redeem your miles. The converse is also true: just because you fly a particular airline doesn’t mean you need to earn that airline’s miles.
Most airlines are part of a worldwide alliance that gives you flexibility in earning and redeeming. For example, I often earn United miles but have cashed them in for an Air Canada flight to Montreal since both airlines are part of Star Alliance. I also recently redeemed British Airways Avios to book a flight on American Airlines to Bermuda.
Some airlines are not part of any alliance but nevertheless have partners for earning and redemption. Hawaiian Airlines, which partners with JetBlue as well as several international carriers, is one example.
4. Not Doing the Math on Award Redemptions.
Not everyone loves math, but a few basic calculations can make your miles go farther. In order to make sure you are getting the most for your money (well, miles), you need to calculate value per mile on award tickets.
Let’s compare two round-trip flights for a family of four to illustrate. One flight is available for $350 or 50,000 miles (not uncommon). Another is available for $500 or 25,000 miles (harder to find, but not uncommon either). The first flight only gives you 7/10ths of a cent in value from each of your miles. The second gives you 2 cents per mile. After a little bit of math, it’s obvious which one is a much, much better deal. Save your miles for flights that look more like the latter than the former.
But how do you know that you are getting a good value when you aren’t booking your family’s trips at the same time and can’t compare apples-to-apples?
A good shorthand is that a redemption under 1 cent per mile in most programs is a poor value. Redemptions over 2 cents per mile tend to be good values. Redemptions between 1-2 cents per mile are a mixed bag and depend on your travel goals and how much flexibility you have to pay cash.
5. Hoarding Miles.
Like currency, miles don’t become worth more over time. If you earn miles and hoard them while never redeeming, I can guarantee that you will not end up getting the best value. If you are earning them, start burning them!
Of course, not everyone flies very frequently so it can take time to acquire miles in many programs. That’s ok too. But if you are earning a lot of miles and never spending them, that’s a mistake worth correcting.
6. Only Searching for Awards Flights on the Airline’s Website.
Flyers are always complaining that they can’t find a good way to use their miles. Often that’s because the airline is hiding the best award travel tickets from you. For a long time, United (which partners with Singapore Airlines in Star Alliance) didn’t show any Singapore award tickets for searches done on United.com. A savvy customer has to know about and use the workarounds, including using search tools from partner airlines or calling the airline directly.
Does this all sound too complicated? If you are aiming for a complex international itinerary using miles and don’t know the ins and outs of the awards booking process of your given airline, it might very well save you time and money to use an award booking service like Points Pros or Point.me (formerly Book Your Award). For a reasonable fee, the frequent flyer mile professionals will find the perfect itinerary for you.
7. Redeeming your Miles for Merchandise.
Airlines now let you spend your miles on things other than flights, including merchandise, but these are rarely good redemptions. Usually, these redemptions are actually downright awful (see #4: do the math!), especially if you earned the miles you are ultimately spending through an airline credit card.
If you want to cash in for merchandise, you’d likely be better off earning rewards on a cash-back credit card instead (I recommend a few in my guide to the best rewards cards for family travelers). The only time I’d recommend spending miles on merchandise is if you have “orphan” miles too small for a flight redemption in a frequent flyer program you don’t plan on using again.
8. Letting Miles Expire.
While an increasing number of frequent flyer programs have moved to a no-expiration date rule for miles (including United, Southwest, Delta, and JetBlue), a few programs still require activity every 1-2 years to keep your account open. Depending on your travel patterns, you may not fly a given airline often enough to keep your miles active. That is no reason to let valuable miles expire.
Most airlines now have a multitude of partners for earning and redeeming miles. Doing a single miles-earning or spending transaction with those partners will reset your miles’ expiration date. For American Airlines, for example, it’s easy to linked your credit card to American’s Advantage Dining program to earn miles for dining at select partner restaurants. Depending on the airline, you can also earn miles for shopping through an airline’s shopping portals or by renting a car. Holding and spending on an airline’s credit card is another way to keep miles alive.
9. Not Earning Miles for Your Kids.
So many adults have frequent flyer numbers galore for themselves, but forget when kids come along that their kids can be collecting frequent flyer miles too! As soon as you are buying a seat for your kiddo, they can be earning miles. Thanks to the no expiration date policies of so many airlines, your child can slowly accrue points in a number of programs even if you don’t fly that frequently.
A few airlines also have family pooling programs that make miles even more valuable for families (JetBlue and British Airways are two of the most well-known). But even if you can’t pool your miles, most airlines allow you to use one family member’s account to book tickets for someone else. I regularly, for example, will use my own Southwest Rapid Rewards points to book flights for my husband and kids (and vice versa!). So even if one of our accounts doesn’t have enough miles for a redemption, someone else usually does. That gives us real flexibility.
10. Only Earning Airline Miles
While this post has focused on airline miles, there is a world of other travel rewards currencies out there – particularly hotel loyalty programs and flexible credit cards points like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You points, Capital One miles, or American Express Membership Rewards. If you aren’t dabbling in a lot of them, you are missing out on opportunities on a lot more free travel.
In many cases, these other currencies are even more valuable, specifically because they are more flexible. Some of these programs are actually transfer partners of the airlines. I often, for example, transfer my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest Rapid Rewards points to top off my account. And remember that trip to Bermuda I booked on American Airlines using British Airways Avios? Also transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards.
In short, diversify your miles and points earnings and you can be saving even bigger. See my guide to the best credit cards for family travel for a few card recommendations that will help you earn these rewards.
Do you have other secrets to successful frequent flyer redemptions? Share with us in the comment section below.