How to Get the Most Out of Your Miles
If you're like most travelers, you're not making the most of your points. We've identified the most common challenges, come up with smart solutions and figured out the top strategies for a rewarding 2016. By GRANT MARTIN and CHRISTOPHER KUCWAY. Illustrations by OLIVER MUNDAY.
Published on Sep 21, 2016
AN AIMLESS ACCUMULATOR
With all the loyalty programs out there, it's easy to end up with little stashes of points that hang around like those handfuls of foreign coins you find in your pockets after overseas trips. But just because the amounts are small isn't a reason to ignore points; they are baked into the price of your hotel room or car rental, and you should get the full value of what you paid for. Here's how to turn small pools of miles into useful, redeemable balances.
Take inventory. You don't have to keep count yourself. Use an app that accesses your accounts and collects all your balances in one place; just be sure to choose wisely (see "Track Happy," as below).
Transfer what you can. Don't let those Sri Lankan Airlines miles go to waste— even obscure loyalty programs have partnerships that let you exchange points with other brands. Because the options for shuffling balances can seem endless, start with a goal, such as moving soon-to-expire points or bundling several smaller balances into your largest one to score a free ticket. Then start scouring program websites for partnership details.
Let's say you have 23,000 United miles and need another 2,000 to book a round-trip flight. If you have 1,200 Hertz Gold Plus Rewards you know you won't be using, you can swap them for 1,000 United miles (at a rate of 600 points to 500 miles). Toss in those 6,000 languishing Wyndham points—which are not nearly enough for a free night—and that gives you another 1,200 miles.
Points.com makes it simple to transfer points throughout hotel and airline brands: sign up for an account, link your programs, and click "exchange" to see which moves are eligible. The ability to swap between certain programs is limited, but Points.com allows some otherwise impossible trades—moving miles between Virgin America and JetBlue, for instance. Unfortunately, the site doesn't offer any insight into whether a particular use of points is a smart idea.
Spend small balances on small pleasures. Can't muster enough points for a flight or a night? You can still squeeze value from those rewards. You can buy e-books and albums in United's MileagePlus portal (Taylor Swift's 1989 will take care of 1,600 miles). A magazine subscription can be had for 400 miles through sites like MagsforMiles. Delta allows you to exchange points for, among other things, an Amazon gift card. Or, give instead of get: Make-A-Wish accepts donations of as few as 500 and 1,000 miles, respectively.
Keep tabs on all your points with apps that are powerful, reliable and—most important of all—secure.
For US$49 a year, TripIt Pro lets users track most major airline, hotel and car programs. (Notable exceptions: shopping loyalty programs.) The interface is sleek, and because the company is owned by software giant SAP, the security controls are among the most reliable out there.
AwardWallet is one of the oldest tracking sites, launched in 2004. It connects to nearly 700 programs, from Singapore Airlines' Kris Flyer, to Cathay Pacific's Asia Miles, to the Turkish Airlines' program Miles & Smiles. There's a long list of other Asia-based carriers included, so this is worth checking out regardless of which international airport is your base. The basic app is free, but you have to pay US$5 to get the full range of features.— BRIAN KELLY
A FREQUENT-FLYING FAMILY
When you travel with a spouse, kids and other relatives, you can rack up miles quickly. But those points usually go into separate accounts, and airlines, in particular, make it expensive to combine miles. Transferring 10,000 American Airlines points to your spouse, for example, will cost you US$125—plus a US$20 transaction fee. You have a few options:
Join a family-friendly mileage program. It might not help much with the miles you've already accumulated, but a handful of companies allow relatives to combine their miles for free. "JetBlue is really out in front of the other airlines in terms of family accounts, allowing for a family of up to seven people to pool points they earn," says Edward Pizzarello, who writes the points blog Pizza in Motion. British Airways (BA) also allows families to share miles in household accounts, and Qantas gives flyers a certain number of free transfers per year.
Pooling can be powerful. Typically, a BA ticket in premium economy from New York to London will yield 3,458 frequent-flyer miles. For a family of four, that adds up to 13,832 miles—enough to get Mom a round-trip business-class seat between London and Paris.
Top off your accounts. A few flexible programs, including American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, permit free transfers to airline, hotel and other reward accounts, meaning you can boost balances to a usable level.
DESPERATELY SEEKING STATUS
Many frequent flyers don't care about free flights, rooms or rentals—they're interested only in getting special treatment from airlines because of their elite status. Perks for VIPs, like complimentary upgrades and waived fees, are doled out on a tiered basis: the more you fly, the more you receive. Status can be especially valuable if you're delayed or your flight is canceled; elites are the first to be rebooked.
Previously, flyers reached elite status based on how many miles they flew, so you'd just pick the most convenient airline. Over the past year, however, a number of airlines in each of the major frequent-flyer plans have overhauled their programs to include a spending minimum in their calculation for elite status. So hold on to your wallets, because that means in many instances you don't just need to fly 25,000 miles to achieve the lowest-tier status, you also need to spend US$3,000 with that airline. That might not bother high-spending business travelers, but for frugal flyers (or those with frugal bosses), the new provisions can dramatically affect a year's elite status. To ascend to VIP:
Juggle your connections. Several airlines still bestow the elite crown based only on miles flown, but what if your home airport isn't a hub for a particular carrier? Be creative with your planning. For instance, flying out of Bangkok, obviously a Thai Airways stronghold, nets fewer Cathay Pacific options for Marco Polo Club loyalists. But if the boss is paying and you've got the time, connect and earn. Say you have a meeting in Perth: Thai Airways flies direct from Bangkok, but if you are willing to tack on as little as three hours per leg, you can rack up your Marco Polo miles by flying Cathay via either Singapore or Hong Kong.
Look for back doors into the club. Airline alliances offer sneaky alternatives for claiming those VIP perks. Take, for instance, ConnectMiles, is the program for Panamanian carrier Copa, part of the Star Alliance airline network. To reach gold status on United, you need to fly 50,000 miles in a calendar year and spend at least US$6,000. Or, you can sign up for ConnectMiles, then credit your points for future United flights to the Copa program, and hit gold after just 45,000 miles. You automatically get the same standing in Star Alliance, which means priority boarding, priority check-in and, perhaps best of all, free access to 1,000 lounges around the world, no matter which member carrier you fly. Avianca, the national carrier of Colombia and another Star Alliance partner, offers similar benefits.
Shoot for a status match. If you have elite status on one carrier and want to switch allegiance to another, you can try calling customer service and asking them to match your credentials (they may challenge you to fly with them for a few thousand miles to prove your loyalty). The website StatusMatcher can help guide you through the process.
Pause your points. Taking a break from travel? Consider freezing your frequent-flyer account. Flyers on Turkish Airlines, among others, can do just that by paying a US$10 fee for every 1,000 miles. Once your account is reactivated, your miles are valid for another three years.
|The cost, in miles, of an
electric BMWi3 through Lufthansa's Miles & More program.
RACK UP THE REWARDS
These days, gaining ground doesn't always mean taking off.
Another year older?
Then get rewarded Gold-card holders in Royal Orchid Plus, the Thai Airways plan, can celebrate by saving 50% on standard mileage requirements. This annual offer, tied to birthdays but really available once at any point during the year, means you can get economy tickets for as few as 12,500 miles between Bangkok and Singapore, Hanoi or Saigon.
Accrue points simply by signing up
If you're a frequent passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines, then take advantage of its Enrich program. Signing up will net you your first 1,000 points without ever leaving the ground. After that, it's a more standard set of points: between 25% and 125% of mileage in economy, 125% to 175% when flying business, and up to 200% in first class.
Plenty of travelers are under the misconception that saving points—like saving money—is a wise idea. But there's a big downside to socking away miles: they lose value dramatically over time, thanks to constantly changing program rules. On February 2, for example, British Airways will increase the price of short-haul award tickets in the U.S. from 4,500 to 7,500 miles one-way. Voilà: your points just became worth 40 percent less. To dodge devaluation:
Rightsize your emergency fund. Unless you're saving up for something specific, hang on to only enough points for a reward you're likely to use in the next year. Book flights for that long-weekend trip or hotel room for the staycation you've been putting off, and relieve yourself of the anxiety that comes with having unused points in the bank.
Appraise your assets. Maybe you're reluctant to spend your points because you're concerned that you're not maximizing their value—that if you swap them for a weekend away, you'll miss out on a longer, more luxurious stay. "The key to understanding whether or not an award is a good value is to know what you would be willing to pay out of pocket for the ticket," says Gary Leff, author of the popular frequent-flyer blog View from the Wing. "If you're getting several cents of value out of the miles that you spend, you've done well."
For example, if you find a ticket for 25,000 miles that would normally cost US$700, that's the equivalent of 2.3 cents a mile—a pretty good deal. But if the seat would typically be US$200, each mile is worth a skimpy 0.8 cents. (If you want to check the value of your stash, The Points Guy website issues monthly valuations for airline and hotel points.)
Get a bargain by spending big. The good news if you've been hoarding: the best values for award bookings tend to be on luxury products. A business-class ticket from San Francisco to London on American, for instance, costs 100,000 miles, while in cash it would be more than US$6,000—you're getting about 6 cents a mile. Book far enough in advance, and you can jet from Singapore to San Francisco in one of Singapore Airlines' suites for around 70,000 miles. On the hotel front, a night at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco, runs US$565, or 60,000 points.
|The amount, in U.S. dollars, that art collector Liu Yiqian
paid for Modigliani painting with his American Express card—in part
so his family could fly for free, always.
MY BIG POINTS WIN
Three experts share the greatest trips they've scored with rewards.
"I'm about to fly first class on the Airbus A380s of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar. I'll shower in the sky on board Emirates from Houston to Dubai and Bangkok—all courtesy of my Alaska Airlines miles. My flight to Doha is on Qatar, and I'll come home in Etihad's First Apartment, which is big enough to walk around in. Total cost: US$500, 235,000 miles and 6,000 Starpoints."
— Gary Leff, of the View from the Wing blog
"For my husband's 40th birthday we took an around-the-world trip. We flew business class to Amsterdam, Singapore and the Maldives, where we stayed in a private villa. The trip would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. In total, our award tickets cost 240,000 United miles, plus around US$200."
— Summer Hull, of the Mommy Points blog
"I recently redeemed 135,000 American miles to fly round-trip to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific's first class—a trip that retails for US$25,000. Cathay has fantastic service, great food (caviar and Krug, what more can you want?), and some of the most comfortable beds in the sky. I used points for a suite at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, which costs around US$1,000 per night."
— Ben Schlappig, of the One Mile at a Time blog