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Tuesday Travel Top 10: Mistakes People Make With Their Airline Miles

by on May 22, 2012 · 52 comments

in Points Guy Pointers, Top 10

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I talk a lot about airline miles and the best ways both to earn and to use them, but today, I’m going to tell you the top ten mistakes people make when it comes to their miles and how you can avoid them.

1. Letting miles expire: Honestly, I die a little inside each time someone tells me they let their miles expire. It’s so easy to keep your miles active and alive, even if you don’t plan to fly. The easiest way is making a quick, cheap purchase through your mileage program’s shopping portal. My personal favorite trick is just purchasing an iTunes song through one of them—I’m basically spending 99 cents to keep thousands of miles in my account from expiring. Additionally, transferring credit card points or using an airline credit card will reset the expiration clock in most programs.

Earn 3 AAdvantage Miles per dollar at iTunes - an easy way to keep miles active at aadvantageeshopping.com

2. Redeeming miles for merchandise: While I find I can usually wring several cents’ worth of value from my points with strategic redemptions, when you redeem your miles for merchandise you usually get a wretched exchange ratio of much less than a cent each. Take this example, the Delta SkyMiles Marketplace offers a 40″ Sony Bravia LCD TV (Model Model: KDL40S5100) for a whopping 490,200 miles. The same exact TV is discontinued at the online Sony store and can be purchased at Dunga for $449.55. That redemption is just under 1/10th of 1 cent per mile. I know SkyMiles are not the most valuable currency, but that valuation is just stupid.

490,200 SkyMiles for a 40" TV via the SkyMiles Marketplace

3. Not shopping online through portals: Many airlines including American, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest, United, US Airways and Virgin Atlantic have online shopping portals that allow you to rack up huge spending bonuses at participating merchants. If you’re going to be making online purchases anyway, check your programs’ shopping portals (or take as shortcut and check EVReward.com first for a roundup of current bonuses) to see what bonuses are available. Not doing so is basically leaving points on the table.

4. Not linking every credit and debit card to a dining rewards program: Again, another simple, easy, quick thing you can do to rack up those miles even faster is to link your credit cards to your various frequent flyer programs’ dining rewards networks so you start racking up triple and even five times points on every dollar you spend at participating restaurants, yet so few people seem to take advantage of this potentially lucrative points-earning proposition. Once the card is linked you will automatically get points deposited every time you frequent a participating restaurant – it’s a no brainer!

Alaska Airlines dining bonus - 1,000 points when you join and spend $30 on a dine

5. Use the same credit card all the time: Habits are hard to break and I know so many people have their one favorite airline card and don’t feel like switching it up. I know it can be annoying to change automatic bill pays, but if you want to be savvy about mileage collection, it’s all about the credit card diversification. It’s imperative to have a spending strategy in place to ensure that you get the most miles or points out of your credit cards, especially when it comes to maximizing category spend bonuses.  For instance, you get triple points on airfare with the Amex Premier Rewards Gold, but only double points using the Chase Sapphire Preferred. However, when you dine out, your Sapphire Preferred will net you double points while the Amex will only get you one point per dollar. The Ink Bold card has a five-time category spend bonus on office supplies, so all your office expenses should go on that card. Research your credit cards and put your spending on the ones that get you the most points on particular purchases.

6. Put all their miles in one basket: Even if you are a top-tier super frequent flyer on one airline, it makes sense to diversify and build up account balances elsewhere as well. Take the blinders off. Your airline and even its partners won’t service every destination you want to visit, and at some point you will need to fly another airline or alliance. Start making strategic choices now so that when that time comes, you’ve got your miles ready to go. Also, it never hurts to try out a new airline with a status match (if you have enough travel coming up) so you can experience it with all the perks and benefits you enjoy on your primary carrier.

7. Don’t check partner availability: Speaking of alliances, you should never assume that the award seats and levels you see available online are what’s available through your primary airline’s partners. Almost every single airline website is flawed (most in major ways!), and very few show reliable, accurate award availability on alliance and non-alliance airline partners. There are tools you can use, however, such as ExpertFlyer and KVSTool to find the availability you are searching for, while another strategy is to look for individual flights on the airline partners you want to fly and then have that information ready to go when you call your own airline to book the flights.

Use Expertflyer.com to search true upgrade and award availability on a number of different airlines

8. Redeem for peak awards and then don’t check back for better deals: When people can’t find those low- or saver-level awards they are looking for (again, thanks to broken airline search engines), many resort to using their miles to book extremely overpriced peak awards, and leave it at that. They don’t bother to check every day as the flight approaches to see whether more saver awards open up, as they often do closer to the date of travel. Most airlines will let you pay a nominal fee to re-ticket your itinerary saver-level awards open up, which I think can be totally worth it depending on the routes and classes you’re flying. Again, you can use tools like ExpertFlyer to set up an alert for when a saver-level award seat becomes available, and rebook then.

9. Don’t take advantage of open-jaw and stopovers: Most people seem to think of flights as strictly Point A to Point B experiences. Stop and smell the roses from time to time! If you’re going to use your hard-earned miles, you might as well get the most out of them and maximize the stopovers and open-jaw rules your airline program allows to experience another destination (or several!).  One of my favorite examples of this is how American Airlines will let you add another leg onto your award by giving you one stopover in a North American gateway on your international itinerary, so if you’re flying from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, you could spend a couple days in New York or Miami on the inbound or outbound and make a real trip out of it. Or say you fly from London to New York on an AA award- you can tack on a New York to Hawaii leg at some point within a year after you land in NYC. Check out these posts on maximizing routing on the major carriers: American, Delta, United, US Airways

10. Hoard them: Unlike many other assets and investments, miles generally lose their value over time since airlines periodically change award charts and the mileage required is rarely decreased. Sure, it’s great to save up for a specific award or trip, but once you’re there, book it. After all, miles are meant to be used! Plus, by now you must know that airlines and credit cards are offering lucrative sign-up and spend bonuses all the time, so before long, you’ll have a decent miles balance in your account again.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Derek

    I would take issue with #5. What happens if you don’t travel a lot and have an average spend on CC ? You don’t want to diversify and never be able to redeem. Now, people in these situations should be using an AMEX or Chase Sapphireto have options. If you travel a lot and have a lot of reimbursable expenses (or rich), then I agree.

    Cheers.

  • Pkerr

    I agree with Derek…
    And concerning #4.. there are ways to get 5x points all ALL restaurant visits. In fact 5x points on all PURCHASES.

  • Grant

    #5 is the best tip in my opinion. I have several cards each with specific uses. I have an amazon card, a PayPal card for eBay purchases, a gas card, ink bold for office supplies, citi forward for restaurants, and various travel cards to rack up miles and points. Sometimes it’s hard to remember which cards to use, so set up an excel spreadsheet with the various cards, bonus requirements/time frame, when the annual fee will be charged, and which purchase should go on each card.

  • RakSiam

    If you already eat out a lot I agree with #4. But I think you need to be careful about how much money you spend in restaurants. To do it just to chase miles is silly to me since eating at home is so much cheaper. But that’s just like everything else I suppose. Don’t spend money just to get miles, but if you are going to spend anyway make sure you collect as much as you can. I have found that evreward is an OK tool, and apparently the only one of its kind, but it’s not always up to date.

  • Cobblestone

    I’d like to point out that for some of us, some of these are not mistakes – just due to not being USAians… :(

    (#3 and 4 and travel hacks like that just do not apply in Europe – at least not in my end of it)

  • Scott

    You talk a lot about expert flyer on your site. Do you feel the pro membership is needed at 10 dollars a month or can the free subscription do for the average traveller who takes approx 5-8 flights a year

  • http://www.bestmaids.com/ maid service Chicago

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  • Marianag

    For #1, how do you suggest keeping miles from expiring for children who don’t have credit cards with their names? I can’t make an online purchase for say, American, and use my kid’s mileage number because when I pay with my credit card the system won’t award the miles. Also, Amex and Chase don’t allow you to transfer miles to a number of airlines. Would love to hear how to do that. Thanks.

  • SeaBee3

    On #8, not all airlines charge for changes. United – you can change your award dates and classes as often as you want for free *until 21 days before departure ($75 charge at that point). A great idea to just go ahead and ticket with them when you find something that may work and then follow later – no charge!

  • David

    I’m missing miles from a Delta shopping portal purchase. Do you know how I can request those missing miles? I can’t find a non-air support email/resource on their site.

  • MJLouise

    Make a small purchase through the AA shopping portal, using your kid’s FF mile but your own credit card of any flavor. That should keep the miles alive.

  • LarryInNYC

    I had a few miles post to, I think, US Airways from a meal I didn’t even know was mileage earning. But a bunch of my cards are not registered (yet). Doesn’t hurt to register and then just never think about it — you’ll still earn miles from some meals. You’re right that I would never (or, perhaps, very rarely) make a restaurant choice based on the meal’s earning potential.

  • MJLouise

    Another good tip is to try to get your spouse / SO, or involved. Even if they aren’t interested in intensively managing their accounts and getting lots of credit card bonuses etc., occasionally there are such sweet low-hanging fruit with little to no effort that it’s a no brainer.

    Current example the 50K United cc offer with a single spend. Most people with decent credit can get this one card with minimal effect on one’s overall credit score. If there is any calling involved with getting the card, often the original applicant can call, say I authorize the person next to me to talk to you, then go from there.

    Best case scenario is a nice trip together. Worse case is they take the miles are run LOL.

  • Mikes

    #4 doesn’t actually apply well in all areas of the USA. The selection is fairly small and not to our tastes here. Would love for this to apply at Chili’s, Five Guys, Subway, various fast food chains. Unfortunately, they seem to be more expensive places, “unique” places, or way across town where I am.

  • Mikes

    I wouldn’t take issue with it. If a person is only accruing through spending, they aren’t going to do real well in any case and probably aren’t reading TPG. If they are reading TPG and still accruing only via basic spending… well, that’s probably a fair definition of insanity! :)

  • Jimbo

    i do similar, just link my cc temporarily to a dining program linked to their ff account and head to the pizza place half a mile from our house.

  • Marianag

    I tried to do that with Delta skymiles (they don’t expire, I know) but got a call from the site saying that the frequent mile account didn’t match the credit card account so I assumed all of them had similar regulations. So are you sure this has worked for you and your family?

  • Jtgray

    Thanks for the advice Brian, especially #10 about hoarding miles. I recently found myself with 170,000 United miles, and the prospect of booking a round trip from SFO to SYD. While saver awards in economy were available for 80,000 miles, I couldn’t ignore those first class saver awards for 160,000. Why not just empty out my united miles? Despite the fact that I would never spend $22,000 on a plane ticket, theoretically I got almost 14 cents per point of value and most importantly, good nights sleep on what look to be amazing first class seats prior to my 8am arrival in SYD and 10AM arrival back home. Plus, I’ve never flown first class, and I don’t think that I would have been able to do this without this site or your advice.

  • Stefanelaine

    Agree! Even in Canada most of these perks do not apply and our CC bonuses are much smaller here. In reality, the whole premise here will tank if US CC companies drop the huge miles sign up bonuses.

  • thepointsguy

    Miles unlock otherwise unattainable experience.. who cares that you normally wouldn’t pay full price. Enjoy that long flight in comfort!

  • thepointsguy

    Free should suffice unless you are trying to book complex awards, in which case the search and alerts could be invaluable

  • thepointsguy

    Yea, but you should still have them attached for when you travel to other cities. Theres no reason not to

  • Dave

    This is an excellent idea: actually, the advice should be to always have your spouse/SO apply for a credit card bonus when you do. In my household, this doubles are mileage/points, which is very helpful since we’re also often redeeming for award tickets for the kids.

  • Dave

    The problem with linking credit cards is that many of us are “churning” these cards. I usually spend on a credit card for a month and then move on to the next one. Sure, I could add that card to my dining rewards membership in the off chance I happen to be eating in one of those restaurants, but honestly, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scotti-Mac/100002677567421 Scotti Mac

    As far as #9 goes, does anyone know if the open-jaw trip works on trips to/from Mexico? Or is that excluded because it is part of north america?

  • AirplanePeanuts

    You said unlike many other assets and investments.. these aren’t assets or investments.. we don’t own them!

  • 44

    Regarding #1, I would put in a small plug for points.com. I had an account that was in danger of expiring (Virgin America), so I used points.com to convert a few US Airways miles to 1 mile in that program. The exchange rate is horrible (usually 6 to 1), but the amount of miles is so small and the benefit so great (a year or more of extension) that it’s a no-brainer for me, and can be good when you don’t feel like finding something to buy through some shopping portal.

    There are some restrictions on transferring miles through points.com (minimum balance, minimum transfer amount), but if you happen to fit the criteria, it can be a very simple way to keep an account active.

  • Zontar

    Can you sign up for more than one restaurant program using the same credit card? Will one or all of them get credit for a single bill?

  • thepointsguy

    Agree- small points.com transfers can be a great idea- especially if you need the miles to post in a short amount of time

  • thepointsguy

    Correct, but you get my point!

  • thepointsguy

    Open jaws are okay- even within North America

  • Yichuan2010

    Great post!

  • Mario

    Actually, for certain cards like the United one, it is better to stagger your spouse’s apps by a year so that someone always has the benefits without both of you paying the fees. So for 2012 the husband could apply and have the checked bag/boarding/2 club passes with fee waived, and then cancel 11 months. Then, the spouse applies and gets those benefits with the fee waived for their first year. Rinse. Repeat.

  • http://www.bemytravelmuse.com/ Ava Apollo

    I always thought the merch they offered was at an extremely high cost of miles, but never realized some of the items were 10x in miles what they would be in dollars! Ouch.

    Do the dining partnerships tend to just be through airline cards or do they exist for venture cards and chase sapphire cards as well?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3431439 JP Cross

    do you think that 40″ sony would make a good fathers day present or is there something better for that price range? got dad a 32″ aquos for fathers day 2007, that’s starting to look a little small now. he doesn’t really have room for anything huge. thanks

  • exp1

    No I actually agree with Derek here. I don’t travel and earn points…its exclusively through credit card bonuses and spend (and dining program, but thats minimal). I am solely focusing on United right now. Diversifying a few thousand spend per month would result in no redeemable balances at all. I used to put gas/groceries on Hilton AMEX for 6 pts a pop until I realized Id still get more value out of a United mile. Sure if I had a card that could get multiple United miles in certain categories I would do it, but my main goal is to earn United on every purchase regardless.

    Fyi just finished an amazing trip to Spain with my wife using AA miles from the 2x75k goldmine last year. :-)

  • Ray

    Is it my experience only or has anyone else noticed how lousy the restaurants in most dining programs are? I can’t say I’ve had a single great meal at any of the restaurants on the United list and they are never worth the effort of visiting.

    Is there a reason for this?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3431439 JP Cross

    yeah, i’ve found the caliber of restaurants.com and the like to be pretty low. i’m thinking it’s like a groupon in the sense that it attracts the most struggling and desperate of the bunch.

  • thepointsguy

    There are some diamonds in the rough. In NYC there are a number of decent bars and lounges. I can’t say there are many amazing restaurants, but sometimes for meals (especially work meals) I’d rather have a decent meal and tons of points than a great culinary feast and no bonus points

  • thepointsguy

    40″ is a decent size.. just don’t use miles to buy it!

  • thepointsguy

    You can link ANY credit/debit card to the dining programs.

  • thepointsguy

    Fair point

  • Markcheng1203

    Agreed, also the same advice can be given for the delta card

  • runnergirl

    Regarding open-jaw stop overs using award miles: Can I book for example an award in the system with the following routing: : HNL-LAX, LAX-MIA, MIA-LHR, use the MIA-LHR segment (Miami is my home city), cancel the other segments before my trip and reuse them at another time with no problem beside whatever standard penatlties are involved? If so does it matter if it is booked r/t or o/w?

  • Hapamama718

    @Ray and tpg – Agree with Ray, TPG – would love to know your NYC picks, I live in Brooklyn and only rarely find myself eating at Hilton dining program options. Willing to try again. Also, Thanks for this post. I thought I got 30,000 miles back from aa redemption, but awards were for different flights. Although it’s making me think of a strategy to get my club carlson points.

  • Liz

    Re. #8- if you don’t have a pro account with Expert Flier, is there anywhere/any way else to set an alert for saver award availability? If not, is that something you’d do through your awards business?

  • Morning Calm

    Some good advice here! I used to hoard my miles, but I finally wised up and became more liberal about spending for the very reason you mention – that the miles’ value gradually depreciates over time as the airlines raise the bar on mileage needed for certain routes. For example, back in 2002 I could redeem only 20,000 miles for a round-trip on the Oneworld alliance from Northeast to Southeast Asia (Seoul to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, for example). Now the redemption is a good bit higher, I think close to or more than 30,000. So there IS mileage inflation out there, folks! Like the idea about using open jaws and stopovers more, as well. Didn’t think about that much.

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  • Jim

    I hit number 1 right on the head, twice!! Once, I couldn’t renew my Diner’s Club card because they changed their rules. I got it when I contracted for IBM, and then years later…12 years later, they wouldn’t renew unless I showed them that my company was over $10MM. So I lost about 175K miles…..

    The worst part is I had built over 433K miles on USAir, but they expired due to not taking a flight. That hurt. Badly. But those were the “having a bunch of kids years” so meh.

    Thanks, TPG!

  • Groucho Mama

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve been doing #8 religiously since reading the article as I got the 4th person in my party a ticket 2 days later than the others and AA charged me 60K instead of the 30K I got for cdg-jfk on 6/27. I checked through the expert flyer and sure enough there were a lot of seats available so I thought they might make the cheaper award available. And they did! Right before I needed to do my online check in! I really appreciate the work you do to put different kinds of info in your posts. It was a catchy title and EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS – IT WILL SAVE YOU MILES=$$.

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