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

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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 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.

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