Sunday Reader Question: To Consolidate Frequent Flyer Miles or Not?
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TPG reader Ryan asked a question this week about booking a family trip using miles and points:
"My family and I are moving to London next year and I've been trying to build up enough points so that we can travel over on award tickets. By that time we will have easily built up enough miles and points to get the tickets.
There are four of us: my wife, myself, and our two boys (ages 6 & 3). We each have United accounts with miles: mine (silver status) 80,000+, my wife (no status) 75,000+, the boys 16,000 each. We will also have at least 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points from our Sapphire Preferred card by that time.
Here's my question: is it better to consolidate miles and book all the tickets through one account? Or would it be better to book each of our tickets through our separate accounts? Or does it not matter?"
In an ideal world the airlines would let us combine our families miles for free in a central account. Some airlines, like British Airways and ANA have family share programs, but most airlines, especially those in North America, charge a fee for transferring miles to another member. For example, United charges $15 per 1,000 miles and you can only give 15,000 miles to any recipient account in a year, up to 60,000 out of any one account per year. So you're paying 1.5 cents per point to move it from one account to another so you are drastically reducing the value of your points - and depending on what you redeem for, you may be negating the value of them all together.
Instead, I'd focus on building the smaller accounts up to the point where you can redeem for an award. The beauty of the Sapphire Preferred and the Ultimate Rewards program is that you can transfer those points into anyone's frequent flyer account for free. (Simply log in to ultimaterewards.com -> Point transfer -> United Airlines and then enter in any of your family members accounts to instantly transfer points to them at a 1:1 ratio in increments of 1,000).
Also remember that United allows you to book one-way awards at half the price of a roundtrip, so if you want to take the family from Europe to the US in economy class, saver awards will cost 30,000 miles each way. So you could transfer 14,000 points to each of your children's accounts so they each have enough for a one-way award. Then transfer enough to top up your wife's account to get her to another one-way award and then the rest of your Ultimate Rewards to yours (or keep them until you need to redeem in the future since there's really no incentive to transfer in advance since they go through instantly).
The main consideration is that the primary advantage of booking the awards through your account is that you get better seat selection and a free bag (for up to 9 other people booked on your reservation) on domestic flights. International economy passengers get 1 free checked bag and if you redeem for business/first class you get 3 bags for free up to 70 lbs each. However, you can always call the Premier line and ask them to seat you all together even if you have separate reservations, though it's not guaranteed. In general, you should book as many through your account as possible since you'll get better service in case of flight disruptions, but you should also take advantage of the relatively small balances in your children's accounts since United makes it easy to redeem with one-way awards.
Bottom line: leverage transferable points and one-way awards to maximize the value of your miles and don't pay the fee to consolidate them unless absolutely necessary!