10 mistakes to avoid when redeeming frequent flyer miles

Mar 2, 2021

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As the saying goes, “Everyone makes mistakes.” This pervades many aspects of life, but it’s especially applicable to using your airline miles. Even the most seasoned award traveler can slip up, resulting in a less comfortable flight, extra fees, or even an inability to travel. Fortunately, the most common mistakes when booking airline award travel are easy to avoid, so today, I’ll take you through these errors and explain how to make sure your future award redemptions go as planned.

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In This Post

1. Relying solely on an airline’s website

This may seem elementary to seasoned award travelers, but I’ve had numerous friends and family members complain that there’s no availability on the dates they want because the airline website doesn’t show any. Partner airlines don’t always appear and even when they do, the site you’re using may not show all of the available routings. Here’s a quick overview of notable airline websites for booking awards:

  • United — Typically viewed as one of the best options for finding Star Alliance award availability.
  • British Airways — One of the best options for finding Oneworld award availability, though the site can sometimes be buggy.
  • Air France — Typically viewed as one of the better options for finding SkyTeam award availability.
  • Alaska — While not a part of an alliance yet, Alaskaair.com shows availability for many partners, including Aer Lingus, British Airways, Emirates and Korean.
  • American — AA.com shows availability for many partners, but several others must be booked over the phone.
  • Delta — Delta.com has improved award searchability after turning dynamic. Unfortunately, some bugs remain, so your results may not be completely accurate.

Alliances and partnerships give you numerous additional ways to use your miles, but that doesn’t mean those airlines’ flights will show up online! With many partner awards, your best bet may be to call.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with tools like ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures). Doing so can help you track hard-to-find award space so you can redeem your miles more efficiently.

Related: TPG beginner’s guide: Everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards

2. Relying solely on a phone agent

Just as an airline’s website may not be completely accurate, don’t assume that its phone agents are always on point. Plenty of them don’t understand routing rules or don’t know how to search for award inventory on partner airlines. I’ve often found that agents are unwilling to search across multiple dates, simply telling me there was no availability and ending the call.

Know your routing rules and guide the agent, if you need to. When you’re not getting a satisfactory answer, a good strategy is to Hang Up and Call Again  (HUACA — a common acronym on travel sites like FlyerTalk). Don’t assume that an agent knows more than you do.

3. Not searching segment by segment

Woman looking pensively at laptop
(Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock)

Another key mistake applies when you’re booking complicated itineraries with multiple stops. Occasionally, I have run into situations where a website doesn’t price awards correctly or doesn’t display all flight options for one (or more) reasons:

  1. An inability to combine two (or more) partner airlines;
  2. An inability to combine a low-level business class flight with a low-level coach flight to price the ticket at a low-level business class award;
  3. A tendency to “force” you onto the airline’s own metal.

Some websites allow you to search segment by segment using a “Multi-City” search, but to be safe, I usually search for one flight at a time. If I can’t get the website to join the flights properly, I will call to book the ticket. This way, I’m armed with the exact flights I want and can spoon-feed them to the phone agent.

Related: How to book your first award flight using airline miles

4. Being inflexible with dates

Airlines have complicated systems for determining which flights to make available for award redemptions. If your travel plans are completely rigid, you may be out of luck. I understand that flexibility may be impossible in some cases, but sometimes being able to alter your schedule by a single day can make the difference between a successful redemption and being shut out.

5. Not planning in advance

(Photo by Getty Images)

A common myth is that award tickets must be booked the very second when flights become available. While such a policy may be necessary on certain routes and/or carriers, more and more airlines are adjusting award availability on a regular basis. However, that doesn’t mean you can wait until the last minute.

It always kills me when a family member comes to me in mid-May and says that she/he wants to use miles to fly business class to Europe the next month. Seats on that popular route may have been there six months earlier, but not at the last minute!

Related: 6 reasons why now is the time to book travel with points and miles

6. Booking and forgetting about it

After you book a flight, it’s a good idea to check on it periodically. For starters, schedule and equipment changes may occur that can completely mess up an itinerary, which may give you a chance to rebook a ticket (at no charge) on a more desirable flight. In addition, you might book a coach award ticket but then see business class availability open a few weeks before departure.

Some airlines don’t charge a change fee to upgrade an award ticket from coach to business or business to first. American Airlines and Delta have eliminated change fees altogether, so you’ll only pay the mileage difference if you’re switching cabins.

Related: Complete guide to changing and canceling award tickets

7. Ignoring stopover and open jaw possibilities

Many airlines allow you to build in a free stopover en route to your destination or fly into and depart from different cities. These are great ways to maximize your award ticket without spending any (or many) additional miles.

When my wife and I flew to North Asia using U.S. Airways miles back in December 2013, we routed through Europe, stopped in Istanbul for New Year’s, and flew home via the Pacific. Our itinerary actually cost 10,000 miles less per person than a regular U.S. to Europe round-trip award. There are many ways to take advantage of flexible routing rules to visit additional cities on your trip.

Related: Maximizing stopovers and open jaws on award tickets

8. Paying unnecessary fees

(Photo by Rattanakun Thongbun / EyeEm/Getty Images)

The airline industry has become addicted to fees over the last several years, which applies to award tickets. The pandemic has put a temporary stop to that, but we might be facing them again in the coming years. Some airlines charge a fee for departing from a specific region, while others add fuel surcharges. You should always look for alternate flight options to avoid these fees.

One particularly indefensible one (in my opinion) is the phone ticketing fee that is often charged even for awards that can’t be booked online. If a website won’t allow you to book a flight, be sure to politely ask the phone agent to waive the booking fee. After all, you didn’t choose to call; you had to call!

Related: 9 super easy ways to save points when traveling to a new city

9. Purchasing miles to top off a balance at booking

You’ve probably seen the notice when you’re trying to book an award flight and don’t have enough miles. Instead of waiting, you can purchase the remaining miles and book your ticket immediately. Unfortunately, these top-offs can be quite pricey. There are plenty of other ways to pad your account, including credit cards, partner purchases, and transfers from programs like Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards.

10. Redeeming miles for something other than flights

I love choices, but flights are the way to go when it comes to redeeming airline miles. Sure, there are exceptions. For example, redeeming Delta miles for a flight on peak travel dates would likely be a terrible value, but don’t be swayed by advertisements for magazines or gift cards! For the most part, you’ll get the best bang for your buck when you redeem miles for award tickets.

Related: The 7 best ways to redeem airline miles without flying

Bottom line

I’d love to say that I never make mistakes when using my airline miles and that I always redeem for maximum value, but I’d be lying. Educating yourself on the ins and outs of booking award flights and just being aware of these pitfalls is a critical first step to avoiding them. Hopefully, these suggestions will help prevent your own mishaps and ensure you successful travel down the line.

Featured photo by Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd / Getty Images

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