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As a frequent flyer marching towards two million miles on a single airline (Delta), and realizing that there’s no time to waste in securing status for the year ahead, I’m constantly torn when it comes to redeeming miles for award tickets. If you weren’t aware, most airlines do not give you mileage credit for award tickets. So, while it’s always a treat to exchange my SkyMiles for a free ticket, the status chaser in me cringes.

Here’s an example: if flying from the east coast of the US to Hawaii, I’d earn nearly 10,000 elite-qualifying miles plus whatever spend was required to pay cash for the ticket. That’s 10,000 miles closer to achieving the next Medallion elite tier within Delta’s ranks, and it’s also 10,000 more miles attributed to achieving the next million miler milestone. Atop that, any paid ticket will earn miles — the exact amount depends on the cost of the ticket and your current elite status tier — which can then be used for award tickets down the road.

Alternatively, I could exchange somewhere around 50,000 SkyMiles for that round-trip flight to Maui. The upside, of course, is the cost. I’ll spend a few bucks out of pocket for taxes and fees, but otherwise it’s a free ticket to paradise. The downside is that while I’m gone, I’m losing precious days to fly paid tickets necessary to maintain elite status for the year ahead, and the flight won’t push my million miler odometer any further ahead.

Friends are happy with a free flight, and you
Friends are happy with a free flight, and you’re happy to still be marching towards elite status (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

For those with significant others, children and friends who don’t fly often, there’s a useful alternative. Pay cash for your ticket, and burn your miles when bringing other infrequent flyers along for the ride. For those who tend to cut things close in terms of achieving status, a single paid trip in place of an award trip could be the difference between achieving a certain tier and missing out on hugely valuable perks.

For families, this tactic is particularly useful. It enables the mileage-earning breadwinner to secure valuable elite-qualifying miles with each trip, while redeeming the miles one works hard to earn for someone who isn’t chasing status. It also enables families to take more trips, more often.

Rather than waiting to earn enough miles to fly the entire family for free (or saving enough cash to fly everyone on paid tickets), my wife and I are soon flying to a ski destination on paid tickets while my parents come along to babysit our adopted newborn on award tickets. Neither of my parents fly enough to achieve elite status with an airline, so they won’t miss the elite-qualifying miles the same way I would. Plus, you get the satisfaction of gifting someone free travel without hindering your march to requalifying for elite status.

Before you burn your miles to buy yourself a ticket, pause and ask two questions. First, is there an opportunity to turn a solo trip into a shared experience? And second, would it be worth paying cash for a ticket so you aren’t scrambling to hit the next status tier at year-end? If you answer yes to both of these queries, burn those miles for your loved ones and take another step towards your elite status goal.

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