Avoid these 7 common mileage mistakes

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Frequent flyer miles are a valuable alternative currency.  One of the important but overlooked aspects of the mileage game is that how you spend your miles directly impacts the value you receive from them.

Put another way:  There are “good” and “bad” ways to use your miles.  Following are seven common mistakes travelers make when using their frequent flyer miles.  Avoid these misuses of miles to ensure that you receive the higheset value miles can give you.

Mistake 1: Redeeming 25,000 miles for a domestic award ticket in economy

This is a mistake because domestic airfares are usually competitive, meaning that you could buy a ticket for a few hundred dollars instead of using your miles.  A good test is to determine how much value you’re getting on a per-mile basis.  Anything less than four cents per mile really isn’t worth it.

For example, if you could buy a ticket for $300 instead of using 25,000 miles, you should.  $300/25,000 is 1.2 cents per mile, which is a terrible redemption value.

But if you’re booking last minute and the ticket costs $1,200, that same award would be a decent value at 4.8 cents per mile.

The real mileage pros redeem for ten cents per mile or more.

Mistake 2: Using miles for consumer goods instead of airfare

You’ve seen the temptations on airline websites: Spend your unused miles for televisions, iPads and other consumer goods.  The problem is that the airline is fixing the value of each mile at one to two cents each.  That’s advantageous to them, but not to you.  You should be getting several times that amount of value per mile.

With rare exception, miles should be used to purchase airfare and nothing else.

Mistake 3: Letting miles expire

Some programs, such as Delta’s SkyMiles, do not expire your miles.  But most programs do.  If you don’t have any account activity over a 12 or 18-month period, you could lose your entire balance.

The good news is that earning or redeeming any amount of miles will end the life of your entire balance.  Click here for specifics about current airline mileage expiration policies.

Mistake 4: Spreading your mileage earnings around

Building a frequent flyer miles balance is not the time to spread the love around.  Pick an airline, stick with it and build your mileage and elite status there.  If you’re flying Delta tomorrow, American next week and United next month, you’re squandering an opportunity to build elite status with any one airline.  Elite status is a cornerstone of a successful mileage strategy.

Another mileage sin is scattering miles among alliance partners.  American and British Airways are partners in the Oneworld alliance.  Post your miles to a single account (typically the airline you fly the most), as this will help build your balance more quickly.  Except in rare circumstances, you would not want to post your British Airways miles to your BA account and your American miles to your American account.  Consolidate.

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Mistake 5: Ignoring elite status

Again, elite status is a cornerstone of a successful mileage strategy.  Even achieving the lowest tier can have a significant impact on your travel life.

A good rule of thumb: If other airlines are cheaper than your preferred airline, check the price differential.  If it’s less than 20 percent, pay the extra to go with your preferred airline.  You will more than recoup these costs in perks from your airline, if you earn elite status.

Mistake 6: Transferring miles between programs

In general, you can’t do this without a major loss of value.  The only exceptions are programs that allow “household” accounts, where two people living at the same address can freely transfer points between them.  The British Airways and Starwood Preferred Guest programs offer this feature.

Beyond household accounts, any service that offers to transfer points from one program to another will take 80-90 percent of the value away during the transfer.  Your 10,000 American miles will only yield about 1,000 Delta miles.  Never do this.

Mistake 7: Buying miles from an airline

Airlines are in business to make a profit, and their mileage programs are no exception.  Airlines sell miles all the time, to credit card companies, hotels, retailers and many others.  Selling directly to consumers is fairly new, and the prices are usually not to your advantage.

Exception 1: Some airlines offer “award accelerator” deals that double or triple the miles for your flight.  Run the numbers, and if the costs are 2.5 cents per mile or less, it can be a cost effective way to rapidly increase your balance.

Exception 2: If you’re only a few hundred miles away from an award, and you’ve already found award space on flights you want, buying miles from an airline is the fastest way to get miles into your account.  Since there are so many other ways to earn miles, I only recommend this in time-sensitive situations, and in small amounts of miles (three thousand or less).

Having a well thought out frequent flyer strategy is the key to realizing the most value from loyalty programs.  While these are good mistakes to avoid, there is much more to the miles and points game to get you flying in first class for free.

What other mileage sins do you try to avoid?

About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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