Here are my annual TOP 10 TIPS for using frequent flyer miles and credit card points
# 1 – American and United have the best domestic frequent flyer programs – Of the big three domestic airlines AA and UA have websites that are pretty easy to use to find freebie space. They appear to have a lot more “saver award” space that allows for redemption for a reasonable amount of frequent flyer (FF) miles for both domestic and international free tickets than Delta. Delta freebie space is easy to find but often requires twice as many miles as other airlines. Perhaps their planes are so full they don’t have enough empty seats to redeem for freebies.
# 2 – Book your free tickets very early or very late – A lot of airlines open up frequent flyer seat inventory very early (11 months in advance) or very late (7 to 10 days prior to departure).
# 3 – Don’t use miles for upgrades but for free premium class tickets – It is a much better deal to use your miles for free tickets and not for upgrades. Most airlines today charge a very high number of miles plus cash to upgrade a seat domestically and internationally. You are much better off simply using all miles for a freebie premium seat (business class) ticket than messing with buying a ticket and then using miles and cash to upgrade and in some cases not being able to confirm your upgrade until the day before travel.
# 4 – Use your miles for international business and first class – This is how you get the biggest bang for your buck. It is pretty easy math. Saver award space (low season) takes about 25,000 miles for a domestic round-trip ticket ($400 value or 1.6 cents per mile). International economy class to Europe is 60,000 miles ($1200 value or 2 cents per mile). International business class is 90,000 miles ($4500 value or 5 cents per mile) and international first class is about 140,000 miles ($9000 value or 6.4 cents per mile). You can easily see the value in your miles is using them for international business and first-class seats.
# 5 – Airline partners often have easier and cheaper freebie tickets than the major U.S. Airlines – United, American, and Delta all belong to airline alliances that allow you to redeem airline miles on multiple airlines. There are 28 airlines in the Star Alliance with United Airlines. It is often much easier and a lot cheaper to find a premium (business or first class) freebie seat on a United partner airline like Lufthansa, ANA, Korean Air, Air Canada, and Asiana than on United Airlines. You are still using UA miles, just flying on a partner airline.
# 6 – Beware of airline fuel surcharges on free tickets – Three cheers for AA, DL, and UA as they don’t charge fuel surcharges on freebie tickets. International airlines like Lufthansa and British Airways can charge $1000 or more in fuel surcharge fees on free tickets.
# 7 – The best credit card with the easiest-to-use points is the American Express Platinum card – This is my favorite credit card as you can convert these points to many airline programs. Delta is the only domestic airline that AMEX points can be redeemed for, however, there are several other airlines in the Star Alliance (Air Canada, ANA, etc.) and OneWorld (British Airways) alliance that allows you to transfer miles to another airline and book tickets using miles on both United and American Airlines The best thing about the AMEX Platinum card is that it pays 5 points for every dollar purchased on airline tickets. That’s a giant bang for your buck. See all the advantages this card offers HERE.
# 8 – I used to put the majority of my AMEX credit card miles into Air Canada’s Aeroplan – Air Canada is a member of Star Alliance with United and is also a transfer partner for your American Express points. For years I have used my Aeroplan miles to redeem for UA business class tickets. Recently the Aeroplan program was reorganized and they make it much more expensive to find UA business class tickets. This winter I am still able to find United coach and business class flights using Aeroplan points but I can see the writing on the wall and I have decided not to transfer points into the Aeroplan program until I have already found that flights are available.
# 9 – Secure your airline tickets first when planning a vacation using FF miles – The more flexible you are the easier it becomes to find freebie seats using your FF miles. Always start your vacation planning by securing your freebie airline tickets. It is much easier to build your hotel stays around your freebie tickets than the other way around. Most airline websites have a calendar that shows you the dates when the lowest-priced frequent flyer tickets are available. Start there and then secure your hotel rooms, etc.
# 10 – Don’t transfer credit card points to your airline frequent flyer program until you have identified that free tickets are available – Many people transfer their CC points into their favorite airline mileage account in the hopes that they can find a freebie ticket to use them on. You should always make sure the tickets are available before you transfer your points. This allows you the freedom to find tickets using other alliance airlines (Star, OneWorld, Skyteam) at a much lower cost.
Bonus #11 – Use your Frequent flyer miles as quickly as possible as the airlines continue to devalue them every day – All the airlines have moved from a fixed chart that identified high season and low season redemption points required for frequent flyer mile redemption to a variable pricing model that can now cost you as much as 3 times more for the same trip. Basically, if you have miles in your frequent flyer account today, with devaluation they are probably going to be worth less tomorrow. (Kind of like what inflation is doing to our purchasing power in real life today).
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