You keep hearing about people who take these fabulous trips (see story) and they don't pay a penny — or very many pennies. You have miles, but you don't seem to be getting much, well, mileage out of them.
For the last seven years, my life has been all about points. I quit my recruiting job on Wall Street, for which I traveled more than 150,000 miles a year (and collected numerous corporate credit card points), and founded ThePointsGuy.com, a website that's all about maximizing frequent-flier miles and credit card points.
These days I have millions of miles that I accrue on the cheap. They allow me to travel the world in first-class style on a coach-seat budget.
Here are a few things that every traveler — not just frequent fliers — can do to be smarter about their miles and get more out of them.
Lots of people have frequent-flier miles — it's estimated that more than 20 trillion miles and points are floating around out there — but few leverage them for their maximum value. You hear a lot about "good redemption" — that is, getting the most for your miles — but that really depends on what you want to use the miles for and where you want to go.
In monetary terms, you calculate the value of a mile by dividing the price of a ticket over the number of miles you would have to redeem for the same itinerary. For instance, let's say a round-trip domestic ticket in economy costs $300, or 25,000 miles. If you redeemed your miles, you'd be getting a value of 1.2 cents per mile. Pretty standard.
The beauty of redeeming miles is that often first-class award tickets might only require 40% more miles than coach, but the price of that ticket could be 500% the price of coach. Redeeming miles for expensive tickets is where you get the most value.
Still, it's not just about first-class awards. You can get great values on economy redemptions such as off-peak awards. But first to the nuts and bolts.
Distance and dollars
There are two main types of airline mileage programs. The traditional distance-based programs, such as those of American, Delta and United, generally award you one frequent-flier mile for each mile flown and let you redeem miles in continental-based zones such as North America or Europe.
Revenue-based programs — think Southwest and JetBlue — award fliers points based on how much money is spent on fares.
Distance-based programs can be frustrating because award seats can be scarce. On the up side, those "distance miles" can also be leveraged much more lucratively than "revenue miles" programs.
Here's why: Let's say American has off-peak awards that require 40,000 miles for a round-trip economy fare from North America to Europe. Whether you are flying from Boston to Dublin or San Diego to Istanbul, the number of miles required is the same. If you know the "sweet spots" in your program's mileage redemptions, you can get expensive flights for relatively few miles. For example, you would need only 110,000 US Airways miles to fly round trip in business class to Australia, and you can stop over in Asia if you like.
By contrast, programs such as Southwest Rapid Rewards and JetBlue TrueBlue points cap the amount of value you can get out of your points. What you lose in ability to get expensive tickets for less, you gain in consistency and seat availability. For instance, you know you will always get around 1.8 cents per point when you redeem for Southwest Wanna Get Away fares. (That value drops when you purchase more flexible and premium fares, such as business select, which require more points.)
If you mostly redeem for economy fares and can travel only during peak periods, you may come out ahead with revenue-based programs because they generally do not have blackout dates.
As always, you have to do the math and see whether redemption makes sense value-wise for you.
To your credit
You can accumulate miles by flying, of course. But unless you, as a leisure traveler, are in constant motion, the miles game can seem elusive. It's not.
Credit cards are among the easiest ways to accumulate miles. You can get as much as 100,000 miles on some cards by spending a certain amount of money (and I sometimes think the resulting awards should be called frequent-spender miles). In some cases, the award may be worth more than the annual credit card fee.
Several airline credit cards also allow their cardholders to redeem fewer miles for certain awards. Citi's consumer American Airlines AAdvantage cards give members a 10% refund of their redeemed AAdvantage miles, up to 10,000 miles each year. US Airways offers award tickets with a 5,000-mile discount to its co-branded MasterCard cardholders.