Personal Finance

How to Get the Most Out of Your Airline Miles

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With all the travel credit cards and other mileage-harvesting opportunities available, it's not too hard to rack up a large balance of miles with one or more airlines. The tricky part is getting a good value when you redeem them.

Travel rewards take you farther when you know how to find the best redemption options. Whether you're looking for a short-haul domestic flight or an international trip, the right approach will help you book the award tickets you want for the fewest miles.

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Consider all your future travel plans before redeeming your miles

You get much different values for your miles depending on what type of ticket you redeem them for. Award tickets in higher travel classes generally get you more per mile.

This means you're better off saving miles for more expensive tickets and paying for cheaper flights in cash. It wouldn't make much sense to blow your miles on a couple round-trip domestic flights if you have a trip to Europe planned for the end of the year, as tickets for that would likely cost much more.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with booking domestic flights in miles if that's the bulk of your traveling. Just give some thought to trips you may want to take down the road first.

Start your search early and be flexible

Award ticket space is often limited, especially around peak travel dates. While airlines don't publish a list of specific blackout dates (dates when you can't book award tickets) anymore, the majority of them still effectively black out award seating on their busiest flights. And when award tickets are available on popular routes, travelers snatch them up quickly.

By looking for award tickets early, you'll give yourself a much better opportunity to land one. Flexibility about when you travel also helps quite a bit with your flight options. Sometimes just adjusting your trip by a day or two can make all the difference.

Finding award tickets

When you're ready to redeem miles, booking an award ticket through an airline is almost the same as booking a ticket in cash. Here's how:

  1. Visit the airline's home page.
  2. Enter your trip details.
  3. Select the option to book using miles. The exact wording varies from airline to airline, but it's never hard to find.

From the results, you can choose the flight you want. You'll be prompted to log in to your frequent flyer account if you haven't already, and then you can pay using your miles.

Booking flights with partner airlines

Mileage redemptions can get more complicated when you need to book a flight with a partner airline, which is often the case when you're traveling internationally. Many airlines are in large airline alliances, so when you have miles with one airline, you can also use them to book travel with any of its partners.

Let's say you have miles with United. You can also book flights with any of the other 26 airlines in the Star Alliance, such as Lufthansa or Singapore Airlines. The other two major alliances are SkyTeam, founded by Delta with 19 other members, and OneWorld, founded by American Airlines with 12 other members.

Airline alliances are great in the sense that they give you more redemption options for your miles. The challenge is searching through those options. While each airline will also show mileage redemption options with its partners, the results aren't always entirely accurate. There could be award availability that doesn't show up -- or the opposite, i.e., supposed award availability that turns out to be nonexistent when you try to book it.

It takes more time, but the best strategy is searching for flights through multiple airline websites. Find out which airlines in an alliance fly the route you want first, as that will narrow down the number of sites you need to check.

To upgrade or not to upgrade

Another way to use your miles is to upgrade an existing ticket. There are a few downsides to this, including:

  • Availability can be scarce.
  • Many airlines only let you upgrade one class -- for example, you could upgrade from premium economy to business class, but if you booked the cheapest economy flight, you could only upgrade to premium economy.
  • You may still need to pay a fee when you upgrade, which means it doesn't always get you much value for your miles.

Even though you may find the occasional deal on an upgrade, that's a rarity and not something you can rely on. If it's a long flight and you want to stretch out in business or first class, the better option is to book the flight in points from the beginning. For shorter flights, the cost of upgrading usually doesn't make sense when you consider that you won't be on the plane long.

Miles can save you a ton of money and take you on some incredible trips if you use them properly. Be patient as you go over your options, and you'll get the most bang for your buck.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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