Tim Arnold shares his experiences for getting the most from frequent flyer miles.
Almost everyone in the industry has a varying amount of frequent flier miles because of the traveling that we typically do in the course of our jobs. Some people stockpile them to use for a future trip, some spend them on non-travel related things like magazines, and some people use them sporadically for domestic travel. While these are acceptable uses for them, I feel that there are much better ways to use your miles to create lasting memories. I am well aware that there are thousands of websites that preach great theories about airline miles, but I have actually used these all of my tips, and had some amazing experiences. I will not advocate stupid and extreme strategies like opening up 247 credit cards, but will share what I have personally done to maximize this sometimes overlooked asset. Miles are a worthless currency, unless they are used. So use them for the right things, get some extra passport stamps, and build lasting memories for very little money.
Know the value of your miles. Many cite the value of an airline mile as between one and a half and two cents. But they can be much more valuable, depending on how you use them. Spending 25,000 miles for a 200 dollar airline ticket values the miles at .008 cents, which is a terrible value. Any non-travel items are the absolute worst value you will ever find. I typically am able to spend mine at a value of at least three cents, and sometimes in rare cases, four or five. Off season international trips are far and away the best value out there.
I did need to make a last minute trip to Tucson for a site visit the other day, and all the flights were in the 750-800 dollar range. I used 25,000 miles and it cost me 11 dollars in taxes. This valued the miles at 3.2 cents each, which was a great value.
Consolidate your travel. It is hard to get enough miles to do anything with, if you take trips on six different airlines. As long as the cost is similar, try to stick with one airline. This is easy to do in a hub city, but more difficult in smaller cities served by multiple carriers. I would never pay dramatically more to get miles on my preferred carrier, but if it is a few dollars more, it is worth it to keep status on a preferred carrier.
Moscow – May 2014
(40,000 miles and 200 in taxes, Combo trip with Istanbul).
Get one credit card linked to your account. I would never advocate signing up for unneeded credit cards just to get the miles, but having one with that is linked to your preferred airline account can be a wise strategy to get more miles based on what you ALREADY spend. Never spend extra to get more miles, and never ever carry a balance. Ever. The interest will defeat any possible advantage on the extra miles, and carrying a credit card balance is just plain stupid. I have never paid interest on mine, but estimate I have earned 200,000 miles over the years, through mile bonuses, and budgeted spending.
Know the expiration of the miles. Basic, but important information. Once your miles expire, you will lose them forever. The airlines often change this, so keep updated on this, especially if you are saving up for a big trip.
Banff National Park – March 2013
(25,000 miles and 25 dollars in taxes).
Be Flexible. This is the number one tip for getting the most benefit for your airline miles. If you have to be in Paris July 21-26, buying a ticket is likely to be your best bet, as award seats will have been booked a year in advance. You would either have to spend four or five times the miles needed for a standard ticket.
But if you can be flexible, you could do like I did last November and visit Paris for 40,000 miles and 75 dollars in taxes. Bonus, there was a tenth of the amount of summer tourists, and I had many places to myself. Just try and take a picture like this at the Palace of Versailles during the height of tourist season. Flexibility is the key to getting great deals.
Oftentimes, the weekends will require more miles to book than leaving on a Wednesday and coming back on a Monday. If you are in an area with multiple airports, check all of them to see who has the flights you want to your desired location. When flying to Europe, look at flying to another airport and taking their train to your desired location.
Many times the nonstop flight is sold out, but you can still get to your destination by adding a layover in another airport. Important part is to keep trying and stay flexible. The more options you give yourself, the more chances you have to get an amazing deal to an awesome location.
Know which areas and airlines to avoid. When you use your miles, all you pay are airport landing fees and taxes. These are not equal across the board. The fees in the UK are some of the highest in the world, so avoiding flights to or connecting through London is ideal. This can be hard for people wanting to go to Europe on American, as Heathrow is one of their main hubs. When I used my miles to go to Istanbul and Moscow, I had to connect through London, and it was 200 dollars and 40,000 miles round trip. It was still very cheap, but could have been cheaper had I not connected there.
On that same trip, I took a Turkish carrier Pegasus from Moscow to Istanbul. It was a little more than a Russian airliner would have been, but I refuse to ever fly a Russian airliner due to safety concerns, so was happy to spend the extra 50 dollars.
Know the low cost options to fly the last leg to your destination. Sometimes, your destination is beyond your preferred airlines routing. In cases like this, fly most of the way with your miles, and find a low cost option to take you to your destination.
Hall of Mirrors at Versailles – November 2016
(40,000 miles and 70 dollars in taxes)
When I went to Machu Picchu, I used my miles to fly Dallas to Lima. I then flew one of the local Peruvian airliners from Lima to Cusco for under 200 dollars. There are so many low cost carriers in the world that serve smaller places, that you can easily cobble together a great itinerary with a bit of research. Note, do not buy your connecting tickets until you get your main flights confirmed.
Book early (or incredibly last minute). There are only so many award seats that the airlines have per flight, and when they are gone, you will have to use more miles to book that flight or book in a higher class. Most airlines let you book one year in advance, so when going to popular destinations, this is a must. Your other option is to book a few weeks in advance for a cool spontaneous trip. I have done this a few times and it is exhilarating to plan an international trip that you depart in a matter of weeks.
(40,000 miles and 200 in taxes, Combo trip with Moscow)
Be Creative. Sometimes, the most popular route is not the one that is the most advantageous for using miles. So you have to get creative. When I wanted to go to Cambodia to explore temples, I used a routing that no one would have thought initially. Using my miles, I flew Dallas to Chicago to Shanghai, and then bought a 200 dollar ticket to Siem Reap. This is part of being flexible, but looking at all options to get somewhere is vital.
May 2015 (40,000 miles and 60 dollars in taxes)
Have a travel list. Having a list of places you want to travel to is very important. If you are unable to find a way to get to your top destination on miles, you can look at one of the other options on your list.
My list is always about 60-75 places long, and it is pretty easy to either add on a place or combine two or three places in one trip.
Jackson Hole – July 2015
(25,000 miles and 11 dollars in taxes).
Go when it is not popular. Everyone wants to go to Paris in the spring, or Miami in February. But that is when travel costs most, award seats are at their scarcest, and when places are crawling with tourists. When you look at a destination, go in the time when it is considered off season. Not only will you have less people visiting, hotels and attractions are often cheaper, and you get an overall better experience. A few years ago, I used my miles to visit Petra, the Dead Sea, and Jerusalem in February. There was almost nobody there then, and even less people there now, even though Jordan and Israel are two of the safest places in the entire region. I had the whole of Petra to myself for hours, and it was truly magical.
It is about half the amount of miles needed on many airlines to fly in low season as in high season. This means you could book two trips for the price of one peak season trip.
I believe very firmly that the person who has the most passport stamps when they die, wins. The strategic using of airline miles is a way to see more of the world while saving a lot of money in the process. I have been to some utterly amazing places in my life, and highly recommend you cash in your airline miles and knock some places off of your travel list.
All my best,
Timothy Arnold, CMP, CMM
Regional Vice President
Hospitality Performance Network – HPN Global