We have frequent-flyer miles for every airline, but the problem is that we never seem to have enough in each one for a free flight! With Delta, every flight seems to be in the "high" season...and every Costa Rica flight during the rainy season! What do we do with all of these random points which never really amount to anything?
Jennifer, you are not alone with this challenge. If there ever were a Hall of Fame for frequent flyer conundrums, this would be voted in early.
Many members find themselves with one or two programs where the miles and activity just don’t add up. If I read your question correctly, it seems you likely have a few accounts in which you don’t have enough miles for a typical saver award (25,000 miles) and a few where you have enough for a saver, but not enough for standard, or double mile, award redemption. With those assumptions in mind, here’s some advice that will hopefully help you use your miles and collect some great Costa Rican memories.
In no particular order, here are the top 10 things to know about random mileage accounts, and a few for those rainy day and “high” season awards:
Many members, when staring at a bunch of orphaned miles in a hodgepodge of programs, elect to consolidate their miles into a smaller number of programs. By converting their miles from multiple programs into fewer programs (or possibly even one program), they hope to clean up and simplify their mileage house, and increase their “buying power.”
The Mileage Converter tool on WebFlyer.com
is a great tool that can show you how to convert your miles, and how many miles you’ll end up with. The results can look a little like pretzel logic at times, as you might have to convert through two or three programs before you get the actual miles or points that you desire, but it’s well worth the effort. Be aware though, generally in the process of converting miles from one program to another you would lose value along the way.
Another useful option is the GPX tool on Points.com
. Points is an official partner of selected programs and the GPX tool allows members to trade miles or points among themselves legally – but with fees involved. If you’re interested in consolidating your miles and/or points, this is certainly a tried and true option for you.
Build Instead of Burn
While most members initially consider consolidation options when faced with miles in multiple accounts (thus burning miles since any conversion often means a devaluation of what you have, which is minimal to begin with), the smart ones also eventually consider building those small accounts to a usable state.
For instance, let’s say you had 14,123 miles with a program. With the build strategy you would work on adding 10,877 to this same account and get it into actual flight award redemption territory. To do this you might need to put off adding additional miles to your major programs (those in which you have earned the most miles and are comfortable with award redemption choices) to feed the smaller account.
Credit card bonuses are the easiest, most obvious, and quickest fix to this sort of problem. Most credit card bonuses these days are 25,000 miles. That plus the 14,123 miles will not only put you in the area of award redemption, but will likely have you flying to Hawaii or Costa Rica, rather than Bakersfield (Not to diminish the many attractions of Bakersfield. I have friends there).
But you can build miles relatively quickly with the everyday things as well, like shopping online. Small, frequent activities will build your stash and keep your account active so you won’t need to worry about them expiring.
I’m a huge fan of building rather than burning. Generally speaking, if you have 10,000 miles or more (but less than 25,000 miles), I suggest building your miles toward flight award redemption. At less than 5,000 - 10,000 miles, I typically will recommend that you explore other opportunities to use miles. I’m a fan of two things – redeeming them for magazines (and gift subscriptions for magazines are very cool), or donating them to charities.
Try Again Another Day
Though the “high” season and the rainy season are often the only dates you can seem to find open, the truth of the matter is other dates do become available, but you have to keep checking all of the time to catch them when they do. Of course, not everyone has time to check award availability every day in hopes of finding one of these openings.
There is, however, a solution to this and it involves the same type of consideration that you give valet parking – either park it yourself and run the risk of driving around the block a few times and maybe not even being able to find a close-up parking spot, or hand the keys over to someone else to park it and, of course, be ready to tip them. In this case, you might want to consider using a service. There’s a nifty service called AwardPlanner over at MileageManager.com
that checks award availability for you. You tell if where you want to go and when, and it automatically checks for award availability every day and lets you know when something opens up. It even checks dates immediately around the dates you enter.
Given that there is ample proof that award availability is an ever-changing opportunity, this is a nice shortcut. It is inexpensive and actually does work. There are two other hands-on services that assist with finding awards, but given the extent of your needs and number of miles involved, I think the cost of those services may not be appropriate here.
While the economy has certainly taken its toll on many, there have been a few silver linings. Several award sales this past year have placed award redemption into the hands of those that typically do not have enough miles.
Both Delta and United come to mind for 2009, though others have done their part as well. For instance, recently members of United’s Mileage Plus could redeem a round-trip economy-class ticket for travel within the 48 states, Alaska, and Canada for just 15,000 miles. And there were other award sales this year offered by United, to the Caribbean (including Belize, so getting closer to Costa Rica) for 25,000 miles rather than the usual 35,000 miles. Thanks to another award sale, Delta SkyMiles members were able to fly to Barcelona for 48,000 miles, a 12,000-mile discount off the normal award rate.
Imagine all the members who had fewer than 25,000 miles and suddenly discovered they were able to use miles they thought were of no use. With a keen eye and a little luck you can actually make use of lower mileage amounts if you are patient. Again, a domestic award for only 15,000 miles! Seems like everyone has at least that many miles.
Let Me Check My Calendar
In 2008, there was a substantial jump in the number of awards redeemed by members of frequent flyer programs. While most of the increase could be attributed to the impact of the economic woes of the country, some was the result of improvements in the award booking processes.
American AAdvantage and others have made significant improvements to their online award availability calendars, allowing members to better plan and play around with “what-if” scenarios. If you haven’t tried these new calendars for award availability, it might be worth playing with them and become familiar with how they work. Pick typical travel dates and view for yourself what award availability is like by moving one or two days to either side of the dates you have planned. As well, look at the future and move weeks or even months ahead to see where there might be additional opportunities. A lot has changed in this area and being able to visibly see where the awards are can make a difference for you.
Apples to Oranges
It may be said that a mile is a mile is a mile but one thing is clear, miles come in many shapes and sizes. If you have non-frequent flyer loyalty currencies, it might be worth exploring using these alternative currencies to “top off” your mileage accounts.
Typical among these are various hotel loyalty programs. Only have 14,123 miles with Delta? Well, let’s move 30,000 Marriott Rewards points to Delta where they become 10,000 SkyMiles. Another popular program from which to transfer is the American Express Membership Rewards program – 10,000 points there becomes 10,000 Delta SkyMiles.
Look around and check your wallet to see what other types of loyalty currencies you might have. Because you aren’t transferring from frequent flyer program to frequent flyer program, the devaluation is not nearly as onerous, and sometimes the valuation of the transfer will work to your favor.
The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
When you say “we,” I’m going to assume that other family members and even friends suffer similar challenges – not enough miles where you need them. Frequent flyer programs have created opportunities for members (not just family members) to pool miles. While this option is not inexpensive, in the right scenario you can create value from what appears to be nothing.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you had 18,432 miles with United and 31,450 miles with Delta. You also have a friend or family member with 19,000 miles with Delta and 14,000 with United. It would appear you have nothing of much value other than perhaps a single domestic ticket with Delta. But wait. You could elect to have your friend or family member transfer their SkyMiles to your Delta account so that you actually do have enough to go to Costa Rica when the sun is shining. Your friend could transfer 4,000 of her 19,000 Delta SkyMiles to your Delta account (enough to get you to 35,000 miles, which is the current award level to Costa Rica), which would cost $40 plus a $30 processing fee, total $70.00. You would now have that flight to Costa Rica (providing you can find the award seat) for a total of $70, far below the cost of actually purchasing a ticket. That’s what friends and family members are for. But fair warning, at levels above this example, the fees and costs associated with this are not reasonable unless compared to a very costly air fare.
Most airlines’ program rules prohibit the bartering of miles/awards. Nevertheless, there exist several places where you can do just that, which gives you the option (albeit borderline and slightly risky) of using your minimal miles to acquire something else of value.
Milehighswap.com is the miles-centric cousin to eBay and craigslist, and is for people who want to use frequent flyer miles instead of cash to barter. But they aren't the only garage sale on the block. On LoyaltyMatch.com, you can buy or trade award merchandise with members of other loyalty programs. You can search for thousands of items offered by loyalty programs across all sectors including airlines, hotels, car rentals, restaurants and retail merchants. When you see an item that you want, you can set a price or make an exchange offer. The price is the amount of money you will pay a seller to redeem their miles or points for that particular award. You can also choose to offer a trade.
Only you and your frequent flyer program can decide whether this option is right for you.
Flights or Fancies?
Today, the number of things you can redeem your miles for is rapidly increasing. Even if you have a modest amount of miles, you might actually find some award choices that appeal to you.
For instance, with the holidays upon us, there may be a need to secure a hotel room for some visiting friends or relatives, or in my case, a hotel room for a single night at a larger city nearby for the usual holiday shopping trip. United Mileage Plus has a new program that allows you to redeem any redeemable miles for hotels and car rentals. I just checked for Denver and found a hotel night for only 8,513 miles. That’s a valid and possibly worthwhile use of your fractional miles. And there are other options such as Delta’s SkyMiles Marketplace. Eight thousand SkyMiles can get you a $50 gift card to Old Navy or The Olive Garden. Not a bad deal when you consider that most members see 8,000 miles as worthless. There’s more to these programs than free flights these days and these are just a few examples of how your minimum miles can actually have purpose.
Show Me the Miles (and the Money)
A growing number of programs allow members to mix miles with money for award redemption. What this means is that for programs where you don’t have enough miles for an award, you can turn what you do have into a down payment on a paid ticket. The two most popular programs that currently offer this option are United and Delta (some membership restrictions apply).
Let’s say you had 14,123 miles. At one cent per mile (the typical going rate with these offers), that equates to value of $141.23. This means you could go shopping on the United or Delta Web site for an airline ticket and when you find what you are looking for, apply your miles ($141.23) toward the price of the ticket. This works wonders when you have miles but can’t find award availability (perhaps, for example, you want to go to Costa Rica but not when it is rainy).
I looked on the Delta award redemption calendar and while I did find award seats (early March to mid-March to San Jose, Costa Rica) the award was 47,500 miles. Assuming that’s more miles than you probably have, I then searched the Delta reservation system and found a flight for $280.20.
If you had, say, 31,450 miles, you wouldn’t have enough to book the award, but you could take advantage of the Pay With Miles program. It requires chunks of miles in 10,000-mile increments at the one-cent per mile ratio. You would redeem 30,000 of your SkyMiles and you’d have paid less than an actual award and found exactly what you were looking for.
But let’s say the fare was $419.00. The math can still work. Use 30,000 of your 31,450 SkyMiles and pay the balance of the ticket, $119.00, with cash or credit card. It gets you there and at a good price.
United’s Choices program works similarly, and both are fabulous ways to manage random mileage accounts and actually get some value out of what you have.