Wednesday, September 17, 2014

15 Inside tips to help you win the airline frequent flyer game. (Part 1)

Every year in the United States, an estimated 600-700 million passengers board flights headed for domestic destinations, and tens of millions more fly overseas. If you’re one of those people who fly at least a few times per year – whether it’s for business or a vacation with the family – you may have wondered if it’s worth it to join an airline's frequent flyer programs. Or maybe you’ve already signed up, but if you’re like most airline passengers, chances are you often forget to register and manage all of your flights, losing out on award miles. In fact, the airlines carefully formulate their frequent flyer and award miles programs to garner loyalty and maximize profits – by counting heavily on people who don't use their miles correctly.

At any give time, there are about 9.7 trillion unredeemed airline miles in frequent flyer accounts. How can we put that number in perspective? The airlines factor the value of each airline mile at around 1.5 cents, so we’re looking at about $145.5 billion just in unredeemed miles. Considering the average business or first-class ticket costs 150,000 in frequent flyer miles and we can calculate that 64.7 million flights are left unredeemed. If one lucky person could take advantage of all those airline miles, they’d earn enough tickets to circumnavigate the earth 449 million times! Even crazier, that same person could go to the moon 19.4 million times if airplanes flew there, (they don’t - yet!)

While you may not have plans to circumnavigate the globe or fly to the moon, we'll show you 15 inside tips how to use frequent flyer programs to your advantage so you can at least earn a few free flights here and there.

1. Confirm.
When you first check in at the airport, ask the attendant to confirm your miles have been registered with your frequent flyer account. Make sure they get both legs of the flight.

2. Check up.
Don’t just take their word for it, check in periodically on the airline’s website to make sure your miles have been logged. If you don’t see them posted after 90 days of flying, contact the airlines.

3. Save your paperwork.
Save all ticketing receipts and boarding passes until you see those miles posted. Without them, you might not be able to prove you earned the miles.

4. Check networks.
When you fly with an airline and try to accumulate award miles, ask if they are part of a network, like OneWorld, Star Alliance, and Star. Some times, you can acquire or use your miles within the same network, not just with one airline.

5. Don’t let them expire.
Most people don’t realize that accrued airline miles can expire, rendering them useless! Read the fine print and ask questions when you sign up to learn their policies. However, they change policies all the time, so if you’re about to lose miles, a great trick is to make a purchase with an affiliated partner, which “reinstates” your miles. It doesn’t even have to be a big purchase – a simple magazine subscription may extend the use of your miles for up to 18 months.

6. Understand award availability.
A common consumer misconception is that getting an award ticket with frequent flyer miles is as easy as booking any ticket – you just make your choice of dates and flights. But the airlines offer a very small segment of seats on each flight for awards travel. With 80% of flights totally full year around, it’s often difficult to even book your seat.

7. Call instead of going online to redeem.
For that reason, it’s usually more efficient to call the airline’s reservation center to book your award tickets instead of trying to go through their website. Booking via the phone will probably cost you $25, but it will be well worth it, as a real live human being will do the hard work of looking through all the dates, flights, and options to get you a seat.

8. Earn award miles through your credit card.
The single best way to accrue frequent flyer miles is to apply for a credit card that offers bonus miles for new customers. It’s easy to find them – there are plenty of websites to guide you through the best credit cards for airline miles, and the airlines even promote offers right on the plane. Typically, a credit card offers 30,000-40,000 award miles upon signing up. I’ve heard of shrewd consumers signing up with as many cards as possible, getting the miles, and then cancelling their cards – though I wouldn’t recommend it because I can’t imagine that’s good for your credit!

Of course, read the fine print with credit cards because some of them have high annual fees or restrictions. You’ll have to weight the upside of using a card that earns you miles with just one airline, versus some of the cards – like Chase Sapphire – that build up miles you can use to book a ticket with just about any airline.

Here is a great impartial website that ranks the best credit cards for getting bonus airline miles. 


Look for part 2 of this blog soon, with 7 more inside secrets to winning the airline frequent flyer game and the best and worst airlines for award miles. 

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