Are Frequent Flyer Miles Worth the Effort?
The commercials make the endeavor seem so enticing: Use your credit card and within a short period of time you can earn that summer vacation to Paris.
For some, the vision becomes a reality.
For most, that summer vacation is simply a mirage. Blackout dates, airport restrictions, seat restrictions and more turn your summer vacation to Paris into a quick early fall junket to an airport near Paris, and by the way -- middle seat.
The question each potential frequent flyer points collector must ask is, will I ever earn enough miles to make my patronage of the company possible?
For anyone who flies two to three times a year and is considering a credit card with a $250 yearly fee to earn miles and in the hopes of taking their family to Hawaii -- don't do it. Save yourself the time, aggravation and money. Buy a ticket.
For the business travelers who happen to earn miles on their way to achieving elite status, it's a different story. Remaining loyal to an airline earns you elite status that translates into better service, less rigid rules, the chance for first-class upgrades and a comfortable area to wait in the airport. All of the necessary benefits to a road warrior who spends a major portion of the business week in airports and planes.
But what about all of those miles that you've managed to accumulate? Will you ever be able to use them?
First, remember that mileage programs are both an asset (in marketing and loyalty terms) and a liability (when the " is redeemed). In good times, an airline's loyalty program rewards faithful customers and keeps vested members loyal. But in financially insecure times, the reward is nothing more than a non-revenue producing seat. Still, with a great deal of work frequent flier points can be used to your advantage.
Last September, we managed to get our family of six from Orlando to London, then Italy and back on the same plane in first-class during one of the busiest travel seasons using our points. How? We've spent years following the changing ins and outs of my airline's reward ticket rules: The tickets were purchased exactly 320 days out, everyone on the trip had a flexible schedule, and over four hours was spent on the phone with a reservation agent.
Flexibility is the key! Here are some tips to help you transfer frequent flyer miles into tickets.
Try flying in and out of the less popular airports. Last year we weren't able to fly out of Rome, but we were able to fly out of Milan.
Be flexible with your dates. Our trip was originally supposed to last two weeks but we had to extend it to 19 days in order to find a flight with reward tickets available.
Know when to buy your tickets. Purchasing your trip well in advance -- some airlines allow reservations 320 days out -- or at the very last minute usually gives you the most options.
Use your miles to upgrade into first class. Three of the six tickets were first-class tickets using frequent flyer miles, but the other three were purchased as upgradeable coach tickets. Yes, an upgradeable coach ticket costs more, but paying $1,100 for a first-class international fare is still a bargain!
Use your airline code partnerships. For instance, if a Delta flight isn't available, find out if an Air France or Allitalia flight has a reward seat available.
Use your miles to purchase rewards tickets to less popular destinations. Reward seats are often not used on flights to Cleveland or Savannah.
Understand the rules of your airline's reward program. Know how far out you are able to reserve seats. Does your airline have multiple levels of rewards? Some airlines have more reward seats if you're willing to pay double the amount of frequent flyer miles. You have to know how your airline's program works, and you have to ask the right questions.
The rewards system can be just like the title reveals, rewarding, if you know how to work the system, and understand that reward miles aren't going to be an asset all of the time, but will occasionally save you a bundle.
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