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It is very easy to collect frequent flyer miles these days. In fact “frequent flyer” is now all wrong… you can accumulate far more miles on the ground than “Up in the Air”.
And anybody can redeem their miles for something, but spending these miles well is far more difficult. Here are a few tips to improve how you spend your hard-earned miles.
Airlines probably know when you might want to travel… before you do! Try to use your miles on a peak date to a popular destination and you are likely to be disappointed. But if you can alter your schedule by a few days, you are more likely to find the award space that you need. This might be easier said than done for families, but younger couples and single travellers have little excuse!
Flexibility also applies to your choice of destination. If you are planning a summer vacation to Southeast Asia, it might not matter much whether you start in Singapore and end in Bangkok, if you are planning to spend some time exploring the region. If award space becomes available for flights to/from Kuala Lumpur or Phuket, why not change your route (or at least the order) a little?
In fact, many frequent travellers report that some of their more rewarding travel experiences have come from the destination choosing them – i.e. a cheap flight or hotel deal – instead of them choosing the destination.
You might have spent several years painstakingly accumulating a healthy mileage balance. But if you just spend those miles on a plain old boring Economy class flight, it will hardly feel like your effort was worthwhile.
But if you can accumulate miles and spend them on a once-in-a-lifetime experience in First Class – the kind that you would never pay cash for – then it will definitely be memorable…
Yes, it might cost double or triple the number of miles, but the cash cost would be 10 times greater or more…
With a bit more study, you’ll find that some airlines let you upgrade paid tickets as well (for fewer miles than a full award would cost). What’s better than paying for Economy and flying in Business?
Search for Award Space Flight-by-Flight
Unless you live in (and are visiting) a major international hub, you are probably going to be connecting somewhere when travelling long haul. But many people still search for simple return flight awards starting from their nearest airport and ending at their chosen destination.
You should instead research your itinerary options first, and then search for the main long-haul flight independently. Wikipedia is an excellent source for quickly seeing which airlines fly to which airports. Want to fly to Asia with oneworld airlines? You have a huge variety of airline and routing options – not just direct with BA. Check out what’s available with Qatar, JAL, Finnair, Iberia, Cathay Pacific and more.
Frequent flyer programmes would prefer that you spend your miles on their airline – this is cheaper for them. Although things are improving, many programmes still make it more difficult to book partner awards. In some cases, they simply won’t show some/all partner award availability online (you have to phone). In other cases, they won’t make it easy to book a two-partner connecting itinerary.
Regardless of which miles you are actually accumulating, you might want to pay attention to:
- United, Aeroplan and ANA for Star Alliance award searches
- British Airways and Qantas for Oneworld award searches
- Air France / KLM for Skyteam award searches
Once you’ve found award space, it becomes much easier to call your frequent flyer programme and feed them the exact flights you wish to book.
Don’t Pay Carrier-Imposed Surcharges! (at least in Economy Class)
Some airlines – British Airways and Lufthansa are two notorious examples – are addicted to carrier-imposed surcharges (formerly called “fuel surcharges”). If you can figure out a way to avoid these airlines, you will often save £££s. In fact, there are numerous examples of people who paid more in taxes and surcharges on an “award” ticket, than a straightforward paid ticket in Economy would have cost.
Of course, if you have your heart set on trying out Lufthansa’s First Class offering, or British Airways’ new Club Suite, then by all means go for it. See it as a discounted premium cabin flight actually flown (which is surely much better than no flight at all, while you wait for award space to open up on a non-surcharge airline…).
Don’t Buy a Toaster (Big Caveat*)
Generally, don’t spend frequent flyer miles on anything other than flights! You won’t receive the same value for those miles. Yes… choice is good and yes… it can be hard to find availability for when/where you actually want to fly. But cashing out your miles on a magazine subscription or an item from a shopping catalogue… will cost you a lot of potential value that you will regret when you pay cash for your future flights.
*One huge exception is the Avios/Nectar partnership, which effectively allows you to buy things with Avios from Sainsbury’s/Argos/eBay at a rate of 0.8p each. This can be an excellent deal.
Any More Tips to Share?
What do our readers think? Do you have any tips you are willing to share? Let us know in the comments section below…