Experts confess their travel-rewards mistakes

One of our own staff members just confessed to burning his American Airlines miles at (at half a cent per mile) for gift cards several years ago. And that got us wondering which bloopers other reward experts have made.

We reached out to four of the savviest rewards-bookers in the business to find out which mistakes still have them wishing for a rewards do-over.

I used airline miles on train tickets – David Slotnick, The City Miler

Before Slotnick knew all the ins and outs of the miles world, he found himself with a cache of miles in Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club program. Since most Virgin Atlantic redemptions incur huge fuel surcharges, Slotnick figured he’d never use his miles for flights. So, he decided “on a whim to burn them all with a partner” — rail carrier Virgin Trains East. Every 12,500 miles got Slotnick a £50 rail voucher, which he used for travel between two British cities during a vacation.

“This got me a poor value of around 0.4 cents per mile, though I figured it was better than nothing,” he says.

Only later did Slotnick learn that he may have gotten a better value with flights after all. He could have, for example, bolstered his stock of Flying Club miles by transferring in Chase Ultimate Rewards points and then used his miles to upgrade to premium economy or business class – or used Virgin’s “Miles Plus Money” option to reduce the price of a flight. Even with fuel surcharges, he could have done better than 0.4 cents per point.

“When I opted for the train voucher, I wasn’t paying attention or thinking ahead to the other possibilities,” Slotnick says. “Because of my tunnel-vision, no pun intended, I was too focused on using up the miles and saving some money on my train ride.”

I squandered my points for 1 percent cash back – Dave Grossman, founder and CEO of MilesTalk

Flexible credit-card rewards programs (like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Membership Rewards from American Express – a CreditCardForum advertising partner) give you many options for your points. You can redeem for travel via the card’s online portal, actual frequent-flier miles, merchandise, cash back and more.

“The most rookie mistake I probably made back in the day was using credit card points for statement credits for 1 percent cash back,” Grossman says.

Unfortunately for Grossman, 1 percent back isn’t the best value you can get for your points in these programs. Redeeming for frequent-flier miles or even travel booked via the card’s portal can often give you more per point.

“Before you realize the value of points and miles and do a little bit of legwork to understand how much various points are worth and take steps to only earn the most valuable rewards currencies, it’s a super easy mistake to make,” Grossman says.

If cash back is what you want, find a card that gives you more than 1 percent cash back.

“Fast forward to today and all my spending is spread out across multiple rewards programs,” Grossman says. “I never redeem anything unless I’m getting more, usually much more, than 2 percent effective cash back.”

I let my points expire – David Fleming, award-booking expert at The Miles Guy

If you don’t look at your reward program’s expiration rules, tens of thousands of points can disappear overnight.

“I, too, have fallen victim to losing more than 60,000 Air France Flying Blue points by not staying on top of it,” Fleming says. “Lesson learned. I won’t let that happen again.”

Some airlines do allow you to buy back expired miles, and it might be a good idea, depending on the cost and how many miles you let expire.

“While I was not able to buy back those points, some airlines do allow you to purchase back expired miles,” Fleming says. “It’s worth investigating. I found one client around a half a million points that had expired. Luckily, he was able to purchase those back.”

While some fliers may know not to let their points expire, they may make the less-obvious mistake of frittering them away on less-lucrative redemption options. So become acquainted with all your program’s options. Know the best option, the worst option and everything in between. For example, with airline programs “the best use of miles and points is first- and business-class international travel,” Fleming says. “That’s really where you can save a ton of money and put points to good use. The worst redemption in my opinion: magazine subscriptions.”

I booked Standard instead of Saver – Brian McAdam, blogger at time- and money-saving blog Brian

For his honeymoon to Europe, McAdam used his parents’ generously given miles to book airfare. But, without a full understanding of how to spend points, McAdam didn’t grasp the difference in redemption tiers. Many airlines offer seats at a low “Saver” level and also at a higher “Standard” level (for perhaps twice as many points). On popular routes, Saver seats run out quickly.

“Because we were traveling in the summer, award space was hard to come by,” McAdam says. “As a result, it appeared as though we had to book standard awards rather than saver awards. So that is what we did.”

That’s how McAdam and his wife ended up traveling to Europe and back in economy for more than 130k miles each (in today’s terms).

“Had I known then what I know now, I bet I could have found us saver level economy seats for half that price or business class saver awards for about that same price,” he says. “I feel badly for squandering the miles of my super-generous parents. Fortunately, with what I know now, I am finding many ways to make up for my mistake by getting them more miles and points and helping them to spend them in highly leveraged ways.”

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