Why your miles seem useless: And how to fix that

Your card’s sign-up bonus promised enough miles for a round trip. Yet, every time you try to redeem those miles, the airline wants more than you have or won’t let you use them at all. rewards trap

So why do miles get stuck?

Lack of planning may be partly to blame, says Rosemarie Clancy, editor in chief of Reward Expert (a travel rewards maximization service).

“People sign up for a credit card to get one of the big mileage sign-up bonuses being offered, but they often don’t have a plan for using them,” Clancy says.

Further complicating the issue is the way legacy carriers such as Delta, American and United structure their programs, says Tiffany Funk of PointsPros, a company that helps clients book reward travel. Such airlines make only a certain number of seats available for reward bookings. They also have redemption tiers. Popular routes and travel times may push you into a higher redemption level, which requires twice as many miles as the lowest tier.

“A lot of times, that contributes to the idea that miles are worthless,” Funk says. “You can’t use your miles on the exact date, time and flight you want.”

We asked Clancy and Funk to help us assemble a bunch tips for those who can’t seem to use their miles; hopefully you’ll find one that shakes your rewards loose.

1. Ask yourself, ‘Well, where can I go?’

Instead of woefully thinking, ‘I can never use my miles to get to Hawaii,’ start looking into other places your miles can take you, Funk suggests. Most airlines publish mileage charts that show how many miles it takes to get between their various travel zones.

“Maybe you have 60,000 miles you were planning on using for Hawaii, but you realize that’s also enough to get you a round trip to Europe in economy,” Funk says.

2. Try alliances and partners

Many airlines are part of alliances, meaning you can redeem your miles on partner airlines. In some cases, that ability is automatically integrated into your airline’s booking site. In others, you may have to call your airline. Regardless, alliances open up more destinations and itineraries.

“Many people think they can only use their miles on the airline they earned them on,” Clancy says. “But with alliances and partnerships among airlines, there are many choices these days, and a person can usually find an award seat with the right planning or flexibility.”

3. Travel at off-peak times

Airlines try to make it worth your while to book rewards during less popular times by offering a discounted “off-peak” redemption tier. That means your small cache of miles may suddenly be enough for your desired destination – if you’re flexible about when you travel. With American, for example, a one-way economy trip to Europe during its off-peak period (assuming seats are available at the lowest redemption tier) would be 20,000 miles instead of 30,000. American airlines off-peak dates

Better yet, off-peak doesn’t necessarily mean undesirable – check out the dates to the right.

“So if you’re planning a trip to Europe, maybe you can go from May 1 to May 15 instead of May 2 to May 16,” Funk says.

4. Be flexible about your itinerary

Can you leave on a different day? Are you open to long layovers instead of a direct flight? Flexibility can help you harness the airline reward system, in which reward seats are more plentiful on flights that fewer people want to book.

“Airlines want you to be able to redeem your miles,” Funk says. “It encourages loyalty and encourages you to spend more within the program. But they don’t necessarily want you to redeem your miles the Friday evening that starts Spring Break.”

5. If you can’t be flexible, plan ahead

Maybe your destination is on your bucket list and your dates need to coincide with a special occasion. Start planning ahead – as in a year ahead.

“The honeymoon, the anniversary, you know it’s coming,” Funk says. “You can make sure you’re accruing the right kind of rewards with your credit card, so you’re ready to book.”

Some honeymoon and anniversary destinations can be tricky, due to popularity and limited flights.

“If you know you want to go to Tahiti for your honeymoon, it’s not impossible, but it’s really hard,” Funk says. “So if you’re thinking six months out that you’re ahead of the game, or you have the wrong kind of miles, it’s not happening.”

6. Pay for part of your itinerary

If you’re flying internationally and don’t live in a city with a major international airport, you might not be able to get reward seats all the way. Domestic reward seat availability has been slim the past couple years, as airlines have become more profitable and cabins are fuller, Funk says.

So, say you’re trying to get from Salt Lake City to the Middle East. Reward seats from a gateway city like Chicago to your final destination may be feasible.

“But getting that [rewards] flight from Salt Lake to Chicago may just be impossible,” Funk says.

If so, consider buying the domestic ticket to the gateway city and then booking reward seats for the international leg of your trip.

7. Book last-minute tickets

Trying to book four to eight weeks out? So is everyone else. Airlines, knowing people are actively shopping for tickets, aren’t going to put as many seats up for reward bookings. But if seats don’t sell like the airline hoped, it will open them up for reward bookings a few days before departure.

“The very last minute is fantastic” when it comes to reward availability, Funk says.

Last-minute bookings aren’t for everyone, but if you’re spontaneous and flexible, it’s a good time to use rewards.

“The best times to use miles are the worst times to buy tickets,” Funk says.

8. Mix and match one-way tickets

Veteran travelers will remember a time when a round-trip domestic ticket was cheaper than two one-ways. But that’s no longer the case. So, assuming you’re flying domestic, booking a one-way reward and paying for the other leg can be a savvy way to put miles to use if, say, the outbound leg has no reward-seat availability.

“If you can only leave Friday after work, maybe you need to buy that ticket,” Funk says. “But if you’re flexible about when you come back, you might find a mileage ticket.”

Note that this technique won’t often work for international flights, however, as international one-way tickets are prohibitively expensive.

“But you could use miles from program A in one direction and miles from program B in the other,” Funk says.

9. Boost your balance with a sign-up bonus

If you’ve been grinding away, earning miles via your airline’s loyalty program with no free ticket to show for it, consider applying for the airline’s card to inject a sign-up bonus (and points earned from daily spending) into your rewards balance.

“More miles are earned these days through credit cards than actually flying,” Clancy says.

Just make sure you assess the usefulness of the card when the annual fee comes due.

“If you aren’t taking advantage of the benefits of the card like free checked bags and priority boarding, it might be time to look at some other options,” Clancy says. “The miles earned transfer to the frequent flier program every month, so you won’t lose them if you cancel the card. People need more than just a card to earn a free trip. They need a plan.”

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