How to Use Your Frequent Flier Miles

Redeeming your miles isn't as easy as you think. Read on for 10 insider tips and strategies for making the most of your well-earned rewards

For the seasoned road warrior, frequent flier miles are high-altitude currency, tucked away in a fat piggy bank for some spending spree down the road, whether for business or play.

Yet it may be better to break the bank sooner than later.

As older airlines hemorrhage money and newer airlines practically give away flights, the value of flying is in decline. That means the miles that buy the tickets to fly are declining, too.

So, rather than clinging desperately to those miles like dot-com stock offerings, watching them lose value while hoping they somehow turn around, take that trip to Kauai. Otherwise, you might have to settle for Kansas City.

Times weren't always so dire. Back in 1981, when American Airlines debuted its frequent flier program, "AmericanAdvantage," the system better favored the consumer.

Today, as other carriers have followed suit, cobbling together their own schemes to breed passenger loyalty, miles are earned on everything from groceries to long-distance phone calls. Everybody has miles stockpiled somewhere, so simply having them is not such a big deal.

To make matters worse for travelers, the rules of the vast, complicated frequent-flier miles game are constantly shifting. And, they usually tilt in favor of the house.

Better understanding of how the game works will help you milk the most out of your miles:

1. Redeeming miles is tough, getting tougher

If you want to fly to say, Dayton on a Tuesday, sure, you can probably lock in a seat. But that dream vacation may be much harder to lock down.

Airlines use sophisticated "yield management" software to perfect the art of knowing which flights are the most desirable, broken down per flight, by day. In any given year, only about 10 percent of all available seats may be available as "rewards" to passengers who want to cash in frequent flier miles.

But sometimes, every seat on a flight will be blacked out for those freebie-seeking passengers, and no one will be the wiser. That's the gist of a shocking internal American Airlines memo leaked to a frequent flyer website and picked up by the The Wall Street Journal in April. The memo (which was used to train new reservationists) acknowledges that even on some completely empty flights, there are no award seats available, even if the passenger books months in advance. Seats may open up eventually, it all depends on how the flight sells.

In other words, the system is far from transparent, and customers ultimately lose out, according to Tim Winship, contributing editor for Frequent Flyer magazine. "The airlines are worried about squeezing every last possible penny out of the demand out there," Winship says. "They don't want to displace a revenue passenger with a rewards passenger."

2. Watch out for other tricks

Another common complaint among business travelers is that airlines change the rules in mid-game, sometimes moving the finish line for an award. Whereas 25,000 miles may have been enough to land you a domestic, round trip restricted coach award--the de facto industry standard--you may end up racking up tens of thousands of more miles before a seat actually becomes available. Or you may encounter a reservationist who "suggests" you double the amount of miles for the frequent flyer seat to 50,000 and--bingo--the previously unavailable frequent flyer seat becomes available.

Certain travel agencies, such as Award Planner promise to find you a booking using your miles--often for flights that you've been told have no availability for reward tickets (they know all the tricks apparantly). But for this service they charge a fee of $39.95; $99.95 for an annual membership.

Another zinger: rush charges, slapped on for making reservations too late. These can range anywhere from $25 to $75, depending how far in advance of your departure date you book.

And there are other fees. Air Canada, for example, now charges passengers $25 Canadian per award ticket, if not purchased through its website. A few years ago, the same ticket would have, with miles, been totally free.

Regular business travelers are starting to notice, and lose faith.

"They make it impossible to travel anyplace desirable other than during monsoon season," says Jessica Wollman, a producer with Scholastic who flies about twice a month. "I usually hoard my miles and entertain fantasies of trips to tropical islands but end up using them for practical stuff, to get to weddings and job interviews."

3. At the end of the day, airlines win

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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