8 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Using Frequent Flyer Miles (Keeping You From Getting Free Flights)

January 16, 2014 by Anil Polat  

airplane window

Airlines created frequent flyer programs to encourage repeat business from regular travelers. Frequent flyer programs are also set up with the hopes that casual travelers will stick with the same airline but confusing enough that few people will actually redeem miles for free flights. Unfortunately for most people this calculated confusion gives the impression that free flights using miles are only for business travelers or wizards descended from Maiar.

But if you regularly take two flights per year, chances are you’ll be (or already are) eligible for a free flight or upgrade within 24 months. Whether you’re already signed up for a program or waiting to do so, there are a few things you can do (that the airlines don’t advertise) to make your account much more effective.

1. The Best Airlines To Sign Up For In Order Are: United, American… And…… Delta

Even if you don’t fly with these specific airlines, sign up with their programs. They’re a part of Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam programs respectively, but the only airlines whose miles can be earned with partners. For example, I regularly fly Turkish Airlines from Istanbul, but use my United Mileage Plus number when booking. United honors miles earned by flying on partner airlines but it doesn’t work in reverse. Learn how to accumulate your miles in one place.

united mileage plus premier

These alliances cover over 45 major airlines but there aren’t any true budget carriers among them. Budget airlines with frequent flyer programs are generally US-based, such as AirTran, Southwest, and Frontier Airlines.

2. Redeem Flights For Peak Travel Times 330 Days In Advance

Seats reserved for award travel are set aside 330 days in advance of the flight date frequent flyer hacker Travis Sherry told us in a recent live chat. That means for busier seasons and around specific events like the World Cup, those seats go quickly as the airlines would rather have paying butts sitting in them. Even if you’re a traveler without a plan, booking 330 days out can guarantee you a free seat – plus may come at a discounted mileage rate.

singapore business class

3. Calling Is The Best Way To Book

The online booking systems provided by the major airlines are useful for getting a sense of what award seats may be available when, but aside from a glimpse into the 1998 Internet, that’s about all you should use it for. Calling the mileage programs directly almost always uncovers routes not shown online. Plus, if you’ve got elite status and some Art of War charm, it is often possible to talk your way out of fuel surcharges or other fees.

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trinity matrix phone

Airline Contact Numbers

  • United Mileage Plus: 1-800-421-4655
  • American Airlines AAdvantage: 1-800-882-8880
  • Delta SkyMiles: 1-800-323-2323

4. Sometimes It’s Better To Pay For A Flight

There’s an intricate mesh of connections between airline contracts that can leave you paying hundreds of dollars for a fuel surcharge – making a free flight, well, not close to free. Surcharges are calculated a number of ways (Extra Pack Of Peanuts has a good price cruncher) but in short, if the fuel charges are near the price of an economy flight, you might want to keep just buy the tickets and earn miles. Alternatively, shifting the dates of your trip by a few days may also work.

socotra yemem gas petrol station

5. Layovers Under 24 Hours Don’t Count As Stops

Multi-city flights are a crafty way to see more places for less and if you’re up for a free stopover in one of your connecting cities, time it so the layover is just shy of 24 hours. Otherwise you’ll be charged miles for two legs of the route separately. Again, calling the airline and asking for the longest layover possible (I can’t imagine many people do) is how you can work in a stopover, double budget travel bonus! (If that stopover happens to be in Iceland, here’s how to make the most of it.)

Hallgrimskirkja Church Tower reykjavik iceland

6. You Can Earn Miles Without Flying

Those of you who are United States or Canadian residents have the advantage of bumping up your earning with credit card offers but it’s not a requirement. You can earn frequent flyer miles without getting credit cards and buying things you already would at the right online stores is just one of a few ways to do so.

kuala lumpur petronas mall

Additionally, calling the credit card company directly to ask for their best signup bonuses can often net you 40% or more miles. The biggest bonus offers are usually only mailed out to targeted (read: very frequent flyers) customers but researching those offers and politely asking for them is usually a good bet.

7. Miles Can Be Used To Book Flights For Others

Really struggling to find a good birthday gift? Well, your frequent flyer miles aren’t only for you to use, they can be redeemed for anyone you choose. A free flight to Mexico’s Yucatan is one of the few gifts that doubles for both best friends and annoying family members. Bon voyage!

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snl high five

8. You Don’t Have To Spend Miles On Flights

All of the major airline alliance programs (reread #1) let you convert miles into gifts cards or points through their online stores… but not cash. Speaking of, it’s rarely a good idea to buy miles – one dollar buys you 25 miles on average – unless you’re looking for an inexpensive bump up to a given award level (e.g. purchasing 2,000 miles to get a free upgrade at 60,000).

romanian lei

Remember, Miles Aren’t Any Good If They’re Expired

Most earned miles with frequent flyer programs expire after 12 or 18 months but you don’t have to spend them to prevent them from disappearing. You just need to use the account either by flying, spending a few bucks on through their online store, or using your program-affiliated credit card once per expiration term. Although the airlines are resisting free services like AwardWallet which make tracking your miles simple, features such as automatic expiration reminders are handy to have when available.

Lastly, it’s good to know that you can claim miles 12-18 months after you’ve flown, a process made much easier if you keep your ticket stubs for 4 weeks after any flight. Aside from being the required proof you actually did fly, those stubs can help you claim miles in instances where a given flight wasn’t credited to your account.

Frequent flyer programs aren’t inherently complicated to use, it’s the cloudy information surrounding them which makes it seem so. What are some of your best tips on using frequent flyer miles and some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made? Share with us in the comments so we can all start to see the friendly skies.

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  1. Sofie says:

    I’m signed up with the Miles & More program of Brussels Airlines (Lufthansa). It’s the only one available in Belgium and although I love flying with BA, the frequent flyer program is in no way comparable with most American frequent flyer programs.
    Especially the bonuses you get for signing up are a joke (about 1000 miles in general).

    • Anil Polat says:

      You should be able to sign up for any major airline’s miles program (although I recommend three specifically), no matter where you’re a resident of. And yes, it’s too bad BA has such a terrible program – at least they don’t charge booking fees when using miles.

      • Sofie says:

        I’m a member of some, but as I mostly travel around Europe the American programs usually don’t do me much good.

        I’m also guessing it wouldn’t be easy to get a credit card from an American company, but I’d have to look into that.

        • Anil Polat says:

          It’s better to look at it in terms of airline alliance. So, although you’re in Europe, hardly or ever flying United, American, or Delta, here’s why it’s advantageous to sign up for each, respectively:

          Say you only fly Lufthansa, Brussels Airlines, and SAS. If you use your Lufthansa Miles and More number, the miles you earn will only be good on Lufthansa Miles and More members (13) – not SAS – although they are both Star Alliance members.


          You fly Brussels Airlines or other partners occasionally and again, the miles earned are only good on those specific airlines (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Alliance#Full_members_and_their_member_affiliates)

          This will scatter your airline miles, making them more difficult to redeem and tying you to one specific airline carrier or 13 instead of over 45 (Star Alliance and partner airlines).

          *However* if you were to sign up for United Mileage Plus and use that number when you fly Lufthansa, Brussels Airlines, SAS, etc. the miles all go into your Mileage Plus account. The way the major airline alliances are set up – members like Lufthansa, Brussels Airlines, Turkish Airlines, etc. *must* honor the United miles. This lets you pool all of your Star Alliance miles as if all 28 + partner airlines were the same carrier.

          Same process goes for the other two major alliances I mentioned above (i.e. oneworld and SkyTeam). I hope this helps clear that up a little bit.

          As for credit card offers, outside of the United States and Canada, you’ll have to look locally:


          But there are still likely bonus offers of various kinds in Belgium 🙂 Good luck and feel free to post any that you find – might be some other Belgians lurking in the thread.

  2. Stacey says:

    Thanks for posting! An informative post, I appreciate it!

    I wonder if there’s any point signing up to their programs for non-North Americans who don’t have any pending plans to travel in North America?

    • Anil Polat says:

      Absolutely – mostly because when you sign up with United, American, and Delta, anytime you fly on any of their partners (around the world) you get miles that can be used on any of the partner airlines.

      So, for example you sign up with United Mileage Plus. Then fly Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to London. Assuming you gave your United Mileage Plus number when checking in for the Turkish Airlines flight, those miles (through Mileage Plus) can be used on all partner airlines, like Lufthansa. It doesn’t work the other way around however, and why it’s better to sign up with the US programs.

  3. Susan says:

    Very informative. Tip 2 is about me, I always spend extra money by booking lastminute. Will try this 330 days advance booking thing. your name sounds Turkish? if so; merhaba Anil!

  4. De'Jav says:

    Great advice about mileage. I’m going to sign up for Delta right now.

  5. Corinne says:

    Love this list, and number five is my fave. I love using layovers..I did not know the 24 hour rule, so will keep it in mind. Thanks!

  6. Rob says:

    I’ve got to chime in on the last point, Remember, Miles Aren’t Any Good If They’re Expired. I got into the miles very hastily a couple of years ago with the thought that I had 2+ years before anything expired. While this is the case for many programs, unfortunately I still lost a bunch of miles that are unrecoverable.

    As they say in the travel blogosphere. Churn ‘n Burn!

    • Anil Polat says:

      It’s important to know the rules. For example, with Star Alliance miles don’t expire so long as you use your account (e.g. fly and register the miles, purchase from the online store, etc.) once every 18 months. In most cases it’s pretty easy to keep an account active – once you know what it takes to do so.

  7. Stephen says:

    I often find mileage programs confusing, and I have lost my fair share of miles ( my fault of course) by not claiming them quickly. Thanks for the post Anil, helpful.

  8. The Guy says:

    Interesting article. I’ve been flying frequently since May 2000. It is a shame what you mention in point 1 although I agree that join the 3 alliances is the way to go.

    I think in point 1 you need to assess each airline and scheme for their rules, not just the US carriers. Many of us outside the US would rather join a more local carrier. I’ve been with KLM and their versions of a frequent flyer scheme since the late 1990s and I can earn air miles with partner airlines in the SkyTeam alliance. Also on some, such as Delta I can earn Tier Miles which are probably more important for me personally.

    Also the great thing with KLM is that even if I only take one flight with them a year then my accumulated points will never expire. That is why I have over a million miles with them in spite of numerous long haul flight redemptions.

    I’ve written a book about the pros and cons of frequent flyer schemes and think everyone should be vigilant to the constant rule changes brought out by the airlines.

    • Anil Polat says:

      The reason I mention it is that the US carriers specified accept points from all partners and partners must accept their points from their programs. It doesn’t matter if you ever fly the US carriers named above, it’s simply that you can pool your miles on their programs.

  9. For skyteam, Ive used Korean Air. Their miles expire in 10 years. How about Delta? Korean Air does give points for partner flights. Are you saying other airlines don’t? I was under the impression that this was the point.
    Thanks for the knowledge!

  10. Great tips, awesome photos there!
    Even some low cost airlines, like Vueling (from Catalonia) have frequent flyer programs.
    Too bad the airlines give soooo few points. You’ll have to fly dozens and dozens of times and spend a lot in order to get some minimal benefits.

    • Anil Polat says:

      I would argue the opposite, you really don’t need to fly that often (2-3 flights annually) to accumulate enough miles for at least a free one way between continents every 2 years. The biggest mistake people make is not pooling their miles.

      • I think frequent flyer programs vary from company to company…
        I know there are some airlines like Wizz Air, which charge a membership fee and then give you special discounts whenever you fly with them in the future. This is another option to save – but again, you have to do your own math to calculate whether it’s worth… And I think it is to frequent travelers.

  11. John @ swedenroadtrip says:

    Great post, very informative. Looking forward to more posts like this one. Thanks!

  12. Laura says:

    Excellent tips. I have a hard time pulling the trigger and booking flights with miles because 1) I hate calling but know it’s the best way, and 2) I tend to travel WAY more last minute than 330 days! But I have a goal to spend some miles soon on a Star Alliance airline, as my miles are on US Airways and I want to do it while I can!

    • Anil Polat says:

      I’m completely with you on #2, I rarely book anything more than a week in advance. Conversely though for us last-minute types, calling often uncovers better routes with miles than using the online systems. It might save you a layover or a few thousand miles 🙂

  13. Simona says:

    Good to know! I have to admit that I am very lazy and I didn’t made time (til now) to check out the miles programs. I know I am missing a lot of opportunities…

    • Anil Polat says:

      Yes but it’s not all bad, depending on the airlines you’ve flown with over the past 18 months you might still be able to get those miles. Let me know if you need any help with that and I can point you to some good resources.

      • Vatsal says:


        I have traveled by Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa and in the 18 months and I am currently not registered for any Miles program. Can you direct me to any good resources to help me get those miles?

  14. Awesome tips, I like the calling in one. American has an interactive map feature for redeeming miles which makes things much easier, but still, I’d like to rely upon my phone game more 😉

    • Anil Polat says:

      Usually calling in to book anything is more time consuming (or at least frustrating) than doing it yourself online but I’ve found in the case of redeeming miles, phone takes a lot of the work off your shoulders.

  15. Rod Austin says:

    Deciphering frequent flyer programs is a challenge for me–it’s too complicated. Thanks for shedding light on how to make the best of it.