8 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Using Frequent Flyer Miles (Keeping You From Getting Free Flights)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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).
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.
There are times of the year when bargains on airfare seem to be everywhere – particularly right before holiday seasons – but whether or not there’s an actual deal in front of us is often a matter of perception. We know our Paleolithic brains are loaded with biases that can prevent us from traveling; but the airlines are keenly aware of one particular predisposition which fools our minds into purchasing tickets we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
What Is The Framing Effect?
Many of the decisions we make in life are evaluations of gain and loss, which sounds very logical, except that we’re easily swayed by how a given choice is presented to us. Human beings are highly biased against perceived loss – it’s the reason ground beef is sold as 80% lean rather than 20% fat. Studies have shown in experiments that subjects, when given a choice between two hypothetical political candidates, voted for the one campaigning for 90% employment versus 10% unemployment.
The framing effect makes you more likely to take a risk when the choice in front of you is presented with some negative outcome as opposed to a positive one. You’re much more likely to pay a $100 registration fee early to avoid a $30 fine, rather than take advantage of a $30 discount for early registration of $130.
In the first case your brain makes you feel like you’ve avoided something bad, in the latter, you’ve forgone a benefit that doesn’t make you feel as good inside. All of this, despite the fact that in both cases, the choices have the same outcome.
How Companies Flip The Narrative To Get You To Take Sub-Par Deals
During peak travel times, airfare goes up due to increased demand but to maintain sales and compete with other carriers they’ll often re-frame existing promotions to catch your attention. Some examples of airfare advertisements using the framing effect:
- “Best Value” – Basically means the lowest price we offer. The word “value” often replaces “price” and “best” implies you don’t have to keep searching elsewhere.
- “Save $100″ – Deals presented this way are designed to make you not want to lose that $100; which may actually be a very small percentage off the total price of a given offering.
- “Fly For $15!” – There may be one seat at this price but what such advertisements are really after are pulling you into a site. Once there and you can’t find the $15 ticket, you’ll likely take the next one up, even if it’s $159.
In the last example, you feel like you’ve already “lost” the $144 difference so are inclined to purchase immediately and forgo further searching elsewhere, avoiding another price increase.
Use Math To Jump Out Of The Frame
Our brains tend to go on autopilot whenever they can (the reason return trips always seem shorter than going somewhere) but being conscious of the framing effect before purchasing makes you much less susceptible to it. With that in mind, quantify the results the you find using the best airline search engines – if something is $50 or 15% off, calculate the total cost and keep a list. The raw prices will form a new frame you can use to stop chasing cheap flights to really save money on travel.
Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport (IST) is the world’s 6th busiest and the city is planning to add a third – the world’s largest – by 2017, making chances pretty good if you fly often enough, you’ll eventually be above these Turkish skies. Whether you’re arriving for the first time or simply want to savor one more Istanbul-moment after a trip, you can use my photo above to quickly spot out some of the city’s most famous sites. I took this picture months ago without the intention of using it as a makeshift map, so please excuse the graininess. (I also inverted the photo so it’s oriented with north on top and west to the left. Here’s the original picture plus wider-angle by my friends Turkey’s For Life.)
To get these views under normal conditions, sit on the left side of your plane when arriving from Europe, the United States, or points west; the opposite for departures and points east. As impressive as these landmarks are from above, you’ll have to venture in the Basilica Cistern, say happy birthday to the 1,476 year-old Hagia Sophia, then eat your way through Istiklal Avenue to appreciate them from inside out.
For many people, using frequent flyer miles seems like a black art only business travelers and the credit card-obsessed can master. It can be hard to convince people otherwise – until they earn their first free flight or upgrade. I tell people who want to make use of frequent flyer programs it’s not as complicated as it seems and my live chat guest today can help get you going.
Travis Sherry is one of the world’s foremost experts in frequent flyer miles, which allows him to do awesome things like fly to Japan for $10 or Rio for $5. His mission is to help anyone and everyone travel more while spending less, which he teaches you how to do through his blog, Extra Pack of Peanuts. For those who really want to get whipped in to travel shape, he runs Frequent Flyer Bootcamp, the world’s first interactive class on the subject and is also the author of The Ultimate Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles.
The chat is now closed, thank you everyone for joining!
We’ll be online this afternoon to answer anything you want to know about airline alliances, how to claim miles for past flights, and the best programs for travelers. One of us should also ask Travis how he booked round trip tickets to Rio from Philadelphia for just $5. He’ll be there for the World Cup, but I’m not sure there’s a trick for game tickets, or is there? Head down to the comments below to find out – Travis and I look forward to the discussion!