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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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

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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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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).

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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.