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Using Your Frequent Flier Miles: Q&A with Tim Winship

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Frequent flier award programs offer one of the most rewarding tools in a traveler's arsenal of tricks. Anyone with a credit card can be a mileage maven based solely on trips to the grocery and automatic household bill payments -- as the dollars you spend pile up, so do the miles in your program.

tim winship frequent flier flyerHowever, the programs are also confusing and difficult to navigate, not to mention frustrating; I know a lot of well-educated frequent travelers, but very few of them have a good handle on their frequent flier programs. Most let their miles pile up, and then shortly before a trip take a shot in the dark in hopes of getting a free flight or upgrade -- and are more often than not unsuccessful.

But the airline industry gives away millions of free trips and upgrades each year, so someone is cashing in miles and living the good life. I talked to mileage guru Tim Winship of FrequentFlier.com to find out his recommendations on how you can be among that number of savvy (and lucky) mileage award travelers.

Q: How have airline bankruptcies, reductions in airline capacity, rocky economic conditions and other factors affected the value and usefulness of frequent flier programs?

A: While there are some consumer-friendly moves by frequent flier programs (United's elimination of rush fees for award tickets, Delta's new elite program, JetBlue's relaunch of TrueBlue, American's new Flex Awards), the overall trend has been a decrease in the value of a frequent flier mile. Fees are up, as are award prices, and the availability of award seats is down.

Q. Many of our readers complain that they find it all but impossible actually to redeem their miles. Have the airlines actually made awards more scarce and difficult to redeem?

A: The supply of award seats is constantly ebbing and flowing, according to supply and demand and the internal algorithms the airlines use to set fares and allocate award seats.

While the common-sense expectation is that award seats should be more plentiful during a recession, the reality has proved to be otherwise.

There are two reasons for the current scarcity of award seats. First, planes are running full -- about 86 percent full during July -- leaving few available seats for award travelers. And second, because the airlines are so desperate to squeeze every possible dollar from every flight, they're waiting until the last minute to free up unsold seats for award travelers.

Q: Many of our readers have stockpiled miles waiting to take the Big Trip or save a lot of money when fares go up -- and then find it difficult actually to use them. Do you have any tips for the best way to redeem miles, and when and how to increase your chances of cashing in your miles?

A: 1. Book early (330 days in advance, when airlines first make seats available through their computer reservations systems), or book late (within two weeks of travel, when airlines may release unsold seats for mileage redemption).

2. Be a contrarian -- i.e., don't bother trying to book a Honolulu award trip during the Christmas travel crush.

3. Call the airline's reservations center and pay the service fee to enlist the help of an agent. An agent may be able to override capacity controls, or cobble together a flight itinerary using connecting flights through secondary airports. It's well worth the $25 or so if it makes the difference between going or staying home. And the booking fee only applies if a booking is actually made.

4. Monitor the airlines' hot lists of recommended award destinations (such as American's AAdvantage HotSpots and US Airways' Award Travel Suggestions). These are routes with lower demand and more unsold seats, and hence offer award travelers better odds of successfully redeeming their miles.

Q: If someone is piling up miles, at what point should he or she start thinking about cashing in?

A: Hoarding miles is a losing proposition, akin to holding onto a stock that has consistently lost value and looks to continue on the same downward trajectory. If history is any guide, a frequent flier mile has more value today than it will have next week, next month or next year. That suggests that miles should be redeemed sooner rather than later.

Q: How do you recommend folks best use their miles: free travel, or upgrades? Should they examine other pieces of the travel puzzle, like hotel stays? Or look elsewhere entirely, like magazine subscriptions?

A: As frustrating as it can be, the best return-on-investment remains using miles for flight awards. Where merchandise or other awards are offered, the per-mile value tends to be quite low.

Among flight awards, the most value is generally to be found with upgrades and overseas flights. Conversely, redeeming 25,000 miles for a ticket that could be purchased for $150 isn't a good use of miles. In that case, it's better to buy the ticket and save the miles for a more expensive flight.

Q: Is it realistic to try to plan a family vacation around mileage redemption, piling up and then redeeming miles for four or five family members? Or should travelers aim for more modest awards?

A: Finding three or more award seats on the same flight is next to impossible. So a family trip typically means using miles for one or two seats and purchasing the rest -- or splitting the group among two or more flights. Frequent flier program award policies are not family-friendly.

Q: A rash of new fees has been applied to the redeeming of miles; can you tell folks where to watch out for these, and how to avoid or minimize them if possible?

A: At SmarterTravel.com, we've compiled a chart (PDF) detailing the manifold fees now associated with frequent flier program participation.

airplane plane flight sunset sunrise air travel vacationThe fee most often incurred by frequent fliers is the so-called rush fee imposed by the mainline carriers for award bookings made within 21 days of the departure date. With such fees rising to as much as $150 per ticket, it obviously behooves travelers to make their award travel arrangements as far in advance as possible, and at least 21 days in advance.

The low-cost carriers typically don't charge rush fees, and United recently canceled its fee. So consumers can also avoid the charges by joining a fee-free program.

Q: There are a large number of ways to earn miles beyond actual flying, in particular credit card programs. Do you recommend these programs? If so, how can readers tell a good credit card mileage program from a lesser one?

A: Unless the majority of your miles derive from the use of a credit card, the choice of card should be secondary to the choice of a program.

First, choose the airline program that will be most rewarding, given your travel and spending patterns. Then sign up for the credit card associated with that program.

(This is a particularly convoluted area within travel rewards programs, and I'm necessarily oversimplifying somewhat. A full discussion would be book-length.)

Q: Is it true that not all miles are created equal – that is, miles earned using a credit card may not have the same heft or ease of use as do actual miles flown?

A: In the great majority of cases, a mile is a mile is a mile, no matter how it was earned.

The exception is elite-qualifying miles. While there are a few exceptions, miles that count toward earning elite status are generally only earned for actually flying.

Q: There is a saying among many frequent flier experts: use 'em or lose 'em. How do frequent flier program policies treat the expiration of miles these days?

A: The major airlines' programs have settled on expiring miles after a member has had no activity after 18 to 24 months. That's down from three years. While the shorter life spans do require increased vigilance on the part of account holders, the programs offer so many ways to earn or redeem miles -- either of which resets the expiration clock -- that there's no good excuse for letting miles disappear.

Q: Do you have or can you recommend a Mileage 101 primer for folks hoping to do a better job with their mileage option without becoming experts?

A: The Joy of Miles series on SmarterTravel.com was created with exactly that goal in mind. At the risk of self-promotion, I honestly don't know of a better resource.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns SmarterTravel.com.

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