Airline reward programs used to be pretty simple: Fly on an airline, build up your miles and then redeem your miles for free flights or hotel stays. But those days are over, which might explain why airline rewards programs lost 4 percent of their members from 2012 to 2014, according to loyalty program research firm Colluquy.
American Airlines is the last large carrier that awards miles to passengers based on how far they’re flying rather than on the cost of the ticket, and it’s switching over to revenue-based rewards by the end of this year.
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That doesn’t mean that budget-conscious consumers can’t earn enough points to pay for trips, but it does mean that the rules of the game have changed. Read on for expert tips on the best ways for leisure travelers to earn — and redeem — airline miles.
1. Get a rewards card.
For leisure travelers, it’s far easier to accumulate miles through a rewards credit card than it is by traveling. If you live in a city exclusively served by one airline, go for that airline’s cobranded credit card.
Otherwise, it’s better to use a travel card that lets you earn flexible rewards that can be converted into miles on any airline, and with fewer blackout dates. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Rewards Card and the Citi Thank You Preferred Reward Card are two popular options. “The most valuable rewards are transferrable currencies that you can transfer to a variety of airlines,” says Gary Leff, a travel expert who runs the travel website View From the Wing. “They give you a lot of flexibility.”
As with all credit card rewards programs, only make purchases that you can afford to pay off in full each month. Interest on purchases could easily cost more than the value of miles.
2. Forget about loyalty.
Infrequent travelers should book their trips based on price and convenience, rather than airline loyalty. If you’re flying with an airline you’ve never used before, you should still sign up for its loyalty program. Most airlines are part of an alliance that allows you to transfer your miles with one carrier to another that you might use more frequently. Spreading around your miles also gives you the option to book two legs of a trip using rewards with two different carriers.
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There are some airlines that make it easier to use their miles than others. A Consumer Reports analysis last year found that about 10 percent of passengers on the largest airlines flew with miles. Southwest offered the most reward tickets, with 11.5 percent of flyers on that carrier using miles to buy tickets, compared to just 4.5 percent of those flying on JetBlue.
3. Use online shopping portals.
You can earn airline miles by purchasing almost anything online, from hotel stays and car insurance to more traditional purchases like clothes and toys. Americans Airline’s eShopping site, for example, recently offered miles for money spent on Dell computers, AT&T phones, and Hilton hotels. “Shopping through the portals just takes an extra 30 seconds of your time, and it costs you nothing,” says James Larounis, a travel expert who runs TheForwardCabin.com.
Booking travel via an online portal can have an even greater payoff. If you use Chase Sapphire, for example, and book through its online portal, you’ll get a 25 percent bonus on your miles.
4. Don’t let your miles expire.
Miles will typically expire after 18 months of inactivity, but it’s easier to keep them active than you might think. Sign up for AwardWallet.com, which will monitor and track all of your miles in one place and send you an alert when points are about to expire. Simply making a purchase through a rewards portal using an airline-branded card is enough to keep that account active.
You can also use Points.com to transfer points from one airline program to another. You’ll lose some points doing this, but it’s better than forfeiting your entire account, and you’ll reset the inactivity clock on the account.
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However, if you’re traveling and have enough miles to pay for a flight, it typically makes sense to use them. Airlines have been tightening restrictions on redemptions for years and ticket prices may go up, so the longer you hold onto them the less valuable your tickets become.
5. Travel during downtimes.
In general it’s harder to find reward seats these days, since airlines have gotten more efficient and flights have fewer empty seats. Still, airlines are always looking for ways to fill any empty seats that do exist. That means you’ll have better luck getting a reward seat on a red-eye or on a flight to a popular destination during the off-season. “If you want to get the most for your miles, book early and be flexible,” says NerdWallet credit card expert Sean McQuay. “Try not to stick to a single day of arrival and departure, and try to give yourself a few months notice, if possible.”
Your chances of finding a reward ticket are also better for flights to smaller airports, so if you can’t get a flight into Boston, for example, consider one that lands in Providence.
6. Pick up the phone.
When it comes to redeeming your points, always call the airline if you don’t see any award seats available on a particular flight. A rep may be able to let you know about potential award seats on partner airlines that you can’t see because of technical limitations of some redemption sites. Some airlines charge a booking fee (around $25) for flights arranged over the phone, but some will waive that if you can’t book the flight online. The fee is well worth it, if it secures you an award ticket and saves you the cost of paying for a flight.