Don’t Be Afraid to Use Your Miles

Frequent Flier Programs

I don’t write about frequent flier miles too often, because a) there are plenty of others who focus on it day in and day out, and b) it doesn’t really interest me that much. But we do book a lot of frequent flier tickets at Cranky Concierge, and there’s one thing that comes up often that I thought was worth airing on the blog. What is a good and bad use of your miles?

The answer is… it depends completely upon you. Terrible answer, I know, but I’m going to explain it further.

A lot of mileage bloggers focus on finding the best value for miles in general. That might mean, say, Weighing Your Mileage Optionsearning Amex Membership Rewards points so you can transfer to Singapore Airlines and use them on the newly-available Suites over the Pacific. That is an awesome value, because even though you’re using a ton of miles, you’re getting one of the best experiences in the sky for a tiny fraction of what it might cost if you bought a ticket.

And while that is the most interesting stuff to write about, it’s not going to be the right way for everyone to use their miles. I assume you’d hear that if you discussed this one-on-one with each mileage blogger out there. But it’s not the kind of thing that you usually see in print.

Let’s use a less aspirational example. Say you’ve been able to earn yourself 200,000 miles on United. You’ve heard great things about all the flat beds in business class to Europe and you think that you should be using those miles for something great like that. I agree, if you’re going to Europe.

What if you, however, have no plans to go to Europe anytime soon and don’t know when or if it’ll happen at all? We get some people like this who use our service. They may have a domestic trip coming up, but they don’t want to use their miles because it has to be the best value or they’ll just keep holding on to the miles. That may not be the best plan.

Now, it might seem silly to use miles to go from San Francisco to LA if the price is cheap. But if it’s a last minute ticket, you could be looking at a few hundred dollars. For some, that might be easy to swallow. For others, however, $400 is a lot of money. To be able to use miles to avoid that cost is a huge benefit for some people.

The bottom line is that everyone is in a different financial position and each person has different travel plans and abilities. For those with shallow pockets, you’re crazy not to use those miles so you can afford to pay rent.

The Truly Frequent Flier
On the flip side, there is another good reason to use your miles for piddly trips. If you fly a ton and just earn miles like crazy, why not burn some of them? There’s no reason to save those million miles for one special trip when you could end up taking 5 special trips and will probably never use them all.

There are plenty of you out there who fly all the time and earn more miles than you know what to do with. In that case, save a little cash and burn those miles. Or save money on buying a present and give some for others to use. You’ll never need them all anyway. (Just don’t sell them – that’s not allowed.)

I’ll take this even one step further. Heck, let’s go crazy here. Let’s say you have 100,000 miles and you need to take a trip from LA to Seattle because you have a sick family member. It’s only a couple hour flight but it’s going to cost you $600 roundtrip for a last minute ticket. Flights are full, so you can’t get a Saver award. You need a Standard award for 50,000 miles roundtrip.

Is it true that you could use those 50,000 miles to get to Paris in business class one way? Yeah, but you have a sick relatively and you need to be there. If you don’t have $600 lying around, use the miles. It’s a lot of miles, but you need to set priorities while still remaining solvent.

Bad Plan
So is there ever a bad use of miles? Oh sure. Just to take one example, British Airways coach awards come with such hefty fuel surcharges that you might as well just buy the ticket. It won’t save you much at all, if anything. But even then, it can be justified. Maybe it saves you $200, but that could be the difference between you eating three meals a day while you’re there instead of two. There’s clearly an argument that you shouldn’t be taking this trip at all if you can’t afford to eat, but hey, different people have different priorities.

And that’s really the point. Sure, there are better ways to extract more value out of a mile if you look at it in a broad sense, but on an individual level, it’s a whole different story. In short, don’t be afraid to use your miles if it makes sense for you individually.

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25 comments on “Don’t Be Afraid to Use Your Miles

  1. There is a psychological barrier to spending miles – particularly if you know it’s years rather than months before you can do another mileage ‘splurge’ again. I’ve just spent 180,000 on flying Mrs Bobber and the two juniors Bobber’s to the West Coast this summer – my own ticket, on the same flights, cost me £900! However, I’m doing 60k a year at the moment, and so the tank gets replaced relatively quickly. I’ve even spent an additional 20k miles for an upgrade next month (if it ever clears), because why not?

    I think there’s a statistic that there are more unspent airmiles in worldwide circulation than currency – they don’t appreciate, that’s for sure :(

  2. Cranky, you didn’t mention the other big reason to spend – DEVALUATION!

    I agree with all of your points, and I think people over-focus on a vague idea of value or hold onto a pie-in-the-sky view of an amazing trip they will never pull the trigger on.

    Sadly, Miles are not an investment. They don’t earn interest and every few years it takes more and more for the same award, or the addition of taxes, fees, or other ways to devalue them.

    1. This is particularly true with SkyPesos, where redeeming them for any decent award is a headache. Since DL is giving away miles like crazy, don’t be afraid to burn them.

      What is a good value is BA Avios (distance based) on short AA nonstops. JFK-YYZ which usually costs around $300 on AA, is just 4500 Avios and $2.50.

  3. Cranky, I love that you actually consider that some people are such travel crackheads that they will indeed spend their rent money on a trip. Why should air travel be the exclusive province of the well-to-do? I’ve eaten many a can of tuna beneath the Eiffel Tower. ;-)

  4. Agreed. I’ve had north of 300K AA miles just…sitting there…for years. My wife and I decided to blow 200K on 2 J tickets from SAN to LHR/CDG to celebrate our 15th anniversary. It took me a long time to part with them until I realized this is exactly the reason I stockpiled them in the first place.

  5. Another big advantage to using miles is flexibility (depending on the carrier). Most paid tickets come with $150-400 change or cancellation penalties, especially for international tickets. Change and cancellation (redposit) fees are usually less for award tickets, and as an added bonus, if you have frequent flyer status, such fees are often reduced or waived.

    On United, for instance, changes made more than 3 weeks in advance are free, and only $75 within 3 weeks if you have no status. A paid ticket would have much higher fees that always apply. Of course, you have to have award availability on the new flights, but that’s not too different from needing fare class availability for paid tickets or paying large fare increases on top of change fees.

    1. Ok, massive pet peeve here – Mr. Cranky perhaps this is a question for an Ask Mr. Cranky article: Why, for the love of Pete, do airlines charge for changing FF award tickets? Other than: they can! They have already taken the incredibly small amount of seats from revenue inventory and made them available to the masses who have miles. We have all been trained to book as far in advance as we can to make sure that we get our seats (because there are so darned few of them), and then they go and charge, theoretically their most valuable customers, a fee to change. There is no cost or lost revenue to them. Please help me (us) understand their logic.
      Thank you

      1. John – It’s of course because they can. The physical cost of allowing a change is minor. It’s true that the original seat may not be able to be re-sold depending upon how far in advance this is happening, but for the most part, it’s done because they can.

      2. Airlines’ most valuable customers are their elite members, who generally do get free changes and redepositing of award tickets.

  6. Or use in markets that have consistent high fares. For example I used my miles to fly a friend in and out of Vail/Eagle a few weeks back for a ski getaway.

    I’ve notice the smaller and less traveled markets have plenty of seats available too, compared to hubs and well known destinations.

    For the same reason I’ve read suggestions of using Brussels or Dusseldorf as award entry points to Europe, whereas Amsterdam and Paris are challenging to redeem.

  7. Thanks for this post, I am a student and am always trying to use my miles in the most useful and economical way!

  8. Good Story.. Over the years I’ve used over 1.5 million FF miles.
    Many for family vacations to Europe and Australia. Those long flights
    is when you need to be in Business or First class. Money wise not good
    to use FF miles on flights under 1k…Best return is for flights over
    5 thousand miles. With billions of unused miles out there, will not be long for airlines to raise amount of miles needed to cash in.

  9. Good article. Use them or lose them in the case of some airlines. We booked two R/T Business Class seats from Boston to Manchester/Amsterdam to Boston for 80,000 miles (each) with Alaska Airlines miles on Iceland Air. We’re also using Hawaiian Airline miles (120,000) to book one Business Class R/T seat from Seattle to Amsterdam next year on Delta which would have cost us around $5-6,000, then just pay for one Business Class ticket; a 50% savings. We’re also using 60,000 Alaskan miles to upgrade our coach ticket with companion ticket ($120) to First R/T Maui to Boston in conjunction with our Iceland Air flights. Be innovative and use them wisely!

  10. I’m retired so I use my FF miles (and $$$) to travel to places wherever the weather for the following week is going to be nice. Example… If I know where I live is going to be cold and snowy next week but in Cancun it is going to be sunny and warm I go to Cancun… I know this isn’t cost effective but I have the time and money to burn. Plus how many trips have you planned weeks in advance to save some money just to get their and have it be cold and rainy!

  11. Air miles are little more than a foreign currency – you have to work out whether the bank (the airline selling tickets) is giving you a good exchange rate.

    The way to decide whether to use air miles, is to look at the cost of buying a ticket (minus any taxes) and compare against the number of miles it costs to buy the ticket. Divide monetary cost by miles, and you have the value of a single air mile.

    While British Airways are pretty mean both with giving out air miles and also with all the extra taxes and charges when you redeem your miles, one should also consider the huge number of often rather cheap LCC flights to/from London. The only short-haul route from London that seems worth burning air miles on seems to be those with minimal tourist demand like Helsinki.

  12. My girlfriend and I have used our AS miles the last two years to purchase low-season rt mileage tickets to Europe. 50-60K miles for a rt ANC-AMS or ANC-PRG is a fantastic deal when purchased tickets are in the $1200-$1500 range. Those are vacations we would never have been able to afford (or at least would have had to cut much shorter) if we were purchasing tickets.

  13. Far to many people that have some type of reward program save up their miles/points/etc waiting until they have enough for something, but once they see the miles/points going higher and higher, something inside says don’t use them and let the build up.

    We get to focused on the number getting higher that we get to a point we don’t want to use them so that number doesn’t go down.

    Funny how if your bank account gets higher, we spend the money on things we need, but miles and points we let grow to see that number get higher.

  14. Note that you can also spend miles on non-flights. I used to use my united miles on transpacific flights on SQ but they stopped that in 2008. Eventually I traded them in for an Android tablet, an iPod and an AppleTV (I used a spreadsheet to work out value per mile I was getting etc). Of course a few weeks later SQ did start allowing miles for transpacific flights.

  15. Some great points made here. I think you have to assess your own circumstances and the latest rules of the scheme to figure out what is the best thing to do.

    Some airlines let you redeem miles for gifts but be wary of shipping and taxes especially if the airline is based abroad.

    I recently upgraded my Emirates A380 flight to First Class. I did it because I wanted to experience it and the miles would expire anyway. Win, win for me.

  16. The miles (I’ve got about 1.5 million AAs sitting in the bank) are just interest on the real goal: status. Exec Plat on American makes a huge difference in the travel experience. The only way to get that is by buying tickets and flying. I’ll burn some miles for upgrades when it looks like the courtesy upgrade may not clear, but otherwise, they’re waiting for the day I stop traveling 100K a year for business. And that day is coming soon, I hope.

  17. But I got top dollars selling my airline points. They actually pay. If anyone need suggestion about selling any airline reward point don’t hesitate to contact me. I will help.

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