Tips on Using Air Miles

The interior of a commercial airline.
The interior of a commercial airline. (Image: egdigital/iStock/Getty Images)

You've reached elite status on your airline's frequent flier program and now have more miles than you know what to do with. Presumably, you'd like to use the miles to wangle a free trip or a perk or two, but what with so many different ways to redeem and so many airline-specific quirks or restrictions, you could just end up tossing good miles after bad if you don't leverage your miles to work for you.

Award Availability and Timing

According to frequent flier website WebFlyer, using air miles takes planning and patience because an award seat may be in high demand and unavailable when you want it. To improve your chances at getting an award seat, know the best and worst days for award travel opportunities to your desired destination. For example, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are best for South America and the Caribbean, and Fridays and Sundays are worst for travel within the U.S. Also, start searching around six months before travel and use fare predictor websites to sniff out availability.

Alliances and Codeshares

To make the most of air miles, take advantage of the partnerships airlines have with one another so you can earn and redeem miles whenever you travel within that network. The Big Three are oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance. Before booking, check whether miles can be applied to the partner for the route or class desired. Alliances can be a plus in that a partner airline may provide a higher-quality experience and offer less competition for award seating due to smaller membership. For example, you would only need 20,000 miles to reach gold status through Aegean Airlines, compared to 50,000 miles for other Star Alliance members.

Not All Rewards Are Equal

If you think you're getting bang for your mileage buck by using miles toward non-mileage awards, think again, says travel website Independent Traveler. While you may appreciate the versatility of being able to redeem miles for merchandise, hotel stays and other swag, the per-mile value tends to be low. You're better off applying miles toward free travel, upgrades and international flights. Instead of buying business class, buy an economy ticket and upgrade with miles. Similarly, avoid squandering your miles by using them to fund a ticket you can buy cheap -- you're better off redeeming them for a more expensive offering.

Airline-Specific Rules

A good place to check out all your air miles options is the airline itself. You can't know what the best deals are if you don't know the rules and idiosyncrasies for redeeming miles for your particular airline. As of 2014, Cathay Pacific's Asia Miles frequent flier program allows you to fashion together a round-the-world award trip using miles, provided you follow complicated rules. You would have to redeem a round-trip ticket and make no more than five stopovers, two transfers and two open jaws -- aka tickets with different arrival and departure cities -- either at the origin, en route or the turnaround point.

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