Over the years, I’ve come to learn that if you want to be successful at anything, it helps to have a strategy. It’s true of your finances and where you need a plan to meet your retirement goal—it’s true of your career and of your business. I’m betting most of you had a business plan, whether in writing, on the back of a napkin, or in your head, before you opened your doors.
So today, we’re talking strategy. But not the life changing, business plan kind—we’re talking the kind that applies to frequent flier miles. Because believe it or not, if you want to maximize these perks, you need to have a plan.
I just talked to a frequent flyer guru, Krista Paul, who is the founder of UsingMiles.com. The free site helps users manage and book award travel, and I asked Paul for her best advice. Here’s what she gave me:
- Understand alliances. Airlines have deals with other airlines that allow you to use your miles with other carriers. So let’s say you have a lot of miles with British Airways because of a rewards credit card you have. They are in the same alliance as American Airlines, so Paul says you can trade miles one for one.
- Do the math. The miles-to-ticket calculation can vary a little by carrier, but in general, 25,000 miles or points will get you one round trip ticket, according to Paul.
- Watch your expiration dates. Delta recently removed its expiration policy, but most other airlines have one in place. Essentially, if your account is inactive for a period of time (generally 18 months, according to Paul), your miles could expire. Inactive means you haven’t been accruing or using any miles in that time period.
- Book your travel the right way. If you use an online travel agency site like Orbitz or Expedia to book your hotel, the hotel generally will not honor your rewards membership—so you may not accrue points booking that way. To ensure you get the points you deserve, book through the hotel’s website or by phone directly. It’s a little different with airlines—booking through an OTA will still allow you to accrue miles, but you may not get the best seat, says Paul. You may also get extra points with a credit card if you book a certain way. American Express, for instance, will give you double Membership Rewards when you book through their Business Travel site.
- Book early—or late. If you’re already a member of a frequent flyer program, you likely know that it can be hard to get your hands on an award seat. But Paul has a few insider tips. First, she says that almost all airlines release between five and 10 percent of their inventory as rewards seats about 360 days before the flight is scheduled to leave. “From then on, it’s just a game of cat and mouse. The revenue management department at the airline is constantly looking at demand, and pulling back tickets or releasing more as needed.” Her website will track awards seats and let you know when one is available, as will another (paid) site called expertflyer.com. If you can’t plan far in advance, your next best bet is two weeks before the flight leaves, says Paul. Often they’ll release more seats at the last minute if the flight isn’t full.
- Use hotel points. Hotels tend to be much more flexible than airlines, and they don’t release certain rooms as award rooms—basically, they’re all up for grabs. But you can also often swap hotel points for airline points. The policy is different for each hotel, but ask what your favorite chain allows.
And finally, one somewhat unrelated tip that I thought was too interesting not to share: If you want to get bumped—which will often earn you a free ticket or travel voucher—you can strategize there, too. Always schedule your travel so you connect through a hub (Paul says Chicago in particular is known for having a lot of bumps). The minute you get to the gate, tell the agent that you’re willing to be bumped. Insider tip: focus your travel on November and December, when bad weather is likely to cause an increase in overbooked flights.
Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC's "Today" show, a contributing editor at More magazine and author of "Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved." She recently launched the Jean Chatzky Score Builder in partnership with smartcredit.com. Check out her blog at jeanchatzky.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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