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Got Airline Miles? Maximize Their Value with these 8 Tips

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[The following is a post from a friend of mine James Williams. Whilst waiting out a bad economy after college graduation, James worked at a major Atlanta-based airline. The brief stint gave him deep insights into the airline industry and he serves as a guide for family and friends wondering through the wilderness of fare rules, frequent flyer programs, and getting the cheapest flights. He is a Mountain View-based software engineer, loves to travel, and blogs about more geeky fare over at James Williams. If you are the techie-type, I got a feeling you'll be reading more from him in the future. In the meantime, I'm ecstatic he could fill my gap of being clueless with airline miles.]

Traveling as much as I do can get expensive. The technology downturn of 2003 made me recognize the value of a dollar. Lazy Man has already covered some very good tips on how to save money on airfare, but today I'd like to talk about airline miles.

Here are my top tips to make the most of your airline miles: [Note from Lazy Man: Before we get to the tips, I'm going to distract you with a picture of a hot flight attendant. Sorry James...]

Maximize your Airline Miles

  1. Book Early

    Most legacy carriers (US Air, United, Delta, Continental, American) allow you to book up to 330 days in advance. In theory, there is less competition for seats at this time and you may have the best selection of flights. You also will avoid most ticketing fees.
  2. Book Late

    After it's been decided that they won't be able to sell the last batch of seats, airlines might free up some more frequent flier tickets for sale. Booking under two weeks opens you up to extra fees and penalties for redemption.
  3. Book a paid ticket to/from a hub city and award ticket from the hub city
    While it is preferable to book an award ticket for the whole trip, if you are flying from a city with limited capacity, you might find seats easier if you split the flight between a paid ticket and award ticket. For example, let's say I want to fly from BZN (Bozeman, MT) to CDG (Paris) on Delta. Bozeman is likely to only have small puddle-jumpers from BZN to the nearest hub in Salt Lake City. Prop planes mean limited award seats. You could split up the trip into a paid ticket for the harder to get Bozeman-Salt Lake City and an award ticket for Salt Lake City-Paris.
  4. Split up parties of more than two people
    Finding four seats on a flight to a leisure destination can be fairly difficult. For a family of four, try to have Mom fly with one of the kids on one itinerary and Dad with the other kid on another itinerary.
  5. Use co-terminals to your advantage
    Co-terminals are airports that count as the same destination for ticketing purposes. This can be helpful in finding tickets if it is possible to fly out of San Francisco and into San Jose for instance. They can differ from airline to airline but generally the major airports in the Bay Area (SFO, OAK, SJC), New York Metro (JFK,LGA,EWR,HPN), greater Miami area (FLL-PBI-MIA) or the greater Los Angeles area (LAX, ONT, SNA) can be considered the same destination. Sometimes the greater Baltimore-Washington Metro area is included (BWI, DCA)
  6. Use airline alliances
    All of the legacy carriers save Alaskan Airlines take part in some sort of airline alliance whether it is SkyTeam, Star Alliance, or One World. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses but allow you to book award tickets on partner airlines. Extra ticketing fees may apply.
  7. Know the value of your miles
    Most airlines use redemption levels that don't correlate to the price of the ticket. When you want to redeem an award ticket, first calculate the cents per mile (CPM) for redemption. Divide the price of a paid ticket by the amount of miles it would take to redeem that ticket. If the cost per mile is less than 0.01, you probably should buy the ticket. If the CPM is 1-2 cents, use your discretion and try to find a better valued trip. At 3 CPM or more, book the ticket NOW. If the airline values them at 1 cent per mile, why give them a discount on rewarding you for your loyalty?
  8. Become an elite member of an airline
    Not only will it maximize the amount of miles you'll accumulate for trips, but several airlines have additional capacity for award tickets that they only offer to their elite members.

How do you maximize your airline miles? Let us know below.

Posted on May 26, 2010.

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2 Responses to “Got Airline Miles? Maximize Their Value with these 8 Tips”

  1. Nice tips. Another tip is to get employed by airlines, isn’t always very convenient to travel, but could be cheaper.

  2. I fly quite a bit for work, so I get a lot of frequent flyer miles. Using them has certainly been more difficult in the last few years. If you are flexible when you can leave or where you can leave from, it is to your advantage. For example, there are 2 major airports within a few hours of my house (other than the one in my city). Sometimes I use tickets out of there too. Its about $40 in gas and a few hours of my time – to save several hundred on a ticket is well worth it.

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