Booking Vacation Travel with Airline Miles

by Nancy Bestor

IMG_0174I regularly read accounts in the media about how difficult it is to book flights with frequent flier miles. Whether it’s United, American Airlines or Alaska, people are often complaining that they simply cannot book trips with their miles where they want to go and when they want to go, so why bother accruing them? I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna, but with a little extra effort and some flexibility, I’ve had nothing but success (knock on wood) when booking frequent flyer trips. Here are six tips I’ve learned and put to good use over the years:

1 – Book early:  Trips booked with frequent flyer miles can be obtained 11 months in advance. So I try to book big trips on miles (you guessed it) 11 months in advance. It’s not always easy to plan so far ahead, but if I’d like four tickets to Europe in the summer, you can bet I’ll be on line checking availability exactly 11 months before.

2 – Be flexible:  When booking with miles, I know I need to be flexible. If I’d like to go to Italy in the summer, I’m willing to book frequent flyer tickets into any city in Italy, then work around the city I’m flying in or out of. I’ve even booked tickets into Zurich then taken the train down to Italy to make frequent flyer miles work. Be ready to move your dates around a bit too. You might not find availability if you want to fly on a Saturday, but if you’re willing to fly on a Tuesday for example, there’s the chance you’ll have more options.

3 – Learn to love creative routing:  I have to be willing to accept the fact that my flight, booked on frequent flyer miles, may not have the most direct routing. Sure, if I’m willing to pay for a ticket I can fly from Paris to San Francisco and then on to Medford. If I use frequent flyer miles though, I may have to fly through Toronto, New Jersey or Atlanta, or maybe even all three! One time we even had to stay overnight in Toronto to use our miles. But we saved over $5000. Well worth it in my opinion.

4 – Do the math: These days, airlines don’t make it easy to purchase or transfer miles, but every now and then, if you’re close to a free ticket, transferring a few thousand miles from one account to another might just put you over the top. Always do the math, however, and make sure that it’s really worth it. United Airlines currently charges a transfer fee of $15 per one thousand miles. I transferred 7000 miles last week, at a cost of $105. This gave me enough miles for a one-way ticket to the Caribbean, again well worth the price.

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5 – Keep track: Make sure your airline is giving you credit for miles every time you fly. 500 miles here and 1000 miles there add up. United has an easy online method for adding miles flown to your frequent flyer account. You simply need your ticket number.

6 – Get comfortable: You’ll need to be prepared to spend some time doing research. You might even need to check back several days in a row, as frequent flyer seats do open up at different times. Sometimes I feel like different computers that I’m working on have different things to offer. Maybe it’s true, maybe I’m imagining it, but if given the opportunity, I always check on at least two different computers.

One area of frequent flyer miles that I have NOT had any luck with is using my miles to upgrade. With United, every time I’ve looked at buying an economy ticket and then using my miles to upgrade to business or first class, there has always been a steep amount of miles required along with a significant upgrade fee. Most times, it seems to be a far better deal to squeeze into economy class when using miles than to try and upgrade.

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