If you don’t have a frequent flier reward program number or card, get one when you buy your next ticket. The credits, miles or points you earn when you fly, add up to discounted or free flights, upgrades and other rewards. But not all airline rewards programs are the same, so here are 10 tips to make frequent flier programs take off for you.
Look for value
If you have 25,000 miles and want to fly Delta Air Lines, consider how much the ticket is before you use the miles. Sales abound right now due to the weak economy. If you can fly roundtrip from Atlanta to Boston for $178, it’s worth it to buy the ticket and save the miles for a free transcontinental flight that might cost you twice as much to buy, or use it for an upgrade on an international flight.
Make sure you’re able to get that free airplance ticket for only 25,000 miles. Don’t pay 50,000 miles that took you two years to accumulate for that cramped coach seat unless you absolutely have to.
The way to maximize your miles is to book your reward ticket several months before you want to fly. The number of reward seats available at the lowest redemption level on many airlines are limited, particularly at peak hours or days.
If you must travel at a specific time on a specific day and your plans don’t come together until close to the day you want to leave, you still can get a free ticket, but it may cost you more miles. For 60,000 miles, Delta guarantees a free seat on a domestic flight, excluding Hawaii, as long as a coach seat is available.
Get the credit card
Some airline branded credit cards give you 2 miles or points for every dollar spent on a partner airline and 1 mile or point for every dollar spent everywhere else. Some cards carry annual fees; AirTran and Delta have partner cards that offer no-annual-fee options, but that comes with 1 point or mile for every dollar spent on the partner airline and half a point or mile for every dollar spent elsewhere.
“For those people who charge very high dollar amounts annually to those cards but yet don’t carry a revolving balance, the mileage you generate is worthwhile. The annual fee is worthwhile,” said David Robertson, publisher of the Nilson Report, a credit card industry newsletter.
Sign up for several reward programs — they’re free. Rewards on AirTran Airways add up fast. You get a free coach ticket for 16 flight credits, which take just eight roundtrips to accumulate.
If you tend to take a lot of transcontinental flights, it may get you a faster free roundtrip coach ticket on United Airlines or US Airways, which, like Delta, give reward miles based on the distance you travel. AirTran only flies in North America. But for 100 flight credits, AirTran will buy you a ticket anywhere in the world on another carrier.
Watch for promotions
Some airlines offer frequent flier members the ability to get extra miles, points or credits if they rent a car with a partner company, fly to certain locations or buy a Netflix membership. Check airline Web sites and sign up for e-mail alerts.
Some hotel reward programs allow you to earn some of your rewards as airline miles with partner carriers or to transfer existing reward points to a partner airline reward program.
Watch expiration dates
Frequent flier miles, points or credits don’t last forever. With some airline programs, miles or credits can expire after a year or two.
Avoid unnecessary fees
Book your reward ticket online. Calling a customer service agent may cost you — AirTran charges a $15 direct booking fee. Try to fly the airline on which you are redeeming reward miles. Using your frequent flier miles within three weeks of travel may cost you — $75 at Continental Airlines for basic OnePass members if you book the reward ticket less than 21 days before you travel.
You’ll still pay those checked bag fees even if you are traveling on a reward ticket. So, try to limit yourself to one carryon bag and one personal item per person. If you have to check a bag and you are traveling with another person, merge your belongings into one bag and split the fee. But be careful not to pack the bag too heavy. There are fees for overweight bags, too.
‘Free’ isn’t completely free
The reward redemption generally covers the base fare of the ticket. Some airlines will charge you for certain taxes or fees.