Four Basics of Using Your Miles

In a piece Avital Andrews carries a bunch of my basic frequent flyer advice on how to use your miles.

Upgrades used to be the best use of miles. Now you want to use miles for premium cabin award tickets instead.

Gary Leff, who cofounded Milepoint and runs the popular View From the Wing site, says that upgrading used to be the smartest way to spend miles, but no longer is, mostly because mileage-based upgrades have gotten expensive: “U.S. airlines either restrict you from being able to use miles to upgrade on the cheapest fares or require a cash co-pay to upgrade. Free seats are usually a better deal.”

Free stopovers on awards increase the value of your miles, but don’t look to Delta or American miles for that.

“If you can get a free stopover, travel to more than one city as part of your award,” Leff says. “Alaska Airlines allows a stopover even on a one-way redemption. If you’re connecting in Hong Kong anyway, why not visit there a few days?”

United, too, allows a free stopover on international round-trip awards, which means you can fly to London, stay there a few days, then fly to Rome and stay there a few days, all for the same 60,000 miles as a round-trip to London. Note, though: American and Delta have eliminated stopovers from their programs.

Don’t use miles for merchandise, but once in a lifetime experiences can be a good deal with points.

As Leff says, “You usually want to use miles and points for products that program offers, not what it has to buy.”

…”Frequent flyer and hotel points programs can deliver things that you couldn’t access yourself at almost any price,” Leff says. “You’re leveraging the contacts of a large corporation.” A friend of his used Starwood’s Starpoints and the company’s SPG Moments program to nab tennis lessons with Andre Agassi. A few years back, Chase cardholders could cash in points to attend Conde Nast Traveler’s 25th anniversary gala along with Richard Branson and Susan Sarandon.

“You couldn’t buy that ticket,” says Leff, who was at the bash. “Sold-out events, meet-and-greets backstage, cooking classes from celebrity chefs—these are the sorts of things you can’t do yourself but that big travel companies can put together for you. They get you something you couldn’t have otherwise.”

Don’t feel to good about giving miles to charity.

Leff provides a warning, though: “You usually aren’t getting a good deal when you donate miles to charity. You’re going to do more good using the miles yourself and taking the money you save on travel and giving that to the charity instead.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I totally agree that Premium Cabin awards are best use internationally-
    but for domestic flights- especially on American- I find a lot of value on Upgrades.

    At this point in our travel life (read Old 🙂 we won’t fly coach except on very short flights. We often find quite inexpensive flights on AA that they allow us to upgrade.

    That is probably the number 1 reason we shifted a lot of travel to AA from Delta. Delta required us to spend more $ on upgradable tickets.

    BTW- Thank you ! for your answer to our question on West Coast to Asia awards. It was very, very helpful.

  2. @Wendy Austin – with American I find it’s usually a better deal to buy discounted first class domestically than to spend miles + cash copay. For instance, I frequently see DC – Dallas – Austin +$220 from lowest coach fare. It would cost 15,000 miles + $75 for the upgrade. So 15k miles are saving $150, just 1 cent per mile.

  3. What is your opinion on the value of using miles for upgrades (e.g., from Y to C, especially if one’s employer has paid for the Y fare) on long-haul flights if no co-pay is required?

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