The Wall Street Journal’s Strategies for Getting the Most of Your Miles (are Wrong)

Scott McCartney offers a lot of bad advice in the Wall Street Journal about the value of miles and what to expect from them.

Seth does a good job pointing out the flaws. McCartney looks only at the websites of the airlines whose miles he’s trying to use (the Delta website is broken, the US Airways website doesn’t offer partner award options at all), the routes he’s searching with the miles he’s using aren’t really generalizable to mileage programs as a whole, and the conclusions he draws about the value of miles are erroneous (you shouldn’t just expect a penny a point in value from them).

However, through my award booking service I have come across a large number of folks who approach things just the way that Scott does and that’s why they come looking for help — they assume if they want to use their miles that they should go to the airline’s website, tell it what they want, and the system would tell them what’s possible. That’s not an unreasonable assumption. It’s how the average person would expect things to work. Of course, it’s not how things actually work, but there’s no reason the median member would know that (though it would have been nice for Scott to tell them…).

In fairness further, Scott actually also gets the conclusion ‘almost right’:

You can get better value using your miles for high-dollar tickets like international business-class and first-class upgrades, or by using them for last-minute trips, such as a family emergency, a funeral or just surprising someone unexpectedly. Business-class fares run so high that using miles instead gets you 6-7 cents or more for each mile. And I’ve long advocated, and employed, the last-minute strategy. Better to avoid those unexpected high-dollar tickets if you can.

The corollary to the critique, though, is to point out what lessons can be learned to get the most out of miles, not merely to dampen expectations. Sadly, that’s left to folks with a far smaller audience…. (or not so sadly, more award seats for us!).

  • The biggest bang for the buck in miles is premium cabin international awards. Miles aren’t really ‘worth’ the 10-14 cents a mile I get out of them on my first class award redemptions (comparing mileage cost to the price of a similar paid ticket) both because I wouldn’t actually pay the sticker price, so I haven’t replaced that amount of cash, and also because the mileage seats are more limited, I don’t have the flexibility to buy any seat on any day that I would when paying the cash price. But since the price of a coach ticket to Europe in the summer is often $1200 – $1500, I’m certainly getting well over Scott’s penny a point when I redeem 100,000 miles for a business class ticket to Europe.

  • International upgrades are no longer as good a value as they used to be. Contra Scott, except for folks whose companies are buying last minute full fare tickets anyway, it’s rarely a great strategy to buy a coach ticket and try to upgrade (unless you can confirm the upgrade with a complimentary upgrade given to top tier elite members).

    Mileage upgrades generally involve a hefty cash co-pay that can mean an extra $1000+ per person roundtrip in addition to the lowest fare and in addition to burning the miles. Using miles to upgrade on partner airlines generally first requires buying a full fare coach ticket, and that’s often close to as expensive as an advance purchase discounted business class ticket.

    Finally, with award booking you generally have the flexibility of combining multiple partners into a single one-way award to get where you’re going, meaning it’s much easier to find the space you want. Upgrade awards, even on full fare tickets, won’t normally cover more than a single flight segment.

  • The best time to look is not necessarily 331 days out. The old myth about calling at midnight the moment airline schedules load isn’t true, I’ve never done that in my life and have still redeemed over 100 million miles worth of premium cabin awards all at the low level (for others). People used to think when they called at midnight and were told the seats weren’t available, “darnit, someone else must have already grabbed them!” That’s wrong.

    Airlines load some award seats when the schedules open, but what they’re trying to do is make those seats available as awards that they aren’t going to sell for cash — and 11 months out it’s tough to forecast. Some airlines load lots of inventory then (like Cathay Pacific). But almost all airlines will continually evaluate their sales and if they’re below forecast they’ll add more seats as awards, if sales are above forecast they’ll take away award seats (a disappearing award seat doesn’t even necessarily mean someone else took it). Sure, 11 months out could be a good time to book (and some airlines let you book 355 – 360 days out).

    Any time within the first few months is often good, some carriers release seats around 10 months (that used to be South African’s approach though more recently I’ve seen good availability 11 at months). Six months is a good time too. The toughest is probably 60 days out, much of the advance inventory is already gone but the last minute seats the airline has given up on selling aren’t made available yet. If you really want to play chicken with inventory, the world is usually your oyster 2 days out on all except sold out flights…

  • Don’t rely on the airline’s website. Delta’s website is just completely broken for booking awards. American is working on displaying partner airlines, but so far only includes Alaska. US Airways doesn’t show partner awards at all, thus Scott McCartney sees no space DC – Austin even though a phone call to US Airways would secure plenty of awards on United for that route.

    The best place to look for awards on Star Alliance airlines is the Continental website (which will imminently be called, it includes all Star Alliance partner awards except Ethiopian (which has great availability Washington Dulles – Rome – Addis Ababa and beyond within Africa). The All Nippon and Aeroplan sites are good, often even more useful for experts, but the Continental site is easy and you don’t even need to log in to use it.

    Meanwhile, oneworld awards can be searched on the Qantas website (though notoriously not Japan Airlines space, and partner award space on Cathay can show inaccurately). I supplement that with the British Airways website. (I personally use the Japan Airlines website just for partner Cathay Pacific award searches, but one rarely needs to get that fine-grained).

    And Skyteam awards, such as those booked with Delta miles? The US Air France Flying Blue website gets me most Skyteam partners, though it isn’t complete, Korean Airlines has good availability out of several US gateways but won’t come up anywhere except and (the latter of which can be searched via the KVS Availability Tool).

  • Hang up, call back. Just because a telephone agent says something is not available doesn’t mean it is not available. Delta agents often don’t even know who their partners are, let alone what booking classes to search for awards. Some airline agents don’t understand their systems, or are simply not inclined to be helpful. Other times there can be IT glitches. If you believe seats are available by doing your own award searching, such as via the websites mentioned above, and an agent tells you there’s no space open, hang up and call back and you may get a different answer.

  • Think creatively. Maybe the only flight that isn’t available is from your home airport to the city you fly internationally from. Would you buy that flight separately if it got you the award? Air France from Washington DC to Paris, and then to many cities beyond, is available in business class most days of the week. The hard part with Delta miles would be getting to DC to start and end the award.

    Or consider coming up with your own non-traditional routings, a website or a phone agent is only likely to search the most obvious and ‘logical’ routings but a connection in Mexico or Canada when traveling from the US to Europe is often allowed and available even if it’s not proactively offered to you. Or using American miles to fly to San Juan and on to Madrid on Iberia.

  • Get expert help. Many of the folks who read this blog are interested enough in the chase to learn to do it themselves, to invest the time, to become at least a semi-expert in their own right. For those folks I’d always rather offer advice than charge a service fee to do it for them. But many people are like Scott’s Journal readers, are not going to learn the minutiae of airline schedules to figure out routings the airlines won’t think to offer and then develop knowledge of partner websites to find availability so you know when to hang up call back should you get an unhelpful agent. For those times, there are experts — I offer a service (that for some reason I rarely write about!). And I’m not the only one, I have full confidence in Ben from the One Mile at a Time blog and also Matthew from Live and Let’s Fly.

Miles are hugely valuable. I’m writing this onboard a Cathay Pacific first class flight from Hong Kong to Chicago (paid for on points) where I spent five nights at the Park Hyatt Hadahaa in the Maldives (also on points). I would never in my lifetime be able to afford this sort of aspirational travel, and it’s something I do all the time.

When I mentioned to my boss a year ago that I was headed to Asia on vacation, he said “Again?” I said what do you mean again? He replied, “you were just in India two months ago.” I demurred, “Yes, but that was Central Asia.” On that trip I flew ANA first class, Singapore first class, and Thai first class, and had the entire cabin on two of those flights. And that is why I collect miles and points. Not to get a penny a point with a coach ticket to Austin.

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. “Not to get a penny a point with a coach ticket to Austin.”

    Haha, I just booked and got 2 cents/mile for coach to Austin. But I did it with Southwest miles and they only fly nationally anyway.

  2. Brilliant post, Gary.

    If you had a 100k sky pesos, would you redeem to Asia using Korean or Air France to Paris (I’m based out of LAX but willing to fly out of another gateway city)

  3. Gary, something I’d be interested in knowing if it’s not too personal: How many miles do you redeem each year, and how many of those were earned directly from flying?

    Just trying to get a sense of what’s possible.

  4. While I enjoy Scott’s column, he does sometimes seem to imply incorrect information, such as during the UA double and triple EQM bonanza a couple of years ago when he suggested that elite RDM bonuses were the same as EQM bonuses for requalification.

  5. Terrific post, Gary! Would love to see more like this – your posts on CCs have earned me a few hundred thousand miles in the last year, but now that I’m ready to start burning them, I’m finding it much trickier, particularly given how used to buying online I’ve become.

    (which isn’t to say not to post about earning or CCs… just that a few more on redemption would be great too!)

  6. Very great post, Gary!
    You mentioned about ET’s IAD-FCO. How can I search award availability on the flight? I do not see this particular flight with the ANA tool, although ANA tool displays other ET flights such as ADD-BKK, ADD-HKG, etc.
    I am trying to put together a J trip with US miles from North America to North Asia via Europe departing on 6/30, but the only TATL flight I am able to find so far is on MS via CAI.

  7. Great post. While I agree it is usually not a good option to use miles for international upgrades, I have found that with Lufthansa and one or two other Star Alliance partners you can find ‘B’ class fares to far flung locations at reasonable rates (like 30% more than lowest). As you know these earn a 50% eqm bonus and now also 25% rdm bonus with United. They are also upgradeable without copay for 30K miles per segment. If you include elite bonus and credit card miles you can be looking at 40K eqm and about 60-70K redeemable miles. This goes a long way to re-qualifying for status in what I call the easy way.

  8. Excellent post, gary, but i disagree with your statement that miles are not worth the 10-14 cents when you redeem them for first class travel just because you wouldnt pay for that. I understand what you mean but I dont think it matters whether you would or would not pay cash for those tickets. Their “value” is still there. Just because you might not buy a lamborghini doesnt reduce its value if you won it in a drawing.
    We’re going to asia on CX in F this fall and i feel like im getting an incredible value on those miles. I would never, ever sit in Y for 13+ hours straight.

  9. One small point about Austin: I’m flying to CRP this year and the cheapest flights I could find were in the $650 range. So I in fact was going to book a coach ticket to Texas for 25k, and get over 2 cpm for that redemption, which I think is pretty awesome for coach domestic travel. I decided to go first class (I know, domestic F is “eh”, but what the hey) and spent 37.5k (only got F on one leg), but still getting well over 1 cpm.

    So you can in fact get good value even on domestic coach redemptions, if you know what you’re looking for. (CRP, it turns out, is a small market; no one flies direct. that drives up “dollar price” but it’s a “domestic r/t” so fell in the 25k bucket)

  10. Obviously this WSJ article is rubbish. But I tend to disagree with your assertion that “[t]he biggest bang for the buck in miles is premium cabin international awards.” That’s certainly true in “sticker price” comparison, since int’l premium seats typically have crazy prices attached to them. But we all know that very few travellers would be willing to pay (out of their own pocket) anything approaching the sticker price for premium travel. With few exceptions, going “up front” costs twice the number of points as sitting in the back.

    I don’t know about you, but the total number of times in my life that I’ve been willing to pay twice the amount for a first class airline seat over a coach seat is exactly zero. I’m sure there is a small percentage of affluent travellers who would happily pay this premium but not many.

    So why would you use twice the points? Probably two reasons: 1) you didn’t pay for them, so in your mind you don’t actually value them as much as cash; 2) you’re swimming in miles from all the credit card bonuses, so why not?

    Still, objectively, since few would actually pay double for first class, I would say that “tThe biggest bang for the buck in miles is COACH cabin international awards.”

  11. Looking forward to Maldives details. My son and his soon to be bride are headed there via HKG.

  12. @iahphx “The biggest bang for the buck in miles is COACH cabin international awards”

    Yes, you get more trips for a set amount of miles in coach. And when I was in my 20s I would have decided the most number of trips is what counts. Not so much now, however. Early on in my travel history, I would fly T/A in coach, and be so seriously “jet-lagged” from the trip that the first 3 or so days were mostly a waste. I just couldn’t understand how business travelers could actually do any business the day they arrived.

    Then one fine day I got the holy grail of travel, the gratutious upgrade. I relaxed in the lounge instead of being jostled in the terminal. I relaxed in my seat, eating a fairly decent meal for once, then was able to lay back and actually sleep on the flight. I discovered that 90% of what I had been calling “jet-lag” was really economy class physical and mental stress. Thus I was able to actually enjoy my trip, beginning from the day of arrival.

    Over the next decade, I kept going coach, since that was all I could afford. But now I knew what I was missing. Rick Steve’s comment that all parts of the plane and train arrive at the same time now seemed absurd. In coach, my body arrived days before my mind did, and I resented that. I got lucky, and was given more unexpected upgrades, each time confirming that “upper class” was worth all the dollars that I sadly couldn’t afford.

    So I began to study the membership game on my own, and found ways to get upgraded more and more. And the prospect of flying thousands of miles in coach began to lose its allure for me. Luckily, I eventually discovered first this blog, and then a few others of value. Now this summer for the 3rd year in a row, my wife and I will be going AA First Class to Europe. This trip we will also be staying quite a few nights at Hiltons, Crowne Plazas and Marriotts for free, paid for with CC bonus points.

    While it’s still true that I would never pay the “sky-high” prices for first class, nor would I pay for cattle car like coach T/A tickets anymore either. Thanks to Gary, I don’t have to do either one….

  13. Since we’re still adding to this thread 🙂

    In my 20’s, I flew DTW-FRA-DTW round trip in Y, and also did SIN-NRT-SEA in Y, all on NW. (I got to do LAX-NRT-BKK in J though, which was nice.) And you know what? Y wasn’t *that* bad, but that was because I got to fly in the bulkhead seats, thanks to my Plat status.

    What I learned is that legroom is king. I’ve done IAD-LHR-IAD in BA Y, and at 31″ pitch, it’s miserable. When my miles run out, I’ll be paying for the “Coach Plus” extra leg room seats. Yessirree, and consider me a huge fan of that particular unbundling.

    iahphx talks about first class vs coach, but I’m missing the nuance of his criticism. Is he talking about about 3-cabin F vs Y? Sure, maybe he has a point. But when 3-cabin J gives you a flat bed on a fair number of carriers, I’ll take it on a 20-hour flight.

    My wife and I fly to Asia in J/F *because* we can do it in comfort. We’ve got no reason to subject ourselves to regular coach if we don’t have to. We don’t have family abroad.

    When our miles run out, we’ll happily fly coach+ back to Europe. There’s a lot left to see there.

  14. Hi Gary,
    This post is really helpful. I am planning (with my wife) a trip to India , by the end of this year. Please advice how can I get tickets without paying fare.

    Miles –
    AA- 175K
    Chase-60k (might get 60k more in 3 months)

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