In 1981 American Airlines offered the first Frequent Flyer miles program and pretty soon hotels, rental car agencies and credit card companies got on board too. There was a time when it was fairly easy to use your miles to travel for free, these days it’s a challenge and it looks like it will only become more challenging as airlines are gearing up to change the way they award miles. Historically Frequent Flyer miles are awarded based on your trip mileage. Recently both Delta and United announced that they will begin awarding miles based on ticket cost. So now it will be even easier for those who can afford to pay for their tickets to get discounts while those on tighter budgets will also earn fewer miles.
This doesn’t mean you can’t still get great deals with Frequent Flyer programs but it will take a little more strategizing and finesse. The first thing to keep in mind is that flying isn’t the only way to earn miles. Credit cards are a great way to earn points and many of them offer bonus miles for signing up and spending a certain amount in a given period. NerdWallet has a comparison chart of all the airline credit cards.
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There are also quite a few ways to rack up points that you may not know about. Web services like domain registration and hosting can earn you miles, so can getting satellite TV, booking a visit through SpaFinder, buying flowers, getting an insurance quote, using Energy Plus to pay your utilities and signing up for dining miles. If you’re a bitcoin user, Bitnet and Universal Air Travel Plan are now making it possible to pay for your ticket with bitcoins.
One of the best ways to make the most of your Frequent Flyer miles is to stick to one or two airlines that you actually do frequent. Most points expire after 18-24 months of account inactivity and if you divide your rewards between several airlines you’ll never accumulate enough to cover the cost of a ticket.
Once you’ve got enough miles to cover a trip, the next hurdle is finding an available flight that allows you to use them. Booking far ahead or extremely last-minute and during off times helps. Sometimes calling the airline directly and speaking to an agent does the trick.
If you can’t find a way to use your points on a ticket, get creative. Melissa Hinkle of cheapflights.com advises, “The reality for the casual traveler is that the value of frequent flyer miles is changing. It’s becoming harder to cash in on them. These programs are starting to become more about discounts and perks than getting a free flight.”
You can sell your points to a broker for cash but be aware of the risks. Obviously the airlines discourage this so you can lose your miles and get kicked out of their Frequent Flyer programs. Points.com allows you to track and swap miles and points or redeem them for gift certificates. If you use your miles to pay for non-travel related items, just set aside the equivalent amount for your travel fund.