Thursday, December 19, 2013

Managing your Frequent Flyer Miles

Everyone should have a frequent flyer mileage account with every airline they might possibly fly...ever. There are absolutely no excuses! It's completely free to set up an account, and even if you don't foresee yourself flying with a certain airline, you may be able to rack up miles anyway by flying with one of their partner airlines. A few years ago I paid for a rather expensive flight from San Francisco to Johannesburg to

Paris to Tel Aviv to San Francisco, on Air France, and I was able to accumulate miles both with Air France and one of their partners with which I have an account, Alaska Air. Those flights immediately earned me enough miles for a free round-trip domestic flight with Alaska, which I promptly used to visit my boyfriend at the time in the Midwest. When managed correctly, you should be able to fly for free more often than not. Here are some guidelines:

1. Set up a free frequent flier account with every airline (and write down all your usernames and passwords)

Often, the airline won't give you the miles you've just flown if you set up the account post-flight. So do it now! There's no reason not to have an account open with practically every airline.

2. Don't waste your miles on cheap flights

As much as I hate to pay for flights, I hate even more to waste my miles. I once almost bought a one-way ticket from SFO to Seattle for 12,500 miles, and at the last minute checked and saw that the flight would only cost me $100 without using miles. I would much rather save those miles for, for example, a one-way flight to Europe, which is a much more expensive flight in cash but only costs 20,000 miles.

3. Manage your parents' mileage accounts

My parents have been too busy these past few years to go on many major trips, so I've generously offered to take over the management of their mileage accounts for them. Did you know that the person earning the miles doesn't have to be the person spending the miles? Anyway, earlier this year I asked my dad if he had any United Airlines miles, and when he looked up his rarely-used account, we discovered that he had exactly 35,000 miles, but that they'd expired. Not a problem. I was able to pay a fee ($100) to reactivate the miles and amazingly had the exact amount necessary for a round-trip flight to Costa Rica (which would have cost me about $600 in cash). Thanks, Daddy!
Just to note, a few years ago my Alaska Airlines miles expired without my knowledge. I called Alaska and explained that I was in college and couldn't travel much and they generously waived the reinstatement fee and gave them back for free! It's worth asking sometimes.

4. Don't let your miles expire 

On most airlines with which I have accounts, miles expire every 18 months without any activity to the account. Don't let this happen, or you may have to pay a $50+ reinstatement fee. If you don't have time to travel this year, there are many other ways to use your miles. One option is to spend a few miles on something small like a magazine subscription (a year of Sunset magazine costs only 400 miles on You can even donate a few miles to one of dozens of charities. Any transaction will automatically extend your miles expiration date by another 18 months.

If you have a credit card with the airline, every swipe of the card is considered a transaction, so you shouldn't have any problems keeping them active.

5. Sign up for airline credit cards

Everyone who flies should have at least one or two airline credit cards; they're great. To start, they often come with huge signing bonuses. I just got the new Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card and within a week of approval 25,000 miles were credited to my account, just for signing up (I haven't even had a chance to activate the card yet!). Other cards, such as the American Airlines Visa Signature card, have similar bonuses (30,000 miles), but only after you spend $1,000 in the first three months. So it's a great idea to sign up for cards like this one around the time you plan to be spending a lot of money (like buying a new computer or camera, or a flight, for example). A lot of these cards waive the annual fee for the first year, so if you want to, you can cancel the card after a year (and you won't lose any of the miles you earned that year). Other perks often include free first checked bag, priority boarding, free annual travel companion ticket, discounts on in-flight food, and more. But most importantly, every time you use the card you'll earn miles.