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How to Use Frequent Flyer Miles to Go Anywhere

How to Use Frequent Flyer Miles to Go Anywhere

I recently received a notice from American Airlines, letting me know I had achieved million-miler status. I’ve been working on this for about two years, but the real goal is two million miles—then I get lifetime Platinum status.

As regular readers know, I’m a travel hacker—I earn hundreds of thousands of miles every year and redeem them for high-value trips all over the world. I’ve been traveling actively for ten years, and travel hacking for at least five… it’s made my life MUCH easier, especially on my quest to visit every country in the world.

Travel hacking is about more than just miles—I also use Round-the-World plane tickets, mistake fares, elite status matches, cash-and-points redemptions, and more—but miles are the most important component. Therefore, this post will break down the general idea and several specific scenarios for using Frequent Flyer Miles to go anywhere.

First, don’t waste your miles

Most frequent flyer miles are wasted. Stop mileage waste! Don’t let good miles die! In almost every major airline program, miles only expire when there has been no use in the account for a year or more (sometimes a lot more). It doesn’t take much to keep your accounts active—in some cases all you need to do is complete a survey, join an email list, or transfer 100 miles in or out of the account to reset the clock.

Miles are also wasted for low-value redemptions and expensive “Standard” awards designed by the airlines to reclaim your hard-earned mileage currency. Don’t give in! Use your miles only for “Saver” awards that would otherwise cost a lot of money.

Next, learn the basic rules…

The basic goals of award redemptions are a) always consider partner airlines when redeeming miles, and b) always try to get the best possible value for your miles. To accomplish both of these goals, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade: route maps and award charts.

Route maps will show you where any particular airline flies, as well as the total coverage for any of the three major alliances. Award charts will tell you how many miles are required for any particular redemption. Matching these tools together is the key to your adventuring success.

You can see the route maps for the two largest airline alliances here:

Star Alliance Route Map

OneWorld Route Map

Basic but very important fact: you can earn miles on any carrier in the alliance, and redeem them on any other carrier. Earn AA miles, redeem them for Cathay Pacific. Earn United miles, redeem them for Swiss Airlines… and so on.

Route maps are fun for dreaming and education—you need to have a destination in mind, and you need to educate yourself on how you can get there. There is often more than one way to get there, and it comes in handy to be aware of the options when looking for availability.

The next step is to look at specific awards charts. Unlike route maps, there is no single “Star Alliance award chart” or “OneWorld award chart”—instead, you need to find the one for the specific airline you’ll be using miles from, NOT the airline you plan to actually fly. Here are a few links to current ones:

If you don’t see the one you want, just Google “[airline name] frequent flyer award chart” or check the website for the specific program. Every program has one except Delta, which lives in a world of its own (long story). The more you familiarize yourself with the awards charts, the more you’ll understand where miles can take you.

A Few Examples

The best value of Frequent Flyer Miles lies in international trips—especially to destinations that are either far away or cost-prohibitive.

You can get to Easter Island, one of the most remote places on earth, by paying thousands of dollars. Or you can use AA miles to book yourself down to Santiago or Lima and then over to the island. As far away as it is (in the middle of the Pacific ocean, 2300 miles from Chile), it still counts as a “South America” award.

You can go to Brunei, a small kingdom hidden away in Southeast Asia, by using miles from Air Canada, United, or U.S. Airways to book flights on Singapore Airlines.

You can go anywhere in the South Pacific for the same price in miles as going to New Zealand or Australia. Therefore, book your award with a stopover in Auckland (for example) and then to Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, or Tonga. Two countries for the price of one!

If you’re using U.S. Airways miles, in fact, you can route your South Pacific award from North America via Asia, going through Thailand, Japan, or Singapore en route to your “real” destination.

Pretty much anywhere you want to go, miles can get you there. For the exceptions, miles can get you close—and then you travel overland to your final destination, or fly on the one airline that goes there.

Free Help! Ask Your Question Below

I often get behind on responding to site comments (although I do read all of them, and I reply to all emails). For two days, I’ll answer any question or review any draft itinerary that comes from a comment on this post. And even better, many of our readers are highly skilled travel hackers, so they can help as well.

Whatever you don’t understand about using Frequent Flyer Miles to go anywhere, post it up and you’ll get a reply. Meanwhile, I’ll be working on a plan to get my second million miles from American Airlines…

***

Update: I’m finished answering questions on this post, but I’ll still help whenever I can on Twitter. Happy travels, everyone!

###

Image: Dave

75 Comments

  • Kirk says:

    My fiance and I want to go to Germany and then onto Poland using our 100,000 British Airways miles. We want to go sometime next summer. Can we do a stopover in Germany and then into Poland? Also should we go through BA or through one of the oneworld partner airlines? We will be flying from Chicago IL. Thanks for the help.

  • Charlotte says:

    I am trying to go to PRG in September. I have 80K AA miles. AA requires 90K currently. Do you know of other options?

    Side Note: Redeemed 52.K One Pass miles last month for first class PDX-IAH-PTY-LIM-PTY-IAH-PDX. Value $3000~.

  • Clare says:

    I’m curious how many frequent flyer credit cards you have and do you have any debt? I don’t use credit cards so as to avoid debt; can you rack up frequent flyer miles without a credit card?

  • Chris says:

    I have a lot of airline credit cards (I’ve been doing this a while) and no debt. If I had a problem with spending or otherwise not managing my finances well, I wouldn’t use cards… but for those who are able and responsible, the bonuses are a great way to earn large amounts of miles at once.

    Otherwise, yes, there are still plenty of ways to earn miles without cards. I’ll work up a list and share it shortly.

  • Jake Olson says:

    Hey Chris! For achieving million-miler status, is that your lifetime program earnings? Or is that what you currently have available for use?

  • Chris says:

    @Kirk,

    If you’re going through BA, you can do a stopover in London, but probably not Germany. You could also go through Iberia and have the stopover in Madrid or Barcelona. You *might* be able to get the stopover by booking an AA flight to Frankfurt, then continuing to a OneWorld hub city (LHR, MAD, etc.) and then going to Warsaw. But I’m not 100% sure on that.

    @Charlotte,

    It should be 60k for North America–> Europe in Economy Class or 100k Business Class with AA. You could also purchase U.S. Airways miles before the end of June, then redeem for a Star Alliance award.

  • Ashley says:

    I have been racking up delta skymiles, and as I live in Japan, I have been hoping to use them either for a vacation or a trip home to the States. My only problem is, Delta won’t allow award miles to be used when leaving Japan. So it’s essentially as if my miles are now worthless. Delta is also in an alliance, but it has Japan all to itself. Any advice on what to do with my miles or how I can still possible use them when flying out of Japan?

  • Chris says:

    @Ashley,

    It should not be a problem to redeem Delta SkyMiles from Japan. I just checked their system and I can see numerous award options from NRT. Finding a decent one that doesn’t require a ton of miles may be a challenge, but that’s a challenge throughout the whole Delta network.

  • Bill says:

    When you use miles for a free flight, do you also get “credit” in points for that flight? If not, how do you personally use airline miles to travel free and still have so many miles in your account?

  • Chris says:

    @Bill,

    Nope, you don’t earn miles when traveling on an award flight. I earn my miles through a variety of activity, but taking advantage of ongoing promotions is probably the biggest one. Every year I try to earn at least a half a million miles, usually closer to a million. I then redeem them as described in this post.

  • Hi Chris — So what’s the story with Delta? (If you feel comfortable sharing). I thought I found an award chart here (dmn.delta.com/skymiles/direct/charts/index.shtml) but it sounds like you’ve got some insights to share :)

    Thanks — and continued success in all aspects of your life,

    Andrew

  • Chris says:

    The story with Delta is that they are extremely stingy with their redemption availability and policies, compared to all other major carriers. There is also a lack of transparency for partner redemptions – no one has access to the information besides them, so you have to accept whatever they say.

    I actually like Delta as an airline, just not their SkyMiles program. I have 300k SkyMiles that are probably worth 100k in other programs due to the reasons listed above.

  • Charlotte says:

    You mean I can combine AA and US Airways miles if I book a Star Alliance award?

    I went to the Star Alliance website and they only have round the world fares. Looked everywere and I did not see how to book just a RT ticket. I tried the RTW but it is not letting me go back to PDX. Is there an FAQ on how to use this booking system?

    Sorry I’m a newbie travel hacker.

  • Chris says:

    @Charlotte,

    No, you can’t do that. AA and US Airways miles are completely separate. You also can’t book a simple, round-trip ticket on the Star Alliance website. For that, check Kayak.com or whatever site you prefer.

  • Luke says:

    I have been racking up tons of miles due to your Travel Hacking Cartel, mostly in BA and United points.

    We have been trying to plan a trip to either Milan or Brisbane and can’t find a way using saver awards. Even if we change the dates around.

    Any tips would be great.

  • Al Pittampalli says:

    Great post, Chris. Thanks for the reminder about expirations…I’ve been punished by this in the past, and I think I need to take some action before it happens again. No question here. You’re the man.

  • Aarika says:

    Hello Chris,
    I’ve been debating on getting an airline credit card, is there any particular one that you have found to be easy to deal with and has a good rewards program? I’ve looked at tons of website resources but am having trouble narrowing it down. I realize this is mildly off topic, but thank you for your help-
    -Aarika

  • Rex says:

    Hi Chris…great time at WDS and already looking forward to next year! Kendra and I have quite a few miles in the AE membership rewards program. Is their a particular frequent flier program you would suggest transferring them to or is it better to just leave them there until you’re ready to use them? Thanks!

  • Chris, can you share a bit more about using stopovers, in terms of booking strategy. In the past, I’ve found it difficult to pull the trips together online. Are they better handled using an agent? Thanks! Audrey (ps @Charlotte ~ what a great trip – rock on!)

  • Alyssa says:

    I have racked up 115,000 US Airway miles and want to take a trip before they expire…any warm climate international destinations you could suggest that I have enough miles for?

  • Drew says:

    Modest travel plan this summer – Taking advantage of Alaska Air’s promotion to go to Hawaii. Sign up for the credit card and get a $99 companion fare and 25,000 miles plus I’ll get another 25,000 bonus miles enough for a CONUS roundtrip after completing the two legs.

  • You got an email advising of your million mile status?? No fair! Isn’t like in the movies where a nice steward comes down with a bottle of champagne and warm words of thanks from the captain?

  • Molly says:

    I am brand new to travel hacking, and feeling a little overwhelmed. Not sure where to start. I want to go back to Africa. Should I be choosing miles programs based on my goal or just choose anyone from each of the big three alliances?

  • Steve says:

    Chris-
    I live vicariously through these travel related posts. I am a bit grounded right now, by choice though- teaching and writing commitments keep me location dependent. Keep up the good work.

  • James says:

    Great, now I want to go to Easter Island for absolutely no good reason!

  • This is great information. I was a tour director for a few years and I didn’t know all these tricks. I’m referring folks from my blog to this post! Thanks again for the tips.

  • Collin says:

    Hi Chris: I’ve racked up many miles thanks to you and have 100,000 at US Airways thx to the buy-up. Now I want to transfer some of those miles to my kids for a family trip to Aruba. Is the only way to transfer the miles to their FF accounts for a fee, or is there another way? Many thanks.

  • HOLLY says:

    My husband and I are booking a flight to Africa to volunteer building a school in Sierra Leone. Any tips for getting to Freetown cheaply? I have about 30,000 Star Alliance miles, which I know is not much… Right now Icelandair has the best price from Seattle to London and Air France looks good from London to Freetown… But it is still extremely expensive! Any help would be appreciated. Thank you for writing, been a fan for a long time.

  • Chris says:

    @Holly,

    Unfortunately, there aren’t many deals to places like Freetown. If you get more Star Alliance miles, you could look for an award on Brussels Airlines.

  • Trevor says:

    Hey Chris,

    In August 2011 I’ll be traveling from either Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina to the U.S. West Coast (anywhere). I’d like to make a side trip to Asia (anywhere) or the South Pacific (anywhere) en route to the United States.

    Recommendations on hubs? If you could throw out some ideas I’ll do my own research on them.

    Thanks, love the blog!
    Trevor

  • Mari says:

    Chris, how do you plan a stopover in a country for a decent amount of time to do a bit of sightseeing before you have to catch your connecting flight? I’ve had stopovers that are a few hours but that’s not enough to leave the airport and come back. Thanks!

  • Tom says:

    My wife and I want to get to NZ next year using miles (have mostly UA/CO and SPG Starpoints to burn) in business or better. Our daughter will be 2 next year though, so we’ll need a seat for her as well. I know finding 3 award seats on the same flight will be challenging – we can split up if necessary, but would like to avoid that if possible…any tips on the best time of the year to find award seat availability? Also, how far ahead should I start looking?

  • Chris says:

    @Tom,

    Indeed, that will be a challenge. If you can get two seats in Business, I’d snap them up – then put them in the names of one of the adults and your daughter. Next, work on adding another seat for the second adult later, even if in Economy (and hope the Business cabin opens up a seat at some point, in which you can pay to change).

    In addition to the difficulty of finding three seats in a premium cabin, NZ is also difficult in general. So as soon as you find something that is close to what you want, don’t wait. :)

  • Chris says:

    @Fiona,

    Alas, I think that was just the movies…

    @Molly,

    If you’re just getting started, it’s good to relate your travel goals to a specific strategy. So in your case, you want to go back to Africa. Where in Africa? How will you get there? Which programs offer the best opportunities for mileage redemption? Those are the questions to think about next.

    @Alyssa,

    Not sure… it’s a big world out there. :)

    @Audrey,

    Yes, it’s usually much easier to get stopovers booked over the phone than online. Often, the online system only allows short connections. Every airline has different rules about this, so the best bet is to phone.

    @Rex,

    American Express Membership Rewards points are valuable on their own – it’s usually best to keep them their until you need to transfer them for something specific.

  • Kim Kircher says:

    Just yesterday, as my husband and I stood in line to get on a plane, I declared how ridiculous I thought frequent flyer programs were. Their promise always felt hollow and unusable when it came right down to it. Thanks for the reminders that you have to use them correctly.

  • Heather Russell says:

    Great post. I’m a member of your travel hacking membership site. Thanks for all the great info. Have you ever used points.com? According to their marketing, you can transfer / exchange points between carriers. Is this the real deal or is their a catch. Have you ever used it?

  • Chris says:

    @Heather,

    Unfortunately there’s a big catch with Points.com – the valuation is extremely poor, so much that it’s not usually worth it.

  • Wayne Allen says:

    Chris! Thanks for the heads up re. US Airways 100% bonus – purchased 50,000, got 100,00.
    I want to be sure I “get” this – I checked partner airlines (i.e. Air Canada, Continental) and the points necessary to fly to Costa Rica

  • Wayne Allen says:

    …sorry about that!
    to fly to Costa Rica return is “best” on Continental. Can I book a flight on Continental and just use my US Air miles (or Air Canada Miles, for that matter) or am I missing something?

  • jason says:

    Hey Chris, thanks for all your tips! I just recently purchased a round-trip ticket from jfk to heathrow on virgin Atlantic through travelocity. I’m not a member of their awards programs. is there anyway to get miles post-purchase?

  • alysia says:

    my family & I will be back & forth NYC & LA a LOT in next few months – any tips to maximize the FF value & minimize costs?

  • Andrew Hunn says:

    My wife and I are planning to use our 100k BA miles from the recent CC promotion to fly to Europe in the fall. Is it possible to redeem miles for 2 economy tickets with disparate locations: i.e. fly from US -> LHR and then FRA -> US. We plan on traveling between the two countries in the interim.

    Thanks for any insight.

  • Chris says:

    Hi all,

    I’ll get to everyone’s questions (many more in the queue) but it will take a while. If anyone else wants to jump in with other answers / more info, go ahead.

    @Alysia,

    If you’re flying the same route frequently, it’s best to pick one carrier and stick with it. That way you’ll get much closer to elite status and free upgrades.

    @Andrew,

    That is *usually* possible, yes. It’s called an open-jaw. I say “usually” only because I’m not 100% sure of the BA rules, but for most airlines, that’s no problem.

    @Jason,

    Yes, most airlines allow you to obtain retroactive credit (some for the past month, some for the past six months) by mailing in your boarding pass. Check Virgin Atlantic’s site for their specific details.

    @Wayne,

    In that case you book the Continental flight with U.S. Airways. It sounds confusing, but just remember you always book with the airline whose miles you have. You can then use flights on any carrier within the alliance, subject to availability.

  • Ashley says:

    Yes, award options show up, but I’ve never been able to book anything with award miles leaving Japan. I called delta to ask about this and they told me that they don’t allow award bookings from Japan.

  • Kurt Swann says:

    Have about 190,000 AA miles and wanting to go to Mr. Elbrus in southern Russia. May not be able to go this year as the area is closed because of terrorism concerns. But for future planning, any thoughts on getting to the nearby airport at Mineralnye Vody, Russia? Sorry for the obscure destination :)

    Kurt

    p.s. A big chunk of those miles I earned from being in Travel Hacking Cartel . . . thanks!

  • Jill Curran says:

    Is there a general rule about how far in advance to book a flight with miles? I just booked a domestic trip on Delta five weeks from now and had to “pay” more than the 25k “price” I was anticipating. Suddenly I don’t have so many free flights. Hope not to have that happen again. Thanks very much!

  • Rick Mulready says:

    Chris, thanks for this info! Planning a trip around Christmas to Paris from SFO, possibly on British Airways. Would like to connect through Boston and stay over a few days. Is this sort of thing easy to do? If so, any suggestion on how to go about it. Thank you, in advance!

  • Thanks for the tips. Getting close to the point that I can actually do something with my frequent flyer miles but always have felt like the airlines try to make it difficult to redeem them. Now I know how to find out the info I need.

  • Sue Reddel says:

    Congrats Chris! Can’t wait to see how you gather the next million miles.

  • Chris says:

    A few more answers:

    @Jill,

    That’s a common issue with Delta – they have had a great deal of mileage inflation. You should generally book as far in advance as possible, or as close to the date of departure as possible. The times in the middle are the hardest.

    @Ashley,

    That still doesn’t sound right. I’d call back.

    @Kurt,

    Sometimes obscure destinations are the best ones to use miles for. In a situation like that, I look at the Wikipedia page for the airport in question (yours is here). Then I figure out which airlines fly there, or at least which destinations are available from the airport. Then I work backwards to figure out how to get there. In this case, it looks like you may need to get to another airport in Russia (easily available with AA miles) and then get a separate ticket to nowhere-land.

  • Considering these have been around for a million years, I always assumed they were super easy, only recently I checked out where I could get to with about 1400 airmiles (my total after about 10+ years). Turns out I can fly to the next Province, or go down to Vegas, from Vancouver. Ha! What a letdown.

  • My husband and I wanted to get to Greece from Seattle in September this year using our 100k+ BA mile awards but there is no availability and even if there were the fees are so stiff we’d still end up spending $1300 for the “free” flights. How far in advance do you recommend usually booking award flights and is $1300 normal for fees, taxes and surcharges? Any workarounds to those?

  • furetosan says:

    I’m reaching just enough miles on United’s plan so that I can sign up to that some sort of upgraded membership. So I don’t make this question only about United, what is the rationale of getting upgrades or free flights?

  • Chris, any tips on consolidating miles from different carriers? I’ve got about 900k miles and hotel points, but I’m having some block on figuring out if I can consolidate them down from different programs into one? or maybe that’s a bad idea altogether.

    AwardWallet has been a huge help in tracking all of the miles for me and my wife though, thanks for pointing me to them!

    Jude

  • dev says:

    ok, just wanted to clarify,
    I hate traveling on -airplanes-,
    and for short stays.
    I love living in different places for a year (or at least a few months) at a time.
    My first comment sounded ridiculous on a (partly) travel blog!
    sorry

  • @chef'sWife says:

    Flying Virgin to Kenya, from the UK, this October-so as to get, for the first time my flyer miles. Hubby coming too not sure how I can best get his miles added to mine. Pray help. Must book flight pronto.

  • Chris says:

    @Chef’s Wife,

    He’ll need his own (free) account – everyone has to earn their own miles for flights. You can sign him up on Virgin Atlantic’s website.

  • Chris says:

    @Michael,

    Yes, 1400 miles won’t get you far…

    @Furetosan,

    Not sure what you mean.

    @Jude,

    You can’t usually “consolidate” miles from multiple programs into one. But if you have that many (900k total), you should certainly be able to get numerous good uses from them.

    @Natasha,

    The issue there is BA-specific. You can use the same miles to book flights to Europe on AA or Iberia, avoiding the expensive fuel surcharges. Mention this preference when you call BA to book.

  • Gary says:

    Hi Chris:

    I am trying to use US Airways miles for an interisland flight in Hawaii. The US Airways chart shows Hawaiian Airlines as a partner and miles can be used for interisland flights. The reservation agent at US Airways indicates that there are no flights on Hawaiian Airlines. What do you know?

    Thanks.

  • Chris says:

    Yes, Hawaiian is not part of Star Alliance but is indeed a limited U.S. Airways partner. As you mention, you should be able to redeem miles for interisland flights (not island-mainland flights). Call back and talk to someone else.

  • Angela says:

    Do you recommend signing up for cards that charge an annual fee (i.e. $79 per year) but that give you more (i.e. double) the rewards of “free” cards. I have a US Airways Business credit card that I’ve been putting all my purchases on so I can use miles, but the yearly fee sucks. Was curious what your thoughts are on for-fee credit cards that give you more benefits.

  • colin says:

    I’ve purchased a flight with kingfisher airlines and not sure i receive air miles with this. I’m guessing i should just contact them and make enquiries. I didn’t purchase the flights with a credit card, would that be a problem?

  • Chris says:

    It doesn’t matter how you purchase the flight. Upon check-in, ask to add your Frequent Flyer number. For Kingfisher, you can also choose to earn miles with AA (and probably other partners too).

  • Marc says:

    I just wanted to drop by and mention that its awesome that you’re taking so much time out to assist in peoples first travel-hacking steps Chris!

  • Erica says:

    Chris, I’m booked on a US Airways coach flight DUB-DFW (via PHL and ORD!) on July 8, 2011. I don’t have elite status on their ff program (or anyone else’s either), but would love to fly business or 1st class at least for the transatlantic portion of the flight.

    Any suggestions for how to finagle an upgrade? Paying for it isn’t in my budget at the moment.

    Thanks for doing this. I know you have tons to do and I really appreciate that you’re taking the time to answer questions on flights and ff programs. I’m learning a lot from reading the comments, too.

  • Chris says:

    If you don’t have status and don’t want to pay, it will be tough. That flight is also coming up in just a few days – so I wouldn’t get my hopes up. You could always ask at check-in if there’s anything that could be done to make it happen. The odds are very low, but no harm in asking.

  • Susan says:

    A friend just turned me on to your blog. I’m a newbie. I’d like to get a credit card soon that earn miles/points plus for purchases and travel with a sign-up bonus as I need to purchase flights for a NYC-SFO-LAX-NYC trip in August. I want to rack up enough miles/points so that I can use them for a trip to Costa Rica in December (or possibly Rome in September). I have 45K miles with USAirways but their flights for my Cali August trip cost 50% more than Delta or Virgin America, for example, so I don’t know if it’s worth spending more to earn miles with the same carrier. What are your thoughts? Thanks!

  • Ashlee says:

    Hey Chris, Thanks for the info!
    I have gotten both the AA CC and BA CC with mileage bonuses(thanks to the cartel). I now have around 100,000 miles on BA and 60,000 miles on AA. My question is should I be focusing on obtaining miles on one program or the other? I would like to use the miles to fly my husband and I to europe next spring, but we also do some domestic flying throughout the year.

  • Chris says:

    @Ashlee,

    Congrats on 160k miles! In that case I would put the 100k from BA to good use, then focus more on earning additional miles through AA.

  • Chris says:

    @Susan,

    It’s not usually worth it to spend (much) more for the sake of earning miles. The exception would be if you already have status with a carrier, which it doesn’t sound like you do.

    @Angela,

    Most – though not all – of the cards that offer big bonuses (25,000+ miles) tend to come with an annual fee. It’s usually worth it in those cases, and you can often have the card “downgraded” to a no-fee one after the first year.

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