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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lost in The Mile Maze 1.26.11

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Frequent Flyer Miles…does the phrase make you cringe or get angry? Well, it shouldn’t, because when you know how to effectively use your mileage programs, you will get more miles than before and earn free flights faster. Have you ever earned a free flight? If the answer is no, you definitely need to keep reading, because not only is it wonderful to be able to erase airfare almost entirely from your vacation budget, it is deeply satisfying when you get on a flight that you paid practically nothing for. All that money can be saved for a future vacation or spent on a longer or more fun-filled trip. Here are some great ways to maximize your miles and get yourself on (just about) free flights more often.

Sign up for Frequent Flyer programs. This is probably the most important part of being able to use the programs. If it wasn’t already a given. If you aren’t interested in getting email related to the airlines, you don’t have to, but it is one of the best ways to know about upcoming airfare sales from your home airport and/or to your preferred destination(s).

Favor one or two airlines. If you only fly once or twice a year, this is especially important. The fewer programs you can build points on, the easier it will be to reach your goal. Seems relatively logical, right? Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t think about it and just book on the cheapest airline.  There are many competitive airlines out there that will match other airfare sales, so if you are a mileage member of one of the big airlines (i.e. Delta, United, American, Alaskan), chances are you will be able to get a comparable rate with a bit of searching. If you end up with 5 flights on 5 different airlines, it’s going to take much longer to reach a 25,000 mile reward seat than if you flew those same 5 flights on just 1 or 2 airlines. Also, with the way miles can roll off your account after a set amount of time, it allows you to keep your miles active longer.

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Photo courtesy of Brad Jennings
Sign up for dining and shopping reward programs associated with your airline’s frequent flyer program. The dining program is one of the easiest to use. You register up to three credit/debit cards online and then anytime you dine at one of the listed restaurants, you get miles! Mileage varies by day and each restaurant, but you will see how many miles you accrue for each dollar you spend. We dine out whether we get rewards or not, so it’s always a plus to get an email that says X number of miles were credited to my account. The shopping programs are a bit more complicated, though not much. Most are only available for online merchants, which you may or may not even use. If you do, then you will need to follow each airline’s rules. Some ask you to register a credit card, some ask you to use the links through them to the merchant. It does take extra steps however you look at it, so it’s not as easy as the dining, since it requires more thought.

Look for “bonus” deals through airfare partners. Many times you can find deals and book hotels, car rentals and activities through your airline and receive miles for the dollars you spend, in addition to the points you’ll get on the rewards programs for hotels and car rentals. It’s like double points for doing what you were going to do anyway. Airlines can partner with these other companies to get you even more rewards. Here’s an example: As a reward for booking an Avis rental car through American Airlines by a given end date, you can get double mileage, a great deal and points for your Avis membership. All at once you’re closer to a free plane ticket, upgraded or discounted car rental, and you’ve chopped a bit off your vacation budget.

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Trade miles and points between programs. You can’t do this with all mileage and rewards programs, but there are many that will allow you to do so. One of the easiest ways to see all the options you have available is through Points.com. Enter all your rewards numbers/user IDs and passwords and Points.com will show you if you can trade points from programs like MyPoints, Enterprise, and Marriott to other rewards programs or mileage plans. One example is that you can turn your Hilton Honors points into American Airlines miles. 10,000 HH points convert to 1,000 AA miles. Seems like a lot of work for only 1,000 miles? Not really. Here’s another smart idea:
Sign up for online rewards programs. There are a bunch of these, like MyPoints, Freeride and so on. Here are a few that can directly impact your mileage totals:
  • E-miles: Sign up for free and then choose your reward carefully, because you can’t change it unless the airline or hotel is not offered in your area anymore. I chose Delta for some reason, and now realize I could have used it for Hilton Honors points. E-miles will send you an email when “offers” are available to you. You log on to the site, click on offers and get 5 miles for each one you look at and complete a few survey questions for. Of course, you can earn more miles if you take the offer, which can be anything from donating to World Wildlife Fund to ordering a subscription to National Geographic Kids. Once you reach 500 miles or points, you can move them over to your chosen membership. Super easy to get miles without much effort and to keep your accounts up-to-date.
  • E-rewards: If you aren’t averse to taking a bit of time to complete surveys a few times a week, this is a great program. Each survey tells you approximately how long it should take and how much “money” you’ll get when you complete it. Sometimes you won’t qualify for the survey, but you’ll still get some credit anyway. You rack up dollars and cents in rewards money, which you can then trade in for coupons, magazine subscriptions, frequent flyer miles or hotel points. It’s fairly easy to keep up on and they don’t bombard you with surveys every five minutes, so it’s not tedious, but it does take some time to build up your account credit. The downside to e-rewards is that it's by invitation only and the only way to be invited is by signing up with one of their rewards partners.
  • MyPoints: It’s been around for a long time, but still some people haven’t signed up for it. You click on emailed offers. You get 5 points for each one you click on and more if you complete an offer, which could be signing up for a newsletter, ordering flowers and anything in between. It’s fairly painless. You can also earn points by making purchases through participating online merchants. You just log on to your account and then click through the merchant on the site. While you can only trade for United frequent flyer miles, you can also trade your points for travel merchant gift cards, dining gift cards and more that can be used on or for your travels. I tend to use mine on things like Rainforest Café, Chili’s or Shell gas gift cards that I know I will use on vacations. It gives the budget a tiny break.
  • Ebates: Use Ebates for cash back on different travel merchants, including Expedia, Hotels.com, HotelClub and more. See my article on the Ebates blog for more information on how this can save you money.
Keeping track of your miles. I talked to you about Travelgrove on Saturday, so today I’d like to show you other ways to keep track of your miles. Points.com is one of them, which I showed you above.
  • Another one is TripIt Pro. While you know I’m a big advocate for TripIt, because it keeps all your confirmation numbers, dates, times, phone numbers, addresses and more, I also want you to try the Pro version. You get a 30-day trial version to test if you like it and, if you do, you pay $49/year. I would suggest this only if you’re a frequent flyer, as it is a bit spendy and won’t really save you any money in the long run if you don’t use it enough. What makes TripIt Pro different from plain old TripIt? A lot of things: Get flight delay, gate change and cancellation alerts, keep track of all your miles, get trip refund alerts (if the fare on your flight drops after purchase and the airline allows refunds to be given), elite membership for certain rental car companies and more.
  • Award Wallet is free and keeps track of all your mileage and reward programs. Not only that, but they will alert you when your miles are going to expire and what you can do to prevent yourself from losing them. When you have any sort of point increase or decrease, you receive an email with that information. You never have to remember your member IDs or passwords once you put them into Award Wallet. Instead, you just log on to Award Wallet and click on the program you want to go to. It automatically logs you in so you can do everything you need to do as seamlessly as possible. No more digging in your emails or in your purse to find your number or PIN. You can get even more benefits if you upgrade your account to Award Wallet Plus, including history of your accounts, by inviting 5 friends to join Award Wallet (upgrade is then free) or by paying a small annual fee. 
Hopefully, this can get you on your way to accruing more miles for your frequent flyer accounts and closer to free airfare. You will have to pay a small fee to use your miles when using them for a rewards ticket, but it is, by far, much cheaper than paying for the entire ticket out of pocket. One last piece of advice for trading miles for flights: In order to get the most out of the miles you’ve collected, try to get the biggest airfare for free that you can. Right now, with 25,000 miles usually being the total needed for a round-trip flight, 1 mile is the equivalent of 2 cents, so in order to make them work in your favor, you need to trade them in for a ticket that costs $500 or more. Luckily, this can be easy to do and even easier when you only have to worry about scheduling and available reward seats. If you trade your miles in for a fare less than $500, you are basically giving the airline part of their money back, so if you can make it over that cap, you are saving money and also making the most of your miles.

With these tips in mind, start racking up your miles and flying further for less!

MP3 player speaker
While I have not had a post in a while with any cool gadgets, I feel it’s time to give you some more ideas on what to gift yourself and other travelers in your life who also love gadgets. Budget Travel Magazine (one of my faves) has put out this Top Ten list of fancy new gadgets that travelers are going to be drooling over, myself included. From Lady GaGa inspired camera glasses to a carry-on that doubles as a place to sit in a crowded terminal. None of them are necessary, but they sure are fun!

Don’t forget to check back on Saturday for tips on how to save on your Summer Vacations. Yes, you should be thinking about that already. While things will still be more than they are almost the whole rest of the year, there are still ways you can get some deals and save a few bucks. Also stay tuned for ways you can spend your tax rebates and what you can still do for Valentine’s Day to surprise your Sweetie.

Can’t wait to read more? How about checking out my articles for the following sites and then taking a look around them and seeing how awesome and useful they are to your travel lives! I hope to add more to this list, so I’ll update as they are available.

My Itchy Travel Feet

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