Going abroad to study as a teenager, and joining the United Nations at 22, confirmed my ease with the world of the frequent flyer. I saw the average airport terminal as a familiar haven, like a friend’s sitting room. But 9/11 changed all that.
Shashi Tharoor

Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles and Points

Frequent flyer and hotel loyalty program design and rules vary between countries greatly. This post addresses frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs in the US only. I welcome comments about how these programs work outside the US.

This blog was written before the COVID Pandemic. The COVID epidemics played havoc on the travel business. In 2022, Fifty Plus Nomad decided to focus on traveling and living in Mexico and language learning posts. We will only update these long-term travel-related posts on a time-permitting basis. We would appreciate your comments and updates on these posts.

How are Frequent-Flyer Miles and Points Calculated? 

While many travel hackers talk about earning frequent flyer miles and points, some brush over the art of redeeming frequent flyer points. Fifty Plus Nomads must pay attention to both earning and redeeming frequent flyer miles and points.

Here are a few things to keep in mind regarding how frequent flyer points are calculated nowadays

  • Until three years ago, American and United gave a frequent flyer mile for every mile flown. Today they give points based on money spent on tickets from the airline (generally five points per dollar spent after taxes and fees). I sometimes used to book flights from American and United and their partners, even if they were slightly more expensive, to get points on American and United airlines. Nowadays, I think twice about doing this because:
    • Sometimes, flights on some partner airlines (a partner of United Airlines) are not eligible to earn points if you use their low-cost tickets. 
    • I only get between 500-1500 points for most flights on American and United. (I used to get 2-3 times more miles per flight before the airlines determined mileage based on the dollars spent on the ticket).

Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles and Points

  • Using Frequent Flyer award points for flights has another advantage over buying an airline ticket with cash: It is much easier to cancel or change a trip. Generally, if you cancel a flight, you can redeposit your points back into your account online for a modest fee. ($75-125 on United; $150 on American plus $25 for each additional ticket you cancel simultaneously. Note: You may not have to pay this fee if you have some exclusive -i.e., executive- credit cards).
  • If you want to get a ticket that requires a small number of frequent flyer miles to redeem, expect the trip to be inconvenient. I spent the night in a connecting city several times to take advantage of a low-point Frequent Flyer flight.
  • That said, long-distance, transatlantic, business-oriented flights purchased with Frequent Flyer miles and points are often as convenient as those obtained with cash. (This is particularly true with short-haul flights with regular daytime departures).
  • Sometimes, you can get better deals by booking frequent flyer and regular tickets on an airline in the same alliance as your preferred airline. Until recently, for example, many travel hackers recommended using British Airlines for booking flights for members of the OneWorld alliance (instead of American Airlines).

More Tips for Making the Most From Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles and Points

Ensure Airlines Credit All Your Flights

  • I always try to enter the appropriate Frequent Flyer membership number whenever I book a flight online. The membership number you enter should be from an airline that is a member of the same alliance as the airline. In other words, if you are booking a flight on British Airways, you need to enter the American Airlines membership number on the British Airways website upon purchase. (British Airways and American Airlines are members of the Oneworld alliance). If I cannot figure out how to enter the number quickly (this is rare), I will call the airline and ask that they enter the number into my passenger record. While you won’t always get points from partner airlines, you will often get some points. A few partner airlines even award miles based on the miles flown. (I had a pleasant surprise in 2015 when I received around 15,000 American Advantage points for flying on Fiji airlines from Los Angeles to Sydney).
  • I recommend that you keep your boarding pass after you finish a flight. Sometimes, airlines fail to give you points for a trip, particularly if, for some reason, the airlines have re-booked you on a different plane at check-in. (Fortunately, it is relatively rare that airlines do not credit your flights nowadays). You need the flight boarding pass to make a claim online for the airlines to credit these points. 

Want More Information About Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles and Points?

If you want more information on redeeming and earning frequent flyer miles, check out Nomadic Matt’s book How to Travel Hack and Get Free Flights and Hotels, which is the best guide to travel hacking. In addition, if it all seems too complicated for you, let Trevor Wright at Mile Method help.

Additional Long-Term Travel Posts from Fifty Plus Nomad

Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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