Top 10 Frequent Flyer Airline Mile Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Regular readers are pretty savvy about frequent flyer miles and points, both maximizing earning these miles and points and redeeming them on high value award flights. But as part of advising clients of my Award Booking service and also via email, I often get questions from folks with lots of miles or points who could have earned a lot more frequent flyer miles, kept those miles alive, or gotten a lot more value when redeeming those miles. Here are the top 10 mistakes I see people make when it comes to their airline frequent flyer miles, and how to avoid them.

1. Using a Single Cash Back Credit Card Instead of Several Miles or Points Earning Credit Cards

As I mentioned in my guest post at Get Rich Slowly, 8 Reasons You Should Throw Away Your Cash Back Credit Card if You Love to Travel, anyone who values international travel, especially in business class or first class, is leaving money on the table by paying with a cash back credit card–even if you're getting 2-3% cash back on everything. By thoughtfully applying for the best travel credit cards, you can easily earn hundreds of thousands if not 1 million or more miles and points every year that, redeemed for international first and business class travel, will be worth far more than what you'd earn using a cash back card.


2. Not Leveraging Category Bonuses

If you're normally only getting 1 mile or point per dollar spent, you're doing something wrong–not taking advantage of category bonuses. The best category bonuses are:

  • 5X points per dollar at office supply stores with the Ink Bold or Ink Plus 
  • 5X points per dollar at rotating categories such as drugstores, gas stations, Amazon, etc. with the Chase Freedom card
  • 3X per dollar on airline spend with the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold and AMEX Business Gold Rewards cards
  • 2.14X per dollar on all travel and dining spend with the Sapphire Preferred, taking into account the 7% annual dividend

3. Letting Miles Expire

Letting miles and points expire unused is akin to throwing money away, especially for larger account balances. In most cases there's no need to take a flight; they can be kept alive with very small purchases with an airline credit card or via the airline's online shopping portal. See Airline Miles Expiration Policies: Keep Miles From Expiring


4. Redeeming Miles for Products Instead of Award Flights

I remember getting together for dinner recently with one of my husband's old college friends and his wife, who have a ton of AMEX Membership Rewards Points. They mentioned how they'd used some of their points to purchase a waffle maker, which I suspect is not uncommon for folks that haven't yet focused on the value of miles and points. Don't make the same mistake! While I can understand using miles or points for a truly unique VIP experience that you wouldn't have access to otherwise, buying a kitchen appliance or other commodity merchandise with miles or points is a total waste, when those miles could have gone towards a first class award flight.

5. Trying to Use Miles for Upgrades Instead of Awards

I hear fairly often from people who want to “save” their miles or points and book an upgrade instead of an award. Two things: 1) Miles and points should be regularly spent, not hoarded (more on that in #10) and 2) It's almost always better to book an outright award instead of an upgrade.

As Ben covered in Why Award Tickets are Better Deals Than Upgrades, you can only upgrade the most expensive fare classes, particularly if you're trying to upgrade on partner flights, for example using the Star Alliance Upgrade program. Combined with the limited upgrade seat inventory and the ability (at least for U.S. based flyers) to earn a ton of miles and points very cheaply via credit cards, it just doesn't make sense to pay so much money in higher upgradeable fares and co-pays vs. an outright award ticket.


6. Not Using Miles and Points for Partner Awards

People who only fly domestically are missing out on many of the best value uses of their airline frequent miles: partner awards. Some of the best:

  • Star Alliance: Lufthansa, Singapore, Air New Zealand, Asiana, ANA, Thai
  • Oneworld: Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Qantas, Qatar (future redemption partner), British Airways
  • Membership Rewards and SPG: Transfer to Singapore KrisFlyer

Top 10 Frequent Flyer Airline Mile Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

7. Not Planning Ahead Enough or Being Flexible with Dates

While I do get a number of requests for award flights that are just a few months away, the ideal time to start planning is over a year in advance, so that you can ensure you have enough miles and points, and try for seats as soon as the calendar opens. Of course, often the award availability improves shortly before the departure date, but that can be tough if you want more than one award ticket or need to arrange vacation time from work. You maximize your chances of scoring the award tickets you want if you plan well ahead and can be somewhat flexible on the exact dates of your departure and return.

8. Not Maximizing an Award with Stopovers, Open Jaws and Free One Ways

I'll admit that since most of my major trips are with my family, we ourselves don't always maximize an award with lots of stopovers, since we'd rather spend more time at our final destination. But if your goal is to see a bunch of different cities or visit family or friends in several different places, check out our prior posts Maximizing the Value of Your Award Ticket with Stopovers and Open Jaws, How to Book a “Crazy” Award Routing and Use United Free One Ways to Maximize Your Award.

9. Not Earning Additional Miles and Points via an Online Shopping Portal

I've never been a big shopper, but you'd be surprised (or not, if you have a family!) how much even a family of three spends, from clothes and shoes to home furnishings, kitchenware and electronics. The Internet is your friend–instead of wasting time at the mall, save time and earn more miles and points by clicking through a miles or points online shopping portal. You can check to find the portal with the best miles or points bonus, although I prefer using the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall even if payouts are slightly lower because points tend to post more promptly than with other online shopping portals. Don't forget that you can get even more points if you pay for part of the purchase with a gift card that you've gotten 5X points on. As an example, see Ultimate Rewards Mall February 2013 Deals


10. Treating Miles and Points as a Nest Egg

While it can be tempting to build up millions of miles and points for future travel, I'd avoid looking at it as any kind of nest egg. That's because frequent flyer and other loyalty programs undergo regular devaluations of their award charts, requiring more miles or points for award flights. Witness the British Airways and Aeroplan frequent flyer program devaluations in 2011 (see British Airways Avios: Goodbye First Class on Cathay, Hello Coach on American) and the more minor but completely unannounced US Airways mini-devaluation recently (see Reason #1 in Buying US Airways Miles with a 100% Bonus: 5 Reasons Why It's Not a Good Deal).

Plus, alliances can lose partners–Qatar moved from Star Alliance to Oneworld–and flexibile points programs can lose transfer partners, such as AMEX Membership Rewards did with the United-Continental merger.

That's why, while I'm all for earning plenty of miles and points cheaply, I'm also for using these miles regularly on the trips you really want to take, and not just saving up for a future trip that may or may not happen due to frequent flyer mile program devaluations or even personal reasons.

11. Not Getting Your Spouse or Travel Partner to Earn Miles and Points

I know, I know–this is supposed to be Top 10, but I need to add Reason #11. For anyone who is traveling with a spouse or travel partner, it's a huge mistake to make one person do all the miles and points earning unless there's a very good reason (e.g. your spouse or travel partner can't apply for credit cards due to bad credit or because s/he will be applying for a mortgage, student loan or other major loan soon). This especially holds true for families, since your kids can't “pull their weight” in terms of earning miles and points unless they're flying a lot of revenue flights (mileage running with kids, anyone?) Check out Credit Card and Miles and Points Strategy for the Reluctant Spouse or Travel Partner for some specific tips.

So there you have it–those are my top 10 (er, 11) mistakes people make with their airline miles. Any others I missed?

Related Posts

Best First Class Airline Seats for Couples

Earn 1 Million Miles and Points in a Year Without Flying

10 Best International First Class Seats for Award Travel

Tracking and Managing Miles, Points and Credit Cards

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