Frequent Flier Rewards Have Changed, Here’s How to Maximize Your Miles

frequent flier miles tips
Get more rewards miles with these five tricks. Ozgur Donmaz / Getty Images

For years, frequent fliers have been hacking loyalty programs with one smart move: The mileage run. When a mistake fare — say a $350 ticket to Hong Kong — popped up, mileage hoarders would hop on it, often arriving at their destination only to turn around and catch a plane back. The hours in the air paid off: When they got home they’d have enough miles to get an award ticket somewhere they really wanted to go.

But, the mileage run is no more. Most of the major American carriers have moved from “butt-in-seat” miles to five miles awarded per dollar spent. On August 1, 2016, American — the last holdout — will transition its program to this same system. “It rewards those flying in business or first class. For the low-spend traveler, it’s definitely a disadvantage,” says Eric Grayson, the founder of Discover 7 Travel, a concierge travel service.

While these new policies are a bummer, they’re likely here to stay. A 2014 Supreme Court case found airlines hold all the power in loyalty programs. They can even kick you out if you complain too bitterly about policy changes.

Before you despair, know that like almost any system, it can be gamed. “They are making it harder, so you do have to be smarter,” says Kyle Stewart, a contributing editor on Upgrd.com, a site devoted to helping frequent fliers. Here’s how to use every last loophole to your advantage. Sure, it may not get you a lay-flat bed on a trans-continental flight, but at the very least you’ll hopefully be bumped up front from the rear bathrooms.

Get a Rewards Credit Card

Unless you cross an ocean every other week, it’s hard to accrue enough miles for a free flight without one of the many travel-reward credit cards. “The card is really important, it’s where a lot of airlines make money on these programs,” says Stewart, adding that because of this, airlines tend to be more generous with rewards than they are in any other realm. The dollars you spend on gas, groceries, and restaurants should be earning you something, says Grayson.

“Chase, Citi, and Amex all let you earn points, and then you can transfer those points to airlines,” says Chris Lopinto the president of ExpertFlyer.com, a site that helps travelers find and book good seats. You can also transfer the points to certain hotel chains, so if no decent seats are available for the flights you want, at least you can bunk for free.

If you are extremely loyal to one airline, it may be worth getting its card, versus a more generic option, since airline cards usually come with free bag checks and priority boarding. Nerd Wallet ranks the best reward travel credit cards across six categories (check out the list). If you’re a frequent international traveler, for example, Nerd Wallet recommends the British Airways Visa Signature Card.

Compare Before You Redeem

“With revenue tickets, buying earlier is almost always better,” says Lopinto. With award tickets, things are trickier. “Airlines release award tickets randomly,” says Lopinto. This means the mileage requirements can fluctuate and sometimes last-minute fares are the most generous.

If you’re searching for a specific route, it pays to be flexible with dates and times. And start looking early but don't jump at the first offer you see. You can also use a service like Lopinto’s ExpertFlyer.com to track and find award seats at reasonable rates.

Don’t buy anything without comparing the price in miles and dollars. Throughout the frequent flier world, it’s commonly held that frequent flier miles should be worth $0.012 per mile or more. To figure out whether a fare is worth spending miles on or not, divide the price of the fare by the number of miles you need to buy it. If it’s more than .012 cents per mile, you may be better off paying cash and accruing more miles.

Get Status

The more you fly, the better things get. Accruing enough miles within a certain time period will grant you “status” with an airline. Most of the major carriers have several different tiers, and with each one the miles you earn increases. “For a lot of programs, a general member earns five miles-per-dollar, then the next tier is seven, and the top tier elites get 11 miles-per-dollar,” says Stewart. Plus, status matters when it comes to securing upgrades.

For those who don’t fly a ton, the best way to get status is to do a “status challenge.” Airlines occasionally run programs where if you fly a certain number of miles in a certain time period (usually 7,500-10,000 miles within 90 days), you automatically become an elite. Most airlines charge a small fee to participate; $100–$150 is the norm. If you know you have several long hauls coming up (these programs work off of butt-in-seat miles, not dollars spent miles), it’s worth going for.

Once you have status on one airline, you may be able to leverage it for status on another. This is called a “status match,” and Stewart says it’s worth at least lobbying for. Status is generally good for a whole year (sometimes 18 months), so if you wait to do your “status match” until your status on one airline is about expire, you can get a whole extra year of status on another airline for free.

Spend Miles On Upgrades

Right now, airline prices are down. “You can routinely get a ticket from L.A. to Asia for $600,” says Stewart. Buying a coach ticket then using your miles to upgrade to business is often a cost-effective proposition. “If you spend $600 on the fare, plus $350 each way for the upgrade fee and 50,000 miles, you’ve just gotten a business class ticket to Asia for $1,300, when it would normally be $3,000 to $4,000,” says Stewart. 

Loyalty Isn’t Required

“Being loyal is only worth it if you’re getting something out of it,” says Lopinto. If you don’t have status or a credit card that gets you free checked bags, there’s really no point in paying a higher fare on one airline just because that’s where your miles are. Instead, open up accounts for all the major airlines and shop around as needed.

Many mileage experts recommend opening accounts with foreign carriers too, since U.S.-based airlines are, by far, the stingiest. Grayson has an account with Aeroplan, Air Canada’s reward partner. Because it’s part of the Star Alliance, he can earn miles on United flights. But he says Aeroplan has much more availability and lower reward travel costs. It’s also less of a pain in the ass to deal with than anything involving United Airlines. Other great international plans that he recommends include Cathay Pacific, Emirates, and Singapore Airlines.