For the past few years, even in the middle of the pandemic, Patricia Winder has been logging about 10,000 miles a month flying across the country for her job managing construction projects for a real-estate developer. Her travels—typically in the front of the plane—have earned her Diamond status on Delta Air Lines along with many mileage points. But it hasn’t earned her what she really wants: A pair of business-class tickets for a long-promised European vacation with her husband.
Patricia shed some points for a family trip but still holds more than 350,000 miles, saying, “Every time I try to cash them in, it seems it’s never enough”—an increasingly common lament among fliers. “It has gotten a lot harder now,” said David Hotz, vice president of operations for Cranky Concierge, a flight- and award-booking service. “I once flew first class to Southeast Asia from Washington, D.C., for 80,000 miles. Now people are forking over that much to go from Wichita to Atlanta.”
Even before the pandemic, award requirements were rising. Now, with more people sitting on stockpiles, the competition for free flights and upgrades is even fiercer. Big-spending homebodies earned miles without ever setting foot in a plane, racking up points putting Peloton bikes and groceries on their plastic. Though they and others may be looking at their piles of miles as a sort of travel savings plan that will be there when they want it, they could be making a mistake. “Points continue to be devalued,” said Gary Leff, founder of the air travel website View from the Wing. “The time to act is now.” So, what to do? Here is some overarching advice and specific tips from mileage experts.
1. Transfer Your Miles to Another Airline
Many travel-oriented credit-card and airline programs make it easy to redeem your miles on partner airlines. For example, if you have a stash with Delta, you can use it for Virgin Atlantic flights. Or the points accrued through a credit card like Chase Sapphire, American Express Platinum or Capital One Venture can be redeemed on a number of airlines. Look out for periodic transfer-bonus deals, which aren’t always advertised but can save thousands of points. A recent deal available on the award booking site Point.me: a New York to Paris one-way flight in business class on Lufthansa in May, via Frankfurt, for 45,000 Citi Premier card points transferred through Turkish Airlines, a partner of the German carrier
2. Consult a Mileage ‘Concierge’
A cottage industry of mileage hackers who keep careful tabs on the programs has arisen. For a fee, you can hire one of these whizzes to guide you through the mileage maze. Point.me has a self-service option that uses an aggregator tool to let you plug in dates and cities and compare how many points or miles you’ll need. The $5 “starter pass” is good for 24 hours. Or, for $200 per passenger, you can use a full-service booking feature, which can be useful if your plans are somewhat complicated or you want to travel in high season. Point.me founder and CEO Adam Morvitz, who got into the business in 2011 with a startup called Juicy Miles, said he’s been bombarded with requests for flights to Europe since early spring, when Covid restrictions started to fall. A recent coup: two one-way business class tickets in early August from Boston to Amsterdam, via Dallas, for 57,500 miles each on American, using miles from partner airline Alaska. Cranky Concierge also offers an international award booking service starting at $250 per person.
3. Chase the Deal, Not the Destination
You can blow a half million points or more if you have your heart set on a summer sojourn in France, but wouldn’t you rather get the most mileage bang for your buck? Be flexible on where and when you choose to spend your miles. If it’s for summer, look at South America instead of Europe, recommends Mr. Hotz. Or book now for a winter holiday—a New Year’s trip from New York to Cabo San Lucas, via Austin, could recently be booked on American first class for as little as 28,000 miles one-way.
4. Take a Detour
Consider flying to a third country en route to your intended destination. View from the Wing’s Mr. Leff recently redeemed United points for three business-class tickets for a family trip to Australia through United’s partner Air Canada. He spent 80,000 points for each ticket—a total savings of 360,000 points from what United would have charged him, he said. The catch: He had to fly from his hometown of Austin to Sydney via Vancouver on the Canadian carrier, which added extra flying time.
5. Look Beyond the Usual Airlines
U.S. airlines and some of the big European lines are having no trouble filling their flights, but some foreign carriers that you might overlook may have more availability. For example, if you’re set on Italy, consider Emirates’s New York to Milan nonstop. A recent check of Emirates’s fare calendar turned up a roundtrip business class ticket on the route in early August for 145,000 miles plus a fee of $172.
6. Do a Mileage Checkup
Get a sense of what your mileage balance is worth. That’s harder now that most airlines have stopped publishing fixed award charts, moving to a “dynamic” model with ever-changing redemption levels. Depending on whom you ask, your miles are worth at least a penny or two each, maybe more. “It all depends on how you redeem them,“ said Mr. Leff. Airlines also have added fees to many of these “free” award tickets, making the calculation even more difficult to nail down. If you’ve got miles banked in a specific airline program, check out what your carrier offers in the way of tools to help simplify the process. United Airlines has added mileage-award searches to its interactive route map; American Airlines has a “Miles Finder” map.
7. Bulk Up Your Miles
A quick way to pad your mileage balance is by looking out for big sign-up offers from the major travel-friendly credit cards—including Chase Sapphire Reserve, American Express Platinum and Capital One Venture. Some offer as many as 100,000 points (but often come with high annual fees). Travel sites like View from the Wing and the Points Guy routinely post these deals.
8. Cash Out and Get Out
Other experts say the best strategy may be none at all: As points lose their buying power, you might do best to stop trying altogether. “The airlines have gotten us so confused, these programs make no sense except to those few who really know how to play the game,” said Joe Brancatelli, who runs the JoeSentMe.com business-travel website. “For the rest, the best strategy is to switch to cash-back credit cards instead.” Then use that rebate to help pay for your next vacation.
This article was written by Barbara Peterson and published in Barron’s on June 24, 2022.
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