Who doesn't dream
about a free vacation?
miles -- and the prospect of free travel -- are one
of the hottest consumer incentives. The implied promise:
Collect enough, and save them long enough, and that
magical trip can be yours.
OK, now come back to reality. Miles are
great, and they can definitely offset the cost of travel,
but if you really want to get the most for them, it
pays to be practical.
What's a frequent-flier mile really worth?
That depends on where you're going, when and how many
other people want to fly there.
Most travel experts agree that the intrinsic
value of frequent-flier miles is dropping. "Rule
No. 1: Don't hoard points, spend them," says Edward
Hasbrouck, author of "The
Practical Nomad" travel series. "They
are going to be less valuable."
At the same time, some airlines are giving
consumers new options for their miles, including merchandise,
tickets for shorter trips, discount specials and vacation-related
tours. "Airlines are becoming more aware and more
accommodating," says Amy Farley, associate editor
of Travel + Leisure magazine.
||Boost your miles
Examine your alternatives.
Where will those miles give you the most bang for the
buck? Sure, you could use them to cover a complete flight
to Chicago or maybe give you an upgrade for that trip
to Europe with the kids.
"If you spend 40,000 points for a
ticket that would cost you $800, you're getting 2 cents
for every point," says Hasbrouck. "If you
use the same 40,000 points for a place you could get
for $400, you're getting only 1 cent each for your points."
Chances are, you can use those miles to offset the cost
of travel, but you might not be able to use them for
that dream vacation. Many times, the more popular a
destination or flight, the less likely you'll be able
to use your miles. Ditto for those high-traffic travel
times, such as the holidays.
"If I want to go to Des Moines at
3 in the morning, I can probably redeem my miles,"
says Peter Greenberg, author of "The
Travel Detective." "But if I want to go
to Hawaii in my lifetime, I probably can't." As
a result, he says, "mileage redemption levels are
3. Look at partner
This especially applies if you're worried about a carrier's
financial health, says Greenberg. "Every
airline has a strategic alliance. Pick a partner airline
and redeem miles for that trip 11 months away."
If the carrier changes routes or goes under, "you
can always redeposit the miles," he says.