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Tips for using airline frequent flier credit cards

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  • Major U.S. airlines sell up to 15,000 air miles to members of their frequent flier programs for between 2.5 and 2.75 cents.  While airlines' frequent flier programs were originally created as a way to reward frequent travelers, today most airline credit card programs have become lucrative marketing programs for airlines that may (or may not) make it easy for cardholders to fly for free.  Consider the following article for tips on using an airline credit card.  

Compare Airline Credit CardsEarning airline credit card miles
In the past, airline credit card holders had to get on a plane to earn frequent-flier miles.  Nowadays, airline credit cards are being used to pay for everything from gasoline to food to college tuition to mortgage payments to purchasing vehicles to paying for funerals.  Some cardholders have even racked up airline miles by paying for cosmetic surgery procedures!

Redeeming airline credit card miles
Although it has become easier to earn miles than ever before, it has become more difficult and expensive in many cases to redeem miles for airline seats or upgrades.  This is because as airlines work to cut costs, it is getting tougher to find available free seats, and the miles required for many trips are also increasing.

Experts recommend that cardholders use their airline miles instead of holding on to them for long periods.  Unlike bank accounts, airline miles will not earn interest.  One reason to book airline seats using miles ASAP is that the flights to the most popular destinations often book fast.  Most airlines open up frequent-flier seats about 330 days in advance, but even those can be hard to come by for resort destinations like Hawaii, the Caribbean and Europe.

Cardholders looking to book a flight should check frequently for updated availability, since free seats can be opened up at any time.  Additionally, it's smart to look at the airline's website and sign up for their e-mail newsletter as they may run unannounced specials for certain routes or short-term promotions with reduced miles to certain destinations.

If you still can't book a flight to where you want when you want, consider calling the airline or using their frequent-flier website to find out what's open during that time and make a decision from there.  Or, consider taking other redemption choices, like hotel vouchers or home electronics.  

Airlines have tried to address fliers' difficulty in redeeming miles.  In May, United Airlines unveiled its Mileage Plus Choices Visa Card, which is similar to Capital One's No Hassle Miles Card in that the card's earned miles can be redeemed for any flight at any time, with no blackout dates or seat limitations.  Delta has a similar deal with its co-branded American Express card.

Selecting your flight
Should your request for a flight come up negative, a good course of action educated yourself about all the possible flight alternatives.  Experts advise suggesting different options to agents, as they may not always consider all the different routes.  If you have a good knowledge of the airline hubs, the frequency of the flights, and the flight capacities, you can call the airline and recommend alternative routings for them to check.  You may find that providing information about an alternate routing can enable the agent to view the seat availability and book a ticket at the standard award level. 

When it comes to doing your own research, the Internet is an invaluable tool.  Specialized websites can supply you with up-to-date information on airlines and individual frequent-flier programs and sometime provide community bulleting boards for asking questions about individual air mile programs, such as whether you can use Delta Sky Miles on a Virgin Atlantic flight.  The same sites are a great resource for investigating alternative routes and airline-specific information that can help you discover potential mileage redemption opportunities.

Also, these Internet sites can enable you to build your trip backwards and find alternatives to suggest to the airline representative.  You can start by finding out what airlines fly to your destination and then identifying code-sharing airlines that partner with the one you already have earned miles on.  It can be beneficial to learn all of an airline's partners, from those in alliances like oneworld (www.oneworld.com) or Sky Team (www.skyteam.com), as well as individual partners.

Getting upgrades
Some travelers use their airline credit card miles to get upgrades, such as on international flights.  These cardholders note that when considering the price difference between a business-class and economy ticket, the value difference is significant, making an upgrade a great use of miles.

Taking advantage of rule buster awards
For those cardholders with lots of earned miles stored up, they should consider "rule buster" awards, which generally double the number of miles, to book flights.  Then, airline credit card users should keep checking back as the flight's departure nears to see if a regular seat opens up, as airline release award seats from inventory closer to the flight's departure. By getting a booking with a rule buster award, even if you have to pay a fee to cancel it and redeposit the miles into your account if a regular award opens up, you will still come out on top.   

Getting the most bang for your buck
Although airline credit cards often reward one air mile per dollar of spending, the value of an air mile varies significantly depending on what it is used for.  Air miles are worth more when they are redeemed for business and first class tickets on expensive routes, upgrades from coach to business or first class, and particularly so for international routes with limited competition. 

Finding the 'true' cost of tickets paid for with air miles
An important thing to keep in mind is that the value of air miles is not solely determined by the actual costs of the tickets you can purchase with them.  Flights paid for with air miles or upgrades are worth less to you than the ticket price if you never would have chosen to buy that ticket with cash.

A "free" coach ticket is a terrific bonus, but if you would not have made the trip at all had you been paying cash, it is in fact worth less to you than the advertised ticket price.  To calculate the value to you of a business class ticket purchased using air miles, find the cheapest coach ticket, and then add to its price however much you would be willing to pay cash for an upgrade to business class.  Most likely, it is far lower than the advertised price of the business class ticket.

Other factors to keep in mind when redeeming air miles
There are a number of other reasons why a ticket earned using an airline credit card might not be the best deal for a flight.  For one, the annual credit card fees (usually between $60 and $85) and fees that are sometimes involved in booking tickets using air miles rewards reduce the value of your air miles and can end up costing the cardholder more for flights or upgrades than they may have expected.  And, the high interest rates on airline credit cards may result in serious cost for cardholders who carry a balance.  Separately, air miles programs often have strict date and route restrictions and air miles cannot be used for child fares.  As a result, booking tickets becomes much harder when you are traveling with children.  Also, many budget airlines do not accept air miles and instead have their own frequent flier programs or none at all, meaning the most convenient flight may not take your miles.  Meanwhile, air miles lose value as airline fares continue to fall due to the competition from low cost carriers. 

Additionally, air miles can lock into using a credit card for longer than you would have used it. The time it takes to build up a balance of air miles large enough to redeem for a flight can force you to use an airline credit card for a long time, preventing you from switching to a credit card that offer superior rewards.  Finally, booking a ticket using air miles is often less convenient and more time consuming than buying tickets on the Internet, while using air miles to locate a nonrestricted flight can be more of a hassle. 

While experts suggest using air miles as soon as possible, they do not seem overly worried about the prospect of air miles disappearing in the face of some airlines' poor economic health.  Rather, the experts note that an airline will keep its frequent-flier program alive as long as the carrier is in business, since the airlines actually make money on the program by selling the miles to banks, stores, and other providers. 

You might be an ideal candidate for an airline credit card if...
Due to the many factors involved in redeeming air miles, it make seem like most cardholders should simply pass on this type of credit card and select one with some other type of rewards program.  However, you are likely to get the most our of an airline credit card if you build up rewards rapidly, travel internationally for fun without children in tow, and would normally choose to pay for a business class ticket.  If you do not fall into this group, perhaps you should consider a cash back credit card.  

Published: August 25, 2006


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Updated: 09-28-2016


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