Making the most of your frequent flyer miles

Airline passengers love collecting frequent flyer miles. Trying to redeem them? Not so much. A study conducted by Colloquy, which analyses loyalty marketing, found that the value of the points and miles issued each year through rewards programs in travel, hospitality, finance and more comes to US$48 billion, about one third of which goes unredeemed. 'There’s so much value here that consumers don’t take advantage of,' says Ryan Eberhard, co-founder of Santa Monica-based Pointhub.com.

True, most airlines don’t make it easy, offering only a fraction of seats to flyers using mileage points. But if you think outside of the flying tin can, there are lots of creative ways to use them: flights, hotel stays, merchant gift cards, even charitable donations. Just note that the rules for booking, modifying or cancelling award travel vary by airline; contact your frequent flyer program for specifics. Here are some tips to ensure you get maximum mileage:

Know your status!

Image by formalfallacy @ Dublin (Victor)

Sounds basic, but one key to effective use of mileage is knowing how many miles you have.

MileBlaster.com is to frequent flyer programs what Facebook is to friendship circles, one place to keep track of your points in various programs: balances, expiration dates, etc. Milewise.com does the same thing and uses an algorithm to recommend whether to purchase your next flight using miles or cash.

Pointhub.com goes one further with side-by-side comparisons of cash vs points based on some two dozen factors including the points’ monetary value and expiration date, and choices by other site users in similar situations.

Scoring a flight - get creative

The surest way to get your first-choice flights is to reserve as early as possible. Tickets on most airlines go on sale about 330 days in advance.

If you can’t plan that far out (I can’t) or seats are already gone when you book, it’s not necessarily a done deal. Inventories shift and frequent flyer seats may be added, so it’s worth trying again. And again. And sometimes again.

Still no success? Be creative – and patient. A good telephone reservations agent can help you get where you need to go, albeit occasionally with convoluted routing or a change of carriers. This can be to your advantage. I was dreading a recent six-hour layover in Frankfurt until I realised I could head into town, scarf schnitzel and ramble between modern architecture, historic squares and the museum district. Pretty darn wunderbar. If your airline allows overnight stays, consider a longer visit.

Trade ‘em with your friends!

Users of Points.com can monitor and trade points among hundreds of loyalty programs including airlines, hotels and retail chains.

Say the flight you want requires 25,000 miles but you have only 21,000 miles in your account. You can transfer miles from another of your frequent flyer programs or trade miles with someone else. It may not be a one-to-one transfer, and there may be a fee which varies by the transaction, but it’s almost always less expensive than purchasing the ticket outright.

Points.com also allows you to use miles toward gift cards or discounts for goods and services with companies including Amazon.com, Starbucks and PayPal credits. Some transactions require as few as 220 miles, useful if you have an oddball number of miles left over.

It's better to give than to redeem

If you’ve got miles to spare – or just have a generous heart – contact your airline about donating them to someone less fortunate. Some charities such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Salvation Army have easy donation facilities as well. In these difficult times, this may be the best use of all.

Travel and food writer Andrew Bender writes the Seat 1A business travel blog for Forbes magazine and articles and guidebooks for dozens of other publications from the Los Angeles Times to Lonely Planet. You can find him on Where'sAndyNow.com.