The Headache-Free Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles
Magazine / The Headache-Free Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles

The Headache-Free Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles

The Headache-Free Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles

I received a notice from American Airlines, letting me know I had achieved million-miler status. I’ve been working on this for about two years, but the real goal is two million miles—then I get lifetime Platinum status.

As regular readers know, I’m a travel hacker—I earn hundreds of thousands of miles every year and redeem them for high-value trips all over the world. I’ve been traveling actively for ten years, and travel hacking for at least five… it’s made my life MUCH easier, especially on my quest to visit every country in the world.

Travel hacking is about more than just miles—I also use Round-the-World plane tickets, mistake fares, elite status matches, cash-and-points redemptions, and more—but miles are the most important component. Therefore, this post will break down the general idea and several specific scenarios for using Frequent Flyer Miles to go anywhere.

First, don’t waste your miles

Most frequent flyer miles are wasted. Stop mileage waste! Don’t let good miles die! In almost every major airline program, miles only expire when there has been no use in the account for a year or more (sometimes a lot more). It doesn’t take much to keep your accounts active—in some cases all you need to do is complete a survey, join an email list, or transfer 100 miles in or out of the account to reset the clock.

Miles are also wasted for low-value redemptions and expensive “Standard” awards designed by the airlines to reclaim your hard-earned mileage currency. Don’t give in! Use your miles only for “Saver” awards that would otherwise cost a lot of money.

Next, learn the basic rules…

The basic goals of award redemptions are a) always consider partner airlines when redeeming miles, and b) always try to get the best possible value for your miles. To accomplish both of these goals, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade: route maps and award charts.

Route maps will show you where any particular airline flies, as well as the total coverage for any of the three major alliances. Award charts will tell you how many miles are required for any particular redemption. Matching these tools together is the key to your adventuring success.

You can see the route maps for the two largest airline alliances here:

Star Alliance Route Map

OneWorld Route Map

Basic but very important fact: you can earn miles on any carrier in the alliance, and redeem them on any other carrier. Earn AA miles, redeem them for Cathay Pacific. Earn United miles, redeem them for Swiss Airlines… and so on.

Route maps are fun for dreaming and education—you need to have a destination in mind, and you need to educate yourself on how you can get there. There is often more than one way to get there, and it comes in handy to be aware of the options when looking for availability.

The next step is to look at specific awards charts. Unlike route maps, there is no single “Star Alliance award chart” or “OneWorld award chart”—instead, you need to find the one for the specific airline you’ll be using miles from, NOT the airline you plan to actually fly. Here are a few links to current ones:

If you don’t see the one you want, just Google “[airline name] frequent flyer award chart” or check the website for the specific program. Every program has one except Delta, which lives in a world of its own (long story). The more you familiarize yourself with the awards charts, the more you’ll understand where miles can take you.

A Few Examples:

The best value of Frequent Flyer Miles lies in international trips—especially to destinations that are either far away or cost-prohibitive.

You can get to Easter Island, one of the most remote places on earth, by paying thousands of dollars. Or you can use AA miles to book yourself down to Santiago or Lima and then over to the island. As far away as it is (in the middle of the Pacific ocean, 2300 miles from Chile), it still counts as a “South America” award.

You can go to Brunei, a small kingdom hidden away in Southeast Asia, by using miles from Air Canada, United, or U.S. Airways to book flights on Singapore Airlines.

You can go anywhere in the South Pacific for the same price in miles as going to New Zealand or Australia. Therefore, book your award with a stopover in Auckland (for example) and then to Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, or Tonga. Two countries for the price of one!

If you’re using U.S. Airways miles, in fact, you can route your South Pacific award from North America via Asia, going through Thailand, Japan, or Singapore en route to your “real” destination.

Pretty much anywhere you want to go, miles can get you there. For the exceptions, miles can get you close—and then you travel overland to your final destination, or fly on the one airline that goes there.


version of this post appeared on Chris Guillebeau’s website where he writes about work, travel, and life.

the Next Big Idea App

app-store play-market

Also in Magazine