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Expert Q&A: Redeem Your Free Flight Faster

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
October 7, 2011

QDear Eva,
My husband and I are planning a trip to Prince Edward Island in Canada next spring for my 53rd birthday, and we are about 12,000 miles away from being able to purchase two round trip flights from San Diego to Charlottetown. My husband heard that we could buy the remaining miles from our airline. But when I called, they said it would cost us 2.95 cents per mile, which seems high. Is this a good deal? Or would we be better off saving the miles for another trip?

AHi Kathleen,
What a lovely trip you’re planning. And certainly, there’s no better way to vacation than courtesy of your frequent flier miles!

However, you’re absolutely right. Purchasing 12,000 miles at 2.95 cents per mile is a high price to pay. You’re looking at paying almost $360 extra to reach the threshold for your free ticket.

Generally, the value of rewards miles is roughly one penny per mile (although it varies according to how you redeem the miles). So if you purchase your miles for 2.95 cents, you’ll pay almost triple the typical redemption value. Th_flier-rewards-step-up

Airlines know how tempting it can be to buy those extra miles to put you over the edge to a free ticket, so the miles are priced accordingly. Miles for purchase are rarely a good deal, even when they are offered at a discount. Ask Eva

The one exception is if you are just 1,000 to 2,000 miles shy of the target amount needed for your free trip. Then it makes financial sense to spend $30 to $60 to buy the extra miles. However, be mindful of extra fees when purchasing the miles; these can often increase the final price far beyond what’s worthwhile.

For a domestic ticket, paying $360 to get a free ticket obviously is not worth the cost. At that price, you might as well just purchase one of the tickets.

However, since you’re looking at an international flight, the situation is a little different. In comparison to the overall price, $360 is proportionately a lower amount. For example, if the two tickets are $1,000 each, spending $360 to save $2,000 is not a terrible deal.

However, it’s also not a great deal. If you’re anything like me, paying triple the actual redemption value of those miles just doesn’t seem worth it.

How to redeem your free flight faster
Let’s take a look at your other options. There are several ways to either save miles on your ticket or speed up your miles earnings. Here are four:

1. Check price points for different airports. Planning your trip differently can often save you a lot of miles. For example, flying on a different day of the week can make a significant difference in a flight’s price.

Also, flying into a larger airport often requires fewer miles because airlines have more open seats on those routes.

Rather than fly into Charlottestown, consider flying into Halifax, where there is much greater availability, possibly at a lower cost. You’d have a longer drive from there to get to Charlottestown, but the savings could be worth it.

2. Apply for a new credit card with a mileage bonus. I assume you already have one frequent flier credit card with the airline you have your miles with. However, consider applying for a new frequent flier card in your name to get the sign-up bonus miles. Once the miles are credited to your account, look into transferring them to your main miles account. Many frequent flier programs have excellent deals for miles transfers between accounts (as opposed to purchasing miles).

Alternatively, you can apply for a travel rewards card that lets you transfer bonus miles earnings to other frequent flier programs. For example, the Chase Sapphire card gives new cardholders a 50,000 point bonus if they spend $3,000 in the first three months. You can then transfer those points on a 1:1 basis to leading airline frequent flier programs. That’s a $500 redemption value.

3. Look for deals at points.com. If you have a small amount of unused miles on another frequent flier account, which you don’t expect to ever be able to redeem, you may be able to trade them for the miles you need at points.com. This website functions as a broker for people who want to add miles from one frequent flier account to another. You have to pay a fee of about one penny per mile, however, so it’s not cheap.

4. Look for ways to accelerate rewards earnings. If you want to book your trip soon, it may be too late to try this option. However, if you decide to use the miles for another trip, speeding up rewards earnings will give you even more options next year.

Look into services such as ChargeSmart.com, which lets you earn extra frequent flier card rewards by using your card to pay your mortgage and other bills that you can’t normally pay with credit cards.

Another popular strategy used by rewards cardholders is to buy birthday or Christmas gifts early or prepay fixed expenses, such as your home and car insurance, for six to 12 months.

Finally, you can use your frequent flier credit card to buy American Express gift cards at sites like BigCrumbs.com. Not only do you get rewards earnings on your credit card when you buy the gift cards, you also get 1.6 percent cash-back on the purchase. Use the gift card for your grocery shopping and other recurring expenses, so you’re not out any extra money.

Of course, these strategies only work of you can still pay off the balance in full at the end of the month. Otherwise, the interest you pay on your credit cards will quickly undermine your savings.

For you, Kathleen, the simplest solution may be to redeem just one rewards ticket to Charlottetown and pay for the other ticket. That way, next year, with all the new miles you will have earned, you can pick another great destination for your 54th birthday and travel there at half price!