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how to use airline miles

I'm probably like a lot of you guys - I'm sitting on a literal mountain of hotel, airline, and car rental miles, credit card points and other loyalty credits from various sources. For some brands - like my Marriot and Hilton points, these are being saved up for an awesome "free vacation" at some point but with others such as my 300,000+ AAvantage miles from American Airlines that I banked while in San Diego, I'm frankly not sure what to do with them. I don't fly American Airlines anymore since Delta is the big player out of Detroit. Because of this, I've started thinking about what I can do with those points besides redeeming for a flight somewhere. At one point I'd just looked at them as being something to bank like cash but the reality is that every year the industry continues to devalue them by changing redemption rates, adding fees, and restricting what flights you can redeem them for. This isn't cash in the bank, it's an asset that becomes less and less valuable every year!

In short, don't let those unused airline miles or loyalty points go to waste. Use them creatively and practically in your journey from tenant to homeowner. Trust me, every bit helps.

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Always Check Your Loyalty Program Terms and Conditions To Find Limitations

To understand your loyalty program's limitations, it is imperative to carefully read through the terms and conditions of your specific program. Each program differs, like an exclusive club with its own set of rules and regulations. This includes restrictions on how you can redeem points and what you can do with them other than buying airline tickets or hotel room nights. For instance, while some programs allow selling miles, this can be against the terms and conditions of other programs. This can be confusing for some folks since there can be restrictions that, while not "illegal," are against the company's policies. 

The last thing you want to do is make a mistake and find that your hard-earned points have been completely wiped from your account!

Key Terms And Conditions Details To Look At

  • Expiration Dates: Many programs have expiration policies for points and miles. If not used within a certain time frame, typically ranging from 12 to 36 months, these can expire and be irretrievably lost.
  • Blackout Dates: Some programs restrict the use of miles or points on certain peak travel dates, known as blackout dates. This can limit your ability to use rewards during popular travel periods such as holidays or major events.
  • Transfer Restrictions: Points and miles often cannot be transferred between different programs or may incur fees when transferred. Additionally, transferring points to another person may be restricted or subject to high costs.
  • Earning Limitations: There might be caps on how many points or miles you can earn within a certain period or on specific types of purchases. This can limit the potential rewards from big purchases or frequent spending.
  • Redemption Fees: Redeeming miles or points for travel or other rewards can sometimes involve additional fees, reducing the overall value of your points. These fees can vary widely among programs and redemption types.

If you have questions about what you can and can't do with your loyalty program, the best bet is to look on the airline or hotel website. We're going to discuss some common suggestions below but as I've found out from personal experience - what works for AAdvantage Miles might not be the same as Delta SkyMiles. While most programs work similarly, as they say ... the devil is in the details!

Airlines

  • American Airlines AAdvantage: Offers miles for flights with American Airlines and its partner carriers, redeemable for flights, upgrades, and more.
  • Delta SkyMiles: Features no blackout dates on Delta flights, and miles do not expire, redeemable for flights, seat upgrades, and car rentals.
  • United MileagePlus: Provides opportunities to earn and spend miles on United flights and services, with extensive partner networks.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards: Known for its ease of earning reward flights without blackout dates or seat restrictions on Southwest Airlines.
  • British Airways Executive Club: Allows earning and spending of Avios on flights, upgrades, and more with a focus on transatlantic travel.

Hotels

  • Marriott Bonvoy: Combines previous loyalty programs from Marriott, Starwood, and Ritz-Carlton, offering benefits across a vast portfolio of hotels.
  • Hilton Honors: Provides benefits and point earning opportunities across Hilton's extensive global network of hotels.
  • World of Hyatt: Known for its generous point earnings and redemption opportunities across Hyatt hotels and resorts worldwide.
  • IHG Rewards Club: Covers InterContinental Hotels Group hotels, offering rewards for hotel stays, airline miles, and more.
  • Wyndham Rewards: Includes a straightforward point system for stays at Wyndham hotels and the ability to redeem points for free nights.

With all of that out of the way, let's take a look at some things that you can do with your unused airline miles and other loyalty points ... 

Donating your unused miles to a charity or non-profit organization is a noble act that many organizations appreciate. Such donations can be used to support their operations or help those in need. Not only does this allow you to contribute to a cause you hold dear, but it also fosters a sense of community involvement.

Please note, however, that donating miles has tax implications. Most often, you won't receive a tax deduction for these kinds of donations, as the IRS does not categorize miles as income. It's advisable to consult a tax professional for an accurate understanding of your specific situation though.

Generally speaking, donating miles and points is more of a generous act rather than something that can be used to benefit you financially. While some airlines may allow full flexibility when it comes to donating miles, most offer a limited set of organizations that allow you to donate miles. For example, American Airlines restricts you from donating miles to four different organizations, including Miles for Social Good and Miles For Heros. On the other hand, Delta has a much more robust list of organizations, including Habitat For Humanity and American Red Cross.

These miles donated are used by the organizations to help move people around the world as needed to serve their mission, help refugees, or even service dogs in the case of Canine Assistants.

Donating is usually simple and can be completed online through the airline or loyalty program's website.

Use Points To Upgrade Your Inflight Experience

Aside from purchasing airline tickets, using unused airline miles and loyalty points to upgrade your inflight experience is one of the most common uses. These points can be a fantastic way to enhance the comfort and luxury of your journey, making it more enjoyable.

This can include everything from upgrading your flight from coach to business class, purchasing lounge access day passes, or depending on your program sometimes you can even use the miles to buy inflight food and drinks.

Use Airline Miles To Buy Non-Flight Items Like Magazines

While most programs offer miles that don't expire yearly like they once did, buying magazines was a common way to use small amounts of points and keep the account active. Today there are plenty of other things you can buy depending on the program from magazines to gifts. For example, you can even use United MileagePlus points to buy a 4lb rib roast from Kansas City Steak Company (23,900 Award Miles) or a Traeger Pro Pellet Grill for as little as 161,600 Award Miles!

This feature is very rewarding to me since a do most of my travel paid for by someone else so its not like I need to save money paying for my own flights. Shopping like this though feels like a bonus gift for all my travels. Knowing it didn't cost me anything, receiving a new magazine issue in the mail is a small pleasure and certainly a new grill or a prime rib dinner is pretty special too. It's another way to maximize your travels, allowing your miles to offer you more than just destinations.

Gift Or Transfer Airline Miles To Friends and Family

You can gift or transfer your airline miles to your friends and family. This can be a thoughtful gesture, particularly if they need help planning a trip or are in a tight spot. But before you proceed, it's crucial to be aware of the Mileage Gifting Regulations. Different airlines have distinct rules. Some may allow unlimited transfers, while others may cap the number of miles you can gift or transfer annually. 

You also need to consider the Miles Transfer Fees. Most airlines impose a service fee per mile for gifting miles. It's crucial to balance these charges against the Recipient Benefits, but generally, this is a pretty nice gift if you have family members that can't afford a vacation or where last-minute travel - for instance, to a funeral - makes purchasing a ticket prohibitively expensive sometimes miles redemption can be a great option.

Convert Airline Miles To Hotel Points

Some programs will allow you to convert your airline miles to hotel points to maximize each mile. The conversion rates vary among different airlines and hotel programs, with some offering more value than others. Others will allow you to use your miles to purchase vacation packages, including hotel and air bundled.

Firstly, you need to find the best hotel programs that partner with your airline. Some top-notch ones include Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors, and World of Hyatt. Converting your miles into points in these programs can let you enjoy benefits at partner hotels, such as complimentary nights, room upgrades, late check-out, and access to exclusive events.

Before you proceed with the conversion, you should do a quick calculation to ensure you're getting a good deal. Find out how many hotel points you'll receive per airline mile, and compare this with the usual cost of a hotel room or the points needed for a free stay. Additionally, keep an eye out for promotional periods when you could earn bonus points for conversions.

Use Airline Miles To Bid On Travel Experiences

You can use your airline miles to bid on unique travel experiences through experiential auctions. These exclusive opportunities allow you to use your accumulated points strategically to bid on unforgettable experiences such as private tours and VIP event access.

Although your number of points is important, the key lies in how you use them. To enhance your chances of success, it's recommended that you familiarize yourself with various bidding techniques. Many airlines host these auctions on their own websites, making it easier for you to participate.

Before placing a bid, consider the value of the experience you're bidding on. This can be challenging since these experiences are usually designed to be exclusive and essentially "priceless". For instance, how do you put value on Trackside Access and Pre-Race Access to the driver introductions and access to the Green Room Lounge at the Ally 400 NASCAR Race in Nashville? For race fans looking for a great guys getaway, spending SkyMiles for two passes to an experience like this could be a great option.

Evaluate whether it is worth the number of miles you would have to spend. Just because you have the ability to bid doesn't necessarily mean you should. To ensure you're maximizing the value of your miles, take your time, consider the advantages and disadvantages, and make a decision that matches your travel aspirations and points strategy.

Conclusion: Miles Are For More Than Just Tickets!

To sum up, don't let your unused airline miles or loyalty points go to waste. You have numerous options, from upgrading your inflight experience to bidding on travel experiences. You can also convert them into hotel points or even donate them to charity. Remember, checking your loyalty program's terms and conditions is important to understand any limitations. So, start making the most of your accumulated rewards today.