Frequent Flier Miles Provide Flexibility (When You Can’t)

Advice & Stories, Living & Spending
on January 29, 2014

Howie Rappaport is an editor at large at the Frugal Travel Guy blog, where he teaches people how to use their good credit to travel at prices they can afford. Here, Howie shares first-hand experience and inspiration for “working the system” to make it work for you.

Around the holidays and other peak travel times, the cost of airfare may reach heights that force you to re-adjust your travel plans or fly out on less desirable days. It’s a straightforward example of supply and demand: As demand for flights increases, prices do the same. And with spring break just around the corner, you can expect even more jacked-up travel costs.

So when pricey seasonal airfare feels beyond your reach, it’s time to make your hard-earned credit work for you, taking advantage of benefits like frequent flier miles and points to lend flexibility to your travel plans.

Many times we’ll look at points or frequent flier miles as a means of allowing us to book “free” trips, but we really need to consider those miles as currency. These points and miles are a part of our travel bank, and we should place appropriate value on them.

The value of a point or mile is relative to your ability to use them, as well as your ability to choose to instead use cash. Keep in mind that just because the cash price of an airline ticket or hotel room is high, it doesn’t mean that the cost in points or miles is sky high.

For example—my family and I are headed to Disney World to celebrate my niece’s birthday at the end of February, and we’ve found ourselves facing a common dilemma: The flights to Orlando are reasonably priced, but the return tickets are more than twice the price of the flight down. Here’s how we worked the system, falling back on frequent flier benefits when our flexibility was nil where dates were concerned.

My brother happens to be a Disney Vacation Club member, and we lucked out with a room at Bay Lake Towers. Availability was limited, but he managed to get a room—and we can’t change those dates now, as everything is completely sold out. Being at the mercy of those very specific dates (and a very important birthday for a 3-year-old princess) we lack flexibility, which means we’re also at the mercy of airline prices. Or are we? Our plan of attack—which will end up saving us over $700 in airfare—was to use a combination of cash and miles.

My mom and my two younger brothers will fly down on a paid ticket with JetBlue (for just over $100 each) and will return on a perfectly timed US Airways flight that allows the whole family to leave at the same time, costing us a grand total of 12,500 American Airlines miles and $5 in taxes per person—regular ticket price would have cost $238 each. (The recent merger announcement of American Airlines with US Airways and IT systems integration allows for American Airlines miles to be used on flights with US Airways as of January 7th.)

The miles were picked up last year when a family member signed up for a credit card with an American Airlines co-branded credit card with Citi. The miles weren’t earmarked for any specific trip, and by using the miles now, her bank account will stay $700 richer— which I’m sure will at least partially be used to spoil a certain princess.

Again, flier miles should be considered currency—a resource in our travel bank like any other, to be used or saved in ways that best serve our needs. If we had been able to find flights for $100 from Orlando back home (instead of those $238 flights we wanted) I would have suggested we pay cash for them, saving those miles for another trip.

An important strategy to remember here is to know your available resources. Keeping track of points and miles can be a challenge, especially with all of the programs out there. My family uses AwardWallet (Price: FREE) to keep track of what we have where, and with 105 different accounts among my immediate family, we have a diverse travel bank that affords us a level flexibility in our flight plans which might otherwise be severely limited.

For more ways to make your good credit work for you, visit  

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