How to actually USE those frequent flyer miles


I scored three frequent flyer tickets! Can you believe that? One for me, one for my wife, and one for my daughter! To a foreign country! On the same plane! On the same day!

Why all the exclamation marks? Because as many fellow travelers with loads of mileage have found, getting a flight you want with your frequent flyer miles has become about as easy as betting the right number on a roulette board. When you hit it, you feel like you have really scored the big one.

I had reached the point on Continental where I had 107,000 miles and my wife had 67,000. Tired of buying tickets because we could never cash in, we took radical measures. We booked flights to Central America for June 2007. Yes, you read that right–11 months from now. After years of reading Tim Winship’s advice about looking 330 days ahead, I shelved my procrastination tendencies and made some long-term plans. We’re off to Guatemala, a mere 318 days from now (but who’s counting?)

I’d be lying if I said it was a piece of cake though. Besides planning far far ahead, here are the keys to getting a flight for the minimum mileage requirement–usually 25K domestic, 35K for close international, 45-50K for long-haul international:

1) Be flexible on your dates.
We wanted to leave in late June and come back in July, but mid-summer free tickets are about as common as an empty flight these days. As in forget about it if you’re going anywhere desirable.

2) Go midweek.
We had to leave on a Wednesday, return on a Tuesday, for two weeks total. Weekends were all blocked out.

3) Be flexible on flight times.
We’re leaving before the birds start singing and getting home quite late. But the alternative was to spend double the mileage for a more convenient ticket.

4) Be flexible on destination.
We checked out four Central American countries that were possibilities, seeing if one would offer more alternatives than others. (Here’s a hint—forget Costa Rica unless you want to go overland.)

5) Use
On many airlines, you can choose your seat as you are buying the tickets. Using SeatGuru, you can see which seats should be avoided.

  1. Brian

    My g/f and I just booked RTW tickets on SkyTeam using miles – it was an exercise in patience. One trick is to make sure your agent explores alternative routes. We’re leaving from San Francisco to Auckland and while Skyteam/Delta doesn’t have any direct flights, there were also no flights from SF to Seoul (Korean Air) two weeks in either direction of when we wanted to leave in November.

    We did find two other options that included a short flight to Portland and then over and ultimately, when we upgraded to business class, wound up with a flight from SFO – LAX – Tokyo – Seoul – Auckland. It’s going to be one looooong, but when you fly for free, you have to be flexible, flexible and flexible.

    The other tip we received from countless folks was to call back as the dates get closer and the airlines free up more seats. You might pay a change fee but we’re hoping we can eliminate at least one or two of those flights on our first leg.

  2. Kent E St. John

    You will love it, great place to go! Taking the daughter reminds me of all the times I took my son to places. Even though he is in college he still likes hitting the road with the P’s

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