Although frequent flyer miles are a useful tool for cheap and free travel, most travelers aren’t getting enough value out of their miles.  Why?  There are too many ways to mess up with miles.  Our Frequent Flyer TravelingMom weighs in with 7 common frequent flyer miles mistakes and with ideas to stretch your miles for even more travel.

Mistakes Frequent Flyer Miles

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Frequent flyer miles can be a great tool to enable families to travel on the cheap. The frequent flyer programs of most major airlines, however, have gotten increasingly complex. The good news is that some of this complexity creates greater and more diverse opportunities to earn miles. The bad news is that complexity can create chances for customers to make mistakes along the way. Don’t be one of those flyers!

Here are 7 mistakes you might be making with frequent flyer miles, with tips for fixing them so you can earn and redeem more miles for free family travel.

1. Being Loyal to the Wrong Program.

Have you thought long and hard about why you fly the airline you do? Maybe it’s because you live in a major carrier’s hub city and you don’t have a lot of choices. Maybe it’s because you have earned elite status on an airline and like the perks. Or maybe you aren’t loyal at all and chase the cheapest fare on each trip. Whatever the reason for your loyalty patterns, just make sure your reason is a good one.

More importantly, however, make sure your loyalty will eventually be rewarded when it comes time to redeem your miles. If you can’t spend the hard earned miles you are earning when the time comes because an airline’s program is too restrictive, then it’s time to question your loyalty.

2. Forgetting about Airline Alliances.

7 Mistakes You Might be Making with Frequent Flyer Miles

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Just because you have miles in one program doesn’t mean you need to fly that particular airline when you redeem your miles. The converse is also true: just because you fly a particular airline doesn’t mean you need to earn that airline’s miles.

Most airlines are part of a worldwide alliance that gives you flexibility in earning and redeeming. For example, I often earn United miles but recently cashed them in for an Air Canada flight to Montreal since both airlines are part of Star Alliance.

Some airlines are not part of any alliance but nevertheless have partners for earning and redemption. Alaska Airlines, which partners with Delta and American as well as several international carriers, is one example of a program that can potentially have a lot of flexibility.

3. Not Doing the Math on Award Redemptions.

Not everyone loves math, but a few basic calculations can save you a bundle. In order to make sure you are getting the most for your money (well, miles), you need to calculate value per mile on award tickets.

Let’s compare two round-trip flights for a family of four to illustrate. One flight is available for $350 or 50,000 miles (not uncommon). Another is available for $500 or 25,000 miles (a bit harder to find, but not uncommon either). The first flight only gives you 7/10ths of a cent in value from each of your miles. The second gives you 2 cents per mile. After a little bit of math, it’s obvious which one is a much, much better deal.  Save your miles for flights that look more like the latter than the former.

But how do you know that you are getting a good value when you aren’t booking your family’s trips at the same time and can’t compare apples-to-apples?

A good shorthand is that a redemption under 1 cent per mile is a poor value. Redemptions over 2 cents per mile tend to be good values. Redemptions between 1-2 cents per mile are a mixed bag and depend on your travel goals and how much flexibility you have to pay cash.

4. Hoarding Miles.

Like currency, miles don’t become worth more over time.  If you earn miles and hoard them while never redeeming, I can guarantee that you will not end up getting the best value. Earn and burn!

5. Only Searching for Awards Flights on the Airline’s Website.

Frequent Flyer Miles Cards

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Flyers are always complaining that they can’t find a good way to use their miles. Often that’s because the airline is hiding the best award travel tickets from you. Did you know that United (which partners with Singapore Airlines in Star Alliance) doesn’t show any Singapore award tickets when you do a search on United.com? A savvy customer has to use the workarounds, including using search tools from partner airlines or calling the airline directly.

Does this all sound too complicated? If you are aiming for a complex international itinerary using miles and don’t know the ins and outs of the awards booking process of your given airline, it might very well save you time and money to use an award booking service. For a reasonable fee, the frequent flyer mile professionals will find the perfect itinerary for you.

6. Redeeming your Miles for Merchandise.

Airlines now let you spend your miles on things other than flights (usually merchandise), but these are rarely good redemptions. Usually, these redemptions are actually downright awful (see #3: do the math!), especially if you earned the miles you are ultimately spending through an airline credit card. If you want to cash in for merchandise, you’d likely be better off earning rewards on a cash-back credit card instead. The only time I’d recommend spending miles on merchandise is if you have “orphan” miles too small for a flight redemption in a frequent flyer program you don’t plan on using again.

7. Letting Miles Expire.

Most frequent flyer programs have policies that your miles will expire after about 18 months of inactivity in the account. Delta is the only major U.S. airline exception with a no expiration date policy. Depending on your travel patterns, you may not fly a given airline often enough to keep your miles active. That is no reason to let valuable miles expire.

Most airlines now have a multitude of partners for earning and redeeming miles. Doing a single miles-earning or spending transaction with those partners will reset your miles’ expiration date. For United Airlines, for example, I often redeem a few miles for a song on iTunes to keep my family’s accounts active. I’ve also linked my credit card to United’s MileagePlus Dining program so that I earn miles for dining at select partner restaurants. Depending on the airline, you can also earn miles for shopping through an airline’s shopping portals or by renting a car.

Just getting started with frequent flyer miles? Read these frequent flyer basics to get you started.

Do you have other secrets to successful frequent flyer redemptions? Share with us in the comment section below.