For a long time, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with airline miles. I love it when they work the way I want them to, but I get annoyed when they become more hassle than they’re worth.
It’s true that airline miles are one of the most lucrative travel currencies available. I’ve used miles to book numerous overseas trips for my family, often getting up to four cents per mile in value for trips to the Caribbean and Europe. On the flip side, I’ve been in way too many situations where I can’t find award availability for the dates I want to fly — or I can find award availability for one or two seats, but not the four I need for my family.
Case in point: Recently, I was looking for four award seats for flights to Italy for one of our upcoming trips in 2019. I checked all the different frequent flyer programs I have miles with, including American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles, and Air France/Flying Blue. I also checked with airlines that allow you to transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards since I have a stash of points with each.
Even though I have over 400,000 American AAdvantage miles, I couldn’t find four award seats into an Italian airport I would consider within the date range we wanted. I did find four award seats on Air France/Flying Blue for our dates and destination, but the price of the flights surged from 22,500 miles one-way to over 40,000 miles when I tried to book four seats instead of two.
And don’t even get me started on trying to use airline miles over the holidays or spring break. Not only do airlines limit award seats during busy travel periods, but they sometimes block availability altogether. This can make airline miles worthless if holidays and busy travel periods are the only time you can use them.
The bottom line: Earning airline miles can be easy thanks to airline and travel credit cards, but redeeming them isn’t always a walk in the park. For that reason, many travel enthusiasts focus less on accruing airline miles and more on strategies that don’t require you to jump through so many hoops. If you’re tired of earning miles that are hard to use, here are a few ideas you can try instead.
Pick Up a Flexible Travel Credit Card Instead
If you’re tired of trying to find award seats for the flights you want, you could always pick up a travel credit card that offers flexible travel credit instead of airline miles. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is a popular option in this category, along with the Capital One Venture card.
Instead of miles that you can redeem with a specific airline, both these cards offer “miles” you can redeem for any type of travel, including airfare with any airline. Both of these cards also give you 2x miles for each dollar you spend, making it easy to accrue miles quickly. Each mile is also worth one cent each, and you can use them for any flight — even over busy travel periods like the holidays.
Shop Airfare Deals
Whether or not you opt to earn flexible travel credit, you can spend some time searching for airfare deals. For my 2019 travel plans, I used airline miles for some of our trips and paid cash when using miles was a poor value. As an example, I paid a little over $400 per person for round-trip flights into London and home from Edinburgh, Scotland, on Finnair in July. We also scored round-trip flights to Norway for around $600 each in June, which is a steal.
My favorite places to search for airfare sales include The Flight Deal and SecretFlying.com. Both websites feature airfare sales as they pop up, although the sales rarely last for more than a day or two, so you have to be ready to book.
I also find cheap prices on airfare by using Google Flights to compare prices to different destinations and regions of the world. With Google flights, you can even compare prices among multiple airports and on different dates to find the best deals available.
Earn Flexible Points You Can Transfer
Here’s another strategy to consider if you’re tired of earning miles for a specific airline: Pick up a flexible travel credit card that lets you transfer points to multiple airline and hotel options. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a popular card for people who want this flexibility, since it lets you transfer points at a 1:1 rate to popular airline loyalty programs like Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, British Airways, and JetBlue.
By having a card that lets you transfer points to more than one airline, you’ll never be stuck with miles you can’t use. You can search for award availability among participating partner airlines first, find the best option, then transfer your points and book your flights. Also note that Chase Ultimate Rewards lets you book flights directly with any airline through their travel portal, so that’s always an option to consider.
Earn Cash-Back Instead of Miles
Finally, don’t forget about the power of earning cash-back rewards instead of travel rewards. The best cash-back credit cards let you earn points you can redeem for cash back and statement credits, which you can easily use to cover all or part of the cost of the flights you want.
Most cash-back credit cards make it easy to earn points over time, and many even offer up to 5% back in categories that rotate every quarter along with a valuable signup bonus. The best part is, most cash-back credit cards are also free of annual fees.
The Bottom Line
If you’re tired of dealing with airline miles, you are not alone. The archaic nature of airline loyalty programs makes it difficult to redeem miles the way you want unless you’re flexible about where you travel and when.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to earn rewards that are easier to cash in for the travel you want. Explore your options and find a strategy that works for you without all the headache. Airline miles or not, you can find a way to score cheap flights and see the world.
Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.
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