How to get the most from frequent flyer miles


Using frequent flyer miles may seem more difficult these days, but you can actually accumulate them and spend them without ever getting on a plane. Pauline Frommer, of the Frommer Guides, shares her secrets for how to get the most from frequent flyer miles.

How to get the most from frequent flyer miles
  • Keep track of your frequent flyer miles. Miles expire sooner these days; some are good for only 18 months.
  • Consider giving miles to family members or as donations to charity.
  • If you’re not planning to travel, you can use your miles for other purchases with most programs.
  • If you collect miles from an airline affiliated credit card, be sure to pay your bills on time. Many airline cards carry very high fees.
  • If you are planning travel, don’t take the first "no available seats” for an answer. Keep calling or surfing for your preferred dates of travel.
  • You can use your miles to upgrade your ticket when booking a flight. (If you want an upgrade, you can also try asking at the airport if there are upgrades available for sale. Some airlines offer upgrades for as low as $30 one way.)

LAUREN: Hi I'm Lauren Pressley and welcome to With me today is Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer guides, and we are going to be using our frequent flyer miles today. Hello Pauline.

PAULINE: Hi, good to be here. 

LAUREN: So many things have changed with this--I have 20,000 miles, I have 60,000 miles...sometimes I can get a flight and sometimes I can't. What's going on? 

PAULINE: The airlines are actually still giving away 10% of the seats in the air to frequent flyer folks, but there just are so many more people collecting miles nowadays and so many more ways to collect them that there are just millions of miles out in the system. In fact, 75% or 80% never get used.

LAUREN: What do you recommend for how to organize frequent flyer miles? 

PAULINE: Well you need to keep track of your miles especially now because one big change is that many of the airlines have shortened the time period you have until your miles expire. American Airlines now only offers you eighteen months. If there's no activity in your account you're going to lose those miles. It used to be three years. Delta and other airlines have also made those deadlines much, much more restrictive. Luckily, you can keep your account active pretty inexpensively by doing things like going on to iTunes and downloaded a tune for $2.99 through your American Airlines account. So there are ways to fudge the issue, but you really need to keep on top of it or you're going to just lose those miles. 

LAUREN: Now you come from a family of travelers. Can you share with family members and can you inherit frequent flyer miles? 

PAULINE: You can share with parents and other close family members. You can inherit. You can even give miles to charity, and that happened a lot after the Katrina hurricanes where people were donating miles to help people get down there and help the victims. So there are a lot of things you can do with your miles. Besides flying yourself you can also fly a handbag or a pair of jeans or get a discount on a hotel stay. So, if you find yourself consistently not being able to use your miles for actually travel, yeah what the heck, use them for other things. 

LAUREN: So you mention different ways we can use our frequent-flier miles, aren't there other ways besides flying that you can gain them? With car rentals...

PAULINE: Sure. Many of the airlines now have partnered with car rental agencies, with hotel chains, with credit cards. I'm not a big fan of the credit cards because of lot of them have really, really bad fees attached. So, if you're a person that doesn't pay your bills on time you really don't want to get one of those airline credit cards because the fees are astronomical. If you are a person who can handle that responsibility, yes, go ahead. That's a very good way to accumulate miles.

LAUREN: Some other how-to tips on using frequent flyer miles?

PAULINE: It had been thought that if you booked 330 days in advance, which is when the tickets go on sale for any flight, that you would be guaranteed that frequent flyer seat. It's not so. The truth is, and this was revealed in a memo that American Airlines was giving to its trainees that was leaked to the press, they do not want to release those seats until they know how the flight is selling. So often if you call in October for a flight in January, you'll be told: oops, sorry no mileage seats available. But then you call back in November and there suddenly are. So really try, try again does work sometimes.  

LAUREN: Is there a pattern with how they release these besides sells? Sometimes it's just from one day to the next prices change so quickly. 

PAULINE: Well, it has to do with how popular the destination is and how popular the date you want to fly is.

LAUREN: What about upgrades? Can you use your frequent flyer miles for upgrades? 

PAULINE: Yes, absolutely and many people do use frequent flyer miles for upgrades in advance. Interestingly enough, at many airports nationwide now, the airlines are allowing you to upgrade at the kiosk for thirty, fifty, a hundred dollars more depending on the cost of the flight. So there are a couple of ways nowadays to upgrade.

LAUREN: Well, thank you so much Pauline. I'm looking forward to flying with you at some time.

PAULINE: Thank you.

meet theexpert
  • Pauline Frommer

    Pauline Frommer Travel Expert and Author Pauline Frommer, is the daughter of travel legend Arthur Frommer and is the author of a new series of guidebooks for budget travelers called the Pauline Frommer Guides. more about this expert »

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