How to maximize (and not lose!) your airline miles
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Airline miles are one of life's greatest marketing inventions. Not only are there all sorts of perks as you move up in status on an airline - free checked bags, better seats, lounge access, priority boarding - but mileage tickets tend to be more flexible to cancel/change. Though some airlines like United and American are no longer charging change fees in this post-COVID age, they aren't prepared to give you your money back. You can always redeposit them into your account (though sometimes for a small fee). It is also great to book mileage flights when you are booking last minute, and the prices are insane.
Pay the setup costs
Create mileage accounts on the major airlines for all your family members. For us, that's: United, Delta, American, Southwest, British Airways, and Qantas. You can do this before you book a flight, but you may be in a rush, and some airlines take a few days to process accounts for minors. I manage everyone's accounts, so I use the same home admin email address for the mileage accounts for everyone in the family.
If you use a travel agent for travel (like for work), send them the spreadsheet of all your mileage account numbers, so you don't have to provide it each time you need to travel.
Some airlines, like American Airlines, have extensions you can add to your web browser, so when you are shopping at an online eligible for miles, it is activated. Download all the extensions for the airlines you use.
Make sure you understand the terms of the mileage programs, including expiration policies and partner airlines. Look at their online stores and their restaurant programs. You can earn miles without traveling by buying stuff or eating out. Here's an outside post on how to earn miles without traveling: https://halftheclothes.com/what-airlines-dont-want-you-to-know-about-miles-for-magazines/. If there are some places you eat or shop frequently, make a note to do it through the mileage store.
And suppose you do fly one airline more than others. In that case, it is DEFINITELY worth getting their credit card to maximize travel benefits - priority boarding, free bags, lounge passes, etc.
Put it all together
Consolidate all the mileage information into one place. This means account numbers, login information, current mileage levels, expiration policies (some never expire, others after 12 months of inactivity). CHEAP OPTIONS: Excel spreadsheet, airtable, or Evernote table if you use those programs. But in this case, you have to update by hand the expiration dates each time you travel, which can be a pain. You can also try some free tracking options like AwardWallet (https://www.wisebread.com/4-best-tools-for-tracking-your-rewards-miles). BEST OPTION? Tripit Pro point tracker. Once you set it up, it keeps track of all your accounts for you, including hotels, trains, and car rentals. The annoying this is for some airlines, you can't directly log in. You have to forward your mileage statements, but it is a minor inconvenience. To me, it's worth the $49/yr (mostly if your work will reimburse you for it!). To help you put it all together in one place, I'm including an excel template below. You can obviously adjust it to include different airlines, rental car companies, and hotel chains.
Once this is all set up, it is pretty easy to maintain. You need:
1. Each time your travel, add to your weekly to-do list to make sure you got the mileage credit for your trip. This is also an excellent time to check that particular airline is up to date in whatever system you used to keep track (so for me, that is Tripit Pro).
2. Set up a system that reminds you when your mileage is about to expire. Instead of setting up reminders for each expiration, I set one reminder for the next expiration date, and then I reset the reminder for the one after that once the first reminder is dealt with.
Here are some things I've learned over the years that reduce the amount of time this all takes.
1. Never throw out your boarding passes until the mileage has been credited.
2. Make sure to put the mileage number in the system when the ticket is bought because doing it afterward is a huge pain. But if you can't put in your mileage information when you buy the ticket for some reason, don't try to do it through the mileage claim system. It asks you for a million super annoying things and never works if you were on a partner airline. Instead, just send a message to the airline through their website - include pictures of the boarding passes and your itinerary. If you flew directly on that airline, just call them. They can update it immediately, so you don't have to make a note for yourself to check it later.
Here are direct emails that have worked for me in the past to get my miles:
American Airlines: AAdvantage.Customer.Svc@aa.com
British Airways: Callba.firstname.lastname@example.org
3. If you think because all partner airlines award you the same mileage for a trip, think again! They can be an order of magnitude different. I learned this when my family and I flew on Qantas in December 2019. On the way there, I had put in my British airways number. On the way back, my American Airlines number. And my husband and kids used Qantas numbers. British Airways was by far the worst. If one partner airline doesn't give you credit (looking at you BA), that doesn't mean it won't work on another (thanks American Airlines!). So if this matters to you, call and ask how many miles each will credit you before you decide who to submit it to.
4. Redeeming miles. Different airlines may require a different amount of miles for THE SAME FLIGHT. Ever notice that airlines may list their partner airlines on their website? Like if you are flying to Europe, you may buy your ticket on United.com and it says the flight is operated by Lufthansa. Well, if you have miles on both Lufthansa AND United, check most websites to see how many miles they want for the flight. British Airways usually wanted half the miles American Airlines did for the same flight!
5. If you are buying something through the online mileage store or eating out at a restaurant to get miles to prevent yours from expiring, do it at least 2 months before expiration. The rule for most is that the miles have to be processed before the expiration date - not that these activities had to happen before the expiration date. Virgin America, for example, took three months to give me miles for a purchase I made, but by that time, it was too late - all my miles had expired. For American Airlines, it takes 7 days for shopping miles to process to your AAdvantage shopping account, and then another 15 for them to be added to your normal mileage account.
5. If you know you will not build up enough miles or points on a particular airline (Frontier, Alaskan, Hawaiian, anyone?) it may not be worth it to make sure they don't expire. But that doesn't mean they are a waste! I often get magazines with those few miles here: https://www.magsformiles.com/
This may all seem like a big hassle. But if you travel a lot IT IS TOTALLY WORTH IT. The perfect example of having to get through the crap to get to the good stuff. I just flew with my family of four to Australia for free! (ok, I think like $85, but still). And I have enough miles to do this 12-16 MORE TIMES. That's a lot of flying for free my friends.