So you've already created accounts for all the major airlines you fly with and you know you should really get on that BA AMEX application so you can start collecting miles there, too. But beyond those basics, there are a mind-boggling number of ways to maximise air miles and travel cheap. For example: did you know British Airways is partners with Aer Lingus so you can use your BA miles to book a trans-Atlantic flight with Aer Lingus for $7 while BA charges $725?
Sadly we don't all have personal secretaries hunting for air mile deals and hacks for us full-time. But we do have Brian Kelly aka The Points Guy, travel expert and founder of ThePointsGuy.com. He basically knows all of the tricks of the trade, having spent the past 30 years hunting out hacks. "Once you start learning your programme and the ins and outs it’s pretty amazing," Kelly says. "It takes a lot of time but the more you educate yourself the more money and miles you save. It can be dizzying but the treasure goes to those who hunt for it."
Thankfully we did most of the hunting for you. Here are the key tricks and tips for maximising your air miles to travel for (almost) nothing.
6-CHECK PARTNER AIRLINES
One of the key misconceptions is that if you've got air miles with one airline, that's the airline that'll give you the best deal. But actually seeking out airline partners can help you save big.
"Airlines have alliance and non-alliance partners and often those are the very best redemptions in terms of miles and taxes and fees," says Kelly. "For example take BA: if you fly BA to the US they’re gonna stick you with $435 or more in fees. You can use BA miles to fly on their partners Aer Lingus and Air Berlin and it’s £5. And it makes no sense why would BA charge LESS to fly on another airline but it’s just the way it is. So don’t always think that the airline is going to give you the best deal for flying on their actual planes."
5-NEVER TRUST AIRLINE WEBSITES
Interestingly, Aer Lingus (a partner airline of BA's) doesn't even show up as an option when you're searching frequent flier availability on BA's website. You have to actually call them up to discover the fare exists.
"Aer Lingus is the best way to cross the Atlantic because it’s zero fees," Kelly says. "And everyone is frustrated at BA’s high fees to go to the US but not for the select few who know to call and ask to route through Ireland – which is not a bad stop to do to save $435 pounds."
And this doesn't just apply to BA.
"Not all airline websites show all award availability," reveals Kelly. "It can make sense to pay a $36 phone booking fee to ask an agent to search for availability specifically on partner airlines to see if it prices at a lower rate."
However, if you do call and book an award seat that you can’t book online often they will waive the phone booking fee anyway if you ask, says Kelly.
But are you really still worried about that phone booking fee, anyway? We didn't think so.
4-UNDERSTAND DISTANCE BANDS
There are two main types of pricing of awards – distance based, where there’s a certain distance you're able to fly for a specific number of air miles within each distance band (BA), and zone based, which means you're able to fly anywhere in Europe to anywhere in North America for the same price, aka geographical pricing (Virgin Atlantic).
"Understand that you can maximise for certain routes," tips Kelly. "So Dublin to Boston is just underneath the threshold for one of BA’s distance bands, so it’s only 25k miles round-trip in economy. It can make sense, even if you want to go to New York, to fly RyanAir to Ireland for $72 and then Ireland to Boston and save half the amount of miles, and then just take the train from Boston to New York or whatever."
So before booking or using any air miles, check your destination and whether you could save massively by flying just one city north or south of your final destination.
3-UNDERSTAND ROUTING RULES
Understanding routing rules, or the rules airlines create for stopovers, can save you tons of miles, too. If you find multiple flights you’re hoping to fit onto one award, you can do that only if you follow your airlines' award routing rules. If you don’t follow these rules, your trip will split into two or more awards, which will mean spending extra miles. at resource for your frequent flyer programme – hundreds and hundreds of posts will talk about how they’ve maximised these routing rules to take incredible trips."
"Buying miles can make sense if the value of the redemption you’re gonna get is more than what you paid for them," says Kelly. For example, he's the proud owner of almost 1 million Alaskan Air air miles – not because he's a fan of the Arctic – but because those miles are valuable because they transfer to Emirates. "I’ll buy Alaskan Air miles for just around 2 cents a piece but that means I’m flying Emirates first class to the Middle East on their A-380 for $50 in taxes and fees."
1-UNDERSTAND CREDIT CARD TRANSFER POINTS
You probably don't think Japan Airlines' mileage programme is worth your time if you're flying mostly around Europe or North America. But, BA and Japan Airlines are both AMEX transfer partners. Meaning, if you have credit card points where you can transfer to a number of different partners, you can use the partner airline that has the distance based pricing model versus the geographically based model (see above) if it works better for you.
"If you have Starwood points [linked to the AMEX card] you can transfer them to Japan Airlines. And even if you never want to fly on Japan Airlines – back to tip No. 1– they’re partners with guess who? BA and all these other airlines."