Everyone dreams of racking up great airline mileage points to see the world, but some find the process more difficult than expected. Need help navigating the fine-print confusion to get the most use out of your airline miles? Here are some tips to turn you into a travel master.

Use Miles on Flights with the Best ROI

Get the most return on investment (ROI) out of your miles by critically looking at the best purchase options. The general rule is this: if the ticket costs more than $500, you will usually get a better deal using your miles. If the ticket is less than this, it’s often better to simply pay for it. Blowing 50,000 airline points on a $200 ticket just doesn’t make sense, unless that’s the only flight you can use your miles for before they expire. Using the 50,000 points on a $2,000 flight is a much better spend. If you have more expensive tickets in the future, save your miles for these trips instead.

Points on Upgrades are Smart Buys

Another way to use miles to obtain a higher cost per point value is with upgrades. These give you a much greater dollar value for your points vs than the 1.2 – 1.4 cents per mile average. It is certainly worth utilizing this option on longer flights where the extra leg room and pampering will be more thoroughly enjoyed. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that you also bank additional miles from the trip. Just be sure to ask about any surcharges or restrictions on the revenue ticket you plan to upgrade.

Book Very Early, or At the Last Minute

Remember, the best possible prices either go to those who book extremely early (330 days in advance on some airlines) or those who snap up empty seats at the last moment. So, if you are neither a long-term planner or a spontaneous person, you will need to adjust accordingly in either direction if you want to snatch up the best ticket deals. As you accumulate your airline miles on purchased flights, it just makes sense to find the best value per ticket.

Book Through an Agent

Airlines have trained us well to book online. This lowers the amount of employee time spent on customer calls and automates the system so it’s easier for the airline. That said, calling an agent and booking over the phone can be advantageous when trying to redeem miles. Airline representatives have access to information and authority over options that you do not, so it just makes sense to use this to your advantage. Agents can often create options that aren’t available through an online site, and can also exercise their authority to bypass restrictions that limit award availability. Yes, you may pay a surcharge—typically $20—but it’s worth it if you save several hundred dollars on a better ticket or option that you didn’t know was available.

Keep Accounts Active

Hoarding your miles for the most amazing trip to paradise won’t happen if you sit on them so long they expire. Many programs allow you to keep your account active other ways. You can gain miles and add activity to your account with purchases not even related to flying. You can often go to restaurants participating in an airline dining for miles program. You can also earn miles shopping. Over 400 online merchants—Wal-Mart, PETCO, Nike, etc.—participate in airline shopping mall programs. You can get anywhere from 1 to 12 bonus miles for each dollar spent. Also, always give car rental agencies and hotels your frequent flyer number to boost points. You can even grow you mileage account through FTD for sending flowers, or stack up additional mileage bonuses booking cruises or vacations through carrier sites. Are you already an investor with Fidelity Investment or TDAmeritrade? You can earn miles investing through these companies with some airlines. Or, if you are more comfortable investing in real estate, you can earn airline miles through certain banks when you take out a mortgage. If buying a house seems like an extreme way to gain miles, you can tone things down and simply sign up for Netflix to accrue additional points over some nightly movie entertainment. New opportunities to build up miles are out there if you’re willing to invest the research necessary to find them.

Use Sites to Manage Your Miles

If the thought of shifting through all the fine print to discover which deals work gives you a headache, you can utilize certain sites to explore the options for you. These sites take a deep dive into your frequent flier account to help you understand the best options of your miles. GoMiles.com and AwardWallet.com will warn you if your miles are about to expire and alert you to new deals and promotions. However, don’t expect all airlines to embrace the third-party intrusion, as they feel it threatens the security of your information.

Use the Right Airlines

When it comes to redeeming points, not every airline is equal. It pays to choose airlines that are more friendly to point-redemption opportunities. The Wall Street Journal did a survey of all major carriers and found that the toughest airline to utilize your mileage points was US Airways, followed by Delta. With these companies, you have a 36% chance of actually using your miles the way you intend. Southwest was the clear winner of the survey, with a 95% chance of redeeming points, followed by JetBlue at 89%.

If You Can’t Use Miles:

1) Donate Miles

If your miles are expiring before you use them, consider donating them to others instead of losing them. For example, families have pooled airline points together to send newlyweds on their honeymoon, or parents on an anniversary vacation. The gift of travel is a great present! Who knows—they may return the favor when you need some additional miles in the future.

If you don’t have a friend or family member to share your miles, you can also donate them to charity. For example, the Fisher House Foundation’s “Hero Miles” program has given more than 40,000 tickets to injured service members and their families, and Mercy Medical Airlift has provided almost 10,000 free flights to patients. The Make-A-Wish Foundation also needs miles to send kids on their desired adventures. These charities, as well as many others, will greatly benefit from your unused mileage points, and you can feel good giving to a worthy cause.

2) Trade Miles

While the exchange rate is fairly high, you can exchange miles for gift cards to companies such as Amazon or Starbucks. You can also trade your miles from one airline for points with a different carrier.

3) Use Miles for Hotels and Car Rentals

While the frequent, elite traveler will see much better deals than the average flier, you can spend your expiring miles for hotels and car rentals, as well as other travel needs. Again, it pays to research your best options for redeeming these miles.

The possibilities of utilizing airlines miles are numerous and differ greatly depending on the program and carrier. However, taking a bit of time to do a deep dive into the opportunities and savings offered will help you become quite the travel-savvy flyer. After all, saving money while flying first class to your dream vacation is a great reward for a bit of extra airline mileage research and points management.

Credit card perks can be very lucrative. Apply for one or two good cards and you could be enjoying free flights, free hotels stays, and more. How to Maximize Credit Card Miles Without Ruining Your Credit Score

Featured photo credit: Ack Ookvia Flickr

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