By Brian Gregg
Frequent flyer miles have become like play money. They're plentiful -- and sometimes worthless when you want to use them.
Everywhere you look these days, someone is offering frequent flyer miles. Get them for using certain credit cards, signing up for long distance or sending your mother roses. In a typical year, 500 billion frequent flyer miles are earned, according to Webflyer.com, a site dedicated to frequent flyer education.
Webflyer.com estimates 3.5 trillion miles are currently outstanding in the nation's frequent flyer programs. That's enough to fly around the globe more than nearly 136 million times!
Last year, in fact, 61 million members in the nation’s frequent flyer programs received 13 million free tickets.
“Flights are packed”
"You can earn miles these days for anything short of breathing," said Tim Winship, editor and publisher of frequentflier.com, an e-mail newsletter that goes out to about 25,000 people each week.
That's spurred an unexpected problem. Airlines reserve only a small percentage of seats for frequent flyer awards, so many who hope to fly free are finding it difficult to do. It's nearly impossible to snag a seat on the more popular routes.
"Because the economy has been good, and because the airlines have balanced everything out so well with supply and demand, the flights are packed," Winship said.
Winship said airlines usually set aside 5%-10% of seats for frequent flyer awards. He said they are reluctant to go over that amount, even if the seats are empty when the planes take off.
"Up until they leave, they still have an opportunity to sell that seat," he said.
This leads to frustrated frequent flyers. They try to accumulate and save miles so they can receive a free trip -- and then find they can't get a seat. Frustration grows when they learn they can buy a seat on the flight they want, but cannot turn in the miles they've earned.
"Sometimes the airlines are guilty of over-promising, but consumers also need to understand how the system works," Winship said. "The whole system is based on being able to give away most of those free tickets for use on the flights that may not have gone out full."
There are several sites to check for news, tips and other information about frequent flyer miles. Try www.webflyer.com, www.frequentflier.com and www.flyertalk.com for a start. These 10 tips from the experts can help frequent flyers:
· Pick a frequent flyer program based on where you live and your travel patterns. If a major carrier operates most of the flights out of your home airport, that is likely your choice. If there is no clear-cut choice at home, figure out which airline most often flies to your favorite destination(s).
· Consolidate your miles. Look for partner airlines, rental car companies and hotels and use only those to build up miles.
· Scrutinize your program's Web site for special offers that allow you to earn miles. You might be able to earn miles by routing through a new airport, by ordering a ticket online, or by sending flowers through a partner floral company.
· Consider appealing to your airline if you're a few miles short of the miles needed for your free flight. Some will sell you the miles you need for cheap, say, $25 for 1,000 miles.
· Plan your trips well in advance. You may want to start as much as a month before you plan to fly. Pay attention to blackout dates. If it can be avoided, try not to fly to popular destinations at popular times. "If you try to go to Hawaii at Christmas, you're probably not going to be able to find a free ticket," Winship said.
· Check with a partner airline if you can't get a ticket for that dream vacation with your airline. They will honor your miles and may have more flights going to your destination at that time.
· Hold on to your tickets until you see the mileage credited to your account. The airline might lose track of some of your miles.
· Track the expiration dates on your miles so you don't lose them. With some airlines, Continental, TWA and Delta, for instance, your miles expire if you do not fly the airlines for a certain period of time. With other airlines, the miles must be used in a certain period of time. Many programs allow you to cash in miles for merchandise; do that if you expect to lose miles before you can take a flight.
· Consider insuring your miles if you are worried your airline may go out of business. If you've spent your whole life saving up tens of thousands of miles and now your airline is in trouble, you may want to check with companies such as PrivilegeFlyer, which has an AwardGuard program.
· Donate unused miles to charity. Nearly every program allows this.