Even if you haven’t been flying much these past two years, chances are you’ve been shopping, filling up on gas, ordering take out, renting a car, taking Uber or Lyft—or performing some of the other myriad activities that can earn you frequent flier miles and hotel and credit card points. And while you have been accruing them, you’ve probably had fewer opportunities to redeem them, which means they are languishing in your accounts, inching towards a potential expiration date.
Don’t let them go to waste: Miles and points are worth more than you think when you put them to smart use. By employing just a few tips and tricks, you can use them to unlock the pathway to luxury suites, custom experiences and dream destinations from your growing bucket list. Plus, with the holidays approaching, the gift of travel and experiences are ideal presents for your wanderlusting loved ones (and an easy win for procrastinating shoppers.)
Here are some of the best ways to make use of those miles and points that are burning a hole in your accounts.
Using frequent flier miles for their original purpose—to book flights—requires a bit of patience and flexibility, but when the stars align, the Champagne begins to flow. You just need to think outside the box in order to navigate the labyrinth that is airline booking systems.
The perception, of course, is that airlines want to make it difficult for you to redeem your miles, but while that was usually the case pre-pandemic, things have changed in the last several months—to a point. Because while there is now more frequent flier mile seat availability in premium cabins (because fewer corporate travelers are flying), there are also less flights out there in general, as airlines have reduced their routes.
One way to get around that is by looking for redemption availability on brand new routes, before other travelers “discover” them. This is particularly useful when trying to fly to places like the Caribbean on miles, which is usually challenging due to high demand from the US. American Airlines, for example, just added flights to Anguilla and Dominica from Miami (both are new flights for those islands), making it easier to redeem miles to get there.
United Airlines is adding new nonstop flights this winter, too, like Cleveland to Nassau, Bahamas, Newark to Barbados and San Francisco to Liberia, Costa Rica. As of this writing, there are even mileage ticket deals available to warm weather destinations for the holidays—like Cleveland to Nassau for 29,000 miles one way (in economy) on United, and Miami to George Town, Bahamas in business class for just 20,000 miles one way on American.
Another tip: Look at partner airlines. A really excellent business class product like Qatar Airways’ fully-enclosed business class Qsuites—which is the best way to get to places like the Maldives or a safari in Kenya—can be accessed either with Qatar miles or those of partner airlines like American Airlines and, the newest member of oneworld alliance, Alaska Airlines. As a result, availability for Qsuite redemptions from the airline’s 12 US gateways are often quite good. In recent months, for example, we’ve found options to redeem 70,000 American Airlines miles for roundtrip Qsuite flights between the US and the Maldives—a steal compared to the thousands of dollars such a ticket would cost in cash. One note: Qatar award space using American miles can come and go like the speed of sound—one day you’ll see it, the next you won’t, and then it will be back again—so try and search from different gateway cities and check back every few days to see if seats have opened up.
Other examples of great partner redemptions include using United miles for Star Alliance partners like Lufthansa or All Nippon Airways. The trickiest redemptions, however, come from Delta Air Lines, which will charge you much more than its US competitors to use your miles on premium cabin seats on most of its partner airlines. At press time, for example, a one-way business class flight on Saudia (the only Delta partner currently with availability) between the US and the Maldives was a staggering 385,000 miles.
A great way to root out award space availability is by using a search tool that scans multiple airlines and alliances at one time. AwardLogic.com is one such service that, for a small fee, will expedite your award search; it will even tell you which credit card partners you can transfer points from to secure that dream frequent flier mile redemption. Throughout out this whole process, though, just remember the cardinal rule when trying to use frequent flier miles: Be flexible with your travel dates if you want the best deal.
Enjoy the Suite Life
Miles and points aren’t just for sipping bubbly from a lie-flat seat at 35,000 feet—they have high-end uses on terra firma, too.
While you’ll still get the best value per frequent flier mile when exchanging them for business and first-class flights, using them for a posh hotel stay is sometimes an easier redemption to find. American AAdvantage miles, for example, are redeemable toward hotel stays at a variety of hideaways around the world, including luxury properties like the InterContinental London Park Lane or Hôtel Barrière Le Fouquet’s in Paris.
If you’re using hotel points, there are some tricks worth knowing about to help maximize your redemption. For starters, elite members of Hilton Honors and all members of Marriott Bonvoy benefit from “fifth-night-free” promotions: When redeeming points for five-night stays, both programs essentially charge you the points needed for four nights, then comp the fifth. Don’t overlook this perk when staying somewhere for a few nights, as you might be leaving an extra night on the table.
Marriott Bonvoy members can also earn and redeem points at villas, condos and residences around the world through Homes and Villas by Marriott, the hotel company’s answer to Airbnb. Whether it’s a multi-bedroom ski adventure in Aspen or a panoramic estate along the French Riviera—both ideal for family getaways for the holidays—you can use points for a chic address without paying a cent.
In other recent hotel points news, IHG Rewards points are now eligible for accrual and redemption at many Six Senses properties, including Six Senses Zil Pasyon in the Seychelles and Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives. IHG Rewards members can also earn and redeem points when booking a reservation through IHG channels for a Mr & Mrs Smith travel club stay.
If World of Hyatt is more your cup of tea, the program’s recent tie up with Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) continues to blossom as dozens more SLH properties joined the partnership in the past year. The list now includes luxe boutique hotels like Palazzo Manfredi in Rome, Hotel Excelsior in Dubrovnik and Stein Eriksen Residences in Deer Valley. Members can both earn World of Hyatt points at these intimate hotels and redeem them; a stay at Hotel Excelsior, for example, might run you just 30,000 points.
Leaders Club, the loyalty program of the Leading Hotels of the World, made some major changes this summer by removing the fee to join. Previously $175, but now complimentary, the program delivers instant perks like breakfast for two and room upgrades at spots like the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo or Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz. (At such regal hotels, breakfast is truly an experience.) Meanwhile, the Platinum Card from American Express has a new bonus of its own, giving cardholders an automatic $200 credit to use at any of its Fine Hotels and Resorts properties between now and the end of the year. Reservations must be made through American Express Travel to qualify.
Experience the World Again
The pandemic has put the spotlight on appreciating experiences with our loved ones, and loyalty programs have you covered on that front, too.
If you’re a Marriott fan, you can create your dream wedding dress with a top designer or partake in a private cooking demonstration with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa at Nobu Malibu using Marriott Bonvoy points as part of the Marriott Bonvoy Moments program. At press time, the program is offering tickets to next month’s Country Music Awards in Nashville starting at 50,000 points and New York Knicks seats in a luxury suite for 50,000 points.
Hilton Honors Experiences is a similar platform that allows members to use points for on-property activities like sipping cocktails in the underwater restaurant at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (which will run you 25,000 Hilton Honors points) or afternoon tea at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund (also 25,000 HH points). You can also choose to redeem Hilton points—or a mix of points and cash—for tickets to top concerts, sporting events and comedy shows; recent examples included a three-day Ultimate Cabana Experience at the Governors Ball music festival—including VIP lounge seating, private concierge service and catering—for 300,000 points.
With Broadway reopening, United MileagePlus miles earned from pre-pandemic flights and at-home credit card spending are good for the best seats at your favorite shows via Audience Rewards. Or use United miles toward the purchase of a cruise vacation with dozens of luxury lines like Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection and Silversea, among others.
On the way to your next destination, you can also get your trip off to a swanky start by popping into the Delta Sky Club to redeem some SkyMiles for a glass of Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label” Brut Champagne NV, or even a full bottle of Dom Pérignon. Many drinks in the lounge are complimentary, but Delta makes it easy for visitors to pay for premium drinks with either cash or miles.