Part I of our small series ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Airline Miles’ we tried to give you an overview on how to collect tier and award miles. Especially the later also need to be redeemed at some point in time. This can be a crucial part of the whole process. So we will take a closer look at spending your bonus miles in our second part of the series. And since you’ll most likely end up not only earning award miles but stacking up tier miles as well, there will also be a short digression into the world of frequent flyer elite status.
Finally, we will also cover the three major airline alliances and the role they play when collecting and redeeming award and tier miles.
Check out Part I of our series: A Beginner’s Guide to Airline Miles – Earning and Collecting
Redeeming award miles
Once your mileage account is bursting, there is only one question left: how to spent your miles and get the most out of it? There are several ways to get rid of your savings, and not all of them are equally smart. So we’ll cover all of them and let you decide what works best.
Nothing new or surprising. As a matter of fact, award flights are what airlines frequently use to convince travelers to take part in their frequent flyer program. You fly and fly and fly and fly. And get one ticket for free, if you’ve been loyal enough. You exchange your miles for an award seat. That’s as easy as it can get.
But be cautious! These award flights aren’t always as free as you’d think. Almost all airlines will charge taxes and fees in addition to the miles that will deducted from your account. Consequently, you will not actually get a ticket at no charge. And since the fare for cheap Economy Class tickets consists mostly of fees and taxes, you could end up saving close to nothing when redeeming for an award flight.
A much better option than paying for the whole flight with award miles could be buying an upgrade. In this case, you wouldn’t pay for the actual trip, but pay to get a seat in the next service class. For example, you purchase an Economy Class ticket and use miles for a seat in Business Class.
This has one significant advantage: since you already paid most taxes and fees as a part of your ticket, the upgrade will cause low or no extra cost.
However, if things sound too good to be true, there often is a catch. In case of upgrading your ticket to a better service class, this catch is called upgradable booking class. Most airlines simply exclude the very cheap fares from being upgraded.
Typically, airlines only release a certain number of seats per flight and service class as so-called award seats. This means that you can’t book every seat with your award miles. The reasons why airlines use this system are many and varied. One iof them s that they want to keep their premium cabins to paying customers whenever possible.
Most airlines and frequent flyer programs release their award seats one year in advance. Of course, they can always decide to open up more seats if the need arises or if they can’t fill up their cabins on specific routes. So you shouldn’t retire the idea of traveling for free, just because you preferred flight doesn’t offer reward seats at the moment. This might change over time.
If you’re not interested in redeeming your award miles for flights or upgrades, most frequent flyer programs offer a list of other options. For example, you could use your miles to book a hotel stay or rent a car. And if any form of traveling is out of the question, there is often a specialized shop where you can spend your miles.
You might have seen some of the products that you can purchase in the airlines onboard magazine. The selection can be very wide, ranging from neck rolls to tablets or TVs. That said, redeeming your miles in those shops should be your last choice. And that is due to the terrible yield you’ll get from your miles.
Obtain and enjoy Elite Status
If you manage to earn a certain amount of tier miles within a given period of time (commonly one year), you could obtain elite status. As a traveler, this will get you several benefits. Depending on the frequent flyer program, you can take advantage of these benefits on flights with one airline or with multiple airlines within one alliance.
Using the Business Class check-in counter with an Economy Class ticket or accessing a frequent traveler lounge that is reserved for passengers traveling in more expensive service classes are just two benefits. Especially the access to the lounge can be a huge plus, depending on how often you fly. Very often you’ll find free food and drinks, and in addition to that, there could be showers and private bedrooms for passengers to recover from long overnight flights. That explains why not only frequent travelers are keen on obtaining elite status.
The names that frequent flyer programs have for their various elite status levels might differ. But there are a lot of similarities. See what most programs have in common and what you should keep in mind.
The two different types of miles have already been mentioned and also the fact that when an elite status should be achieved, usually only tier miles count. These determine whether you are considered a frequent flyer and on which tier level the airline sees you — no elite status without tier miles. And in contrast to award miles, which can often be bought, tier miles are only given away without flying in sporadic cases.
Benefits of Elite Status
In general, most frequent flyer programs are more or less identical when it comes to the benefits they offer. There are different tiers – typically between three and five – that determine how you will profit from being a frequent flyer. As soon as you register with a program, you will often already reach the first tier. That said, the lowest level often gtes you no advantages at all. It starts getting interesting once you earned enough miles to be promoted to a second level.
From there on you might be able to use the Business Class check-in counter regardless of the service class you’re traveling in. Or the airline will give you some extra baggage allowance. As already discussed, the tier that is most interesting for the majority of travelers is the one that comes with free access to frequent flyer lounges. But it doesn’t stop right there. Some programs offer services like a chauffeur that will drive you to the aircraft. But that’s usually nothing that a beginner has to spend time thinking about.
After reaching elite status, you will typically receive a welcome package that contains your card as well as small giveaways. Frequent flyer cards and the tags for your bags identify you as a frequent flyer in front of fellow travelers or service agents and crew members and are therefore quite popular among some people.
Now, if this is the first time you hear about elite status, this might seems a bit strange to you. Understandable. What else could there be to flying than getting from one point to the other? But believe it or not, once you started to develop some interest, nothing will stop you anymore. And you’ll soon be excited about earning those tier miles and obtaining elite status.
Bonus award miles for status holders
Bonus award miles, also known as Executive Bonus or Elite Bonus, are not necessarily something that you should concern yourself with as a beginner. But for the sake of being able to talk shop with other frequent travelers, you should have at least heard the expression and know what it means.
If you have managed to achieve elite status, you will start to receive more miles than you did before. And that can sometimes really pay off. The bonus can quickly amount to 50% or more. Just as in real life: Once you’re at the top, it gets easier and easier. At least when collecting award miles.
The three Airline Alliances
It is no secret that airlines are continually competing with each other. They even go to so-called ‘fare-wars’ just to undercut their rivals. At the same time, there is no carrier that is active all over the world. Or would be able to fly passenger to every destination. To solve this problem, most airlines cooperate with others to form a more extensive network. So-called alliances.
Just at the turn of the millennium, three powerful alliances were formed: Star Alliance (1997), Oneworld (1999) and SkyTeam (2000). The primary goal was to offer customers more routes and a better experience when booking flights. A joint reservation system and code-sharing enable airlines to sell tickets to a destination that they actually never reach. You could purchase a trip from Los Angeles to Moscow with United Airlines and end up flying with some other airline, such as Lufthansa.
But there are more advantages, especially for us travelers. Not only do the airlines offer shared flights but they also give us benefits throughout their alliance. Consequently, you can earn and redeem miles with any carrier within one alliance. And if your obtained elite status, you’ll benefit from it, no matter which airlines you’re traveling with. Not bad, right?
Star Alliance is the largest airline alliance out there. Among others, it includes Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian, United Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, and Air New Zealand.
But the other two alliances should not be underestimated. Oneworld includes British Airways, Iberia, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Last but not least, SkyTeam consist of airlines such as KLM, Air France, Delta Airlines, Aeroflot and Korean Air.
So, once you have registered with, let’s say Aegean Miles+Bonus you can earn tier and award miles on any Star Alliance flights (e.g., with United Airlines or Air China). Nevertheless, you can only earn miles for each flight once. It is not possible to simply register for all programs and earn miles for the same flight with every one of them.
One flight – different mileage
The same flight won’t earn you the same amount of miles with every frequent flyer program within one alliance. Even though the carriers cooperate, they sometimes treat one partner better than the other. As a result, some combinations of carrier and frequent flyer program are less profitable for us travelers than others. It is very likely that the airline offering the program will get you the most miles. If you’re traveling with another alliance member, you might receive less or no miles at all. For this reason, it is always wise to check before you book so you won’t feel sorry later.
But don’t worry. There is a beneficial tool that we already mentioned in Part I of our series: WheretoCrecit.com. It will be a great help when comparing the different amount of miles you could be credited with. Simply select the airline you’re planning on traveling with, enter your booking class, and every possible combination will be displayed.
At the same time, you should be aware of the fact that it does not help to register for every program just to always get the highest amount of miles. That way your award and tier miles will be spread all over the place, and you’ll never manage to redeem them for something valuable. Let alone reaching elite status.
Airline specific elite status benefits
We already mentioned, that you will be able to take advantage of various frequent flyer benefits throughout the alliance, once you’ve reached elite status. But there are also multiple privileges that airlines established for their customers. Therefore a low tier might sometimes still get you a special treatment from your preferred airline. This is of course particularly interesting if you fly one carrier most of the time.
A good example is Miles&More’s ‘Frequent Traveller’ tier. Even if it is only the equivalent of the Star Alliance Silver tier it will get you lounge access (depending on the departure airport) and enables you to use Business Class Check-in with Miles&More partner airlines.
Hey, we really tried to do our best and give you a nice overview on the topic. But of course, there are always things that slipped our mind or questions that are still unanswered. If you’d like to add something – maybe from your very own travel experience – or ask us something we might be able to answer: please feel free to leave a comment. Thanks!