T
he benefits of airline miles are quite clear: they can save you money. A lot of money. Yet managing and getting the most out of these miles can be tricky business. Each airline and credit card offers a different loyalty program, and their miles can differ greatly in value. “The biggest problem I see is that people collect a variety of miles and points in different programs, but never have enough for an award ticket in any single one, so those miles can expire and get wasted,” said Rosemarie Clancy, VP of Content and Marketing for Reward Expert. In affect, they’re spending more money on travel than they need to. Or they’re not traveling as much as they could be.

In 2016, understanding airline miles isn’t as simple as it used to be. “A mile flown is no longer a mile earned,” said Chris Lopinto, President and co-founder of ExpertFlyer. because all the major airlines have gone to revenue-based earnings. Simply put, the amount of frequent flyer miles — or points — you accumulate is more based on what you pay for the ticket than the actual number of miles you accumulate. So the best way of earning points, outside of flying, is with credit cards.

We asked Clancy and Lopinto for some helpful tips on how an inexperienced — or seasoned — traveler can get the most out of their miles. It’s important, for starters, to have a plan.

Focus and strategize. Pick a destination you wish to travel to, find out how many miles you’ll need to earn to get there, then apply for a credit card that will help you achieve this goal. Banks and airlines are always clamoring for business, so you’ll likely receive a big sign-up bonus. If you want to use a card you already have, Clancy suggested putting all of your spending on that one card until your reach your goal.

Pick the right program. Different cards offer different kinds of bonuses. Some cards give double the points on travel and dining spent. Other cards give bonuses on groceries and gas. You want your frequent-flyer or points programs to mimic your lifestyle, so that you optimize the points you earn. “If you fly to foreign countries, for example, make sure your card has no foreign transaction fees and it is chip enabled,” said Clancy. If you fly a particular airline most of the time, or even just plan to use an airline for an upcoming trip or two, it’s probably worth getting a card affiliated with that carrier.

Check partners. “A lot of people don’t know they can fly on partners, and some carriers offer better rates and lower fees,” said Clancy. For instance, if you only fly Southwest, you can get a Southwest card. But Chase ultimate rewards points transfer 1-to-1 with Southwest, so you can earn your Southwest points but also have flexibility because then you can transfer to Chase’s hotel partners or other airlines. This is why it’s important to not just look at flights you have miles on, but to also look at transfer partners for points programs since many of them will offer different award rates and routes.

Take advantage of stopover rules. “Some airlines offer you the option of adding a stopover for no extra miles so you get two destinations for the price of one,” said Clancy. Unlike layovers, stopovers are opened ended, lasting more than 24 hours, and allow travelers to explore a new city while en route to their final destination. Plus, there’s no added cost for the extra flight. If you’re flexible on dates, you can theoretically visit two different cities for the price of one.

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Be flexible with your dates. If a flight isn’t selling and its departure date is closing in fast, airlines will release a lot more reward inventory because they just want to put butts in the seats. “If you’re flexible on when you leave or when you go, wait until a week or two before and then you’ll see a lot more options open up versus eight months in advance,” said Lopinto. “Not everyone can book that way, but if you have the flexibility, that’s good.”

Earn miles in transferable currency. “The way to earn currency smartly, is to not just earn in one airline program, but in something that’s transferrable,” Lopinto said. These miles can be transferred between different airlines or used to book tickets with the credit card company. The big programs, for example, are American Express’s Membership Rewards Points, Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Points and Citi’s ThankYou Rewards Points. You can have a personal card and a business card, but their points pool together. In this way it’s not about how many cards you’re using, but the program that you’re earning in.

Pay with miles or cash? According to Lopinto, you want to get a penny and a quarter (0.0125) for the value of your point or mile. (“If you can get more than that — great. If you’re getting sub-a-penny, just pay in cash.”) To find this number, simply divide the price of the ticket over the miles it costs. If you burn 25,000 miles on a ticket that would otherwise cost $200 (200 / 25,000 = 0.008), you’d only be valuing your mile at eight tenths of a cent per mile — and that’s really bad. But if that same ticket costs $500 (500 / 25,000 = 0.02), that’s two cents per mile — a really good redemption.

So when’s the best time to pay with miles? Clancy suggested using them when flying business class internationally. “The best value for your miles is generally flying business class to an international destination. Those tickets are usually expensive so you can get up to 20 cents or more for every mile it costs to redeem.”

Don’t wait on your miles. “A mile tomorrow will always be worth less than a mile today,” said Lopinto. “It’s like putting cash in a savings account that doesn’t earn interest. It may even be deflated over time.” If you can use them now, use them now. Unless there’s a very specific trip or reason you’re saving for, there’s no reason to save up your miles.

Another thing to keep in mind is where your rewards are stored and when they expire. “Many frequent flyer miles expire in eighteen months if there is no activity, but can be redeemable up to three years or even more for other carriers so check the fine print,” said Clancy. If this expiration date is fast approaching, it’s time to book that next trip. “Points, on the other hand, are generally held on the card. Clancy recommends using that card occasionally, at the very least, to “keep that clock ticking.”

Take advantage of promotions. Airlines and their partners put 4 million miles up for grabs in the first half of 2016, according to Reward Expert. Acting on these — through dining, hotel and car bookings, surveys, utility sign-ups, magazine subscriptions — can greatly accelerate the way you earn miles.

Be aware of fees. “Fuel surcharges can vary widely from one airline to another,” said Clancy. “Even on the same route.” These taxes and airport fees can add up depending on the route and carrier you’re using — so watch for those additional expenses that can add to the cost of the ticket. This is also why it’s important to check what your card’s transfer partners are offering as well.

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