When British Airways dangled 100,000 frequent flyer miles in front of customers signing up for its branded Visa card last year, it appeared to people who signed up that they would be getting a free trip or two to Europe. But the deal came with a price.
Tickets purchased with the "free" miles came with charges -- often $500 or more per ticket in taxes, fuel surcharges and the like. It was a lesson that more isn't always better and free is rarely free.
"One of the great myths of airline travel is you can still get a free flight," says Christopher Elliott, ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler and author of the consumer advocacy book "Scammed."
But the business of frequent flyer miles is a big game, he says, an often complex puzzle that is intended not so much to reward loyalty as to encourage it.
Being blindly loyal to one program in the process of building your bank of points or miles can mean ending up with more expensive flights and less convenient connections. That's why some experts -- very frequent flyers, bargain hunters and industry analysts -- have developed hedging strategies.
WORK THE SYSTEM
Savvy flyers are able to assemble a combination of points from miles-generating credit cards along with their regular flight credits. That involves some research and planning, according to Michael Stanat, a global research executive with SIS International Research. A frequent business traveler, he has traveled to five continents in the past two months.
He works the system diligently through his frequent travel and use of miles-building credit cards.
"I choose the airline programs that have terms that are favorable to my needs, and which service (the places) where I travel," Stanat says.
The reward has been getting nearly free airline travel (with a small tax paid); and getting free hotel nights when the airfare wasn't the best use of the points.
"I am committed to a miles-generating strategy," he says. "This focus helps me to reward myself quicker and feel like I am gaining from the strategy."
Stanat said he avoids programs with miles that expire and likes those that he can combine with a credit card to accelerate his race to rewards, such as a trip to Hawaii he earned.
RIGHT CARD, BIGGER BENEFITS
There's no shortage of websites recommending the best reward credit cards. For example, NextAdvisor (Nextadvisor.com), which rates cards based on the biggest reward return on money spent, says Capital One Venture Rewards, Escape by Discover, United's Mileage Plus from Chase and Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards from Chase are the most productive for earning miles.
On the other hand, Joshua Heckathorn, CEO of Creditnet (Creditnet.com) names Capital One Venture Card, Citi ThankYou Premier Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card as top picks for travel rewards.
"All three offer attractive sign-up bonuses, no foreign transaction fees; and annual fees are waived for the first year of use," says Heckathorn.
In general, you should go for the card with the big sign-up bonus (being sure to read the terms of that bonus), like the United card, for example, which is dangling 40,000 miles, a free checked bag and a waiver of the first year of the $95 annual fee. Don't carry a balance on these cards or you'll be paying dearly for your miles.
Next comes redemption. To maximize points, you must be flexible enough to accept the routes and times that are available, book early and therefore pay minimal redemption fees, says Charles Tran, CEO of credit card evaluation site CreditDonkey (Creditdonkey.com).
"If your schedule doesn't permit flexibility, then miles aren't worthwhile," says Tran. "There's no point accumulating miles if you can't use them."
Adds Heckathorn of Creditnet, "Far too many consumers sit back and accumulate miles for years and years without ever redeeming them. The savviest card users will take the time to do the research and understand exactly when and how to redeem their miles in a way that maximizes value."
Most of all, says Elliott, act fast.
"Miles don't appreciate over time," says Elliott. "You don't want to be sitting on these miles and you don't want to be spending money for tickets that are supposed to be free. The person who dies with the most miles doesn't win."
Some airline flyer programs are rife with fees, similar to what travelers have found in air travel, where booking by phone and bringing bags on board can result in added charges.
"The airline is dangling the reward in front of you that's not the reward you think it is, in many cases," Elliott says.
Even the most frequent of frequent flyers will still find themselves having to pay various taxes and surcharges, because most airlines won't allow you to use your miles or points to offset those charges.
The key to avoiding them, he says, is to take a step back and evaluate what you're really getting for that loyalty and whether all that was spent to get there was really worth it. Some programs "reward" you by giving back what they had taken away, such as a putting a bag onto a plane without a surcharge.
That being said, expense-account fliers who can keep accumulated miles has much less to lose and a lot more to gain. They mainly have to face the issues that all frequent flyers must deal with: Is there going to be availability for an award ticket when I want to travel?
For many travelers, the blind devotion to a particular airline is a waste of time and money, Elliott says. If consumers dispassionately added up all the extra time and money spent on maximizing miles the might be surprised by what they would discover.
The miles are just not worth it," he says. "It costs you."
Services, seminars and clubs have been set up to help consumers win at the miles game. Frequent Flyer University, for instance, not only offers lessons but also sells a $60 a year service to help you monitor your miles, build them more effectively and convert them into tickets.
Are you ready to play the game?
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(Editing by Beth Gladstone and Andrea Evans)