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Not Flying This Year? Mind Your Miles

Farnoosh Torabi
·6 mins read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In 2019, I flew across the country about a half a dozen times, always on JetBlue, and by the end of the year, had earned an upgrade to Mosaic, the flier’s elite status. I looked forward to future flights with expedited check-ins, waived cancellation fees and complimentary adult beverages.

Then 2020 happened.

I was left wondering: What will happen to my Mosaic membership? And my over 100,000 points I’d racked up to reach this status? Did I face a use-or-lose situation?

Whether accumulated through swiping a rewards credit card or traveling on a preferred airline, you, too, may be thinking about how to continue earning and redeeming flier miles this year (and in 2021) in the face of a pandemic.

Despite the challenges, anyone can still play the miles game by following a few best practices. This year, in fact, presents some unique opportunities to leverage our miles and score big.

No need to panic. But do some leg work. Not going anywhere? Rest assured, neither are your miles. Mileage programs tend to be quite lucrative for airlines, so the risk that your points might eventually disappear or expire - or that the program, itself, will go away - is not likely. “I wouldn’t worry that you’re going to wake up one day and your miles are gone,” says David Fleming, founder of TheMilesGuy.com. “When airlines need money, they pull from these mileage programs.” He’s right. Delta is just one of the latest airlines to announce mortgaging its miles business to gain capital amidst plummeting revenue.

To be certain, check in with your miles program to re-familiarize yourself with the fine print and to learn what, if anything, you need to do to keep your miles. Some may require you to stay “active” by redeeming an award with your miles or buying a few thousand miles. “That sometimes resets the clock,” says Fleming.

When I reached out to JetBlue in September to ask about the fate of my miles, customer service assured me that they never expire. The aircraft also lowered the miles threshold for maintaining Mosaic status by 50%, at least through 2021.

Think of miles as a fluctuating currency. To the frequent flier, miles are a precious commodity and their value can change depending on the type of exchange. Fleming’s advice: Run the numbers. Pay with miles if the purchase equates to roughly two cents per mile. If, say, you come across a flight that normally costs $700, but it can be purchased for 25,000 miles, go with the miles and save your cash.

In general, the best value for your miles happens when buying a business or first-class seat, especially now. The drop in travel has led to overall cheaper airfare for many economy class seats, says Christina Schlegel, founder of BlueTail Travel. In the case where you find a $79 flight, “It may make more sense to pay for flights instead of using a lot of points,” she says.

But in business and first class, your miles tend to go further — and it seems that the deals are popping up now more than ever. Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com, recently purchased a $5,000 business class ticket to Bora Bora on Air Tahiti (an American Airlines partner) for 80,000 points. The value of the exchange there is more than six cents per mile, a steal. It’s also rare, he says, because “normally you wouldn’t be able to travel to Bora Bora using points for business class.”

As always, the worst “conversion” is exchanging miles for cash, including purchasing gift cards and paying off your credit card statement. Just to put it in perspective, those same 80,000 points that paid for Kelly’s flight to Bora Bora could have, instead, been exchanged to buy a $400 store gift card.

And those offers to trade in miles for magazine subscriptions? Should be a hard pass. “It’s basically a fire sale for your points or miles,” says Kelly.

Pool your points and plan for 2021. Now’s a good time to study the various partnerships in the travel industry between airlines, hotels and travel reward programs that may allow you to transfer your hotel and rewards card points into your frequent flier miles. “There is synergy between credit card companies, mileage programs and hotels that the average person would not know about,” says Fleming, who keeps a spreadsheet of all of his programs, account numbers and current points.

Even if you’re not feeling ready to fly this year, it’s a wise time to plan and possibly reserve a purchase for 2021. Not to mention, booking with miles versus dollars is often more convenient and less penalizing, in the event you do wish to cancel. At most you may need to pay a small penalty.

Flexibility is your friend. Another pro-tip for getting the most out of your miles is to procrastinate on your travel planning. When it comes to snagging top miles deals, the late bird often gets the worm. “One of the most amazing things is booking last minute,” says Fleming. “If the airline doesn’t sell the seats for money, they often open up for miles. I could probably have a better chance to get a great deal to Rome in the next two days than in a year from now, as far as points go.” And with fewer seats selling these days, last-minute deals are even more abundant.

An option to give. Last but not least, you can typically donate your points or miles, either by transferring them to someone who is a member of the same program or booking a flight on a friend’s behalf with your miles. While you may not be comfortable flying right now, is there someone else who could benefit from this gift?

That’s how I plan to spend my JetBlue miles — to fly my parents from San Francisco to New Jersey to share Thanksgiving with us. I’m grateful for their sacrifice, as they’ll also need to quarantine here before seeing us. After one very long year, their visit will be a benefit to us all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Farnoosh Torabi is a financial journalist, author and host of the "So Money" podcast.

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