5 ways to not blow your unused airline miles

Airline passengers in the airport

The complex nature of airline loyalty programs has left many consumers who sign up for their co-branded credit cards wanting for more. Not only have airline miles becoming increasingly harder to use these last few years, but award availability can sometimes be scarce. To add insult to injury, new fees and fuel surcharges are heaped onto what used to be "free travel" all the time.

Still, the best airline credit cards continue to offer excellent value for those willing to jump through all of the additional hoops and hurdles. The key to getting the most out of them is understanding how to work the system, and of course, picking the right card to begin with.

If you're tired of stressing over your unused airline miles, it might be time to try a different card - or simply find a better way to work with what you've got. Here are five tips to help you do just that:

Save your airline miles for off-peak travel.

If you feel like award redemptions are overpriced and scarce, take a look at off-peak pricing and you'll likely change your mind. Where holiday breaks and summer often come with higher prices for flights – even when you're paying with points – off-peak and off-season travel generally costs a lot less.

Take the American AAdantage program, for example. Where a round-trip MileSAAver flight to Europe from the contiguous United States costs 60,000 miles during summer, it costs just 45,000 miles during their off-peak season, which is October 15th – May 15th.

By saving your airline miles for off-peak travel, you can stretch them a whole lot further and perhaps enjoy better award availability, too.

Consider a flexible travel credit card.

If you're tired of navigating a single airline loyalty program or want as many options as possible, a flexible travel card might provide the options you want. With a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, for example, you can earn points that are transferrable to several airlines including Southwest, United, and British Airways to name a few.

If you don't wind up finding the availability you need or don't feel like messing with airline programs at all, you can also use your points to book travel with any airline through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. Since the portal works a lot like Expedia.com, you just input your dates and choose the flight that works best for you with no regard for blackout dates or capacity controls.

Sign up for a card with no blackout dates or better availability from your home airport.

Speaking of blackout dates, some airline loyalty programs don't have them. One that comes to mind specifically is the Southwest Rapid Rewards program.

If you have Southwest miles and find a seat on a plane, it's yours. This is a huge perk if you need to book several seats on a single flight or don't have a lot of flexibility in the time or date you fly.
Points earned from the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card transfer to Chase at a 1:1 ratio, but you could sign up for the Southwest Premier credit card instead.

Pursue signup bonuses, and convince your spouse or partner to do the same.

While it's easy to earn airline miles if you travel all the time, it's much harder when you rarely fly. The best way to rack up miles quickly in that case is to sign up for new credit cards and earn lucrative signup bonuses when you can.

While co-branded airline credit cards offer their own juicy signup bonuses to new customers, plenty of flexible cards offer signup bonuses as well. Combine a few signup bonuses together and you could be cruising for free in no time.

Use shopping portals and dining programs.

While you can use your co-branded or flexible travel card to rack up airline miles regardless, you can really speed up the process if you maximize shopping portals and dining programs.

While each card and programs offers a slightly different program, most work similarly. The Chase Ultimate Rewards program, for example, lets you earn additional points when you click through the portal before making purchases with specific retailers online.

Although participating retailers change in and out all the time, they often include merchants like Best Buy, Macy's, Home Depot, and Sears. Just by clicking through the portal before a purchase, you can usually earn an extra 1-4 points for every dollar you spend.

The Bottom Line

Airline loyalty programs are notorious for making their programs so complex that many people just give up. By maximizing the points you earn and avoiding peak travel season, you'll have the best shot at scoring the free and almost-free travel you crave.
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