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Best ways to use frequent flyer miles

June 18, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Airlines frequently change their rewards programs, not always to the benefit of their customers. Cashing in on your rewards points or mileage often requires you to take cash out of your bank account.Brett Perrine's family enjoyed their trip to California, and most of them flew there for free.

"We had 15 of us and I utilized probably about 10 trips with my miles," Perrine said. "It was fantastic!"

But the value of frequent flyer miles is falling. Consumer Reports crunched the numbers and found it's a waste to use your miles on certain flights.

"It's only really worth it to use frequent-flyer miles on flights that cost $300 or more," said Greg Daugherty from Consumer Reports.

Unfortunately, taking a trip with frequent flyer miles is still a real challenge.

According to Webflyer.com, travelers are most likely to have success redeeming miles with Midwest Airlines, at 69 percent, followed by US Airways, at 67 percent.

In order to get the flight you want, Consumer Reports says book early and have flexible travel dates.

And if you don't have enough miles to travel, most airlines allow family and friends to transfer miles to one another. But that can cost you, so be sure to check the airlines' rules.

What happens to your miles if the airline goes bankrupt?

"If it's a major carrier, your frequent flyer program will probably be bought by another major airline and you won't lose your miles," Daugherty said. "So it usually makes sense to join the big carriers' programs."

Starting in July, some airlines will start charging you when you use frequent flyer miles to upgrade a ticket.

United Airlines, for instance, will charge up to $500 for that upgrade. You may be wasting your money by using frequent flyer rewards on some flights.

For Perrine, a wisely used frequent flyer account is a great thing to have.

"I used it for many vacations. I used on business travel. Countless things I utilize miles for," Perrine said.

With frequent flyer programs, if you want to get a seat on a domestic flight without worrying about blackout dates or getting bumped, you can use twice the usual miles. But Consumer Reports says this option makes sense only if the airfare is more than $600.

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