Free First Class Next Month 4.0: Airline Miles Basics

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This is the thirteenth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flier miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go. Previously Transferable Points Basics.

The last two posts in this series have dealt with the different types of miles and points: what they are how they’re different.

Today’s post deals with airline miles specifically, like Delta SkyMiles or American Airlines AAdvantage miles. There are five things everyone should know about airline miles.

  1. Every type of frequent flyer miles has different rules related to earning and redemption.
  2. You can almost never cheaply pool your miles in one airline program with someone else’s miles in the same program.
  3. You can never combine your miles in one airline program with your miles in another airline program.
  4. With a few exceptions, one’s miles can be used to book a flight for anyone.
  5. You can always use an airline’s miles for flights on that airline or one of its partners.

Different Programs, Different Rules

This is a basic tenet. Airline programs are often very similar in many ways, but they are all different and have their own rules. The fuel surcharges on one are not the same as the fuel surcharges on another. The award stopover rules on United differ from American’s rules on the same topic.

As you study a program, you’ll learn its rules. Or you can skip keeping all the rules straight and hire a pro to book your awards.

Pooling Miles in the Same Program

When collecting miles, its easy to find yourself in a situation where you have a bunch of miles and points spread over a number of different programs. You might not have enough in one account for the award you want, so you might want to combine miles between programs or between your account and a friend’s in the same program. Can you do it?

Q: Can I transfer my American Airlines miles from my account to someone else’s American Airlines account? (More generally: can I combine miles between two accounts in the same program?)

A: Yes, but there are transfer fees above one cent per mile making this a bad idea. You can almost never cheaply pool your miles in one airline program with someone else’s miles in the same program.

Sharing or transferring American miles costs you $0.01 per mile, plus a flat $30 transaction processing charge.

Transferring 1,000 miles costs $40 or 4 cents per mile. Transferring 10,000 miles costs $130 or 1.3 cents per mile. I value American Airlines miles at 1.77 cents each, so even larger transfers wipe out almost all the value of the miles and should be avoided at all costs.

But let’s look at a workaround, so that you don’t have to transfer miles and incur huge fees.

Example: I want to fly roundtrip from New York to Berlin. I have 30k AA miles in my account, and my brother has 30k AA miles in his. The award costs 30k miles each way (unless you know Scott’s trick to make it 20k miles.)

If my brother were to transfer me the extra 30k miles I need to book this roundtrip award, it would cost $330. Instead, there is an easy way to book this award without incurring the pointless charge. Keep in mind two things:

  • Anyone can use his miles to book an award for anyone else.
  • Some airlines, including American, allow you to book oneway awards for have the price of a roundtrip.

If you have enough miles, splitting the roundtrip into two oneways booked from separate accounts is an easy way to avoid the transfer fee.

I would simply use my 30k to book a oneway award for the JFK-TXL outbound of my trip…

and I would use my brother’s 30k to book the TXL-JFK return oneway return in my name.

By not pooling our miles and just using some from each account to book awards for the same person, $330 in transfer fees were saved in this example.

This basic principal can be applied in a number of ways. I recently booked a roundtrip award from Buenos Aires to Washington DC. I booked the outbound leg as a oneway using my American miles, and had someone else book the return leg in my name using his United miles.

Because tickets can be booked in anyone’s name from anyone’s account, you don’t need to transfer miles as often as you might think. That’s good news because American’s price of 1 cent per mile plus a $30 transfer fee is common.

There are two big exceptions of airlines that have bucked the mile transfer fee idea. Anyone who has HawaiianMiles with Hawaiian Airlines can transfer miles, for free, to anyone who holds a Hawaiian Airlines-linked Visa using the airline’s ShareMiles program, as I’ve previously discussed. The miles sender doesn’t need to have a Hawaiian Airlines credit or debit card, but the receiver does.

Additionally, you can pool British Airways Avios with members of your household for free, as outlined by The Points Guy, meaning there is no need to transfer them.

Transfers between Airline Programs

Q: Can I transfer my American Airlines AAdvantage miles from my account to my British Airways Avios account? (More generally: can I combine one type of miles with another type?)

A: No. You can not transfer miles/points from one airline’s account to another, even if they are partner airlines. However, partner accounts can be used to book the same flights.

This is a very common question. People think if American Airlines and British Airways are partners, maybe they can pool the two types of miles. Unfortunately you can’t pool the miles, but you can have them work together as in the following example.

Example: I want to book the same flights as the last example–roundtrip from New York to Berlin. I have 30,000 American Airlines miles and 30,000 Avios.

I can not transfer my American Airlines miles to my British Airways account or vice versa, but I can use either type to book airberlin flights or any other oneworld partner.

I can use my 30,000 American Airlines miles to book the outbound from New York to Berlin…

and 20,000 of my Avios for the return on airberlin.

You might notice these are the exact same flights as the last example. That’s because we can use American miles or British Airways Avios to fly airberlin, and we can book flights for ourselves from our accounts or someone else’s account.

These two examples illustrate two ways to avoid transfers. Avoiding transfers is key since transferring in the first example would have been a prohibitive $330 and transferring would have been impossible in the second example.

Bonus

In order to avoid a situation where you have miles spread across a bunch of partner programs, you can simply credit all paid flights to the same partner in the first place. When booking a flight, the default setting will credit the miles you earn to the airline you are booking on. However, there is usually a drop-down list of their partner airlines from which you can select.

If you travel on British Airways for work, but do most of your personal travel on American, you can have the miles you earn on those British Airways flights and the miles you earn on the American Airlines flights all credited to your AAdvantage account. Then you won’t have to worry about having some miles in one account and some in another.

Recap

With very few exceptions, you can not transfer miles to another account within the same program without incurring excessive transfer fees. However, you can often avoid these fees by booking flights in the name of the person you were going to transfer your miles to.

Additionally, you can not transfer points across programs–even if they are within the same alliance. However, you can make partner’s miles work together by using two different types of miles on the same airline partner.

Double Bonus

Transferable points are the other big solution to the problems raised in this post. Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starpoints, and Membership Rewards keep these problems from arising. That’s why I talked about them yesterday: Transferable Points Basics.



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2 Responses to Free First Class Next Month 4.0: Airline Miles Basics

  1. Pingback: Free First Class Next Month 4.0: Airline Partners and Hubs | milevalue.com

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