An Infrequent Flyer’s Guide to Using Frequent Flyer Miles – Part 1

(Matt) Over the years, I’ve lost hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles.  I imagine that if I could have somehow consolidated them, I could fly around the world… but they’re gone.  I lost some because I didn’t get around to signing up for a membership card with Northwest or Swiss or some other “random” airline.  I lost some because I didn’t have my card when I was at the airport.  And most of them were lost because they expired before I did anything with them.

I think I knew all along that frequent flyer programs were designed for, um, frequent flyers.  And the last several years, I’ve been more of a “take 1-2 really long flights each year” kind of flyer.  Any guesses how many miles we fly from Lilongwe to Nairobi to London to Los Angeles?  (See the bottom of this post for the answer. )

So is there some way to do something with all those miles besides let them expire?  I’ve determined to figure it out, and share the results with you.  Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Set Your Expectations

Again, the people who benefit most from frequent flyers are ones who fly often.  If, like me, you fly far, but not all that often, it’s good to put aside the idea of a free flight to Australia every year.  To get an idea of what you can expect, head over to and guesstimate how many miles you’ll fly in the next year.

Here are a few global landmarks to give you an idea of how many miles you’d earn:

  • LA > NYC and back:  4,924
  • LA > London and back:  10,912
  • LA > Tokyo and back:  10,964
  • LA > Moscow and back:  12,188
  • LA > Sao Paolo and back:  12,306
  • LA > Johannesburg and back:  20,770

Now, here’s approximately what you can redeem them for:

  • 500-5,000 – Magazines, travel accessories, flowers
  • 5,000-30,000 – Upgrade from coach to business class within the US, Caribbean, or Central America
  • 15,000-50,000 – Upgrade from coach to business class from USA > Europe, Asia, or Australia
  • 50,000-100,000 – Free RT flight within the lower 48
  • 70,000-150,000 – Free RT flight to Central America, the Caribbean, or Hawaii
  • 100,000-300,000 – Free RT flight from LA > Australia, Europe, Asia, Africa (be sure to drop by!)

In other words, plan on paying for that trip 8-10 times before you get it for free.  And you’ll need to fly there 2-3 times in coach before you can get that free upgrade to business class.

While it may be discouraging to see that they don’t go as far as we’d like, it is nice to see that most flyer mile collections can be used for something. The trick is to collect enough of them to use them, which we’ll cover in the next post.

ANSWER FROM ABOVE: Our most recent flight to LA: Lilongwe to Nairobi to London to Los Angeles was 21,166 miles round trip.  To fly through South Africa adds 1,500 more.  (Compare your latest trip at  Got a longer trip coming up?  Commiserate with us in the comments.)

This entry was posted in How To.

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