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Let get right to it. Should most members of airline loyalty programs hoard their miles or points?

I say, no. Certainly do not hoard miles for years, as it has been proved time and time again that miles/points devalue over time. You see this when airlines raise redemption rates and lower inventory as they modify their programs – and modify they do.

It happens all the time in matters big and small; you’ve probably gotten an email or two explaining the latest reconfiguration, but most of us don’t read the fine print. That’s the first step to using miles intelligently.

Read the Fine Print

Review your miles program rules periodically; you might be surprised at what’s changed. For example:

  • American: Earlier this year the airline switched to a "pay more, earn more" model so shoppers who buy pricier tickets such as last-minute business travelers reap more of the rewards. Even before this happened, American began dropping its traditional weekly fare sales in favor of bonus miles deals like a current offer giving customers an extra 30,000 miles to fly to New Zealand.
  • United: Earlier this month, the airline announced changes in its MileagePlus program affecting cancellation fees and stopovers for rewards flights.

What to Know About Miles Programs

The biggest change of the past several years is that getting a free flight is not as easy as it used to be, especially for the average miles member who has little or no status (and no pretensions to gaining any). It’s not impossible to get a free flight, but here’s an interesting tidbit: According to a survey by the American Institute of CPAs, only 15% of those who do amass loyalty points ever redeem them. The vast majority hoard and hoard and gain absolutely nothing. Bad move.

How to Get the Most from Miles

First of all, use your flying miles or points and also sign up with an airline-branded credit card (and some off very nice miles bonuses for signing). Then, if you’ve got time on hands to become a devoted miles hobbyist, you can sometimes pull off a great trip.

In my view, the Holy Grail of miles or points redemption values is  2+ cents per point. You can discover how close you can come to this value by going through the motions of booking a flight then comparing the dollar price to what it would cost you in miles or points. Obviously you want to get the biggest bang for the buck so if one trip doesn’t seem valuable, try another destination on your wish list. Interesting aside: Most airlines value their points or miles at slightly under a penny for accounting purposes.

Who Can Hoard Miles for a While

Some folks can afford to hold on to some miles or points longer than others, mainly because they amass them more slowly.

Infrequent flyers: You may already be inclined toward hoarding because it takes a while to earn miles, but you also need to worry about expiring miles. Here’s where an airline-branded credit card can help; using the card can help you record ‘activity’ on a miles account that will prevent miles/points from expiring. Just be careful you’re not getting a card that’s too expensive for your needs.

Flexible flyers: There is more seat availability for rewards flights in the off-season (more on that below). If you can fly outside of summer and major holidays, you may be able to use the hoard to your satisfaction.

Who Doesn’t Need to Hoard

Frequent fliers: If you fly a lot, you already get a lot of miles; if you fly a lot on expensive tickets, you get even more. You are one of the lucky few that has a better shot at getting a trip or upgrade when it suits you (but there are no guarantees). Just keep earning and keep trying to book dates that work best.

Members of certain airline programs: What makes some miles programs more valuable than others is what J.D. Power calls “ease of redeeming points” and they rank Alaska’s Mileage Plan at number one, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards in second place and JetBlue’s TrueBlue in third. By the way, miles in the Southwest and JetBlue programs have no expiration date.

What Should You Hoard Miles For?

Big trip: It makes sense to spend miles on a big trip you might not otherwise be able to afford (and remember that some earned miles on various cards can be used for hotels, too). Once again, flexibility can help and this is where off-peak travel dates may be the way to go. Look for domestic and European trips in fall or winter but popular ski destinations may be harder to book. Try a little trip, too; United sometimes gives the number of miles needed for its weekend getaway deals right alongside the dollar price which makes it real easy.

Emergency flights: Say a daughter’s having a baby or a relative has died, and you need to get on a plane fast. This is where miles can help with those horrendous last-minute airfare prices. Go online or get on the phone and see what you can work out. Which leads us to:

Partial payment: If you’re never going to get that big trip at a time you’d like to travel – and you’re not a high-flying, high-paying business traveler – consider using miles as partial payment for trips, when this is an option. Better than dinging a credit card for the full amount.

Rick Seaney is the CEO and cofounder of FareCompare