One Way to Get the Miles You Need: Swap with a Friend
Many of us have collected enough frequent-flier miles for a trip we have in mind, but they're with an airline that doesn't fly where we want or doesn't have seats available in the cabin we want. When that's the case, is there anything you can do, besides seeking help from Gary Leff? As I learned this past weekend, there is indeed: Swap miles with a friend.
Here’s what I mean: Some good friends of mine need to fly from New York to London in August for a wedding. They have a ton of United miles, but they also have an inflexible schedule, and they can't get what they need on United. The airline that has the flight schedule and seats they want? American. So I offered them my American miles in exchange for an equal number of their United miles. They were thrilled (as was I, since United miles work better for me). So yesterday I logged into my account on AA.com and booked my friends on the flights they need, in the cabin they want. They gave me their United.com account number and password so that in future, when I want to book tickets using their United miles, I can do so.
But here's what's most interesting about this story: Of the 250K miles that I gave my friends (they're flying in first class roundtrip!), 225K of them I got without spending a dime. Here's how:
The lesson I learned? Don't think a credit card isn't worth signing up for just because the 50,000 to 100,000 miles being offered aren't on airlines in your preferred alliance. You can conceivably swap with a friend and get miles on the airline you prefer.
Clearly, the swapping of miles among friends requires a relationship of deep trust. It may require sharing mileage-account numbers and passwords. And it may require trusting your friends to reimburse you for their airline ticket taxes that you charge to your credit card. (AA.com required that the name on the mileage account--mine--match the name on the credit card used to pay taxes.)
To stay on top of the latest credit-card sign-up mileage deals, read Free Frequent Flyer Miles, The Points Guy, and View From The Wing. If you're interested in signing up for one of those AA Citi Cards offering 75,000 miles after you charge $4,000 within six months, it's apparently still on offer if you phone 800-408-4954 and ask whether the 75,000-mile offer is still available. (The promotion officially expired months ago, but readers I've sent to that number have been reporting back to me that they were able to get the deal.)
Before taking any action, I strongly suggest you read my article Card Tricks Every Traveler Should Know and the accompanying chart listing the best travel-rewards credit cards (the online version is hard to read, so click on "Download the Chart" to download a pdf of the chart as it appeared in the magazine).
NOTE ADDED ON AUGUST 10, 2011:
I received an email from attorney Lawrence W. Lipman, Esq., of Fair Lawn, N.J., who writes with this warning:
"Your recent suggestion that people swap miles with a friend to get miles on their airline of choice sounds like a violation of the 'no barter' rule that most (all?) airlines have in place. I am an attorney who has fought many battles with the airlines over issues like this one, and some clients have had miles removed from their accounts as a penalty for rule violations. A couple have actually had their entire balances confiscated for particularly egregious violations of the airlines' rules. Perhaps you should disclose this possibility to your readers before you suggest that they risk disaster to get what they want."
"It's of course perfectly fine for you to give an award ticket to your friends. What's not technically kosher is trading awards: I give you miles, you give me miles. Technically that could be considered bartering, which is against the rules. But as long as it's done as a favor amongst friends, that's not what the airlines are going after. They just don't want an actual market in their awards: buying, selling, brokering. And as long as it's between people who actually know each other, there's not going to be a problem. If the airline asks a person traveling, 'Whose miles were these tickets purchased with? How do you know them?' and the person has answers, it's all good.
The airlines don't like brokers. They don't like selling awards. But giving an award to a close friend? No worries. And even expecting that your close friend helps you out later when you're in a jam? Again, no worries.
No contracts, no sales, no exchange of money, and definitely no transactions through third parties--e.g., Craig's List--making a market in the awards. As long as you stay away from that stuff, the airlines are not going to be the least bit displeased with you. Honestly, Wendy, as long as people do what you did--what you described in your post--they are fine. It's only when they go beyond what you're talking about that they could get themselves in trouble."
So there you have input from two industry experts. Got any insights to add? Please click on "Comments" below to share your opinion.