Professionals help you redeem miles

Christine Ballentine is a loyal US Airways customer, and she has been saving up her frequent-flyer miles for a trip to France this summer. But turning them into a ticket hasn’t been easy.

“US Airways is telling me that they have flights into Nice but no flights to get me home,” says Ballentine, a legal secretary in Philadelphia. “It’s very frustrating. It’s like a part-time job, trying to figure out your options.”

Actually, it’s closer to a full-time job.

Ballentine is one of many air travelers who are irked by their inability to do what airlines promised they could when they signed up for their frequent-flyer programs: redeem their miles for free airline tickets.

Now, many are turning to professional consultants to help them navigate the odd and confusing world of travel loyalty programs.

“Awards seats are definitely scarcer,” says Brian Kelly, who operates ThePointsGuy.com. “And with over 17 trillion — yes, trillion — loyalty points out there, including frequent-flyer miles, hotel points and credit card points, this sector of the travel industry has definitely grown.”

Several recent surveys show why demand for these services is high.

A 2011 study by the market research firm Colloquy found that Americans accumulate an astounding $48 billion in rewards points and travel miles but fail to redeem at least a third of them.

Ryan Lile runs the Savvy Traveler (www.savvytravel.net), a Los Angeles-based company that helps frequent travelers turn their points into tickets. He charges clients $75 an hour for services that also include travel management, advice on accumulating rewards and general travel tips.

Janae Bourgeois, an executive assistant to the chairman of a nonprofit organization based in Baton Rouge, La., hired Lile to make the most of her boss’s award portfolio.

For example, between January and February, the chairman took four trips and wanted to keep costs down by using points to pay for some of them.

To arrange that herself, Bourgeois says, she’d need to be a student of airline award programs, learning the rules, spending hours searching for available seats and knowing the ins and outs of airline alliances.

Frequent-flyer programs shouldn’t be this complicated. It’s yet another reason to think twice before pledging your loyalty to any airline.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. He’s also the author of “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or email him at celliott@ngs.org.

&Copy; 2012 Christopher Elliott/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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