The best ways to spend your frequent flyers points

You've done the hard yards – the hard miles – flying on countless business trips, slowly building up your frequent flyer balance along the way.

And if you've been smart about it, you will also have taken advantage of credit card promotions which can net you upwards of 100,000 points on selected slabs of airline-partnered plastic.

Now it's time to use those points, because they won't do much good just sitting there in your account.

The second currency

With almost 12 million members on the books of Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme, and seven million belonging to Virgin Australia's Velocity challenger program, frequent flyer points can be considered as the nation's de facto second currency.

In fact, the trick to finding the best ways to use those points is to think of them as a currency in their own right.

As it happens, frequent flyer points do have a real-world value – but that value isn't fixed. A frequent flyer point can be worth as as little as half a cent or more than five cents, depending on how you spend your points.

Working out exchange rates

Think of it this way. If the local currency exchange bureau offered you an exchange rate of 0.5 cents per point, and a forex shop across the road offered 5c per point, which shop would you use?

You'd go to the one offering the best exchange rate, of course.

The same thinking should apply when you look to turn your frequent flyer points into something more tangible.


Spending sprees

Let's start with the worst way to spend your points: shopping at the airline's frequent flyer store, which lets you trade in your points on a wide variety of products and gift cards.

The classic and much-laughed-at example is a toaster, but the same applies to a Nespresso coffee machine, an iPad or pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.

Measure the number of points each item costs against the retail price of that same product out in the real world and you'll quickly realise the purchasing power of your points is at its lowest here.

That's not to mention the sales, bargaining and price-matching which can further reduce the price tag at a retailer.

The price is right

There are exceptions, of course.

If you have so few points that you can't use them for anything much in the air, and there's little chance of that changing, buying a gift card for a department store or bottle shop is a decent way to turn your points into something more useful. The fixed value of a gift card also lets you take advantage of sales and other specials which pop up in store.

And the best ways to use your frequent flyer points?

Flying longer, locally

Start by looking to book a domestic business class flight with your points – what's called an 'award' ticket – on longer treks such as Sydney-Perth or Melbourne-Perth, especially if you're on the Airbus A330s of Qantas or Virgin Australia.

Upgrading from flexible economy to business class flights on those flights, for around 10,000 points with either airline, is also a winner.

You can also book into business class for shorter trips such as Sydney-Melbourne but for 90 minutes in the air, it's barely worth it.

No toasters

Economy tickets are often discounted to the point where it's better to pay with cash, but even if you use points you are coming out better than buying a toaster.

For example, Qantas charges 8,000 points (plus $35 to cover taxes and other fees) for a one-way Sydney-Melbourne economy ticket. Compare that to a $150 sale fare on the same route and your return is around 1.4 cents per point.

Some of the best value upgrades for points are business class from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to Los Angeles – allow 50,000 points from a flexible economy ticket – and my personal favourite, 60,000 points to move from Qantas business class to first class all the way from Sydney or Melbourne to London.

That's almost 24 hours of travel time and includes access to first class lounges in Australia and during the Dubai stopover.

Or you could buy a few toasters.

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business Traveller magazine. His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of Executive Style readers.

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