I am not a devotee to any particular frequent flyer program. I'm a member of several, and when I fly a given airline, I register my membership number to have the miles posted to the relevant program. Very occasionally I'll rent a car, stay at a hotel, book online, or answer a survey and add some miles that way. I've also been known to purchase miles to keep existing miles from expiring.
Consequently, I don't accumulate miles very quickly. But as we were planning a trip to the US and cringing at the prices, I realized I had quite a lot of miles in a program where it would be easy to get flights. I had 78,8xx, R had 46,6xx, and L had 22,6xx miles in this same program. I found a reasonable flight which would cost 50,000 miles per ticket. All our miles totaled only fell about 2000 miles short. 'Wow, we could get to the States for the price of 2000 miles.' I foolishly thought.
First of all, the miles need to be in the account purchasing the ticket(s). Transferring miles costs $15 per 1000 miles. Buying them costs $32 per 1000. (It's a US program.)
I was doing this on a Saturday, but the helpful lady on the other end of the phone said I needed to talk to the customer service folks from the program, and they're only available Monday through Friday. I could reserve the flights for 24 hours, then phone and have the reservation extended for up to 5 days.
I took my chances. I went online and reserved the flights yesterday (Monday) morning, then waited till later in the day, when I thought the US frequent flyer customer service would be open. I talked to a nice woman who helped me figure out the cheapest way to transfer the miles so I could get the tickets. She kept saying it was going to cost me $400 to transfer the miles so it might not be worth my while - at which point I reminded her that the ticket we'd have to buy cost 388 pounds (just double it for the dollar figure - it's close enough).
After all the transfer transactions, she transferred my call (too) to a gentleman who helped me to buy the tickets. It ended up that I had almost enough miles in my account for 2 tickets, and R had enough for one. So he had to split up the reservation, and set up the purchase of 3000 miles for my account. Then he said to wait 3 hours and I should receive a confirmation email.
But wait, there's more. I received the confirmation email which showed an additional amount charged to my credit card. When you buy a ticket with miles, you have to pay taxes and fees (which is obvious when you think about it - the airline has no control over those and they're certainly not going to be out of pocket for them).
In the end, the "nearly free" tickets cost over $800.*
* But it's still cheaper than buying 1 ticket and using miles for the other 2. And a lot cheaper than buying all 3 tickets!