The beauty of miles and points is they can take you virtually anywhere in the world – thanks to airline frequent flyer programs and their partners as well as airline alliances, the world is well within reach. Collecting miles and points is one aspect and rather an easier one compared to redeeming miles – which can be more difficult. Earning miles through flying and credit card spend is quite simple as you just need to buy the right fare or use the right card and you receive miles.
In order to redeem miles for your desired flights and at a great value, you need to take into account a few aspects which will help you find award availability. Travel using miles and points will most likely not work for you if you need to fly somewhere on a specific date on a specific flight – flexibility is key to finding award space; however, that’s not to say that if you’re not flexible you won’t find anything.
Diversify Your Miles & Points Portfolio
It is incredibly important that you diversify your miles & points – do not collect miles with just one airline and expect to use them for travel anywhere; that probably won’t work. While collecting miles with various airlines definitely helps and opens your options, the best way to collect miles and points is with transferable points programs such as American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, and Marriott Bonvoy.
Collecting points with these transferable points programs has a number of benefits such as the ability to then transfer them to various airlines and hotels. For example, if you have AMEX Membership Rewards points you’re able to transfer them to a number of airlines – if one airline has no availability chances are another might and therefore your options are always open. The other benefit of collecting these points is that they generally do not expire as long as you have the account/credit card open, while airline miles might expire after some time or inactivity.
Lock in Flights You Can Fly
Even if your desired itinerary or award flight is not available, check for other options and if something works for you – book it. Award availability changes every second based on demand, flight loads, and a variety of other factors. If there is no award seat on your desired flight now, chances are it might open up in the future. However, in case it does not, it is important to have something locked in/booked that you can still fly even if it isn’t what you prefer.
Unlike cash/revenue tickets, airline award tickets have no-to-mild cancellation fees. Most U.S. airlines like American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines have no change or cancellation fees – therefore if you book an award ticket with these airlines you can change it or redeposit it for no fee (might not include Basic Economy tickets). United Airlines still charges cancellation and change fees on award tickets depending on a number of factors like when and where you’re traveling, when you change/cancel, and what your elite status is.
Most foreign frequent flyer programs still charge change/cancellation fees – however they’re generally somewhere between $25 – $200 USD. Some might offer free changes as well, depending on your itinerary or when you book.
Look for Other Flight Options
Sometimes there just won’t be an award seat to where we want to fly – there can be times where there’s no award availability for a number of days and we just won’t be able to book an award flight. Thankfully, there are other options! These include redeeming transferable bank program points through their travel portal directly for a cash/revenue ticket. AMEX, Capital One, Chase, and Citi all have a travel portal whereby you can directly redeem their points for a flight, hotel, car, etc. through an Expedia-like portal where you can generally apply 1 point for a value of $0.01 – $0.015 towards your flight/hotel/car. These would not be mileage/award flights and rather the airline would see them as normal cash/revenue flights and they would be subject to the same change or cancellation fees as a regular ticket; you could potentially earn miles on these flights as well depending on what frequent flyer program you credit to.
Another option if there’s no award availability on your desired flight is to redeem miles for a flight to an alternate/near-by airport and then take ground transportation (for example, if there’s no award space to Miami there might be to Fort Lauderdale). This solution may not be convenient or may not work in some cases, but generally large cities have a few airports which only increases your chances of finding an award flight.
You could also book a trip combining an award flight and a cash flight. For example let’s say you want to fly from Seattle to Los Angeles and there’s no award space on this route, but you check Seattle – San Francisco and there is award availability. You could book SEA-SFO using miles and then San Francisco to Los Angeles using cash, which would most likely be less expensive than a cash ticket from Seattle – Los Angeles (though not in all cases since domestic tickets are generally inexpensive these days). If you are using this method be sure to have an extra-long layover as these are separate tickets.
Flexibility is Key
Award travel is amazing – being able to fly First Class around the world for next to nothing is one of the greatest aspects in travel; however, flexibility is key to both finding award availability and acquiring a redemption for the best value. Frequent flyer programs release awards at a low-saver level and at a higher, dynamic level. When an airline releases a saver-level seat, that seat is generally bookable using miles from all of the airline’s partners and when there’s no saver-level availability but there is standard/higher/dynamic availability then that seats is only bookable using the frequent flyer program of the airline you are flying.
If you’re not flexible and there’s no saver-level award availability on your desired flight, chances are that there is mileage availability – just at higher levels. These non-saver level awards are almost never worth it as they can cost 2-5x more than the saver-level award ticket and generally represent a bad value and you should never redeem miles for a non-saver level ticket. For example, while United Airlines does not publish an award chart, they usually charge 60-80k miles for a one-way saver-level Business Class ticket from North America to Europe and they charge around 155k miles for the same ticket if there’s no low/saver-level award availability. This would represent a very bad value and you should never redeem your miles/points this way.
All in All
Miles and Points can help you see the world in ways that you normally would not be able to – especially if flying in the premium cabins. It is important to take these tips into account when planning your journey with points – make sure you’re flexible, collect transferable points, look for availability from other airports (book positioning tickets), lock in flights before and change later, etc.
It is possible to see the world on miles and points – you just need a bit of patience, creativity, and flexibility and then anything’s possible; traveling allows us to explore the world and then provides us with a unique and incredible story to tell.