We could pretty much start and finish any discussion on how to succeed at travel rewards with just one word:
Sure, you need to be organized. You also need to be able to plan in advance and mechanically know many of the rules of the programs (Google works quite well for the technical aspects, so don’t get hung up on that), but all of that pales in comparison to being flexible.
Your entire mental approach to travel will subtly shift if you want to fully optimize your travel rewards points and it starts with being flexible.
Question for you: Is a little bit of flexibility worth saving thousands of dollars on your future travel? For us the answer was a slam dunk “YES!” and it has worked out better than we could have imagined.
The constraint in the system will always be the airline ticket award availability at the lowest “Saver Level.” There are a finite number of Saver Level award seats on each plane and these seats are in high demand.
People often throw around the term “blackout dates” and while there is some validity to the actual concept of a blackout date (where the airline does not offer any Saver Level seats at all – most often around major holidays), in the vast majority of cases what looks like a blackout is just that other people booked the Saver Level seats before you did.
How flexibility plays into the limits on award availability:
1. Flexible dates of travel
Of all the ways to be flexible, the date you travel is the most important.
You’ll often find that when you search award seats from one destination to another that there are many dates where there is zero Saver Level availability.
That is a reality of frequent flyer mile redemptions.
Often, if you can be flexible even plus or minus a few days on either side of your proposed trip, you’ll find some suitable Saver Level availability.
Certainly the more flexibility with dates you can build in the better. Plus or minus a few weeks or, in a perfect world, a few months will just make it all the easier.
The time of year matters as well. In broad terms, September through mid-December is generally the easiest time of year to find Saver award availability. That would be followed by January through May.
Once you start getting into the summer months, you start bumping up on summer vacation season and many fewer dates with remaining award availability. July seems to universally be the toughest month to find award availability.
What NOT to do with award seat timing:
“I need to go to a wedding in St. Kitts leaving my home airport of Boston on July 3rd and I have to come back the morning of July 6th.”
That’s just too specific and it will be almost impossible to find precise award seats to fill this itinerary. As we’ll discuss later, there are always ways to save some money (hint: ‘fixed value’ cards we talk about in an upcoming lesson), so even this person with zero flexibility can cut the cost of the trip, but it won’t be optimal.
What TO DO with award seat timing:
“It’s February and the two of us want to go to Europe in the fall of next year sometime. We’d like to stay for 2-3 weeks at minimum and see a number of different countries.”
With 18+ months of planning, I would expect this couple to be able to put together a nearly free 2-3 week trip to Europe including flights, hotels and even intra-Europe transportation.
The same would be true of Asia, Africa, South America, Hawaii or pretty much anywhere else you wanted to visit.
In those examples it would be easier to put together a 3-week ‘dream’ trip to Europe than it would be to take a weekend in the Caribbean.
Dramatically easier at that.
2. Flexible Destinations
The more options you can build into a proposed trip, the better off you will be. So maybe you’d like to fly into Madrid, Spain, but the award availability is limited to that destination, but plentiful to Lisbon, Portugal.
Why not see Portugal too!
Or maybe your travels in Europe would have ended in Munich, but the best flights are out of Frankfurt or Berlin. Okay, well it is time to find your way to Frankfurt or Berlin to make that happen.
Saying, “I want to go to the Caribbean this summer” will almost invariably work if you have some dates to work with, but when you limit it to “St. John and Barbados or nothing” then there is a real chance you won’t find availability.
You can save many thousands of dollars if you are willing to change things up a bit!
3. Other Factors
- Airports: Do you have any options with the departure airport? Maybe you live in the Bay Area and you otherwise would fly out of SFO. Can you get to either OAK or SJC? If so, that will help! The more airports you have access to, the better.
- Connecting flights: We all love nonstop flights, but sometimes allowing a connection on your itinerary will make the difference between getting award seats and being shut out.
- Reverse the order of a multi-destination trip: Maybe in your mind you wanted to go to Tokyo and then Seoul, but the award availability lines up so that visiting Seoul first makes sense. Make the change!
- Planning in advance: Most airlines open up their schedule approximately 11 months prior to the date of a flight. You will have the best chance of booking those flights if you have your points well in advance and you can jump on award seats as close to when they are released as possible.
4. Flexibility of Points
We will talk about this aspect at great length in this course, but it is essential to mention that having a diverse and flexible set of travel points/miles is the final component to a flexible strategy.
Even if you live near an airport with a major hub for one particular airline, you cannot put ‘all your eggs in one basket.’
You must create a credit card strategy that allows for multiple currencies and a range of options for future redemptions.
What if flexibility doesn’t work for my life?
We spent this entire lesson talking about flexibility, but what if that isn’t plausible for your life?
Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue travel rewards points?
There are always ways to save money, but you have to be realistic about your travel goals. If you have no flexibility, but you only focus on very precise airline points then you will be extremely frustrated when you can’t find award seats and you’ll likely think this whole concept is a waste of time or a ‘scam.’
What we’d tell that person is to focus on the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the travel rewards world and the more flexible, but less potentially lucrative redemption options for some of the points.
Low hanging fruit and flexible redemptions:
- Southwest Airlines: Without question, Southwest is the easiest of all the airlines to use your points to book award seats. They don’t limit award availability (great for families!) and instead the point requirement is just a simple function of the cash price of a regular seat. Throw in that Southwest points are quite easy to accumulate and you have a winner.
- Hotel award redemptions: The major hotel programs that we focus on all have a policy that if they have any “standard” rooms available for cash that you can use your points for a free night. Most hotels have hundreds of rooms and are not often at full occupancy, so award availability is plentiful even right up until the very last moment.
- Fixed Value Credit Card redemptions: Cards like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Capital One Spark Miles for Business offer very flexible ‘fixed value’ rewards points. You use these cards to pay for your normal travel and then you redeem your points to erase the travel expense (or a portion if you don’t have enough points). This requires no change in your travel plans and can still save you some significant money.
- Bank Credit Card point redemptions: Similar to the fixed value cards, you can take points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, AMEX Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou and redeem them for statement credits or through their online travel portals. These aren’t optimal redemptions in general as you’d rather transfer these points to an airline/hotel partner, but if you can’t find award seats this is a way to save money nonetheless.
- Think about your own travel habits and consider if you can build flexibility into your life in order to fully maximize this strategy. This will greatly impact the credit cards you open as you move forward.
- Head over to the Facebook group and let us know what your travel goals are for the next 12-18 months and describe how you can build some flexibility into those goals.