Redeeming points and miles for cheap travel is the greatest travel hack of the 21st century.
After redeeming 2,500,000 airline miles and hotel points, I truly believe that statement. And, finally, after many months of reading, signing up for programs, and applying for credit cards, you are ready for your trip.
As I outlined in the introduction to this guide, the first thing a mileage earner will tell you is to have travel goals. An ideal redemption would have been planned out far in advance; availability is better further out and once an airline locks in a scheduled flight, it very rarely cancels it (even if it often delays…).
But let's just say you went the other route: accumulated as many miles as you could up front and now just want to go somewhere faraway in the world. Below are a few things you should know before booking.
Broadly speaking, airlines categorize their tickets into a few tiers. The lowest amount of miles will be considered a “saver” award – this will be less miles because there is a lower chance an airline will sell the seat at full cost. This is usually determined by when the flight leaves, in terms of day of departure (Wednesday afternoon is different than a Friday afternoon) or if the destination is in peak season (going to Australia in winter is less miles than in summer). The higher amounts will take into consideration the above, along with actual placement on the plane for business or first class awards.
Why this is important is you will have different options of where to go depending on your mileage balance. While I have already outlined the award charts for major airlines, you should check the airline websites to determine exact flight dates and award levels for your desired trip, ideally months in advance.
Flights within the U.S. are the easiest to book, albeit often the lowest value for your miles. Even after receiving hundreds of thousands of miles per year, I still buy most of my short-haul domestic flights and save my miles for first and business class international tickets.
But if you do want to redeem for domestic travel, each of the airline frequent-flyer programs are able to be redeemed online at their respective websites. As you will see, the airline’s customer service representatives on the phone will often help greatly in more complex flight arrangements – within the U.S. though, you can safely stick to the websites.
Also, this largely depends on preference but I discourage using miles to fly business or first class domestically. I have several reasons for this, but mainly it is because the flights usually aren’t as long and U.S. airlines can pale in comparison to international carriers.
Simply put, if you are going to do first class, do it on something like Etihad's A380, Emirates or Singapore Airlines. These airlines offer private beds, incredible meals and even showers on certain planes - this is a level of luxury that U.S. airlines don't yet match.
International flights are often much, much more complex. For a round-trip international flight there can be legs with two stops - taking more than just several hours to get there.
While calling in is the best way to book a complex itinerary, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared. For example, if you want to add a stopover in London on your way to Berlin, you should have flight options pulled up on your screen prior to calling. While the phone rep will be able to actually book the ticket, you should not expect them to add ideas to your trip.
Earlier in this post I eluded to non-U.S. airlines, specifically mentioning Etihad, Emirates and Singapore Airlines. The reason for this is that airlines around the globe are partnered so that frequent flyer miles in one program can book a flight on a different carrier.
This is important because since each of the major U.S. airlines I recommend signing up for is part of a global alliance, often available award flights are not shown on the U.S. airline’s website. While there are several fee-based tools an individual can use to see availability online, I recommend a simpler approach - just call the U.S. airline and ask.
Airline representatives have access to a broader scope of flights and can book complex itineraries that aren’t shown online. A list of airline’s phone numbers is available here.
One more note on partner airlines: where miles can be used and transferred to is constantly changing. While I write about as many topics as I can, this is by no means exhaustive. The best way to see if your miles work is to a) comment below and ask, b) call the airline and ask, or c) google it for more information.
And just like that, you're ready for significantly cheaper and enhanced travel. I have included some other helpful posts below if you are hungry for more. If not, good luck, happy earning and safe travels.
Please check in from time to time and post experiences - I'd love to hear them.