Tips For Redeeming Airline Miles

I spend a lot of time focused on the minute details of redeeming airline miles. Once in a while I think it makes sense to go back to the basics and look at redeeming miles a bit more “big picture.”

If you’ve ever redeemed miles for an international first or business class award ticket at the saver level, feel free to skip this post, as you likely won’t learn a lot. If you’ve redeemed miles mostly for domestic flights at the “rule buster” or standard award rate, hopefully this post helps. And if you have any questions, let me know in the comments section below.

To start — why miles are so awesome

Let me start by just briefly talking about why I love miles so much. I’m not a trust fund baby or independently wealthy, so if I were to have to pay for all my travel out of pocket in cash, I’d almost always be flying economy.

International premium cabins are typically so exorbitantly expensive that 99% of us could never afford to pay cash for them.

For example, a roundtrip flight between Los Angeles and Hong Kong in economy would cost you ~$1,100:

Cathay-Pacific-Economy-Fare

Meanwhile those same flights in first class would cost you $15,000+:

Cathay-Pacific-First-Fare

That’s right, a first class ticket costs more than 14 times as much as an economy class ticket on this route.

But what makes miles so awesome is that the premium for first and business class is usually much less drastic than that. For example, if redeeming American miles for the above flights, you’d pay 70,000 miles for a roundtrip in economy class, or 135,000 miles for a roundtrip in first class. That means that in this instance when redeeming miles, first class costs less than twice as much as economy class.

Cathay Pacific First Class
Cathay Pacific first class

And this isn’t a one off thing — I’ve reviewed dozens of airlines’ first class products using miles, most of which can be found in my trip report index.

So not only are miles great in that they can be used in lieu of cash to pay for flights, thereby saving your money, but the premium for first and business class is much less than if you were paying cash.

With that in mind, here are some general tips for redeeming airline miles:

Know which partnerships your airline has

Most airlines have a variety of partnerships with other airlines, whereby you can earn or redeem miles when traveling with one of their partner airlines. This is designed to give loyal passengers of each airline as much global coverage as possible — since an airline can’t take you everywhere in the world, hopefully their partners can at least get you close. Many airlines belong to one of the “big three” alliances (oneworld, SkyTeam, or Star Alliance), while other airlines just have individual partners.

As a refresher, here are the big three alliances:

oneworld Alliance:

airberlinFinnairTAM AirlinesRoyal Jordanian
American AirlinesIberiaMalaysia AirlinesS7 Airlines
British AirwaysJapan Airlines (JAL)QantasSriLankan Airlines
Cathay PacificLANQatar AirwaysUS Airways

SkyTeam Alliance:

AeroflotAlitaliaDelta Air LinesMiddle East Airlines
Aerolíneas ArgentinasChina AirlinesGaruda IndonesiaSaudia
AeromexicoChina EasternKenya AirwaysTAROM
Air EuropaChina SouthernKLMVietnam Airlines
Air FranceCzech AirlinesKorean AirXiamen Airlines

Star Alliance:

Aegean AirlinesAviancaTACAEVA AirSouth African Airways
Air CanadaBrussels AirlinesLOT Polish AirlinesSWISS
Air IndiaCopa AirlinesLufthansaTAP Portugal
Air New ZealandCroatia AirlinesScandinavian AirlinesTHAI
ANAEGYPTAIRShenzhen AirlinesTurkish Airlines
Asiana AirlinesEthiopian AirlinesSingapore AirlinesUnited
Austrian

But the important thing to understand is that you have options in regards to which airlines you can redeem your miles on. And that’s a good thing for several reasons:

  • Often partner airlines offer a better onboard product than the airline with which you’re accruing miles (for example, you can redeem United miles for travel on ANA)
  • Partner airlines often have better award space than the airline with which you’re accruing miles (that’s because they may not have as many members in their own programs, so there’s less competition for award space — wanna guess whether there are more United Airlines MileagePlus members or Ethiopian Airlines ShebaMiles members?)

But the important thing is to research the website of the airline with which you have miles in order to figure out who they partner with. For example, American not only belongs to the oneworld alliance with over a dozen member airlines, but on top of that they have nearly a dozen other airline partnerships. You can redeem American AAdvantage miles on airlines ranging from Alaska to Etihad to Air Tahiti Nui.

American-Other-Partner-Airlines
American’s non-oneworld partner airlines

Know where to search award space

Nowadays many airlines display award availability online, though the question you should be asking is for which partners they’re displaying award space. Very few airlines actually display award space for all their partners directly through their websites.

Instead, you often have to make these bookings by phone. For example, while American’s website shows award space on some of their partner airlines (like airberlin, British Airways, Qantas, etc.), they don’t display space for other partners online. You should be able to determine that award space by calling the airline, or using one of the methods discussed below.

American-Qantas-Award-Space
Qantas award availability on American website

Learn to search award space on your own

Never rely exclusively on an airline’s website to show you all the award space that could possibly be available. Many airline websites will show you some award space, but very few will show you all space.

Along the same lines, it can certainly make sense to call up the airline and ask an agent if they see any award space, but even they probably won’t go out of their way to be creative with what they search.

Learning which websites you can use to search award space can really help. For example, for Star Alliance the ANA tool is great at searching award space, while for oneworld the British Airways tool is great for searching award space.

ANA-Award-Space
Using the ANA website to search Lufthansa award space

But even they won’t show you all the space out there, so be sure you’re doing a bit of googling about your mileage currency to make sure you’re finding out all the options available to you for searching space.

Know when airlines open their schedules

Airlines all open up their schedules at different times, typically somewhere between 10 and 12 months before departure. Knowing when they open up award space can be the difference between finding award space and not finding award space.

Here’s a chart covering when many major airlines open their award calendars:

If you have miles with this program:You can book this many days before departure:
Air Canada Aeroplan356 days
Air France Flying Blue305 days
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan331 days
All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club356 days
American AAdvantage331 days
Avianca LifeMiles360 days
British Airways Executive Club355 days
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles360 days
Delta SkyMiles331 days
Emirates Skywards340 days
Lufthansa Miles & More359 days
Qantas Frequent Flyer353 days
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer355 days
United MileagePlus338 days

There are two things that it’s important to understand:

  • If you’re looking to travel during peak periods, you’re best off booking as far out as possible
  • Understand that airlines don’t release award space in all cabins on all flights, so if you check space the day it opens and there’s nothing available, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else “beat you to it”

Consider redeeming miles for first class

In case the above example showing the price difference between economy and first class didn’t convince you to redeem miles for first and business class, as a general strategy it can make sense to redeem miles for a premium cabin in order to save miles.

Many times airlines will release first class award space but not economy class award space, so it might just be cheaper to redeem miles for first class than economy.

For example, take this flight between Chicago and Los Angeles. It doesn’t have saver level economy class award space, but rather only space at the “standard” level, which costs 30,000 miles one-way:

American-Award-Space-2

Meanwhile on the same flight there’s award space available at the saver level in first class for just 25,000 miles — that’s a savings of 5,000 miles over economy:

American-Award-Space-1

Yes, in this case it’s cheaper to fly first class than economy class.

Be flexible with dates and times

I know this sounds obvious and for many people is the reason they don’t like miles, but you do have to be a bit flexible if you want to book award tickets. Rather than looking at needing to be flexible as a huge obstacle, keep in mind just how much value you can get out of miles if you’re redeeming them properly.

While it might be a pain to be flexible on dates when you’re trying to redeem miles for a one-way ticket between Los Angeles and San Francisco, hopefully we can look at it a bit differently if we’re talking about redeeming miles for first class between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, for example.

A lot of award space opens last minute

This is probably the single greatest trick when it comes to finding award space. A lot of people assume that airlines release award space right when the schedule opens, and then don’t release any after that.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Lots of airlines release award space close to departure, and that’s a trend that’s continuing to happen more and more. With record load factors and profitability for the airlines, they’re releasing less and less award space in advance, and more and more award space as the departure date approaches.

Think of it this way — if there’s a flight tomorrow with empty seats, they’d rather fill those seats and get the liability of miles off their books than just let those seats go out empty.

For example, looking at award space in first class from Los Angeles to Hong Kong for Wednesday, every single Cathay Pacific flight has first class award space:

Cathay-Award-Space-101

Search for award space segment-by-segment

Perhaps this is a bit more than “redeem miles 101,” but it’s important to understand that often times the reason your award ticket is pricing at an exorbitantly high price is because there’s no space on a short, domestic flight, while the longhaul flight has award space.

For example, if you want to redeem miles to fly from Savannah, Georgia to Paris, France and it prices at a high rate, consider searching award space from a gateway city. For example, Atlanta to Paris could price at 125,000 miles roundtrip in business class, while Richmond to Paris prices at 325,000 miles roundtrip in business class.

If you’re willing to have a longer layover or position yourself for the longhaul flight separately, you could potentially save a lot of miles.

Have flexible points currencies

Over time you learn that different points currencies are valuable for different destinations. For example, while American AAdvantage miles might be incredibly valuable for travel to Asia and South America, they’re less valuable for travel to Australia and South Africa. Delta SkyMiles, on the other hand, are incredibly valuable for travel to Australia and South Africa, if planning in advance.

Therefore if you earn points primarily through credit card spend, try to accrue points currencies that are flexible. That means rather than collecting one specific mileage currency, collect points which you can later transfer to any of the three alliances.

The three major transferable points currencies are:

American Express Membership Rewards:

AeroMexico Club PremierBritish Airways Executive ClubFrontier EarlyReturnsVirgin America EleVAte
Air Canada AeroplanCathay Pacific Asia MilesHawaiian Airlines HawaiianMilesVirgin Atlantic Flying Club
AirFrance/KLM Flying BlueDelta SkyMilesIberia Plus
Alitalia MilleMigliaEl Al MatmidJetBlue TrueBlue
ANA Mileage ClubEtihad GuestSingapore Airlines KrisFlyer

Chase Ultimate Rewards:

Air France KLM Flying BlueIHG Rewards ClubSingapore KrisFlyerUnited MileagePlus
British Airways Executive ClubKorean Air SkyPassSouthwest Airlines Rapid RewardsVirgin Atlantic Flying Club
Hyatt Gold PassportMarriott RewardsThe Ritz-Carlton Rewards

Starwood Preferred Guest:

AeroMexico Club PremierANA Mileage ClubEmirates SkywardsQatar Airways Privileges Club
Air Canada AeroplanAmerican Airlines AAdvantageEtihad Airways GuestSaudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan
airberlin Top BonusAsiana Airlines Asiana ClubGol SmilesSingapore Airlines KrisFlyer
Air China CompanionBritish Airways Executive ClubHawaiian Airlines HawaiianMilesThai Airways Royal Orchid Plus
Air France/KLM FlyingBlueCathay Pacific Asia MilesJapan Airlines (JAL) Mileage BankUnited Mileage Plus
Air New Zealand Air PointsChina Eastern Airlines Eastern ClubKorean Air SkypassVirgin Atlantic Flying Club
Alaska Airlines Mileage PlanChina Southern Airlines' Sky Pearl ClubLAN Airlines LANPASS KmsVirgin Australia Velocity
Alitalia MilleMigliaDelta Air Lines SkyMilesLufthansa Miles & More

As you can see, you can collect any of those three points currencies and transfer them to some frequent flyer program belonging to each of the three major alliances. There’s a lot of value in that.

For example, if your ultimate goal is to earn British Airways Avios through credit card spend, you could earn those by putting spend on the British Airways Visa Signature® Card, which actually might not be a bad option since the card earns 1.25 Avios per dollar spent.

But alternatively you could put that spend on a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Ink Plus® Business Card, or Ink Bold® Business Card, where you’d earn category bonuses and in the event of a devaluation, still be able to transfer those miles to another points currency instead. There’s a lot of value in that kind of flexibility. The same is true with Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest points.

Miles aren’t for everyone

When I explain to people what I do, I often hear “oh, I hate miles, they’re so useless.” My follow up question is “what do you usually redeem them for?”

And when they tell me, I often agree with them — I would hate miles as well if I was trying to redeem miles for the flights they’re hoping to redeem for.

The fact is that traditional mileage currencies can get you great value on longhaul, international tickets, as well as first and business class tickets.

However, if you’re wanting to redeem points for domestic flights which wouldn’t be all that expensive if paying cash, there are alternatives in the form of fixed value points currencies. If you earn your miles primarily through credit card spend, consider earning fixed value points rather than traditional miles.

What am I talking about? The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® is a cash back travel rewards credit card. For every dollar you spend you get two cents towards the cost of travel, plus a 5% refund when you redeem your points, which is the equivalent of ~2.12% cash back.

Redeeming these points for a domestic ticket that wouldn’t cost much in cash would be a great value. You don’t have to deal with the hassle of limited availability and blackout dates, and instead can redeem them for any flight on which a ticket is being sold.

Meanwhile if you tried to redeem these miles for the $15,000+ Cathay Pacific ticket above, you’d come out way behind.

So it’s important to consider what your award redemption goals are, and how best to reach them.

Read trip reports before booking

Assuming you have a choice of products at the same mileage level, I suggest reading some online reviews and trip reports of the airlines before making a booking. Not all airlines are created equal.

Fly Lufthansa first class and you’ll be driven to your plane on the tarmac in a Porsche. Fly Thai first class and you’ll get an hour-long massage in their first class lounge. Fly Singapore Airlines Suites Class and you may get a double bed in the sky. Fly Emirates first class and you may get an onboard shower.

Emirates-first-class
Emirates first class shower suite

There are so many amazing airline products out there, and they’re most definitely not all created equal. I’ve written hundreds of airline reviews, and there are thousands more out there on the internet.

Lufthansa-first-class
Lufthansa first class

Bottom line

With airlines as profitable as ever and load factors as high as they’ve been in a long time, it can be tougher and tougher to find those award seats. That being said, we can always aim to stay one step ahead of the airlines. Miles aren’t for everyone, but the potential they hold for the right people is simply incredible, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

If you’re just getting started in this hobby, be sure to check out my beginners guide to miles & points.

What are your top tips for redeeming miles which I didn’t mention above?

(In the interest of full disclosure I earn a referral bonus for anyone that’s approved through some of the above links. They’re all for the best publicly available offers for each card. Neither this post, nor the comments, are provided nor commissioned by Chase. The comments below have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser, and it is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered. Thanks for your support! )

Comments

  1. You think a US agent would ticket a North Asia award with a stopover in South Asia? Wondering if SFO-(AA/US hub)-IAD-LHR-KUL-HKT (stopover) HKT-HKG (destination) HKG-DXB-LHR-(AA hub)-SFO would work. Also, is the maximum number of segments 10 per RT or 5 per way? Also, if the LHR-(AA hub) segment could be changed to the LCY-JFK service without exceeding 10 segments, because the SNN stopover would make it 11.

  2. Great post – I obviously knew all of this but this is a keeper – for all my friends who ask how I do it. Sadly, many would still not be willing to jump through the hoops we do. Then again, more seats for us – though it’s getting harder and harder!

  3. @ Robbie — Really depends on the agent, probably not totally out of the question. Technically the limit is five segments per direction, but I’ve certainly pulled off six in one direction and four in the other in the past. That being said, they have gotten a bit stricter on routing rules since joining oneworld, since the rates desk is having to look at more itineraries.

  4. Let’s say when I search for award spaces from A to C, the BA search tool shows there’re two seats in First with a transit in B, but when I search for spaces from B to C on the same flight&date, it shows only one award space. In this case is there really two seats available from B to C and can I book them alone without the A-B segment

  5. Great addition in this area…..you validate many of the gut feel things we wander upon and write them in stone (sorta) for us…….in the miles and points game I think the “act of redemption” is perhaps the hardest and least covered part………..would you not recommend an award search tool that you use? Seems there are two major ones and would be very interested in hearing your comments on the positive uses of each based on different goals……….

  6. And you have a distinct advantage in that many of us don’t always have the flexability that you mention that is key to the best seats and often we are looking for at least 2 seats if not more which complicates matters even more…………perhaps one of the tricks we should start using is the “last minute vacation week” where we get pre-approvals and coordination on our “conditional holiday” and then wait and see if anything interesting opens at the last minute……….probably easier for airlines than hotels at that point…………..or do multiple city hotel bookings with points that can be cancelled………….

  7. Of course, no mention of annual fees. And it’s obvious you get a generous referral bonus from Barcley’s; you’ve never touted the similiar Flexperks card.

  8. As others said, this is a good post for beginners and — since it has release calendar, alliance lists and transfer partners — also useful as a one-stop reference post for more experienced people.

  9. Lucky,

    I have delta skymiles. Delta online award redemtion shows delta, klm and air france options.
    Lets say i want to redeem miles on a skymiles partner airline otber than mentioned above. I call them and just say i want to redeem delta miles? I think think are about 12-13 other airlines. Do they have access to my miles balance? Or they have to get to it that takes time while i lose the available seat?
    Thank you
    Endre

  10. @ Endre — Yes, they can book those seats over the phone. They can search space and then if there’s availability they can book it over the phone.

  11. just clarifying @Endre’s Q. There’s a “them” ambiguity. He may be asking whether he should call the partner airline and tell them he’s redeeming DL miles….

    Particularly because of the question regarding “their” access to his DL balance.

  12. Great post Ben. Please add the two missing airlines to your StarAlliance members: Adria Airways and Air China. Air China has a great product and availability for their PEK-USA routes. I just flew their PEK-IAH in First yesterday and it was a great hard product but unbearable “food”!. 🙂

  13. @lucky @colleen Thank you for the reply. @collen is correct. Lets say i call Aeroflot and tell them i want to redeem Delta skymiles on Aeroflot (Skyteam airline) flight. Can they just look up my Delta Skymiles account, make reservation and withdraw delta miles from my Skymiles account right there?
    Thank you again, Endre

  14. @ Endre — Whoops, sorry for misunderstanding. To inquire about award availability you always have to directly call the airline with which your miles are banked, so in this case you would want to call Delta to ask about award availability on Aeroflot.

  15. Do you know which route Cathay has the most First class award seats to HK? So far ORD-HKG seems to be ‘generous’ with 2 First class seats. I am trying to get 4, which is nearly impossible.

  16. @lucky, thank you. This is good news what you are saying. Im not sure i would be comfortable giving my account number to a Russian. 🙂
    Endre

  17. @ Endre — is this going to be a one-time trip to Russia or are you going to be flying within Russia regularly?

    @ Lucky — I’ve had to help multiple people with similar question as Endre (even some experienced travelers) so your beginner’s guide should have in big bold letter the fact that to redeem miles you go through the airline with whom you have miles 🙂

  18. @Ivan looking at your name, you are Russian, right? sorry about my comment. The Aeroflot is just an example. I wanted an example of an Airline that I know doesn’t show up on the Delta redeem Skymiles on-line screen for me but accepts Delta Skymiles for trips. e.g. Aeroflot.
    For my question, I could have used any airlines from SkyTeam Global Alliance group other than KLM, Air France, like Air Europe, Tarom, Vietnam Airlines etc… -good old Tarom with their IL-62s over the Atlantic in the 70’s and 80’s 🙂

    So, if I understand @Lucky correctly, to redeem my Delta Skymiles flying with any of these SkyTeam Global Alliance group airlines, I have to call Delta and ask them to get my ticket.

    —-The question is
    1 – How do I know if any of these airlines have available seat for my Delta Skymiles? I would love to look things up, and have specific request before calling Delta
    2 – Do they have different seat availability for their own frequent miles owners and Delta Skymiles owner?

    thank you all!! great post
    Endre

  19. @ Endre — no worries, I figured you were joking. I haven’t dealt with Aeroflot CSRs but S7’s call center is actually very pleasant. The reason I asked is because using BA Avios on S7 is actually a very, very good way to go because BA’s award chart is distance based which means a flight from Moscow to Europe/Urals is 4,500 or 7,500 Avios one-way in economy (twice as much in business). And S7 is bookable online using BA Avios site.

    Don’t have first-hand experience with redeeming Delta miles but Google this article which gives details on how to find SkyTeam award availability using AF/KLM — “Frequent flyer hack: Finding award seats on SkyTeam partners”

  20. If I need a specific date and there is no availability right now, how do I guarantee a seat on that flight? Last minute cash booking are exorbitantly expensive. Can I buy a cheap economy ticket with cash or points and see if any first class award seats open up later?

  21. @ Stephan — Four on one flight probably isn’t happening. Out of LAX they have four flights a day, so purely in terms of quantity of seats on a route I think that wins.

  22. @ gloria — Well there’s no way to guarantee it, there is some risk. But if you look at flight loads you should be able to predict with some accuracy whether space will open up or not.

  23. when i called british airways and asked if i can redeem AA miles, they refused. i thought they were partners? any help? how do i use AA miles to book a BA flight? their website does not seem to have the ability to search for award flights using AA miles either. help !!

  24. @ Dhobi — If you want to use American miles to fly on British Airways, you’d have to call American to book. You always call the airline with which you have miles to book tickets.

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