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:
Meanwhile those same flights in first class would cost you $15,000+:
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.
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:
|airberlin||Finnair||Malaysia Airlines||S7 Airlines|
|American Airlines||Iberia||Qantas||SriLankan Airlines|
|British Airways||Japan Airlines (JAL)||Qatar Airways||oneworld affiliates such as:|
|Cathay Pacific||LATAM||Royal Jordanian||Cathay Dragon, Comair, NIKI, Jetconnect, & OpenSkies|
|Aeroflot||Alitalia||Delta Air Lines||Middle East Airlines|
|Aerolíneas Argentinas||China Airlines||Garuda Indonesia||Saudia|
|Aeromexico||China Eastern||Kenya Airways||TAROM|
|Air Europa||China Southern||KLM||Vietnam Airlines|
|Air France||Czech Airlines||Korean Air||Xiamen Airlines|
|Aegean Airlines||AviancaTACA||EVA Air||South African Airways|
|Air Canada||Brussels Airlines||LOT Polish Airlines||SWISS|
|Air India||Copa Airlines||Lufthansa||TAP Portugal|
|Air New Zealand||Croatia Airlines||Scandinavian Airlines||THAI|
|ANA||EGYPTAIR||Shenzhen Airlines||Turkish Airlines|
|Asiana Airlines||Ethiopian Airlines||Singapore Airlines||United|
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.
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.
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.
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 Aeroplan||356 days|
|Air France Flying Blue||305 days|
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||331 days|
|All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club||356 days|
|American AAdvantage||331 days|
|Avianca LifeMiles||360 days|
|British Airways Executive Club||355 days|
|Cathay Pacific Asia Miles||360 days|
|Delta SkyMiles||331 days|
|Emirates Skywards||340 days|
|Lufthansa Miles & More||359 days|
|Qantas Frequent Flyer||353 days|
|Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer||355 days|
|United MileagePlus||338 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:
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:
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:
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 Premier||British Airways Executive Club||Frontier EarlyReturns||Virgin America EleVAte|
|Air Canada Aeroplan||Cathay Pacific Asia Miles||Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles||Virgin Atlantic Flying Club|
|AirFrance/KLM Flying Blue||Delta SkyMiles||Iberia Plus|
|Alitalia MilleMiglia||El Al Matmid||JetBlue TrueBlue|
|ANA Mileage Club||Etihad Guest||Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer|
Chase Ultimate Rewards:
|Aer Lingus Aer Club||IHG Rewards Club||Singapore KrisFlyer||World Of Hyatt|
|Air France KLM Flying Blue||Korean Air SkyPass||Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards|
|British Airways Executive Club||Marriott Rewards||United MileagePlus|
|Iberia Plus||Ritz-Carlton Rewards||Virgin Atlantic Flying Club|
Starwood Preferred Guest:
|AeroMexico Club Premier||ANA Mileage Club||Emirates Skywards||Qatar Airways Privileges Club|
|Air Canada Aeroplan||American Airlines AAdvantage||Etihad Airways Guest||Saudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan|
|airberlin Top Bonus||Asiana Airlines Asiana Club||Gol Smiles||Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer|
|Air China Companion||British Airways Executive Club||Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles||Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus|
|Air France/KLM FlyingBlue||Cathay Pacific Asia Miles||Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank||United Mileage Plus|
|Air New Zealand Air Points||China Eastern Airlines Eastern Club||Korean Air Skypass||Virgin Atlantic Flying Club|
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||China Southern Airlines' Sky Pearl Club||LAN Airlines LANPASS Kms||Virgin Australia Velocity|
|Alitalia MilleMiglia||Delta Air Lines SkyMiles||Lufthansa 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.
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.
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! )