What Everyone Ought To Know About Redeeming Miles

It’s one of those weeks where I’m answering a ton of questions about the basics of using miles. The mechanics are important of course, and understanding how alliances work and how to transfer points is critical for booking an award ticket.

There are some almost philosophical considerations as well. I think that most people would have a much easier time redeeming miles if they considered some of these factors.

Fortune favors the prepared

I consider myself to be more-than-decent at ferreting out award space (though many, including my colleagues, are way better). I have a good sense of trends, know what is likely to be available when and on what airlines, know all the transfer partners, and most of the sweet spots.

And sometimes, none of that matters.

I was able to fly my family of seven to and from Thailand in first class over peak dates not because I’m good at redeeming miles, but because JAL opened up every seat on the plane to award inventory. We did the same thing for Travis’ parents’ trip to Australia. There was even a glut of Etihad A380 space available at one point.

This happens time and time again. We’re seeing the same thing right now, with an epic amount of Austrian business class space to Europe that is shockingly and inexplicably still available, and ridiculous amounts of Virgin Atlantic space out of Seattle.

Austrian-Business-Class

Basically, it’s better to be lucky than good.

In order to take advantage of these strokes of good fortune, however, you have to be prepared. That’s why we recommend diversifying your miles (but not over-diversifying), and aiming to have enough miles in a given program for two business class tickets. Transferable points currencies help with this, as you can build up balances that can then be quickly moved to a specific mileage program.

Flexibility is key

If you’ve ever heard me speak at an event, you might have noticed me repeating this ad nauseum. There is so much potential with miles, it just depends on your flexibility.

Like many things in life, when it comes to airline tickets there is an inverse relationship between flexibility and price. The more flexible you can be, the lower your “cost” (whether in miles or dollars) can be.

Flexibility&Cost

If you can only travel on certain dates, or on certain carriers, or with a certain number of connections — that’s cool! Just know that it’s going to cost more. That might mean spending cash on fuel surcharges, paying a change fee if better flights open up later on, or even selecting the “rule-buster” awards that give you increased availability at a very steep price. Plan and budget accordingly.

If you’re open to an extra connection, or can arrive a day earlier, or don’t mind spending extra time in the lounge, the options open up tremendously. You might be surprised at the products and values available if you give yourself that wiggle room.

Mostly though, determining where you fall on this line, and what you’re willing/able to compromise on, will save you a tremendous amount of frustration later on.

Your schedule is not the airlines priority

Anniversaries. Cruises. Safaris. School holidays.

These things have set dates, specific schedules, and drive a sense of urgency in booking trips.

And that’s great — there are definite benefits to booking in advance! But that doesn’t mean there is going to be award space to Australia just because some agent told you that if you didn’t book this cruise right now that you wouldn’t be able to go until 2021.

For the most part, airlines open their schedules 11 months prior to departure. Others a full year in advance. But just because the schedule is open, doesn’t mean there are award seats. Very few airlines load award inventory on every flight when the schedule opens these days. It’s much more common to see space trickle in over the first few days or weeks, and for some flights to have space but not others.

So keep that in mind when you’re planning big trips, and ideally before making any non-refundable arrangements. If you want to use miles for your flights, it might be 10 months prior to departure before you’re able to get everything confirmed. If you won’t have the wiggle room to arrive a day early, or get home a bit later, it might make sense to wait until you can book the entire trip.

Sydney-Park-Hyatt - 20

Similarly, you can often avoid overpaying by coming to terms with not being able to book right away.

I’m taking my mom on a “Round Birthday” trip later this month, and we’ll be visiting a few cities in Europe. Now, if I’d had my druthers, I would have waited to book (I like to chase the deal, not the destination), but mom was passionate about being in a particular place for a particular event on her actual birthday, and was super nervous that we wouldn’t be able to get flights. Award availability was essentially nonexistent.

So I purchased tickets back in March, and while I was able to use my American Executive Platinum upgrades to confirm all four of us into business class in both directions, I still paid more for the tickets than I would have liked.

Since then, we’ve seen several sub-$500 fares to Europe, and I almost feel like the current plethora of business class award inventory to Europe is there to mock me. So you’re all welcome. 😉

Nothing is impossible, but some things are more practical than others

We love to focus on aspirational awards here on OMAAT, and for good reason — they’re fun! Sometimes, however, there’s a balance between finding fun products and actually getting to where you want to go when you want to get there. This is partly influenced by your flexibility, and partly by the realities of airline inventory management.

  • Lufthansa first class is fantastic, but if you’re trying to go to South Africa over the holidays using partner miles, it’s probably not going to happen
  • United miles are great but they are not going to get you to Tahiti in a premium cabin
  • Australia for four people? Sure, if you can plan ahead, route through Asia, and maybe split across two flights
  • First class to the Maldives? Not a problem, if you’re flexible and have the right miles
  • Upgrading can be a good value, but it is extremely carrier (and even route) specific
  • There is no product really worth the price to Hawaii

And so on and so on.

These trends can change (and if the United/Tahiti situation ever does I will have years of crow to eat), but knowing that not every combination is possible all the time will alleviate a lot of frustration.

Bottom line

The nuances to redeeming miles change over time as programs evolve, so you can’t be expected to know all of them. But having a general plan for using your miles is incredibly valuable, and will make it much easier to actually book awards.

And you could always luck out!

What is your approach to redeeming miles?

Comments

  1. Great post Tiffany! I do admit that I am there checking award availabilities when the schedule opens up, so most of the time I do book flights 10 months ahead. Fortunately it has always worked out (so far….). The weird thing is about AA’s schedule, that when it opens up right at midnight, you do see award availability, but when you try to book it, it says it is no longer available (like a phantom space). Then 2 hours or so later, when I guess the award inventories are actually loaded into the system, then suddenly they become bookable.

  2. What do you mean about no product being worth the price to Hawaii? You mean it is never worth going to Hawaii with miles? Or are you just saying there are no awesome premium products to Hawaii (form anywhere)?

  3. Flexibility is key. I got to Kazakhstan on miles in first class and business class on Star/Etihad and I am getting to Rwanda on Qatar business class next year (and back with a cheap ex-CAI fare in business class). Miles take you everywhere!

  4. @ chris — It’s a combination of nothing awesome in premium cabins (there is literally one Hawaiian plane that might be an exception), and saver space being exceedingly rare. If you can get a nonstop from the east coast on one of the internationally configured planes it can be worth it, but when you have to connect a few times and everything is recliner-style it’s harder to justify.

    More here:
    http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2014/11/21/why-arent-there-nicer-seats-to-hawaii/
    http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2015/08/26/miles-hawaii-first-class/
    http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2015/10/06/redeeming-miles-to-hawaii-can-be-tough/

  5. What about the Hawaiian lieflats that you just reviewed?? Or, if you can find that elusive Delta inventory, 45k Skypass r/t is a great deal. Oh, and I got upper deck J on a UA 747 with beds from SFO-HNL last Christmas Day but have no idea how.

    That might be another good footnote to your flexibility theme, be prepared to zig when everyone else zags. Ask yourself if you don’t mind spending must-attend events like NYE at an airport instead.

  6. And it’s not always aspirational awards but what makes the most sense. I can choose to spend a ton of money to fly my family to SoCal this winter or I can take advantage of DL’s current award sale, hard to be an 11k Skymiles RT award ticket.

  7. Extreme flexibility with respect to timing and somewhat to destination.

    It is getting harder to game the system. It’s a lot like the stock market – plenty of volatility based on thousands of factors. For instance, for a five day period in July, AA severely discounted it’s J and Y prices for flights to Europe this fall before raising them again after they filled. Speculation was that flights weren’t filling because of the Bastille Day terrorist attacks in France back in June. In this case, it made more sense to use cash rather than miles.

    I always keep adequate award flight mileage in inventory and monitor things constantly.

  8. I’ll add a comment about Hawaii. I was able to get EWR-HNL lieflat for my honeymoon. Granted, it was incredibly lucky that the only day on the calendar with saver space was the exact day we were leaving on our honeymoon. Obviously UA BusinessFirst isn’t the best product out there, but for 80k miles for two for an 11-hour flight in lieflat seats I thought it was an awesome value. It was incredibly relaxing and we arrived refreshed in Hawaii.

    I agree though that 40k miles per person would probably not be worth it if we had to connect somewhere and fly in recliner seats. And we did get incredibly lucky to book the seats. But, if you do get lucky, there’s definitely a lot of value in that flight.

  9. Tiffany, thank you for this post! It’s refreshing to get good info, not just an endless barrage of credit card signup links. After all, once you’ve got the points you want to spend them wisely!

    I hope to see more articles like this!

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