Get the most from your miles

maximizing airline miles
Once you have oodles of airline miles (you do, right?), it is then time to learn how to make the most of them. Let’s take a look.

Finding seats

Airline miles can be frustratingly difficult to use. When searching for flights you may not find any awards available for when you want to go. Or, if awards are available, you may find that they cost far more miles than you expected. In these situations, people often simply give up and buy tickets directly, or they pay the extra miles with the assumption that that’s the best that they can do. However, in most cases, you can do better. Experts know many tricks to finding saver-level seats such as searching alliance and partner availability, setting up alerts, booking from positioning airports, and more.

Going further

maximizing airline miles

New York to Rome with a stopover in London and an open-jaw to Milan! From GCMapper.

Airline award rules sometimes allow routings that wouldn’t be allowed on paid tickets. For example, United allows one stopover and one open-jaw on a roundtrip award ticket. This means for example you could fly from New York to Rome with a stopover in London to see the sights. In addition, you could fly back from Milan instead of Rome using the open-jaw. Routings like this often cost much more on a traditional ticket, however they are allowed on some award tickets. Many international airlines also offer stopovers and open-jaws on award tickets. Unfortunately neither American Airlines or Delta allow them.

Making changes

Each airline has different fees for award changes. Some airlines allow free changes as long as your origination and destination remain the same. Others charge as much as $150 per ticket for any change at all (unless you have high level elite status, in which case changes are usually free).  Regardless, one great thing about award travel is that buying trip insurance is rarely necessary. In most cases, you’re better off forgoing trip cancellation insurance and simply taking the risk that you may have to pay as much as $150 to get your miles back if misfortune causes you to cancel.

Airline alliances and partnerships

maximizing airline miles

Most major airlines have partnerships and alliances with which you can use your miles to get awards. For example, you can use Delta miles to book flights on SkyTeam airlines such as Air France or China Southern. Or, redeem Delta miles for flights on non-alliance partners such as Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Virgin Australia, etc.  Similarly, you can use United Airlines miles to book flights on Star Alliance airlines (Lufthansa, Swiss, etc.) or non-alliance partners (Aer Lingus, Hawaiian Airlines, etc.).  American Airlines miles can be used to book flights on One World airlines (British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, etc.) or non-alliance partners (Fiji Airways, Alaska Airlines, etc.).  Some airline programs also let you mix and match. For example, with United, you can fly one leg of your award on Swiss and another leg on Lufthansa. With all of these partnerships and alliances, award availability is much better than it seems.

Here’s the catch: Most airline award search engines do a terrible job of showing you your available options. When you run an award search on AA.com, some of their best partners are not displayed at all.  United is much better since most (but not all) alliance and partner flights do show up in award searches on United.com.

Experts know how to search for availability across partnerships and alliances; and how to book these awards that otherwise don’t seem to exist.

Award booking services

Learning the ins and outs of award booking can be a full time job in itself. Every airline has different rules, different patterns of award availability, and different work-arounds. Rather than trying to learn all of this yourself, I highly recommend finding a good award booking service.

Typically you’ll pay an award booking service anywhere from $100 to $150 for one traveler, and usually less for each additional traveler. If you’re booking a simple domestic round trip award and can find saver-level seats on your own (25K miles in coach, for example), then there’s very little reason to look at a service. If however, you have a complicated itinerary or a big international trip in mind, an award booking service can be a life saver. A good award booking service should be able to help you book an awesome trip for fewer miles and with much less aggravation than booking it yourself.

Here are some potential advantages to going with a good award booking service:

  • Better Award Availability.  Many people assume that if their airline tells them there are no award seats available, then it must be true. A good award booking service can often find the seats that don’t appear to exist.
  • Save Miles & Money.  A good award booking service will know which of your points can get you to your destination and back for the lowest cost in terms of both miles and cash. Ideally they know which options to avoid due to high fuel surcharges or unfavorable award charts. And, they know how to stretch your miles further by taking maximum advantage of flexible routing rules such as layovers and open-jaws.
  • Better flight experience.  A good award booking service will know which flights have the best seats and service and will try to get you on those flights. And, they’ll proactively find itineraries with the fewest stops and shortest layovers (while avoiding layovers that risk missed connections).
  • Less Aggravation.  Booking award travel can be a huge headache. Simply finding available award seats can be difficult. With some airlines, booking award travel can be extremely difficult even when the award seats are available! A good award booking service will do the hard work for you even if it means calling an airline a dozen times until they find someone who knows how to book your flight.

For more info and for a list of some of the services available, visit our Award Booking Services page.

Go to: Table of Contents - Credit Cards - Flexible Points Programs - Airline Programs - Hotel Programs - Earning & Managing Points - Miscellaneous

About Shawn Coomer - Senior Editor

Shawn Coomer has spent nearly a decade circling the globe for pennies on the dollar. He uses that first-hand knowledge and experience to teach others how to achieve their travel dreams for the least amount of money possible.

More articles by Shawn Coomer - Senior Editor »

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