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One of the best ways to get the most bang for your mileage is to book an award ticket using off peak awards. Most airlines only offer two kinds of award bookings. There are the high-mileage standard awards that require a ton of frequent flyer miles, but give you the flexibility to go where you want when you want. Then there is usually a form of saver or restricted miles that require you to be flexible on dates, but take far fewer miles to redeem.
Two US airlines discount some award tickets even further with off peak awards: American Airlines and US Airways.
They pretty much require you to travel at the lowest of low season for many destinations, but there tends to be a lot more availability for them in the autumn, and right around now, after the big holiday travel glut.
A lot of times, I actually prefer traveling during low season, such as my recent trip to China, because there are far fewer crowds in the big destinations, it’s easier to book hotel awards as well, and you get a more authentic feel for a place.
American Airlines MileSAAver Off Peak
First, the bad news. American only offers MileSAAver Off Peak awards for Coach. You cannot use them for travel within the continental U.S. and Canada. You can use them to get pretty much anywhere else AA flies:
Hawaii: Jan. 12 – Mar. 8; Aug. 22 – Dec. 15
The Caribbean and Mexico: Sep. 7 – Nov. 14
Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela: Jan. 16 – Jun. 14; Sep. 7 – Nov. 14
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay: Mar. 1 – May 31; Aug. 16 – Nov. 30
Europe: Oct. 15 – May 15
Japan: Oct. 1 – Apr. 30
AA is pretty generous with these awards – for many destinations, over half the year counts as off peak season!
From North America, here are the one-way mileage requirements (all in Coach):
-Within and Between the Continental U.S./Canada/Mexico/Caribbean: 12,500 miles (instead of 17,500 for MileSAAver Peak or 35,000 AAnytime).
-Hawaii: 17,500 (as opposed to 22,500 for a MileSAAver Peak Awards or 45,000 for an AAnytime award).
-Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Venezuela: 15,000 (17,5000 for MileSAAver Peak and 35,000 for AAnytime).
-Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile or Uruguay: 20,000 (30,000 MileSAAver Peak, 60,000 AAnytime).
-Europe: 20,000 (MileSAAver Peak is 30,000, AAnytime is 60,000).
-Japan: 25,000 (32,500 MileSAAver Peak, 65,000 AAnytime).
You can see the entire American Airlines award chart here, but to take an example, instead of blowing 60,000 miles (or even 120,000 miles if you had to take an AAnytime award) to get from Chicago to London, you could get there and back for just 40,000 miles.
Now that it’s no longer high season in Hawaii according to the airline, you could potentially score a roundtrip ticket there from anywhere in the continental US, Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean for 35,000 miles instead of 45,000 miles (or a whopping 90,000 with AAnytime awards, which is more than it takes to get there in business or even first class using a MileSaaver award).
And American allows you to build in stopovers in the domestic hub where you leave the country. TPG Managing Editor Eric likes to tell the story of how he flew from Los Angeles to New York, spent a week stopover in New York, then flew to Buenos Aires for a vacation, and directly back to LAX via Dallas all for 40,000 MileSAAver Off Peak miles and $52 in taxes.
Now, as you might have guessed, these awards are harder and harder to come by, even if you are planning a trip during off peak times, so they usually require a lot of foresight and planning, but they’re not impossible to get, especially if you set ExpertFlyer alerts – plus they also work on partners as well, so you could fly Los Angeles to Madrid on Iberia at the offpeak 40,000 mile rate.
US Airways Off Peak GoAwards
US Airways is the other major carrier offering off peak awards, though unfortunately it doesn’t have quite as many options as American. However, it does have Business and First Class off peak award seats on some routes, making it an option for those of us who like premium cabin travel (and US has been installing nice lie-flat beds on their international planes).
You can find the whole award chart here, however, here are the mileage numbers for roundtrip off peak awards:
-Between the continental US or Canada and the Caribbean: 25,000 Coach, 50,000 First (ranges from 35,000-80,000 for Coach and 60,000-140,000 for First at other times). Off peak dates are September 1-30 (just one month!).
-Between North America or Hawaii and South America: 35,000 Coach, 60,000 Business (ranges from 60,000-125,000 Coach, and 100,000-350,000 Business otherwise). Off peak dates so far for 2012 are March 1-31 and May 1-31 (though probably October 1-31 as well).
-Between North America or Hawaii and Europe: 35,000 Coach, 60,000 Business (ranges from 60,000-125,000 Coach, and 100,000-350,000 Business otherwise). Off peak dates are January 15-February 28.
Off peak awards are not available within and between the continental US and Canada (including Alaska), between the continental US or Canada and Mexico or Central America, between North America and Hawaii, or between North America or Hawaii and the Middle East.
So the program here is a bit more restrictive in many ways including tickets must be roundtrip, and the destinations and dates are very limited in several cases. However, for certain travel needs, they could definitely be worth it. Though there are only 6 weeks of off-peak awards to Europe and they’re happening right now!
Note: If you have the US Airways Barclay’s Mastercard, you can save an additional 5,000 miles on your award, including off-peak awards. If you're a frequent American flyer but don't have status, additional perks that come with this card like first free checked bag on domestic AA itineraries, preferred boarding on American flights and 10% of your redeemed AA miles back (up to 10,000 miles each year) can be extremely valuable.
If you're a frequent American flyer but don't have status, additional perks that come with this card like first free checked bag on domestic AA itineraries, preferred boarding on American flights and 10% of your redeemed AA miles back (up to 10,000 miles each year) can be extremely valuable.