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9 Ways to Stretch Your Travel Rewards

Nov. 04, 2016
9 min read
9 Ways to Stretch Your Travel Rewards
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Finding new ways to earn points and miles is an important part of being an award travel enthusiast, but there's more to it than that. How strategically you spend your travel rewards is at least as important as how well you earn them. In today's post, I want to discuss nine creative ways to stretch your travel rewards even further than you may have thought possible.

1. Pool your rewards among family and friends.

It helps to share points with your loved ones, especially if you all use different rewards programs. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

When anyone in my family has an unexplained illness, we talk to my cousin the doctor. But when someone needs help with award travel, they call me, and I'm sure many TPG readers find themselves in the same position. Eventually, we started sharing our rewards with each other as a way to stretch them even further. If my parents need an award night at a hotel somewhere, I'll redeem my points to make a reservation in their name. And sometime later, they might use their miles to book a flight in my name. In keeping with the terms and conditions of most loyalty programs, we never sell or barter our rewards; we always gift them. But over the years, we've all come through for each other numerous times, often saving hundreds of dollars on necessary travel reservations. Remember: You can redeem most airline and hotel rewards in anyone's name; you don't have to pay to have your points or miles transferred to another account.

2. Maximize redemptions within your immediate family.

My children have belonged to numerous frequent flyer programs almost since their birth. I enroll them so they can earn miles from paid travel, and so that I can sign them up for occasional promotions that offer miles for subscribing to emails or other online activities. As a result, we're occasionally able to redeem rewards from their accounts for use by any one of us.

3. Book one-way flights.

Booking one-way flights gives you greater flexibility in a variety of ways. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Another way to stretch your rewards is to book one-way flights. This strategy has several advantages: First, you can use small amounts of miles from multiple accounts to book each leg of your journey. In fact, it's not uncommon for my wife and I to scrape together enough rewards for a round-trip flight using miles from four different accounts, one for each of our one-way tickets. Plus, booking one-way flights allows you to fly one airline out and a different one back, or to mix paid and award tickets on the same itinerary when prices are low or the award requires too many points or miles.

4. Place a value on your points and miles.

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If you have a limited amount of travel rewards, it's vital that you save them for the most valuable redemptions. To quickly figure out if you should redeem for an award or pay out of pocket, you need to compare the value of your rewards to the price you'd pay for a reservation in cash.

TPG's monthly valuations are a great place to start when trying to figure out a value for your rewards with each program. This list provides an estimated value for each point or mile. Those who have low rewards balances and accumulate their points and miles slowly might value each currency slightly higher, while those who have a surplus of rewards might use a slightly lower valuation. When the price in dollars is very close to what I value my rewards at, my personal rule of thumb is to spend my rewards and save my dollars, since with points and miles there's always the risk that they'll become less valuable in the future.

5. Get the best use from your rewards.

You can transfer various rewards currencies to book Singapore Suites, but one option makes the most sense.

A TPGtv episode on how to book Singapore Suites in 90 seconds provides a good example of comparing your travel rewards redemption options. In it, TPG demonstrates how he decided which flexible rewards points to transfer to Singapore. The carrier's KrisFlyer program partners with all four major reward programs that offer transfers to airline miles: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.

TPG chose to use his Citi ThankYou points because Singapore is that program's best transfer partner, while the other three programs have more valuable transfer options. Citi ThankYou points are also the least valuable of these four programs according to TPG's valuations, so it made sense to redeem those points first.

6. Leverage companion tickets.

There's no better way to stretch your miles than to get two awards for the price of one, which is what a companion ticket can offer. There are a handful of airlines that offer companion passes in some form or another, with the Southwest Companion Pass being by far the most generous. This perk offers unlimited companion tickets on both paid and award bookings.

The British Airways Travel Together ticket is a benefit of the British Airways Visa Signature Card which you can earn when you $30,000 in purchases on the card within a calendar year. Unfortunately, you can only redeem the Travel Together ticket for BA-operated flights originating in and returning to the US, and you'll still have to pay both taxes and fuel surcharges for the companion ticket (but not any additional Avios). Additionally, if you have the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, you'll get an annual companion fare from $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees starting at $22).

7. Fight for the best award availability.

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It helps to know award travel tricks, like the fact that holding a United credit card gets you better Saver award availability.

Another trick to is to pursue the available awards using any means possible by knowing the ins and outs of different loyalty programs. For example, having a United MileagePlus Explorer Card or a United MileagePlus Club Card offers an undocumented benefit of increased award availability at the Saver level.

As another example, with partner programs you can only book first class on Lufthansa within about two weeks of departure. Thankfully, Miles and More is a Starwood transfer partner, so you can move Starpoints to the program to get around this rule. In addition, Singapore never releases Suites awards to its partners, and in general partner awards are limited to business-class flights on regional routes and on older planes.

Also note that you can search for awards that don't appear online and then call to book them. For example, the American Airlines website doesn't show award space for carriers like Cathay Pacific, Iberia, JAL and LAN. To get around this problem, search for awards on the website of another Oneworld carrier such as British Airways or Qantas, and then call American to book. Finally, I've found that you can often call a hotel's loyalty program to help you open up award space, especially when the property still has standard rooms for sale.

8. Compare different airlines' charts to find the cheapest awards.

When you have points with rewards programs that offer transfers to airline miles, you're faced with many redemption options. For example, if you wanted to redeem your valuable Starpoints for a round-trip business-class flight to Europe on American Airlines, you could transfer enough points to have the necessary 115,000 miles with American, but you'd typically have to transfer more rewards to have enough miles for an award on the same American flight when you go through other programs like British Airways Executive Club or Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific). But at the same time, you would only need 100,000 Alaska miles t0 book the same flight, making that carrier's Mileage Plan program your best choice.

It's also important to look for loopholes that offer exceptional value on award charts. For example, I was able to book four round-trip business-class tickets to Hawaii on Delta for 45,000 miles each using Korean Air miles that I transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards. That same award could cost 80,000 miles or more with other frequent flyer programs. For more information on booking this award, read my post on How To Book Award Flights with Korean Air SkyPass and find out about some more unique award travel bargains in my post on Using Airline Geography to Find Award Chart Sweet Spots.

9. Use positioning flights to make award travel possible.

If you live in a smaller town, be willing to book a paid flight to a hub airport. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

For a long time, it seemed impossible for me to find award flights overseas. As a Denver resident, I often have a harder time finding a domestic award flight to an international gateway than I do booking the rest of my itinerary. I found this out only after finding award tickets from other major cities, but no connecting flights to Denver. So in many cases, we have to book paid or award tickets to a domestic gateway in order to complete an award flight. If you do so, just be sure to leave plenty of time between flights on separate reservations.

What are your favorite tips and tricks for stretching your travel rewards?