6 tips for finding cheap award flights

Jun 29, 2021

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How much does an award ticket to Hawaii cost?

Interestingly, 7,500 miles and more than 200,000 miles each way are both accurate answers.

Even though there’s less emphasis on traditional airline award charts right now and more award price variability with volatile, dynamic prices that can change from one minute to the next, it’s still possible to find cheap award flights.

Here are our tips for stretching your miles by looking for great award flight values.

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Know your award charts

Yes, award charts are becoming a relic of a bygone era. But they aren’t totally extinct — especially in international programs or when flying with international partners.

Even if you don’t learn every single award chart out there, you should learn two things:

First, familiarize yourself with award chart sweet spots, which is a fancy way of saying learn where the cheap awards you might be intrested in lurk. TPG has a number of stories to help you zero in on the sweet spots that matter to you.

You can’t always tell what’s a good award deal if you don’t know what’s normal or possible, so pick the program, points currency or destination of your choice and brush up on what’s out there.

Related: Credit cards offering over 100,000 bonus points

Then, do a little math.

It’s hard to know if you’re getting a good deal if you don’t know what a point is worth or the different ways you can use it.

If you hop on a deal such as the current record-breaking Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 100,000-point welcome bonus (after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening), you’re going to have options if you want to cash in those points for flights.

As with many other card programs, you can use the points at a fixed-value towards flights. In this case, if you book flights within the Chase Travel site, you’d get $1,250 in flights at a rate of 1.25 cents per point.

Or, once you have a bit of basic award chart knowledge, you can see if your points stetch further with a transfer partner, such as British Airways. For example, if a round-trip flight from Dallas to Aspen is selling for $400 on American Airlines, that would cost you 32,000 points from your Sapphire card at 1.25 cents per point.

But, if you find availability with the British Airways Avios program on flights operated by American Airlines, you can transfer Chase points and book from just 9,000 points each way. That way, you can spend just 18,000 points round-trip instead of 32,000 points on the very same flights, just based on how you book.

Screenshot courtesy of British Airways

Set ExpertFlyer alerts

Knowing how to look for and leverage award chart sweet spots and actually doing it in the real world are very different skills.

You may know, for example, that you can book United first-class awards to Hawaii for just 12,500 Turkish Airlines miles, but finding that availability is … challenging.

Sure, you can perform manual searches until you turn as blue as the ocean, but you can also outsource that task to ExpertFlyer (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures). ExpertFlyer can do a number of things, including alerting you when awards you want become available.

Say you want a first-class award from Los Angeles to Honolulu on any date during the first two weeks of October; You can have ExpertFlyer search for that and alert you if it finds gold in the form of a lie-flat seat.

Related: A beginner’s guide to using ExpertFlyer

Use an award map

American Airlines has award prices that can vary dramatically thanks to Economy Web Specials that drop the prices of flights down to around 6,000 miles each way. The airline also has an award map that can help you find the cheapest award flights to or from where you want to go.

Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines

In this example, I selected February travel dates and Dallas (DFW) as a departure airport and some of the cheapest destinations in the U.S. that were returned were: Bend, Oregon; Boston; Las Vegas; San Francisco; and Seattle — all of which can be booked for 10,000 American miles round-trip.

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

This tool works internationally as well as for types of getaways such as “beach” or “ski.” You can also put in how many miles you want to spend and it will find awards available at that price.

Jump on transfer bonuses

You want a cheap award and have flexible credit card points? Watch for a transfer bonus.

When your miles and points go 20 to 50% further simply by moving them at the right moment, it’s easier to get great value and book inexpensive awards.

In the recent past, we’ve seen transfer bonuses such as a 50% bonus when you move Amex Membership Rewards points to British Airways from cards such as the American Express® Gold Card or The Platinum Card® from American Express. That takes 50,000 Amex points and turns them into 75,000 British Airways Avios points with a few clicks of the mouse.

You normally don’t want to speculatively transfer points, but when the stars align, bonuses can really help you out if you want to fly a lie-flat seat for around 12,000 points.

We’ve also seen transfer bonuses from Chase Ultimate Rewards (very rarely) and occaionally from Citi ThankYou. TPG keeps a running list of transfer bonuses you can reference at any time.

Try flexible date searches

Since so many popular airline award currencies are now dynamic — meaning the number of miles goes up and down just like cash fares — you’ll find the least-expensive award flights by looking at a variety of dates at once.

Assuming some level of flexibility, shifting your travel dates by even a day or two in either direction might save you a very significant number of miles. In this example, the price of award flights using Southwest Rapid Rewards flights to Cancun jump from 8,000 to 40,000 points each way in just a week’s time.

Screenshot courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Be ready to act fast

Everything I’ve said so far only gets you part of the way toward finding great award flights deals. The final 10 yards to the goal line are perhaps the most important.

Your best secret weapon for finding great flight award deals is following the right accounts and people on social media.

A few years ago, there were 6,000 mile award flights to Australia and New Zealand. News of those awards spread like wildfire on social media faster than an article can ever be written. When dealing with extremely good award deals, minutes matter, so getting a jump on the deals before a fancy article is put up will help you book the deal of the century as it happens.

Follow: 

  • @TPG_Alerts: Deal alerts of all kinds … but only deal alerts, not other types of TPG tweets or stories. For these alerts, you might want to enable push notifications from Twitter so you see them on your phone.
  • Join the waitlist for the TPG app: The TPG app is going to make maximizing your miles easier than ever, so join the waitlist now so you can soon download it in the app store.
  • TPG Facebook Lounge: TPG readers sometimes find and share deals here before they can be found on the site.
  • TPG Facebook page: More is more when it comes to finding deals, so follow the official TPG Facebook page.
  • @scottscheapflights: This is about paid fares, but since airline miles are often tied to the price of the ticket with many programs, this is relevant even if you want to use miles.
  • @TheFlightDeal: Like the above, this site focuses on paid tickets, but follow if you like to hunt for airfare deals.
  • Straight to the Points: Get award alerts newsletters, text and emails. There’s a free and a paid version of this service.
  • Real people who like travel: Once in-person events return, go to frequent flyer events, TPG meet-ups and more to connect with other people who love deals. Some deals never even make it to major social media platforms, so make real-life friends with others who love this stuff, too.

Bottom line

Even if all you do is watch for deals by following the right social media accounts, you can snag some great award flight deals with a little luck and a quick trigger finger. Beyond getting lucky with seeing a deal in time, you can find your own with a little knowledge and the right tools and the desire to search, search and search.

Featured image courtesy of Artur Debat/Getty Images

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