From newbie to advanced: 5 ways to up your mileage redemption game
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While it might not seem this way when you’re just starting out, I can tell you confidently that earning miles is the easy part of travel rewards. Anyone with good enough credit can open the right cards and meet the minimum spending requirements. Most people can pocket a few hundred thousand points a year just by opening new credit cards.
Redemptions, on the other hand, can be much trickier. The further you want to travel and the closer to the front of the plane you want to be, the harder it gets. Anyone can log on to delta.com and book a one-way Delta One award to South Africa for 400,000 miles. But if you’re trying to be efficient and maximize your miles, it helps to put in some leg work.
Award travel is a skill, and like many things in life, you get out of it what you put in. Here are a few of the best ways to up your mileage redemption game.
About a year passed from the time I opened my first credit card until I was ready to make my first international award redemption. I spent that time scheming every possible way I could to earn more points without spending more money. I also spent it practicing the delicate art of award booking.
My goal was to fly Lufthansa first class from Chicago to India, but because Lufthansa doesn’t release premium cabin awards space to Star Alliance partners like United until 15 days before departure, I had plenty of time to practice even after I’d locked down my travel dates.
My goal was to fly the carrier’s stunning 747-8 from Chicago O’Hare (ORD). However, I was willing to position to just about any airport to improve my chances. I spent countless hours searching for Lufthansa awards on the United website. I focused on flights departing in the next 15 days to get an idea of which airports offered the best availability.
After a while, I realized that I had a very decent shot at finding an award out of Chicago. So I started to fine-tune the timing. Eventually, I had it down to a science – I knew exactly what time in the day Lufthansa would release first-class award space to partners. Fifteen days before my scheduled departure, I was online and had my flight booked less than five minutes after award space became available.
2. Search in advance
Any time I have my heart set on a specific award, I follow the same approach and mock-up practice itineraries for weeks before I’m ready to book. Doing this has taught me some important tricks, like the fact that Cathay Pacific only releases one first-class award on all of its flights (though more may open up close to departure). Or that Japan Airlines will often open up a large amount of first-class award inventory a week or two before departure.
I also learned that there was only one day in the entire month of February when Etihad had two first-class apartment awards from Seoul (ICN) to Abu Dhabi (AUH). Because I knew the odds of finding two awards on that flight were quite low, I booked those seats almost a full year in advance. I built the rest of my month-long Chinese New Year vacation outward around that single flight.
3. Let technology do the heavy lifting
Some major airlines spend billions buying state-of-the-art aircraft but often can’t be bothered to update their award search engines. One of the most frustrating ones for me personally is British Airways’ search engine. While it’s a very reliable indicator of Oneworld award space, it requires you to search one day at a time.
Back in 2018, I was planning on flying home from Shanghai for Thanksgiving. I wanted to use some of my Alaska miles to fly Japan Airlines first class and I didn’t care which direction I flew JAL in (i.e. outbound or return). I didn’t care what U.S. airport I flew into, as I would need to connect on to Washington D.C. anyway. My dates were also really flexible since my family had agreed to celebrate thanksgiving early or late whenever I could find a good flight home.
At the time, JAL flew its first-class equipped 777-300ER on four routes to the U.S. Searching within a 450day window, I ended up conducting well over 250 searches before I found a single day with award space. That time commitment alone is enough to stop most people from ever booking certain aspirational awards, but it doesn’t have to be so bad.
Whenever possible, I rely on ExpertFlyer to bulk-search award inventory for a week at a time. Unfortunately, ExpertFlyer doesn’t support JAL or Cathay Pacific, but for most other airlines it’s a great starting point.
For example, this year I wanted to fly in one of ANA’s new premium cabins. With flexible dates, I set up dozens of ExpertFlyer alerts for ANA award space on these routes. Sure enough, about two weeks after setting the alert, I found a single day with first-class availability in “The Room” to JFK.
ExpertFlyer is one of the most comprehensive options for award inventory searches. However, there are plenty of other tools out there that can help you speed up the process. Be sure to check out our list of six overlooked tools to help with future travel, all of which can save you time and make it easier to find those hard-to-get award seats.
4. Leverage international partners
One of the biggest mistakes I see people making is limiting themselves to the ease and familiarity of the big three U.S. airlines and their frequent flier programs – United MileagePlus, Delta SkyMiles and American Airlines AAdvantage. While there’s still value to be had in these programs, years of devaluations and an ongoing shift towards dynamic award pricing has stripped away much of their value. Now, many of the best deals come from partner programs.
For me, this has meant relying heavily on Avianca LifeMiles, which I use for more than 50% of my award flight bookings these days. In addition to offering some of the easiest miles to earn, Avianca has lower award redemption rates for nearly every Star Alliance flight than United and Air Canada do. I’ve saved tens of thousands of miles booking ANA first class, Air China first class, and EVA Air business class through Avianca instead of through United MileagePlus.
5. Study sweet spots
I’m young and there are still many more places in the world I haven’t seen than those that I have. That’s why, to some extent, I’m ok letting deals and sweet spots guide my vacation plans
Some frequent flyer programs offer award rates that are simply too good to be true. In some cases, you can book $20,000 first class tickets for the same number of miles that other people are using to fly round-trip economy to Europe. If you take advantage of these sweet spots, you’re sure to get an expert level redemption. Even if this is your first time redeeming points and miles.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out our sweet spots guide. Pick one that matches your travel plans and make it happen! One of my favorite recommendations for newbies is to explore ANA’s incredible award chart for Virgin Atlantic. For fewer miles than most airlines charge for one-way awards, you can fly round-trip business class from the U.S. to Tokyo. In fact, a round-trip first-class award on ANA’s new “The Suite” cabin out of New York is just 120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles.
The points and miles world is constantly changing, so you’ll have to invest some time if you want to really up your redemption game. The single best piece of advice I can offer is to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Read, search, explore and practice – even if you don’t have any trips on the calendars. I learn something new almost every time I search for an award ticket. The more practice you have the better you’ll be when you’re finally ready to book.
Featured photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy
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