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From newbie to expert: 6 ways to up your mileage redemption game

June 11, 2022
9 min read
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Editor's Note

This post has been updated with new information.

Editor's note: This post has been updated with new information.


While it might not seem this way when you're just starting out, 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 farther 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's website 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 legwork.

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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.

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Practice

About a year passed from when 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 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. Because Lufthansa doesn't release premium-cabin award 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. However, I was willing to position myself at 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 understand which airports offered the best availability.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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.

Related: How to book your first award flight using airline miles

Search in advance

Whenever 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, including what type of award availability is normal and when award space tends to open up.

So, when I noticed Etihad had two first-class Apartment awards from Incheon International Airport (ICN) to Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) near the end of the award schedule, I knew the odds of finding two awards on that flight were quite low. I booked those seats almost a full year in advance and built a monthlong Chinese New Year vacation around that single flight.

Related: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first-class awards

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. Many are frustrating to use and often require you to search one day at a time.

Back in 2018, I planned on flying to the U.S. 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 (i.e., outbound or return). I also didn't care what U.S. airport I flew into, as I would need to connect to Washington, D.C., anyway. My dates were also flexible since my family had agreed to celebrate Thanksgiving early or late depending on my flight.

At the time, JAL flew its first-class-equipped 777-300ER on four routes to the U.S. Searching within a 450-day window, I conducted 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.

(Photo by Samantha Rosen/The Points Guy)

Whenever possible, I rely on ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures) to bulk-search award inventory for a week at a time. Unfortunately, ExpertFlyer doesn't support every airline, but it's a great starting point for most airlines.

For example, consider the time I wanted to fly in one of ANA's new premium cabins. 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 New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

ExpertFlyer is one of the most comprehensive options for award inventory searches. However, plenty of other tools can help you speed up the process. Check out our list of overlooked tools to help with future travel, as these tools can save you time and make it easier to find those hard-to-get award seats.

Related: How ExpertFlyer helped me score a first-class experience of a lifetime

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 flyer programs — United MileagePlus, Delta SkyMiles and American Airlines AAdvantage. While you can still find value in these programs, years of devaluations and an ongoing shift toward dynamic award pricing have stripped away much of their value. Now, many of the best deals come from partner programs.

I rely heavily on Avianca LifeMiles. In addition to offering some of the easiest miles to earn, Avianca has competitive award redemption rates for most Star Alliance flights. 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 United MileagePlus.

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

Also, if you can't score Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class suite, did you know you can redeem Virgin points for Delta, Air France or KLM business class instead of the old Virgin Upper Class, where all seats face away from the window?

It's well worth checking which airlines your favorite loyalty program partners with — you may be able to redeem for a better seat than you originally thought.

Related: Air France unveils new business-class seat that now features a sliding door

Study sweet spots

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

I'm young and there are still many places I haven't seen. So, to some extent, I'm OK letting deals and sweet spots guide my vacation plans.

Some frequent flyer programs offer award rates that are 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'll get an expert-level redemption even if this is your first time redeeming points and miles.

Check out our guide to sweet spots if you're not sure where to start. Pick one that matches your travel plans and make it happen!

Related: 6 award chart 'sweet spots' that will save you money on domestic flights

Know the value of your points and miles

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

How much is a point or mile worth? That depends on how you use them. You will usually get the best value by redeeming for flights, particularly in premium cabins where you can expect to get at least 1 cent per point or mile in value.

If you are happy with your redemption value, that is great. But if you're unsure what your loyalty balance is worth, check out our monthly points and miles valuations.

Related: Rate my redemption: New York to London in British Airways economy, using Avios

Bottom line

The points and miles world is constantly changing, so you'll have to invest some time if you want to 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 calendar. 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.

Additional reporting by Ben Smithson.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

    Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points
    60,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $95
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent, Good

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases