10 Tips to Keep in Mind When Booking Reward Flights


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Booking reward flights with miles or points can feel like navigating a maze. The process is often opaque, with rules and restrictions that vary from one airline to another, and sometimes even within the same loyalty program. But don’t be deterred. Learning how to effectively book award travel can unlock a world of virtually free trips, upgrades to first or business class, and other benefits that can make your travel experience far more enjoyable and cost-effective.

Whether you’re a seasoned frequent flyer or new to the world of points and miles, these ten tips will help you navigate the complexities of award travel and make the most of your hard-earned points. They’ve been compiled through a combination of industry expertise, practical experience, and insider knowledge. Along the way, we’ll link to some of our previously published articles that delve deeper into specific topics, giving you all the resources you need to become an award booking pro.

Understand the Booking Window

Each airline has its own booking window for when it releases award seats. This can range from anywhere between 330 days to 365 days in advance. If you’re planning a trip and have specific dates in mind, understanding these booking windows is crucial to ensuring you’re in the best position to secure award seats. For instance, Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam members all have distinct award seat release schedules. We delve deeper into these timelines in our articles exploring Oneworld’s, Star Alliance’s and SkyTeam’s release dates. Start searching 15 to 13 months out when the award space is yet to be released if you are date sensitive.

Look for Last-Minute Availability

Not all airlines release award seats the same way. Some airlines might release more award seats closer to departure. This discrepancy can be leveraged to your advantage, especially if your travel plans are flexible. If you’re open to spontaneous travel or last-minute changes, you could find yourself snagging some great award seats. We’ve written a comprehensive article highlighting the airlines that show discrepancies when it comes to award availability, which can be a handy resource.

Use Award Search Tools

The digital age brings the convenience of online tools that can simplify your search process for booking reward flights. Sites like ExpertFlyer, Seat Spy, and more, offer platforms to search for available award seats across various airlines. Mastering these tools can save you from a lot of hassle and streamline your search process. However, remember that relying solely on these tools or on airline agents might not always yield the best results. We recommend learning to search for award availability yourself and we’ve put together a guide to help you navigate these tools.

Be Flexible

Flexibility can be your best friend when it comes to award booking. It’s no secret that award seats, especially those in premium cabins, can be tough to secure. Peak travel times, such as the holiday seasons, are particularly competitive. Having a degree of flexibility in your travel dates and times can dramatically increase your chances of landing those coveted award seats. In some cases, you might want to consider nearby cities or alternative routes if your primary choice is unavailable or alternatively try a different destination altogether.

Consider Your Travel Party

If you’re planning to travel with a partner or as part of a group, it’s important to search for the exact number of award tickets you need right from the start. Airlines limit the number of award seats, particularly in premium cabins, so searching for 1 seat when 2 are required is not a good idea.

The only time this has not been the case is with Virgin Velocity where One Mile At A Time’s found Virgin Velocity limited the number of business award seats to only one at a time.

Opt for Business or First Class

When it comes to redemption, a common mistake many people make is undervaluing their point’s potential. It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes, your miles can get you a lot further than you think. Consider, for instance, redeeming points for international first or business-class tickets. Although these tickets might be significantly more expensive when paid in cash, they could only cost twice as many points compared to the economy. Thus, it’s worth assessing the value you’re getting from your points and not shying away from exploring premium options.

Leverage Transferable Points

Harnessing the power of transferable points offers a major advantage in booking award travel. Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou points are some notable players providing the ability to amass points and transfer them to a diverse range of airline loyalty programs. This flexibility widens the potential for using your points, increasing the likelihood of booking optimal reward flights. Instead of being tied to one airline’s reward scheme, you have the freedom to choose from multiple partner airlines for each card provider. This flexibility facilitates the exploration of the best flight options at your preferred travel time.

However, it’s essential to proceed with caution when transferring points. Transfers can require a few hours to several days, during which your coveted award seat may be claimed by another traveller. Furthermore, when utilizing certain search tools or airline websites, you may encounter phantom award seats – ones that appear available upon searching but are not actually bookable. This can prove frustrating, particularly if you’ve already transferred points. To avoid disappointment, ensure to confirm the award seat’s availability before initiating a transfer, and if possible, reserve the award seat.

Beware of Surcharges and Fees

It’s important to remember that award tickets aren’t always completely free. Many frequent flyer programs will charge taxes and fees that you’ll need to pay out of pocket. These can vary greatly depending on the airline, the airports you’re flying in and out of, and even the countries you’re flying over. Some airlines have fuel surcharges that can add hundreds of dollars to your supposedly free ticket, while others have minimal fees. Before finalizing any booking, ensure you check what additional costs may apply.

Know the Award Charts and Sweet Spots

Many frequent flyer programs use award charts that divide the world into regions and price flights between those regions at a set rate. By learning these award charts, you can find the “sweet spots” where you can travel for fewer miles. For instance, some airlines charge the same amount for a flight to anywhere in Europe as they do for a flight to the UK. By flying into the UK and then taking a low-cost flight to your final destination in Europe, you could save thousands of miles.

Consider Buying Miles

If you’re close to having enough miles for an award and the cost of buying the additional miles is less than paying cash for the ticket, it might be worth it to buy the miles. This can be a cost-effective way to secure your desired flight when you’re just a few miles short.

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As you continue to gain experience and build your knowledge base, booking reward flights will become less daunting and more exciting. Remember, the goal is to make your points and miles work for you and to enjoy the process along the way. For those who are embarking on this journey for the first time, you may find our article on [tips and tricks for booking your first award seat](Link to the article) particularly helpful. Happy travels!

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