Beginner’s Guide: How To Book An Award Flight Using Points (and Miles)

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There are few better New Year’s goals than to travel (…even more). Whether your goal is to visit friends and family, explore exotic locations, or check off your bucket list destinations, I want to help you achieve your goals.

If you are new to the points / miles hobby – or still just considering it – you may want to bookmark this page as you’ll eventually need to redeem miles to accomplish your goals.

WHATS YOUR DREAM?

Step 2 of the 1TP Beginners Guide speaks about identifying your travel goals. This may sound obvious, but everyone’s travel goals are different. Some people are interested in QUALITY, others in QUANTITY. Some individuals just want to arrive at their destination for cheaper than paying outright. Regardless, identifying your travel goals first, will minimize the anxiety and hours of research finding the “perfect card.”

I encourage you to start with the Beginner’s Guide, however, I’m going to keep things simple in this article and assume you’ve read the beginner’s guide. If you get lost in what I say next, head back to the beginner’s guide and give it (another) read.

SEARCHING FOR AWARD AVAILABILITY

Once you know where you want to go and have at least a loose understanding of points-and-miles, it’s time to jump right in.

Most people are familiar with the “BIG US3” – Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines. All of their homepages look different but located somewhere on their page is a box that says “miles.” You will need to select this box to redeem your points/miles. For example…

Simply enter your origin, destination, number of passengers, and dates and begin searching for award tickets. With most airlines you are able to search for award tickets even if you don’t have the required miles in your account. The goal of these searches is to familiarize yourself with searching, see if you can find the flights you want to book, and be able to confidently compare the options.

Pro-Tip: Searching for awards can be extremely overwhelming. Begin searching for one-way flights first and “build” your trip from there.

Enough of the theoretical.

REAL LIFE EXAMPLE

Let’s say you want to fly to Hawaii – specifically Los Angeles (LAX) to Honolulu (HNL), one-way in economy on February 9th. Head to the website of your choice, search for flights as if you were paying with cash. However, make sure you select the “Redeem miles” box on the search screen. This process will be similar with frequent flyer programs throughout the world.

Caveat: Some international carriers require that you have an account set up AND be logged in to search for awards. That’s another blog for another day. Let’s deal with the basics right now.

Here are some search results for economy class award seats from Los Angeles (LAX) to Honolulu (HNL) for the US3…

United Airlines

Delta Air Lines

and American Airlines…

The redemption rates are as follows:
United: 24,000 + $5.60 in taxes
Delta: 15,500 + $5.60 in taxes
American: 13,000 miles + $5.60 in taxes

In this case, American charges less than everyone else. However, I would encourage you to use the flexible date calendar search view. Assuming you have any flexibility, you’ll see that award prices can exhibit huge fluctuations. This is what we call “dynamic pricing.”

Quick Note: Compare how much United is charging for Economy vs American Airlines for First Class.

These days, there’s rarely one fixed award price for a given route using your airline miles — just like there isn’t one set price with cash. In these searches, what you’re really looking for is a “range of normal” so you can spot a good deal versus a not-so-good deal.

For example, let’s search for a one-way Business class ticket from Los Angeles (LAX) to London (LHR) on Delta during the same time period…

I would argue that there is a HUGE difference between paying 112,500 miles and 320,000 miles. If these prices shock you, rest assured, both of these prices are ridiculous and there are plenty of cheaper options.

HOW TO DETERMINE A GOOD DEAL

Because flight award prices can vary so much, it can be hard to spot a good deal when you are new to this way of traveling. Assuming you have the flexibility and choice of airline, you’ll want to search a few different dates and possibilities to see the range of normal award prices.

I would also encourage you to diversify your points. It’s important to have transferrable award currency points (i.e. Amex, Chase, Citi, Marriott, etc.). You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you need (or want) to travel to Honolulu and you’re forced to pay 24,000 with United when you could’ve paid 13,000 with American.

If I’ve lost you, don’t worry. It may take a minute but continue reading. We’ll be digging into this a lot more and it will all make sense.

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid)

If this all sounds dreadfully awful and you just want something that’s super simple, that’s fine too. You don’t have to do math and compare different sites if you don’t want to — especially at first. Although, not as lucrative, there is another option…fixed-value credit card points.

An even easier way to make your first award-flight booking simple is to start with fixed-value points. These credit card points are worth a fixed amount toward flights or travel. You’ve probably never heard of “fixed value,” but I know you’ve seen the “double miles” Capital One commercials featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Garner.

While the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card [READ MORE] now also provides the option of airline transfer partners, you can choose to keep things simple and use the points at a value of 1 cent each toward erasing a previous travel purchase. In other words, you could charge a $300 flight to the card and erase the charge by using 30,000 Venture “miles.”

The Capital One Venture Rewards credit card currently has a welcome bonus of 50,000 bonus miles on $3,000 in purchases in the first three months. That would be $500 to use toward flights or other travel expenses.

FINAL STAMP

Once you’ve learned the basics, decided where you want to go and run your searches, just book it. It’s OK if your first award booking isn’t an around-the-world journey in business class.

Trust me, before you know it, you’ll be booking specific planes (like this), flying to another country just to take a flight (like this), booking specific types of seat (like this), or just saying “YOLO” (like this).

Booking an award flight to ANYWHERE in ANY cabin is a huge step forward in your journey of traveling more for less.

When you book that all-important first award flight, just be sure to pay the taxes owed with a credit card that provides trip delay or cancellation perks when possible. Sometimes your trip can still be protected, even if you are paying with miles or points that are earned from that card.

What are you travel goals? What destinations are on your list?

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