My 10 Top Tips For Redeeming Airline Miles & Points

My 10 Top Tips For Redeeming Airline Miles & Points

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There’s a big learning curve to using miles & points well. As many OMAAT readers can attest to, it can take some effort to redeem for first & business class award travel, but the benefits of doing so can be awesome.

While most of us would never pay cash for international first & business class tickets (they can sometimes cost $10,000+), miles make these kinds of experiences attainable, for pennies on the dollar. Admittedly it’s sometimes overwhelming for people to get into miles & points, so once in a while I think it makes sense to go back to the basics and look at the “big picture” of redeeming miles.

If you’ve redeemed miles for an international first or business class partner award ticket at the saver level, feel free to skip this post, as you likely won’t learn a lot. If you’ve redeemed miles mostly for domestic flights at the “rule buster” or standard award rate, hopefully this post helps. And if you have any questions, let me know in the comments section below.

Emirates’ new first class — attainable with airline miles

With that in mind, below are my top tips for maximizing how you redeem your airline miles, roughly ranked in the order that I think they’re important.

Earn flexible points currencies with credit cards

Most savvy consumers in the United States with good credit don’t earn a majority of their airline miles through actually flying, but rather through credit cards. Credit cards offer huge welcome bonuses, and great bonus categories on spending. While you could get an airline credit card and earn a specific mileage currency, I wouldn’t recommend that in general.

Instead I’d recommend getting credit cards that earn transferable points currencies. Specifically, I’m talking about the following four main currencies:

The information and associated card details on this page for the American Express Green Card has been collected independently by OMAAT and has not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Not only do these cards often have massive welcome bonuses and a great return on spending, but the key thing they offer is flexibility. Points currencies all have different values, and the beauty of transferable points currencies is that you can transfer them to over a dozen partner programs at a 1:1 ratio.

In other words, instead of earning a specific mileage currency that could easily be devalued overnight and that offers limited flexibility, earn points that can be transfered to over a dozen programs, and in turn can be redeemed on 100+ airlines.

Just as an example, below are the Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, all of which allow 1:1 transfers.

Airline Partners
Hotel Partners
Aer Lingus AerClub
IHG One Rewards
Air Canada Aeroplan
Marriott Bonvoy
Air France-KLM Flying Blue
World of Hyatt
British Airways Executive Club
Emirates Skywards
Iberia Plus
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
Southwest Rapid Rewards
United MileagePlus
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners

Why earn just Air Canada points, or JetBlue points, or Southwest points, or United miles, when you can use a card that earns points that could later be transfered to any of those programs? As I’ll explain below, you’re not limited to actually flying those airlines, as those airlines have lots of other partnerships as well.

Earn transferable points currencies whenever possible

Understand airline partnerships & alliances

Most people assume that they should earn miles with the airline that they actually want to fly with. In other words, want to fly Qatar Airways business class? You might think that you actually have to earn Qatar Airways’ points currency, which is Privilege Club Avios.

Well, that’s not the case, and this creates the beautiful world of award redemption arbitrage opportunities. Most airlines have a variety of partnerships with other airlines, whereby you can earn or redeem miles when traveling with one of their partner airlines.

This is designed to give loyal passengers of each airline as much global coverage as possible — since an airline can’t take you everywhere in the world, hopefully their partners can at least get you close. Many airlines belong to one of the “big three” alliances (oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance), while other airlines just have individual partnerships.

Air Canada Aeroplan points are among my favorite points currencies, so let me use that as an example, as the program is transfer partners with three of the four major transferable points currencies. On top of that, Air Canada belongs to the Star Alliance, so you can redeem your Aeroplan points on any Star Alliance airline (listed below).

Aegean Airlines
Austrian Airlines
EVA Air
SWISS
Air Canada
Avianca
LOT Polish Airlines
TAP Air Portugal
Air China
Brussels Airlines
Lufthansa
Thai Airways
Air India
Copa Airlines
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS)
Turkish Airlines
Air New Zealand
Croatia Airlines
Shenzhen Airlines
United Airlines
All Nippon Airways
EgyptAir
Singapore Airlines
Asiana Airlines
Ethiopian Airlines
South African Airways
Star Alliance airlines

But it gets even better than that. Aeroplan has all kinds of partnerships with non-Star Alliance airlines, ranging from Air Mauritius, to Air Serbia, to Azul, to Etihad Airways, to Gulf Air, to Oman Air — the redemption possibilities are just about endless. So always research the website of the airline with which you have miles, in order to figure out who they partner with.

Let me give one last example of this, which demonstrates the extent to which there are arbitrage opportunities. Say you want to fly All Nippon Airways’ amazing business class from the United States to Japan (assuming you could find award availability).

All Nippon Airways belongs to the Star Alliance, so you could book through United MileagePlus. The catch is that United charges a minimum of 110,000 MileagePlus miles one-way for such an award. Say you could instead earn Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points (Virgin Atlantic partners with all major transferable points currencies). That award would now cost you just 45,000-47,500 points, which is less than half as much.

All Nippon Airways’ Boeing 777 business class

Redeem miles for first & business class

The average consumer assumes that an international first or business class ticket isn’t a realistic goal. While that might be true if you have to pay cash, it’s a different story if you have access to miles. In many cases a credit card welcome bonus alone is enough for an international first or business class ticket.

The reality is that while an international first class ticket might cost 10x as much as an economy ticket when paying cash, it might only cost 2x as much when paying with miles. Obviously everyone has different travel goals, but if you’ve always dreamed of flying first or business class and have a good credit score, know that this is a realistic goal.

Redeem just 80,000 American miles for Japan Airlines first class

Learn how & where to search award space

Back in the day most airlines didn’t display partner award availability on their websites, making it really tricky to actually search award availability. You often had to book partner awards by phone, and many agents weren’t properly trained in how to book awards.

Fortunately airline websites have improved considerably over the years, making it easier to search award space and ticket reservations with miles. Most airlines will show most partner award availability through their website, though that’s not the case in all situations. Furthermore, if you’re trying to search weeks of availability at a time, some websites are better than others.

If at all possible, try to search award availability for yourself online, rather than phoning up the airline and relying on an agent to help. As far as searching award availability with the “big three” alliances goes:

  • For oneworld, I find the websites of Alaska, American, and British Airways, to be best for searching award availability; Alaska and American are especially useful for having calendar views so you can search availability over time
  • For Star Alliance, I find the websites of Air Canada and United to be best for searching award availability; Air Canada is noteworthy for showing all partner awards online, and displaying the most accurate inventory
  • For SkyTeam, there’s not really a best website, since SkyTeam airlines tend to only release some award space to partner airlines; I find Air France-KLM Flying Blue to be the most useful SkyTeam program, so I usually search availability through there

Another great resource is point.me, which really simplifies the process of searching award availability and redeeming miles. You can find all the award space that would be bookable based on which transferable points currency you have, and then you’ll be walked through the process of booking.

You’ll also generally want to be strategic about how you search award availability. For example, if you are planning a long haul award and live near a small airport, maybe look at award availability from other nearby airports. Even look at awards from major international gateways, and then consider booking your ticket separately to that gateway.

Nowadays most airlines show partner award space online

Know when airlines open their schedules

Many people understandably have specific periods where they can travel, perhaps based on school holidays or the ability to take time off work. In those situations, you’re often best off trying to book as soon as the schedule opens.

Airlines all open up their schedules at different times, typically somewhere between 10 and 12 months before departure. Knowing when they open up award space can be the difference between finding award space and not finding award space.

Below is a chart covering when many major airlines open their award calendars.

Airline Loyalty Program
How far in advance you can book
Air Canada Aeroplan
355 days
Air France-KLM Flying Blue
359 days
Alaska Mileage Plan
330 days
All Nippon Airways Mileage Club
355 days
American AAdvantage
331 days
Asiana Club
361 days
Avianca LifeMiles
360 days
British Airways Executive Club
355 days
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
360 days
Delta SkyMiles
331 days
Emirates Skywards
328 days
Etihad Guest
330 days
Finnair Plus
331 days
Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
330 days
Iberia Plus
330 days
Japan Airlines Mileage Bank
360 days
Korean Air SkyPass
361 days
Lufthansa Miles & More
360 days
Qantas Frequent Flyer
353 days
Qatar Airways Privilege Club
361 days
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
355 days
United MileagePlus
337 days
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
331 days
When Airlines Open Their Award Calendars

It’s important to understand that airlines don’t release award space in all cabins on all flights, so if you check space the day it opens and there’s nothing available, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else “beat you to it.”

Some airlines do nowadays have an award space guarantee, where they promise that award seats will be released when the schedule opens. Specifically, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic both have this promise. The catch is that both airlines also have high carrier imposed surcharges on award tickets.

Virgin Atlantic has an award space guarantee

Don’t be afraid to book last minute

This is probably the single greatest trick when it comes to finding award space. A lot of people assume that airlines release award space right when the schedule opens, and then don’t release any after that.

Quite to the contrary, many airlines release the most award space last minute, when there are unsold seats that would otherwise likely go out empty. While these tickets might often cost the most when paying cash (since airlines assume these seats are booked by business travelers), they can be a great deal with points.

Admittedly this doesn’t work for many peoples’ schedules. However, if you’re feeling spontaneous and want to travel to Europe for the weekend in comfort, airline miles can make that happen pretty efficiently at the last minute.

I’ve booked Lufthansa first class awards day of departure

Be flexible with dates and times

I know this sounds obvious and for many people is the reason they don’t like miles, but you do have to be a bit flexible if you want to book award tickets. Rather than looking at needing to be flexible as a huge obstacle, keep in mind just how much value you can get out of miles if you’re redeeming them properly.

While it might be a pain to be flexible on dates when you’re trying to redeem miles for a one-way ticket between Los Angeles and San Francisco, hopefully we can look at it a bit differently if we’re talking about redeeming miles for business class between Los Angeles and Singapore, for example.

I’m also not suggesting that you should decide where you’re going to travel based on where there’s award space, but I do tend to think it can be a fun motivator at times. We all have a bucket list of destinations we’d like to visit, so if you see a bunch of award availability open up to a destination that has been on your list (but maybe not at the very top), that could be worth considering.

Just as an example, Fiji Airways has historically been stingy with business class award space. However, in 2022 the airline released a ton of business class award space between Los Angeles and Nadi, and hundreds of people took advantage of that. I imagine most people weren’t planning to go to Fiji before that space opened up, but they’ll no doubt have a great time.

Let award availability influence where you go (sometimes)

Read trip reports before booking

Not all first & business class experiences are created equal. Assuming you have a choice of products at the same mileage level, I suggest reading some online reviews and trip reports of the airlines before making a booking.

For example, if your goal is to fly international first class, you’re going to have a very different experience flying American Airlines’ Boeing 777 first class than you’ll have flying Singapore Airlines’ A380 Suites.

Singapore Airlines’ spectacular A380 Suites

Study award change & redeposit fees

Thanks to the pandemic, airlines offer a lot more flexibility than they used to, including with award tickets. Airlines have vastly different fees when it comes to changing and cancelling award tickets, and those policies are worth being aware of.

Why does it matter so much? Maybe you want to lock in a great award tickets 11 months in advance, but you’re not 100% sure you’ll be able to take the trip. You might not want to lock in that award if the cancelation fee were $200 per person, while if you could cancel it for free, maybe it would be worthwhile.

So when at all possible, book with programs that have low or no change and cancelation fees, since that gives you a lot more flexibility, and can save you lots of money.

American AAdvantage has no award change & cancelation fees

Accept that miles aren’t ideal for everyone

Everyone has different travel goals. Some couples may want to travel to Thailand in business class, while some families may want to travel to Orlando for spring break. Both kinds of travel are great, but miles & points won’t get you equal value there.

The fact is that traditional mileage currencies can get you great value on long haul, international tickets, as well as first and business class tickets. However, if you’re wanting to travel domestically in economy on specific dates, you’re usually going to be better off earning cash back (or a cash back equivalent points currency) instead.

It’s important to view credit card rewards in terms of opportunity cost. Some people are best off getting something like the Citi Double Cash® Card (review), which offers 1% cash back when you make a purchase and 1% cash back when you pay for that purpose (in the form of ThankYou points). By the time you’ve paid your bill, you’re earning two cents back for each dollar spent.

Accruing that cash back and then being able to redeem it toward whatever travel experience you’re eyeing (or anything else) could be a good option as well, especially if you just want to travel domestically and don’t have much flexibility.

Sometimes you’re better off earning cash back instead of miles

Bottom line

There’s a learning curve to efficiently redeeming airlines miles & points, but the rewards can potentially be huge. International first & business class tickets are attainable with a bit of effort, just by maximizing credit card rewards. The above are some of my top tips to make sure you’re getting the best value.

Do you have any tips for redeeming miles & points that I haven’t mentioned?

Conversations (10)
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  1. Dempseyzdad Diamond

    While I appreciate tbis post, telling working people to "be flexible" is ... not helpful. Between work and school it is difficult enough just to get vacation time all together, and impossible to coordinate with the airline's ridiculous mileage pricing. We did get mileage BC tickets to London, but ended up paying for tickets home because AA is charging 400k miles for EACH ticket. It's a game that is not worth it.

    1. OCTinPHL Diamond

      “It's a game that is not worth it.”

      So don’t play. Pay cash for roundtrip tickets.

      I agree that AA’s dynamic pricing is ridiculous. Almost any Saaver award is on BA and incurs fuel surcharges. But that is why using AA miles for most transatlantic awards is foolish. Use AA miles for QR, CX, and JL to get the most value.

      “be flexible" is ... not helpful. ”
      So what do you recommend....

      “It's a game that is not worth it.”

      So don’t play. Pay cash for roundtrip tickets.

      I agree that AA’s dynamic pricing is ridiculous. Almost any Saaver award is on BA and incurs fuel surcharges. But that is why using AA miles for most transatlantic awards is foolish. Use AA miles for QR, CX, and JL to get the most value.

      “be flexible" is ... not helpful. ”
      So what do you recommend. Ben gives his tips. You don’t like them. What do you suggest? (Me, I use my AA miles on QR and JAL.)

  2. Greg Guest

    I would also add liok in the airline operating the flight and try to book with those points as with all the new dynamic award pricing often airlines have next to zero seats available to partners.

    As well sometimes you can pay double points but actually get the flight you want. Like Qatar I have seen business awards from North America to Qatar for less than 400k points in J when AA and Alaska...

    I would also add liok in the airline operating the flight and try to book with those points as with all the new dynamic award pricing often airlines have next to zero seats available to partners.

    As well sometimes you can pay double points but actually get the flight you want. Like Qatar I have seen business awards from North America to Qatar for less than 400k points in J when AA and Alaska showed ZERO availability. So instead of the AA or AS points being worthless Qatar points were worth 1.4cents as the ticket in J priced at $5600

    1. OCTinPHL Diamond

      Huh?

      Dynamic pricing has very little, if not nothing, to do with whether partner awards are available. At least on AA.

      And AA’s dynamic pricing is for AA and BA flights. Still based on the chart for QR, CX, and JAL.

  3. Family miles Guest

    This is a great starter post. I think one point to note is award reservations for more than 2 tend to be hard. If you even have a family of just 3, there are some redemptions that are flat out impossible in first class. And then last minute booking even in business class for 3 is pretty tough. But again, flexibility is key. Suppose you find 3 seats, but it's only to an airport near...

    This is a great starter post. I think one point to note is award reservations for more than 2 tend to be hard. If you even have a family of just 3, there are some redemptions that are flat out impossible in first class. And then last minute booking even in business class for 3 is pretty tough. But again, flexibility is key. Suppose you find 3 seats, but it's only to an airport near by your destination, you then have to figure out if your family wants to do a X-hour layover. It'll be interesting how many family trips Ben takes as a family of three and all on miles. Maybe he can show us 3 seats in F on ANA with Virgin miles.

    Jk. You can't find even 1 seat on ANA first with Virgin miles!

  4. Alec Guest

    I've had a lot of good luck booking an economy award in advanced so I can plan my trip and know 100% that I have flights and then checking daily 2-4 weeks before and finding a biz seat open up (especially with no or low change fees)

    1. Chris Guest

      United also allows you to book an economy saver and "waitlist" a business class seat so if something opens up it auto-clears. I've had decent success with that - it just takes a bit of patience to find an agent that both knows what you're asking to do and knows how to create the reservation. Twitter people are pretty solid assist on this one.

  5. OCTinPHL Diamond

    Just because no F seats are available when booking doesn’t mean they won’t be at a later date. I’ve been spontaneous like Ben suggested, but I’ve also booked a business class seat on JAL or CX using miles some ~330 days out, and then monitored to see if F seats became available. Lucked out both times and was able to cancel the J award and book the F class ticket.

  6. STEFFL Gold

    all in all, just the way it is (for beginners), the little hidden treasures and sweet spots on how to max all points/miles needed is a learning and often changing curve.
    General, (for those who do understand and follow these lines from Ben) a GREAT way to start how the points/miles redemption show works. Not to forget that things often change so fast, you can never know it all, to enjoy the "bargain" you...

    all in all, just the way it is (for beginners), the little hidden treasures and sweet spots on how to max all points/miles needed is a learning and often changing curve.
    General, (for those who do understand and follow these lines from Ben) a GREAT way to start how the points/miles redemption show works. Not to forget that things often change so fast, you can never know it all, to enjoy the "bargain" you may have been able to archive on an award instead of paying cash of it.
    Value from 1988 miles of course are different in 2023.
    Simple and easy things and steps to start the miles journey, . . . for beginners.
    Might be hard to remember most points at first mentioned here, but in general a good guidance for US based Miles junkies!

  7. TravelinWilly Diamond

    Great tips, thank you!

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Alec Guest

I've had a lot of good luck booking an economy award in advanced so I can plan my trip and know 100% that I have flights and then checking daily 2-4 weeks before and finding a biz seat open up (especially with no or low change fees)

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OCTinPHL Diamond

Just because no F seats are available when booking doesn’t mean they won’t be at a later date. I’ve been spontaneous like Ben suggested, but I’ve also booked a business class seat on JAL or CX using miles some ~330 days out, and then monitored to see if F seats became available. Lucked out both times and was able to cancel the J award and book the F class ticket.

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OCTinPHL Diamond

“It's a game that is not worth it.” So don’t play. Pay cash for roundtrip tickets. I agree that AA’s dynamic pricing is ridiculous. Almost any Saaver award is on BA and incurs fuel surcharges. But that is why using AA miles for most transatlantic awards is foolish. Use AA miles for QR, CX, and JL to get the most value. “be flexible" is ... not helpful. ” So what do you recommend. Ben gives his tips. You don’t like them. What do you suggest? (Me, I use my AA miles on QR and JAL.)

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