How to Use Travel Points

Beginners Guide To Miles & Points
What’s The Point?
How Loyalty Programs Work
Credit Cards and Credit Scores
Types of Miles & Points
Identifying Your Travel Goals
How Alliances Work
Credit Card Strategy For Beginners
Earning Miles & Points
Hotels Matter Too
What’s Next?

This may sound obvious, but before you start collecting miles and points, it really helps to know how you’re going to want to travel, and maybe even where you’re hoping to go.

Someone who wants to reduce the cost of taking their family of four to Disney World each year is going to need a different approach than the couple wanting to visit Southeast Asia. Business travelers looking to make their weekly “commute” more pleasant are likely going to have different priorities than someone planning a honeymoon.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and there is an added variable in that each airline program has different rules as far as what routings are allowed. Combine this with availability trends, and it’s no wonder people feel like they can’t use their miles!

However, with the right accrual strategy you should be in a much better position for getting the flights you’re hoping for. There are tons of variables here, and none of this is set in stone, but we have to start somewhere.

Best Time to Use Airline Miles

Unfortunately, there is no best time to use your miles.  Each airline has its own process for when they open up their award calendar, but you will typically find most schedules open between 11 and 12 months out.  This means in March, you could book travel for the winter holidays, but probably not spring break of the following year.

Booking an award flight with airline miles isn’t an exact science, since availability is constantly changing.  However, based on years of experience booking travel for family, friends and clients, I find that the best chance of finding award seats is either right when the schedule opens and within a couple weeks of departure.  For most of us, booking an award flight 10-11 months out has a high chance of success.

Do Airline Miles Expire?

The last thing you want to happen, is to be very proactive and start saving points for that dream trip well in advance, only to find out your miles expired.  While most of the major airlines have relatively generous policies, it is important to be aware so your points don’t go to waste.

As far as domestic airlines go, United Mileage Plus, Delta SkyMiles and JetBlue TrueBlue are the only airlines with no expiration policy – your miles are yours forever!  On the other hand, the rest of the major worldwide airlines have policies ranging from 24 months to 36 months, typically based on the date of your last qualifying activity.

Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to extend the life of your miles without actually getting on a plane.  Qualifying activity can include everything from using a shopping portal, visiting a participating dining rewards restaurant, buying miles, or donating miles.

Identifying Your Travel Goals

As a very general outline, here are the miles I’d recommend you accrue based on the regions you’re hoping to visit and how you’d like to get there. If you need inspiration, check out my Trip Reports to see products I’ve flown and places I’ve been using miles and points.

Domestic Economy

Capital One Miles or British Airways Avios


Award availability to Hawaii is a mixed bag.

It’s sometimes good in the offseason and from the West Coast, while it’s virtually impossible over peak dates from the East Coast. A fixed-value points currency could help if you need to travel over peak dates, in which case the Barclaycard Arrival is great. Otherwise British Airways Avios are great if originating on the West Coast, and Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles if originating on the East Coast.

This is where a flexible point currency comes in handy – so you can direct points to the right programs at the right times.

Europe Business Class

All the flexible-points currencies are great here. Focus on either American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or Capital One, making sure you don’t over-diversify your miles.


Africa is tough for award travel, but as long as you know that going in (and can be flexible) it’s not impossible. Look at Chase Ultimate Rewards, American AAdvantage, and Alaska Mileage Plan for the best values.

Cathay Pacific business class can be a great option to Africa


Like Africa, India can be tricky. Being open to organizing separate internal flights will help tremendously. In addition to the flexible-points currencies, look at American AAdvantage, and United MileagePlus.

Asia Business Class

There are some phenomenal business class products to Asia, many of which are on par (or better) than what you’ll find on transatlantic routes. All the flexible-points currencies are great here, particularly Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Asia First Class

All the flexible-points currencies are great here, in addition to Alaska Mileage Plan, but keep in mind advance availability is tough to come by. You may have to look at splitting your group, or booking business class, or an extra connection, and improving your itinerary closer to departure.

Australia/New Zealand

If you want to travel in a premium cabin over New Years with more than two people, it ain’t happening. Otherwise, Delta SkyMiles is actually a strong option (though I’d recommend earning American Express Membership Rewards over SkyMiles whenever possible).

Exotic Destinations

French Polynesia, Seychelles, the Maldives. They’re all places we dream of going, and they are really hard to get to on miles in many cases, though not impossible if you’re flexible.

If you have a dream destination, I’d recommend looking at the tips and tutorials section of this blog, or at the very least the Wikipedia page of the airport, and knowing what airlines fly there. It’s always a bit painful when someone contacts my award booking service looking to fly to Tahiti, and they only have United miles, for example.

So what makes it possible to fly to all these destinations, and why did I choose the programs I did? I mean, Alaska Airlines is probably not an option you’d think of for flights to South Africa.

The answer has to do not just with the individual airlines themselves, but with the way airlines partner with each other.

Next: How Alliances Work

  1. Hey, you don’t think South America are destinations that people may be interested in? Awesome places there. You should try it.


  2. I’m new to this and there is so much info. As a family of 5 (kids ages 4-11) we live in NJ (EWR is 20 min away). What would you focus on? Avios and/or Arrival Miles for family trips (Disney, Bahamas, Cancun) and Star Alliance for me and the wife getaways(4-5 day trips)?

  3. @ Lucky – Thanks for the great informative site!
    I think I will start with the British Airways Visa Signature card, I should be able to get close to earning the Travel Together ticket. Do you know if it is calendar year or 12 month period?
    After that I will see if we can get the Chase Ink Plus card or the Sapphire card.

  4. If my travel goal were to fly from the east cost to Western Europe multiple times a year in economy / economy with more legroom, would the recommendations for Europe Business Class still apply? The key is to make multiple trips in a year…thanks!

  5. @ MD — Just one person? How much do you roughly spend on credit cards per year, and mostly in which categories?

  6. I just stumbled across you website and since I love traveling your concept sounds great to me – but how good are my chances to apply these strategies successfully in Europe (Austria, to be precisely)?

  7. Hey Lucky,
    Thanks for your work here. I live in San Antonio, Texas and my husband and I want to make it to Santiago, Chile sometime in March or June for as cheap and eventually as often as possible. We don’t care about flying first class. We both have great credit but as of now I only have two fixed points cards. We pay for everything with our credit cards and pay it off every month but we don’t have a lot of income coming in to work with so it’s taking a long time to accrue points. What should I focus on first?

  8. @ Anna — Aside from applying for US credit cards, virtually every other method should be useful regardless of where you live.

  9. Hi lucky! Just found your incredible site.
    We live in Australia and don’t have. Asocial security number to be able to apply for American ccs. Currently only have Amex and visa. We fly to South Africa, Israel and occasionally America.
    What point scheme / crest cards do you recommend we start with?
    Thank you!

  10. Is there any such advice thats available for Canada or perhaps sites like this that are for Canada?

  11. We recently flew first class on Emirates from Seattle to Maldives and Sri Lanka via Dubai on Alaska Airline mileage plan – it was amazing! I booked initially both tickets in business class with miles – and based the trip on when we could get those tickets, which thankfully was in peak weather season. I checked online almost every day for first class openings and called every week for over two months for first class openings. I had heard they typically have two per flight. One of the seats opened on each flight earlier, but the second seats didn’t open until about one week before each of the leg’s departure. Flying first was more than worth with the hassle!

  12. Lucky,
    Thank you for the passion for flying and the wealth of info here. What would be the best options for flying to Germany and Japan? Asia is also an area I would enjoy. Where should I focus my attention to be able to take these routes? Far away locations are also an option. Also if you have a family of 6 which is 4 kids, what are options for long flights with family?
    Thank you for your input and we value what your doing here.

  13. @Lucky – annual spending is ~25k. I’d like to know both single person and couple scenarios.

    PS: This is my fourth attempt to post a reply…unsure why the previous attempts didn’t succeed.

  14. Sorry, primary categories are dining, food, shopping/entertainment, and then there is the catch all (other).

  15. Lucky,

    I’ve been following you Instagram account for a while and just started reading your blog. I am from Central America and want to visit more than I do now. I have a Hyatt Credit Card, AMEX (Blue Sky-not really like it) and a Chase Freedom. I almost applied for an AMEX Delta Gold but I want to check in with you and see if there is anything else you would recommend that would get me to Central America for cheap.

  16. Hi There,

    My family and I are planning a trip to Thailand next year, we would like to travel business or first (but obviously not for $5k +). We currently have AMEX gold card with about 150k points. Do you suggest the Chase Sapphire card for accumulating more points? If not, what’s the best strategy. Thank you!!!

  17. Hey, been following you for a while! Really enjoy it. Any advice on what points/airlines would be best for yearly flights to Israel and India? Thanks!

  18. Hi, we live in New Zealand and are planning a world tour. What do you think would be the best way to earn points during our travels? We plan to make around 8 stops.

  19. East coast-Hawaii redemption, how does Singapore airlines give the best value? They don’t even fly to Hawaii. Which partner airline do you redeem it with and how many miles needed?

  20. Just found your wonderful blog. We are a family of three (married couple with a 4 year old) and travel pretty frequently to different destinations (mostly New York to Europe) We are completely new to travel hacking and would love to be able to reduce the cost of our flights, but there is so much information out there that it’s hard to know where to begin! Right now we are considering a trip in August 2016 from NY to Buenos Aires, Argentina *or* the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Any specific recommendations of where we might get started?

  21. Wow! So much info….where to begin and am I doing the right thing?
    Here’s our set-up…we carry HiltonHonors Amx and have Hilton Honors Rewards and a Hilton Timeshare. We (my husband and I) use our Hilton AMX almost exclusively.

    We also have Barclays MC American Airlines coupled with AA Rewards. We use this card about 1/2 as much as the Hilton AMX.

    Our travel varies from year to year but we try to vacation a few times a year. I would love to start flying at least business class when going overseas. Typically we go to Europe, but are planning a trip to South America and do head to Hawaii and the Caribbean from time to time. We also take a few trips within the US a year. Our travel includes land trips and cruises.

    I’ve thought about getting the Chase Sapphire, but not sure if its the best choice for us.

  22. I do over 40 economy class flights from Panama per year for business reasons. At this time I use Copa Airlines most of the time which is why I already gained gold status with ConnectMiles in a short time. Would it make more sense to accrue miles with any other loyalty program besides copa’s? I also fly to Germany twice a year using either Lufthansa or KLM. Many times I also use Avianca for business flights but claim those miles with Copa. Thank you.

  23. I want to explore all the continents in the world. Luckily, I found this great article. Thank you for your advice.

    – Gustavo Woltmann

  24. Hi, I am a mother of two and I have been given the responsibility of our family rewards program. Unfortunately it came to me upon the death of my brother, father and grandma all at one time and needless to say, I am overwhelmed with responsibilities yet want to make the right choices because I have good kids who come from a broken family and I am trying to make smart decisions because money is tight and I can’t afford trips like their father can. Not sure how easy it is for you to answer or for me to apply but have Marriot Time Shares top level in Hawaii and my mom has a sapphire cc for points. We want to do one trip a year for al of us to be together (only 5 left in our family). We are celebrating moms 75 birthday in Palm Springs this year and need to go to Germany where my mom is from to collect her belongings from her mom who passed away. Need flight only for that trip and flights and home or place that accommodates 5 in November. Also want to go to Italy next year for my gift to my mother for this years bday and Phuket anytime with my significant other and two kids or 4 including his kids. That’s all we want at this juncture and happy if made possible before mother or I pass. Thank you for your consideration.


  25. Hi,
    I am planning on getting started with accumulating miles. I go to South Africa once a year and New Orleans about 4 or 5 times a year from Hartford CT. Of course I leave from JFK or Boston to go to South Africa. I am planning a trip right now to S. Africa. What would you recommend I do to get started earning points with this trip (2 travellers). I am disappointed with South African Airways, but they do have the quickest flight, so I am not sure if that trumps the bad service.
    Any ideas would be appreciated. I have been looking for a forum as well specifically for the S. African questions.
    Thanks !

  26. Hi Lucky,
    Thanks for the wealth of information. I am new to using chase ultimate rewards. We are a family of four and we would like to fly from SFO to Hanoi, with a stop over in Japan first, then fly back from Ho Chi Minh city to SFO. We have about 800,000 Chase sapphire points and would to find a way to go business class 12/21/18-1/5/19.
    Any advice greatly appreciated!

  27. I visited Hawaii from the East Coast, in January 2017, using HawaiianMiles earned from HA’s credit card (Barclays). There was plenty of award availability, at least in economy.

  28. Love your blog. Read everyday. Was surprised I missed that you have a company that books point travel.
    Please send your point redemption company info, costing for use of your service and contact person. I spend quite a bit of time booking business class flights utilizing points. Fly United and Alliance partners. Have always been able to get saver points. We are flexible on dates and book as far out as 330 days. Normally fly non stop but that is getting more challenging.

    Look Forward to your response.
    Regards, Brad

  29. @ Brad Ashe — You can follow the link at the top of the page where it says “Need Award Help”, but if you read the blog everyday you probably know most of the tips and tricks already!

  30. When was this page last updated? I know some of the awards for Europe Business Class were increased dramatically after 2017 (I’m looking at you, Delta). Are the three listed still the best options?

  31. I think LATAM ended its membership with One World. Though American Airlines flies from the USA to Ecuador and Peru. I would love to visit Easter Island and then Tahiti. No chance now hey.

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