In my previous post I provided some great info on how to select the right loyalty programs for you and how to earn those precious miles and points. Today will focus on how to use those rewards for your dream vacation.
Now that you have saved up those miles and points, it’s time to burn (redeem) them! Earning those rewards was fun and hopefully pretty easy, but redeeming them is where the real work comes in. This past Christmas, I was able to secure two roundtrip tickets from San Francisco to Manchester, England on peak travel days for just 110,000 miles and $300 in taxes and fees.
Here are the most important things you should do when snagging that free ticket.
Book early: The first thing I did was book early. You want to know how early? I booked the ticket on April 4 to depart on December 22. A child could have been conceived and born before we left for our trip. That’s how far in advance I mean when I say book early.
Know your options: I wanted to leave San Francisco on December 22nd, leave England between December 27th and 28th, and have a stopover in New Jersey over New Year before heading back to San Francisco. I did some quick research online and saw two saver reward tickets were available on December 22nd but I was coming up short on availability for the return. I checked ANA’s Star Availability Tool for other routing options (you just need to join the ANA loyalty program and you can check star alliance carrier availability) but I was still wasn’t able to find exactly what I wanted.
Pick up the phone: After 30 minutes of searching, it was time to call. I was extremely lucky and had a very experienced, knowledgeable agent. She was quickly able to secure the outbound flights, but the return was a little tricky. After about 10 minutes of searching she was able to locate flights from Manchester to Dusseldorf on Eurowings and then Dusseldorf to Newark on Lufthansa on December 27th. Then the flight from Newark back to San Francisco was only available on January 3rd, one day later than my ideal, but considering the rest of the flights were exactly what I wanted, I confirmed the itinerary on the spot. Obviously, the $25 per person phone reservation charge was completely worth it as I wouldn’t have been able to locate these flights myself online.
Be flexible: I had dates in mind, departing around December 22nd and ideally I wanted to be back in San Francisco on January 2nd. However, only January 3rd was available but I was able to adjust my plans to make the flights work. Also, be prepared to accept connecting flights, with longer than normal layovers, and even minor back tracking. It’s a small price to pay if you have a little bit more time than money.
Now that you know what you should do, here is what you shouldn’t do.
Be in a monogamous relationship. When you select a few primary air loyalty programs that work best for you, it does not mean that you should only travel on these airlines. If you find a great deal on a carrier that is not part of your primary or secondary loyalty options, by all means buy the ticket. Your goal should always be to find the greatest value, whether it is paying with cash or miles/points.
Not knowing where to go for information. You don’t need to be an expert in air loyalty programs to get a great deal, you just need to know where to go to find an expert. The number one place to go is flyertalk.com. Flyertalk is the premier online community for people who share tips and information on air travel. Find the appropriate forum and search for your question. If you cannot find what you are looking for, feel free to post your question. Within minutes, you should have several people willing to share their expertise. Flyertalkers know the rules and options better than any airline, so don’t give up without checking here first.
Using miles or points when you should just pay for the ticket. Whether you should burn your rewards or pay for your ticket is going to vary by personal preference. However, The Points Guy uses 1.5c per mile as a rule of thumb. Meaning, if your choice is 25,000 miles or $500, using the miles makes sense as you are getting the equivalent of 2 cents per mile. If on the other hand, the ticket costs only $200 but is still 25,000 miles, you’re only getting 0.8 cents per mile, so it makes more sense to just buy the ticket, assuming you can afford the $200.
Using miles or points for the wrong things. Airlines have all kinds of non air related items you can cash in your miles in for. As tempting as a yearly magazine subscription or an iPod Nano might be, these are generally the worst use of miles. If at all possible, save your miles/points for air or at least travel related redemption options.
* * * * *
Disclosure: The author currently works for Virgin America and has worked for United Airlines in the past. Neither roles have been within their respective loyalty divisions.
Bio: Cheryl Reynolds is an avid collector of airline rewards and has worked for several airlines over the past decade. She is the author of the blog College Girl to Working Girl and has a passion for travel. Follow Cheryl on twitter @CGirl2WGirl for workplace tips or @CheReynolds for all things airline and travel related.