From newbie to advanced: 6 ways to up your mileage redemption game
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While it might not seem this way when you’re just starting out, I can tell you confidently that earning points and miles is the easy part of travel rewards. Anyone with good enough credit can open the right cards and meet the minimum spending requirements. .
Redemptions, on the other hand, can be much trickier. The farther you want to travel and the closer to the front of the plane you want to be, the harder it gets. If you’re trying to be efficient and maximize your miles, it helps to put in some leg work.
Award travel is a skill, and like many things in life, you get out of it what you put in. Here are a few of the best ways to up your mileage redemption game.
About a year passed from the time I opened my first credit card until I was ready to make my first international award redemption. I spent that time scheming every possible way I could to earn more points without spending more money. I also spent it practising the delicate art of award booking.
My goal was to fly Lufthansa first class from Chicago to India, but because Lufthansa doesn’t release premium cabin awards space to Star Alliance partners like United Or Singapore Airlines until 15 days before departure, I had plenty of time to practice even after I’d locked down my travel dates.
My goal was to fly the carrier’s stunning 747-8 from Chicago O’Hare (ORD). However, I was willing to position at just about any airport to improve my chances. I spent countless hours searching for Lufthansa awards on the United website. I focused on flights departing in the next 15 days to get an idea of which airports offered the best availability.
After a while, I realized that I had a very decent shot at finding an award out of Chicago. So I started to fine-tune the timing. Eventually, I had it down to a science – I knew exactly what time in the day Lufthansa would release first-class award space to partners. Fifteen days before my scheduled departure, I was online and had my flight booked less than five minutes after award space became available.
2. Search in advance
Any time I have my heart set on a specific award, I follow the same approach and mock-up practice itineraries for weeks before I’m ready to book. Doing this has taught me some important tricks, like the fact that Cathay Pacific only releases one first-class award on all of its flights (though more may open up close to departure). Or that Japan Airlines will often open up a large amount of first-class award inventory a week or two before departure.
I also learned that there was only one day in the entire month of February when Etihad had two first-class awards from Seoul (ICN) to Abu Dhabi (AUH). Because I knew the odds of finding two awards on that flight were quite low, I booked those seats almost a full year in advance. I built the rest of my month-long Chinese New Year vacation outward around that single flight.
3. Let technology do the heavy lifting
Some major airlines spend billions buying state-of-the-art aircraft but often can’t be bothered to update their award search engines. One of the most frustrating ones for me personally is British Airways’ search engine. While it’s a very reliable indicator of Oneworld award space, it requires you to search one day at a time.
Back in 2018, I was planning on flying home from Shanghai for Thanksgiving. I wanted to use some of my Alaska miles to fly Japan Airlines first class and I didn’t care which direction I flew JAL in (i.e. outbound or return). I didn’t care what U.S. airport I flew into, as I would need to connect on to Washington D.C. anyway. My dates were also really flexible since my family had agreed to celebrate thanksgiving early or late whenever I could find a good flight home.
At the time, JAL flew its first-class equipped 777-300ER on four routes to the U.S. Searching within a 450-day window, I ended up conducting well over 250 searches before I found a single day with award space. That time commitment alone is enough to stop most people from ever booking certain aspirational awards, but it doesn’t have to be so bad.
Whenever possible, I rely on ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to bulk-search award inventory for a week at a time. Unfortunately, ExpertFlyer doesn’t support JAL or Cathay Pacific, but for most other airlines it’s a great starting point.
For example, this year I wanted to fly in one of ANA’s new premium cabins. With flexible dates, I set up dozens of ExpertFlyer alerts for ANA award space on these routes. Sure enough, about two weeks after setting the alert, I found a single day with first-class availability in “The Room” to JFK.
ExpertFlyer is one of the most comprehensive options for award inventory searches. However, there are plenty of other tools out there that can help you speed up the process, including one of our UK favourites, SeatSpy which is great for searching both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic seats.
4. Leverage international partners
One of the biggest mistakes I see people making is only redeeming their miles for the airline that owns the loyalty programme they have redeemed in. For example, only redeeming for BA flights using BA Avios, or Virgin flights using Virgin Points. Both programmes have an impressive list of partner airlines that you can redeem points for, which may help you find a seat when BA or Virgin appears sold out, or try out an even better product.
For example, did you know you can redeem Avios from your Executive Club account for Qatar Airways award-winning Qsuite business class product which is much better than British Airways Club World?
Also, if you can’t score Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Suite, did you know you can redeem Virgin Points for Delta, Air France or KLM business class instead of the old Virgin Upper Class where all seats face away from the window?
It’s well worth checking which airlines your favourite loyalty programme partners with — you may be able to redeem for a better seat than you originally thought.
5. Study sweet spots
I’m young and there are still many more places in the world I haven’t seen than those that I have. That’s why, to some extent, I’m ok letting deals and sweet spots guide my holiday plans
Some frequent flyer programmes offer award rates that are simply too good to be true. In some cases, you can book £10,000 first class tickets for the same number of miles that other people are using to fly round-trip economy to the United States. If you take advantage of these sweet spots, you’re sure to get an expert-level redemption. Even if this is your first time redeeming points and miles.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out our sweet spots guide. Pick one that matches your travel plans and make it happen! One of my favourite recommendations for newbies is to explore ANA’s incredible award chart for Virgin Atlantic. For fewer miles than most airlines charge for one-way awards, you can fly round-trip business class from Europe to Japan. In fact, a round-trip first-class award on ANA’s new “The Suite” cabin out of London (LHR) is just 120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles. This is probably the single best value use of Virgin Points.
6. Know the value of your points and miles
How much is a point or mile worth? That depends on how you use them. You will usually get the best value by redeeming for flights, particularly in premium cabins where you can expect to get at least 1p per point or miles value. Other redemptions like gift cards, discounts on supermarket shopping or electronics will give you a lower redemption amount, usually 0.5p or less.
If you are happy with the value of your redemption that is great and you are really maximising your travel. If you’re unsure of what your balance might be worth have a look at our monthly valuations of points and miles — this will give you an idea of what is a great vs poor redemption.
The points and miles world is constantly changing, so you’ll have to invest some time if you want to really up your redemption game. The single best piece of advice I can offer is to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Read, search, explore and practice – even if you don’t have any trips on the calendars.
I learn something new almost every time I search for an award ticket. The more practice you have the better you’ll be when you’re finally ready to book.
Additional reporting by Ben Smithson
Featured photo by Air France
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