How to make the most of your airmile rewards
So you have done the hard work, weighed down your wallet with plastic, signed up for every airline and hotel portal, bagged a bunch of credit card sign up bonuses, re-engineered your entire spending habits AND set up ways to track your spending and credit card use that would make a military logistics manager incredibly proud. You deserve an award!
Finally, you have enough airmile rewards to indulge your travel itch and you are ready to book. You’ve scoured blogs, brochures and websites for ideas and have set your heart on a dream destination, except hey, where the hell are the flights you want?
You check different dates and routes all to no avail. All that effort for nothing, you secretly think. ‘LeAnna, Jackie and Anne of the Travel Hacking Trio have been pulling the wool over my eyes. This travel hacking lark is a waste of time’.
Helping you on the path to redemption
Now before you jump to this conclusion, I am going to show you a ton of tips for redeeming airmiles that will help you find the award flights you desire (by the way, if you happen to have accrued a whopping AVIOS balance, you may be interested in last week’s post dedicated to helping you get the best value from British Airways rewards.)
So let’s looks at some top resources to help you get better value from your frequent flier miles.
Resources to calculate your required airmiles
FlyerMiler is a great resource allowing you to check the miles required for any routing and do a quick comparison between airlines. This will save you a ton of time searching multiple sites, particularly if your points are transferable to different programs (think AMEX Membership rewards).
Obviously if you have only accumulated points in one or two frequent flier programs, you may find this less beneficial but even then it can help you spot better award deals from partner airlines.
LeAnna from Economical excursionists has written a detailed post on a couple of cool things you can do with FlyerMiler but it’s worth taking a moment to highlight some of the whizzy bang insight you can extract from this system.
Firstly, you can get a quick indication of the points needed to secure your flight without having to search tons of different websites to see which is offering the best deal.
In this example for instance, I have input Manchester – Miami and I can see that the best value economy flight is with Alaska Airlines. When I highlight that row, you can see that 20,000 airmiles are needed for a single economy flight but here is where things get really interesting.
By then clicking on the routes tab, I can see that this flight is actually operated by American Airlines travelling via JFK (stopover anyone?) whereas flights booked with American Airlines cost 22,500 points each way. Good morning America indeed!
FlyerMiler really comes into its own here as it effectively shows you other options within the same airline alliance (if you need a reminder for which airline belongs to which, you can download this FREE airline alliance infographic.
Armed with this information, you will now need to find availability on the Alaska Airways site (or partner site if your points have been accumulated in the AAdvantage scheme for insteance. Once you find them you can book them there and then.
Other sites are not as user friendly as some airlines would clearly prefer that you use more points to fly with them (cunning plan right?) rather than less points to fly with a partner. In this case you would have to find your flights on the partner site, make a note of the details and then give your airline a call.
Thankfully the notes section of the FlyerMiler tool also offers some helpful guidance (see availability search in the notes on the right hand side of the screen) to indicate the best site to use to search for availability. Way to go LeAnna and Andy!
Note of caution: when deciding whether to use points, you need to factor in the portion of the flight represented by taxes. These can often be the biggest element of the flight cost and in our Alaska Airlines example, taxes for a round-trip would be $378 (equivalent to £291.55 based on today’s exchange rate). A search on Skyscanner reveals flights on the same date from £363 with Norwegian or £409 with British Airways.
Booking flights with Alaska Airlines would represent only a £117. 45 saving on the cost of the British Airways flights (valuing each point at 0.029p). Although this looks pretty good value, personally I think that for UK travel hackers, the best value is to be found in booking business class flights but you can make up your own mind after reading ‘Long Haul v Short Haul Redemptions‘.
The Mileage Club
Another tool you can use to check the number of miles required for a flight is the Mileage Club which then encourages you to buy the amount of miles you need to book those seats (assuming you don’t have them!).
I don’t see a great benefit in buying miles this way as I think it is highly debatable whether you will save money purchasing miles purely to redeem them, as you still have to pay taxes and fees. The Mileage Club also need to make a profit!
For instance, off-peak business class flights with British Airways from Manchester to Beijing can be purchased currently for £2488.36 (correct as at 8th August 2016) whereas the Mileage club is charging $325o for points alone (equivalent to £2488.82 according to XE Currency as at 8/8/16). This is a rate of 2.4 cents per mile. Given you will still have to pay a significant amount of taxes and fees, you are going to pay more for your flights using this option than buying them directly from British Airways.
You can purchase BA miles directly from British Airways for instance for £575 for 35,000 (the maximum amount you can purchase). This works out at o.o16p per mile compared to 0.018p per mile from the Mileage Club based on today’s exchange rate (8/8/16).
One other option is of course to check out the relevant award charts for each airline you are interested in but let’s be fair, how much time is that going to take?
Seriously, save yourself the hassle and just use either of the options above or check out Travelisfree (I sure wish it was!) which hosts a vast array of resources dedicated to helping you access the best deals including a comprehensive list of award charts.
Top tips for searching award availability
Having established how many airmiles you need to bag your flights, there are a number of other tricks you can then use to find your flights.
Unlike FlyerMiler, the Mileage Club and individual award charts where you cannot check award availability directly, ExpertFlyer allows you to both search airlines for the number of miles needed for a redemption and then check award availability.
Given this can be the must frustrating aspect of redeeming points, this is an invaluable feature and saves having to flit between multiple different airlines’ websites. Even if you still have no joy in tracking down award availability, you can set up a seat alert to be notified once an award seat becomes available.
Given that airlines may be quite strategic in opening up availability, this could prove to be just the resource you need to bag last-minute award availability.
On the downside, you have to be very specific when seeking reward flights, inputting not only the airline but also the flight number which could make this a little time-consuming if you have points redeemable in one of the major airline alliances with multiple airline members.
Other guidelines for redeeming airlines
Make sure you are getting value for your points
I touched upon this earlier, but this is really worth reiterating – it is always worthwhile double checking that you are really getting value for your miles before using airmiles to book your flights.
There’s a ton of different ways you can value your points, but my preferred method can be seen in ‘Long Haul v Short Haul Redemptions.’
- Can you bag a budget airline bargain for less or a little more than the taxes on an award flight?
- How do the business class flight awards (or splurge and check out First!) compare and would they offer better value?
Long haul in business class generally represents much better value for redeeming British Airways AVIOS than a short-haul flight to Europe, especially now British Airways have changed their policy to charge you two sets of taxes for the domestic connection. You may also wish to use the tips from ‘How to score a FREE Layover, FREE Flights and Status Matches‘ to ensure you are valuing your points against the best value deal you can find for cash.
Choosing another departure country with lower taxes
Remember those London flights to Miami which incurred taxes of almost £300 for the round trip? How about a stopover in Dublin en route? It costs me 30,000 points but only $24 in taxes each way. Those extra 20,000 points spent have saved me £254.61 in taxes (although this works out at a value of 0.01p per point).
Ok so the value per point is less but maybe you are strapped for ready cash and simply want minimum outlay from your pocket. You can pick up a bargain basement budget flight from London with Skyscanner for as little as £34 for the same dates so you would still be quids in.
Search by one way segments
Jackie from the Globetrotting teacher recently shared her experience of using one way segments to find availability. If you are having no joy with finding a return award fare, she suggests searching for single journeys which may offer different award options.
Once you have tracked down your perfect flights, make a note of the details and call the airline to ask them to book the seats (after explaining that you could not book them online! After all, you don’t want to pay a booking fee if you don’t have to – you have done the work for them remember!)
Award flights are generally released around 10 – 11 months in advance and it usually pays to book far in advance, as award flights to popular destinations can be snapped up quickly.
Having said that, don’t be deterred if at first you cannot find availability. You can sign up for alerts from ExpertFlyer or simply be persistent and keep trying. Plans change, people cancel and new award availability may arise so it can pay to keep trying.
Award seat sale
Be sure to sign up for offers from your chosen airlines notifying you of any award seat sale. For instance, last week I mentioned Lufthansa’s pretty amazing award seat sale I spotted earlier in the year for flights from Europe to Beijing. At almost half the award price of British Airways, the seats offered exceptional value.
Use airmiles to upgrade
How to get better value from your AVIOS’ shows that using airmiles to upgrade in conjunction with a paid fare may be a better use of points so this is always worth considering too.
Get our Free E-book
If you want to bag a freebie, click on the link to download your free E-bookshowing you how to Rocket Fuel Your Airmiles.
Have your say, you expert travel hacker
Whew! That was a bumper one! Have I missed anything because if I have, I would love to know. I wouldn’t want my lovely readers to miss out on any other little gems that the expert travel hackers out there might be aware of.