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LESSON 10

How To Redeem Your Travel Rewards For Some Awesome Domestic Redemptions

 

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Updated, January 28, 2020

What You’ll Learn In This Lesson

Which airlines to redeem your rewards through
How to take a domestic trip on the cheap

This is it.

This is the fun part–the main event!

This is where we trade in those points and miles we’ve been stashing for some awesome travel.

Let’s dive right into some great redemptions on various airline loyalty programs with our go-to list.

The Travel Redemption Starter List

To make it on our go-to starter list, these redemptions have to meet a few criteria:

  1. The points or miles should be fairly easy to accumulate. Maybe there are big bonuses on a card or two, or, maybe there many different smaller bonuses to be earned and then combined.
  2. If we’re planning at least 6-9 months out, there should be ample award availability to be discovered and booked, both on the airline’s own flights but also on partner flights.
  3. These redemptions should be available on an airline’s website or mobile app, and should not require you to pick up the phone to talk to an agent. This criterion is where we differ with most travel rewards experts, who see calling up airline agents as par for the course.

Are these going to be the absolute best “value” you are going to be able to squeeze out of your stash of points and miles in terms of total dollars saved over the sticker price?

No.

But we’ve found that those pursuing financial independence are more focused on maximizing the number of free trips they can take while minimizing the time spent going down various rabbit holes.

So we’ve kept those as the guiding lights of our course.

One way to get great value is to book a flight on an airline with fewer miles by going through that airline’s partner. 

One example is redeeming a flight on Delta Airlines using Virgin Atlantic miles, or using Singapore Airlines Krisflyer miles to redeem flights on United. We discuss both examples later in this lesson.

Another way is to stack more places to visit for the same, or almost same, stash of miles. This would mean adding free stopovers, for instance.

A third way is by booking luxury business or first-class flights, but this one has a caveat: you may be flying style, but since these tickets cost more points, you’ll be flying less often.

There are other ways to get great value from your points and miles, but the three above are great places to start.

We’ll kick off with some great redemptions domestically, and follow up in the next lesson with sweet international itineraries.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

No Restrictions

The Southwest Rapid Rewards programs may not have universal appeal, but it is a favorite for many people.

Unlike just about every other airline, Southwest does not restrict award space on its flights. If you find a seat that you can pay cash for, you can also choose to book that same seat with points. The cash price will vary based on capacity and various promotions, but if you can pay cash for it, you can pay points for it. Just toggle between “$” or “Points” for your preference. No ifs, ands, or buts.

No Cancellation Fee

Another way that Southwest makes it easy to redeem flights is that there is no cancellation fee up to 10 minutes before the flight’s departure. So, book as many flights as you have points for, even if you aren’t sure if you will be flying.

If you change your mind for any reason, you can cancel the booking and get your points and fees refunded.

This means you can book first, then go see if your Southwest flight is really the best redemption compared to Delta, United, American, Alaska Airlines, etc..

Even better: if the cost of your Southwest booking drops, book a new seat on the same flight to nab the savings, then cancel the original one.

Easy-To-Use Mobile App

Another bonus: it’s just as easy to make a redemption on the mobile app as it is on the website. This isn’t always the case for all programs!

Companion Pass

If you love the Southwest program, you should double down and shoot for the Companion Pass. That’ll allow you to bring someone with you for just a $5.60 airport security fee for each one-way domestic flight.

How To Stash Southwest Points:

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:

  • Chase Southwest cards

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Another favorite for folks is Alaska Airlines because of how generous their program is with its stopovers. You get one free stopover for every one-way flight, and one of the itinerary segments can even include a partner airline.

You can choose to stop over for as long as you want on an Alaska Airlines redemption, sometimes even on partner American Airlines too.

An Example Of A Stopover

If you live in Atlanta and want to make a trip out to Honolulu, you could throw in a stopover in Seattle for weeks, even months, for as low as 25,000 total points one-way.

That’s the same cost you would pay for Atlanta-Honolulu without the stopover.

Stopovers Get Better If You Live In One Of Alaska Airline's Hubs

The stopover benefit becomes a super benefit if you live in one of Alaska Airlines’s hubs like Seattle, Portland (Oregon), San Francisco and Los Angeles, because now you can get really creative.

Let’s say you live in Seattle. And you’ve always wanted to go to Honolulu and Cancun. Here’s what you can do to get the biggest bang for your buck/points:

  1. Book a one-way to Honolulu on any airline for your vacation, maybe using the British Airways redemption we discuss later. This can be an award redemption, or a paid flight. You can plan to stay for as long as you want, as long as there is award availability when you are ready to leave.
  2. Redeem on Alaska Airlines this itinerary: Honolulu-Seattle-Cancun, with a “stayover” (what we call a long stopover) in Seattle where you’re actually back home. Then, when the time comes, jet off to Cancun for your next vacation.

This is what the numbers look like: the HNL-SEA-CUN redemption can be had for as low as 22.5k points. Booked separately, HNL-SEA is 17.5k points, and SEA-CUN is another 17.5k points. That’s a total of 35k points, which means a savings of 12.5k points!

Now, figure out your next destination–maybe it’s Anchorage? If so, your return flight from Cancun may take you back to Seattle for another lengthy “stopover”, then onwards to Anchorage months later.

Again, you’re going to save a bunch of points: Cancun to Seattle is 17.5k points, while Seattle to Anchorage is 10k, for a total of 27.5k points. In contrast, Cancun-Seattle-Anchorage is available for as low as 17.5k points, which means you basically got the Seattle to Anchorage segment for free.

Rinse and repeat for your next trip.

For folks living in an Alaska Airline’s hub, this is quite possibly the best way to get the biggest bang for your buck for domestic travel. It’s also a great way to get great value for international travel, but more on that later.

How To Stash Alaska Airline Miles:

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:

  • Bank of America

British Airways Executive Club

The BA Executive Club program is good for specific kinds of redemptions–non-stop flights on partner airlines of within 2,000 miles, at least within the US.

If that sounds incredibly specific, well, there are reasons for that.

Non-Stop Flights

When redeeming British Airways miles (called Avios), each segment of a flight is treated as a separate redemption. So, if you have a redemption for Seattle to New York’s La Guardia, but the itinerary has you changing planes in Chicago, you’ll be making two redemptions that look like this: SEA-ORD, ORD-LGA.

Refer to the table on this page for details of Avios points needed for redemptions if you want to follow along. Note also that this is not an actual redemption we want since it isn’t non-stop, we are just using it to illustrate why you want non-stop flights when using your Avios points.

Zone # (distance in miles)Economy 
Off PeakPeak
Zone 1 (1-650)4,0004,500
Zone 2 (651-1,150)6,5007,500
Zone 3 (1,151-2,000)8,50010,000
Zone 4 (2,001-3,000)10,00012,500
Zone 5 (3,001-4,000)13,00020,000
Zone 6 (4,001-5,500)16,25025,000
Zone 7 (5,501-6,500)19,50030,000
Zone 8 (6,501-7,000)22,75035,000
Zone 9 (7,001+)32,50050,000

Direct

Seattle – New York City:
2,421 miles, or Zone 4, 12,500 Avios (peak)

With a Layover

Seattle to Chicago:
1,721 miles, or Zone 3, 10,00 Avios (peak)

Chicago to New York City:
740 miles, or Zone 2, 7,500 Avios (peak)

So instead of 12,500 Avios for a direct flight, you’re now paying 17,500, as well as two separate security fees for the same ultimate journey from Seattle to NYC.

If you redeem your Avios for international flights on British Airways metal, chances are, they fly through London, and those usually come with some exorbitant taxes and 'fuel surcharges' (junk fees) that effectively defeat the whole purpose of using points.

These charges are usually far more reasonable on partner flights that aren’t flying through London.

Less Than 2,000 Miles

BA has one of the few programs that still uses a distance-based award chart. This means you can find some neat deals when redeeming on a partner airline.

Most airlines have done away with distance-based charts precisely because it represents a loophole of sorts, and it’s uncertain how long BA will stick with it. But for now let’s try to maximize it:

Here are some redemptions where Avios are still a great value

  • Chicago to Houston: 925 miles. 12,500 American Airlines points on saver level, 7,500 Avios (peak).
  • Los Angeles to Honolulu: 22,500 American Airlines, 12,500 Avios.

And here is an example of a decent Avios redemption past the 2,000-mile radius:

  • Los Angeles to New York City: 2,475 miles. 12,500 American Airlines points on saver, 12,500 Avios (peak).

And here is what a terrible redemption looks like:

  • Los Angeles with a layover to New York City: 2,475 miles. 12,500 American Airlines points on saver, 20,000 Avios (peak) due to BA treating this as two separate flights.

To figure out the distance between two airports, check out Great Circle Mapper.

It is worth noting that you can also redeem BA Avios on Alaska Airlines, but those do not show up online, and you’ll have to call BA to book the flight. That’s a little more complicated, so we’ll cover it in a later lesson.

How To Stash British Airlines Avios:

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • American Express® Membership Rewards®
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:


  • Chase

Singapore Airlines Krisflyer

As we write this in April 2019, United Airlines announced that it would be removing its award charts. It is unclear how that will affect the value of Singapore Airlines redemptions on United. We’ll update when we have clarity.

If flying in a premium cabin domestically on United is your thing, then the Singapore Airlines’ Krisflyer program is just the ticket.

Even though the two airlines are Star Alliance partners, it costs less to redeem the same flight in United’s business or first class using Singapore Airlines miles.

This is the perfect definition of a “sweet spot” redemption.

A domestic business class flight on United Airlines between San Francisco and New York City would only cost 20,000 Krisflyer miles. On United’s own Mileage Plus program, it would cost 25,000.

The Only Domestic Deal In Coach Is To Hawaii

There are no real deals to be had redeeming domestic United economy flights with Krisflyer, except for to Hawaii from anywhere in the Lower 48.

It’ll cost 17,500 Krisflyer miles to get to Hawaii from the mainland, and 22,500 on United for the same flight. If you are on the West Coast, you’d do better with the Alaska Airlines stopover perk or the British Airways redemptions on American Airlines.

But if you are in other parts of the country, Krisflyer on United Flights will get you to Hawaii with fewer points.

Even better: it is pretty easy to chalk up Krisflyer points because all the flexible currency programs transfer into it. So if your goal is to fly your family of four to Hawaii on the East Coast, you’ll actually have the miles for it.

Note: You are supposed to be able to book United flights on Krisflyer, but as of this writing, there were some issues with the online booking system and I was prompted to call an agent. Hopefully, these issues resolve themselves soon, or we would have to bump this out of this easy “go-to” section.

How To Stash Krisflyer Miles:

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • American Express® Membership Rewards®
  • Citi ThankYou® Rewards
  • Capital One® Miles
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:

  • None in the US.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club is mostly known for its great international business class redemptions on Delta Airlines. But from time to time, you can get a good deal for domestic flights on Delta flights, like so:

  • Seattle to Honolulu: 20,000 Virgin Atlantic miles vs 24,500 Delta SkyMiles.
  • Seattle to Anchorage: 12,500 Virgin Atlantic miles vs 16,000 Delta SkyMiles.

Like with British Airways, every segment will be priced separately, so make sure your redemptions are for direct flights or you’ll end up paying more miles than you would have using Delta miles.

Note: Redeeming Virgin Atlantic miles for domestic Delta flights tend not to be the best redemptions. While the Seattle to Honolulu example above was a decent deal relative to what it would have cost on Delta, a British Airways redemption or an Alaska Airlines stopover sweet spot would have cost fewer points.

In contrast, international premium cabins using Virgin Atlantic miles are where the great deals are–we’ll get to those in the next lesson.

How To Stash Virgin Atlantic Miles:

Transfer Partner Programs

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • American Express® Membership Rewards®
  • Citi ThankYou® Rewards
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:

  • Bank of America

Final Thoughts

Your first trip using your travel rewards should be an easy one, so stick to domestic flights. You’ll find tons of ways to redeem domestic flights. If you can be flexible with your travel, there’s a deal to be had on nearly every airline.

Next lesson, we’ll tackle how to do all of this again, but with a focus on international redemptions, since plenty of you are likely getting into this pursuit to take deluxe vacations to other countries.

If you found this course on travel rewards helpful, you may also enjoy this free illustrated guide, packed with many other ways to get more for your buck and win back your financial independence.

Course content originally produced by ChooseFI was edited/updated by CardRatings for this lesson.