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Most people are probably here just to get almost-free travel with minimal effort. That’s why we started with easy and solid redemptions domestically and internationally.
If that is you, this lesson is optional because we’re pivoting a bit for the person who doesn’t mind trading time to get the most value out of every single travel mile and point.
Since this is after all, a beginner’s guide to travel rewards, we’re not going to get too much into the weeds.
But we will arm you with enough know-how and tools to take your travel rewards game to the next level.
Ready? Let’s go.
Here are a few other nifty tools that would be useful if you want to find and redeem your own award flights.
We mentioned Google Flights as a great tool earlier in the course to figure out which airlines connect two destinations together, and whether there might be stops. But Google has another resource that does even more, called ITA Software by Google.
It includes a detailed breakdown of fees and displays the timing of every flight in a chart. I use it instead of Google Flights to find out which airlines meet my needs and which routing has the lowest ancillary fees. Only then do I search for award availability using Expertflyer.com or the airlines’ websites.
Seat Guru is a free tool I used before I subscribed to Expertflyer to make sure my seat is either in the exit row, or has access to an aisle. For the times I get to fly in business class, I used this to make sure there are lie-flat seats.
I love using Great Circle Mapper to visualize my flights when I plan trips, and also to find out the distance between them for loyalty programs that have distance-based award charts. Every map you’ve seen in this course was plotted using Great Circle Mapper.
You should also download the mobile apps of all the major US carriers, and also, their major international partners. If you haven’t already, create accounts as well, and store the details in a spreadsheet or list.
I previously used Award Hacker to get a sense of how many miles it would cost for a given flight, but have abandoned it because it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to sweet spot redemptions like stopovers and open-jaw flights. As we have seen, these multi-city trips have some of the best sweet spots.
Award Hacker is also missing some of the best one-way sweet spots, like the flight to Europe on Virgin Atlantic on Delta metal.
Finally, Award Hacker has not been updated for a while, so it excludes Capital One® miles and still references the now defunct Starwood Preferred Guest® program. I no longer use Award Hacker but thought it was still worth a mention.
If you ever decide to go deep down the rabbit hole of travel rewards, the gold standard for finding award and upgrade availability is a paid subscription to Expertflyer.com.
Yes, you can search for free on the websites of every airline, but that can get clunky.
For an easier almost one-stop shop where you can search multiple airlines using one app, Expertflyer is it.
There is a free version that lets you know when the seat you want becomes available, but to uncover award and upgrade availability, you will need to upgrade to a paid version.
The system lets you plug in departure and final destinations, as well as any connecting airports. Then you pick the desired dates, the airline and class of service you are trying to find award flights on, and let the machine do its thing.
Can’t find anything that works? Set up an alert, and Expertflyer will notify you via email when award space opens up.
The premium version lets you choose to see availability three days before and after the date you selected. It also lets you save your searches, so that you can jump back in when notified of a change.
Other features that I’ve found useful on Expertflyer are the ability to figure out the type of plane on any given route that an airline is flying, the way the seats are configured, and if there are lie-flat seats in the premium cabins.
Don’t want to pay? Here are some slower but free ways to find award availability.
Star Alliance is the largest alliance, with almost 30 airlines in the group. We’ve discussed three Star Alliance members already. They are:
One other partner that is useful to know about is:
The best way to search for award availability on most Star Alliance airlines is with Air Canada’s loyalty program, Aeroplan.
In the example below, Aeroplan returned flights from five other carriers, which is why it’s great for searching up Star Alliance availability.
Two other sites that I use often to search Star Alliance availability are ANA Mileage Club (remember, you can only book award roundtrips or open jaws) and United’s Mileage Plus.
If you are looking for availability on premium cabins on Singapore Airlines, you’ll have to use the airline’s Krisflyer site.
SkyTeam is the second largest alliance, with 19 airlines. However, the number of members that are useful to American travel rewards hobbyists is shockingly small–just three:
The best way to search for SkyTeam availability is AirFrance/KLM’s Flying Blue site.
However, it doesn’t return results for domestic Delta flights, so you would have to use Delta’s site for those.
OneWorld is the smallest of the global airline alliances, with 13 members. So far in this course, we’ve discussed a few of the OneWorld alliance members such as:
Three other partners were mentioned in passing due to their partnership with Alaska Airlines:
The best way to find award availability on OneWorld carriers is by using Qantas’s website, followed by British Airways.
Since many of the OneWorld carriers are Alaska Airline partners as well, the Alaska site might be an alternative way to discover award flights.
If you are planning to fly on American Airlines, and the partner site requires you to call a representative, check to make sure the flight can’t be reserved online. Otherwise, you may be charged a call-in fee.
We’ve covered Alaska Airlines extensively. While it isn’t a member of a global alliance network, they do have multiple partner airlines where flights can be redeemed, and Alaska backs it up with a solid website that finds those awards.
As mentioned before, just be aware that if you pick a premium cabin, click through the options to verify that all segments of the itinerary are indeed in that class of service.
The biggest issue I have with the Alaska site is that it groups mixed-class flights as premium flights. So you may be paying a lot of points expecting a lie-flat seat, only to be rudely surprised with a seat in coach.
Although my preference is to book all my redemptions online or on a mobile app, I’m not going to miss out on excellent redemptions just because they require a call to an airline representative.
On occasion, I’ve had to pick up the phone. Here’s what I do to remove the friction.
Before calling to make an award booking on an airline’s partner, I gather all the details for that award flight using the techniques previously described. My goal is to make it easy for airline representatives to help me.
Sure, I could hope that they have all the experience and skills to book the partner redemptions I want, but I’ve found that many are trained only to book itineraries on their own airline.
I make sure I have the following details:
Sounds like a bit of work, right? That’s why I generally prefer to book my award flights on an app or computer–if I have to do all this research anyway, I’d rather take a DIY approach.
But if there’s a high-value deal that requires a call, I pick up the phone, no matter how much I hate it.
If you are getting a flight for a family member, it can sometimes be more cost effective and neater to first move flexible currency points to that person’s account. Then, transfer their new flexible points to their airline loyalty program of choice.
This is because not all airlines allow the pooling of points and those that do often charge a fee. Similarly, not all airlines let you redeem flights for others, especially if you are not traveling as well.
So transferring points from flexible currencies can be a good workaround.
Capital One® lets you transfer points to anybody else with a Capital One® miles account by calling in. But the bank says that soon, you will be able to do online transfers as well.
Citibank lets you transfer ThankYou® points to anyone with a Citi ThankYou® account, but these points expire after 90 days of the transfer. Do this only when you are certain to be redeeming your flights within 90 days.
Chase lets you transfer Ultimate Rewards® points to another person in the same household immediately, so that’s pretty neat.
Amex is more restrictive–it only lets you transfer Membership Rewards® points to an authorized user’s frequent flyer program.
When we traveled around Asia for five months, one of the toughest things to do was getting redemption flights for all four of us on the same flight.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you only get award flights for part of the group.
If you’ve tried different departure dates and still can’t get everyone an award seat, here are a few more things you can try:
If you were trying to use a program to fly a partner airline, you may find extra availability if you use that partner’s loyalty program instead.
For instance, if you aren’t finding anything on Delta’s website for AirFrance/KLM flights, try searching on AirFrance/KLM’s Flying Blue site instead. AirFrance/KLM provide more award openings to their Flying Blue members than to their partners' members.
If you have status with an airline, or, have its co-branded card, you may have access to more availability. An example of this is United, which gives more award availability to United members who have the co-branded card with Chase.
If you’re trying to get award flights in premium cabins, try splitting up your party between two cabins.
Mix up the flights. Take different routes. Have some of your group catch an earlier flight, and the rest follow the next day. Get award space on another airline. Whichever way you choose to mix it up, the person who is the more seasoned traveler may want to consider arriving earlier than the rest of the party to get everything ready.
If there are no other options, and it pains me to say this, consider paying for a revenue flight.
There are some great services that help you locate discounted fares and mistake fares, such as Scott’s Cheap Flights. If you need four tickets but can only get three award flights, paying for the fourth isn’t the end of the world.
Reduce the pain of paying cash by using a card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card to erase the cost, or use any card that earns you 3-5x bonus points.
One of the best values that can be redeemed is also one of the hardest to do–and that is Round The World (RTW) tickets.
These itineraries usually offer screaming deals, especially in business class, but they come with lots of rules and restrictions. Some of these common restrictions include:
In most cases, you would have to call in to the airline you are booking your RTW itinerary with. Be ready with the details of your desired itinerary, complete with airlines, flight numbers, and dates.
I consider RTW out of scope for this beginner’s course, but will definitely be adding an advanced module in the future.
There you have it: tools to help you save, ways to redeem your points for your whole family, and even the dreaded phone call you can make to the airline representative to save more.
These may seem like small tips, but combine them with everything else we’ve talked about and you’re well on your way to getting almost-free travel.
Next up, we’ll look at all the other things that make up a trip, such as where you stay, renting cars and getting travel insurance, and accessing expedited lines and lounges at the airport.
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.