12 Expert Tips for Redeeming Miles for Free Travel
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A bite from the travel bug can be a pricey itch to scratch. While we've covered many ways to travel the world for less, one of the simplest ways to jetset on a dime is to take advantage of credit cards that offer travel rewards.
Wondering how to get the most bang for your rewards mile buck? The experts weighed in and gave us 12 tips to get you travel-hacking like a pro.
1. Treat Yourself to International First Class
Flying business or first class on an international flight can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But in the wonderful world of rewards points, that luxury can be yours for only about twice the amount of miles you'd spend on an ordinary round-trip domestic flight. Ariana Arghandewal, who blogs about her years of travel-hacking experience at Pointchaser, has capitalized on this amazing value in a major way.
"I recently booked a vacation to Asia for myself and four family members, using a combination of points and miles," she shares. "We traveled to Singapore, Bali, and Hong Kong in mixture of business and first class. The airfare alone would have set us back $12,000 per person. Instead, we redeemed just around 125,000 miles per person. We stayed at some of the best hotels in each city and received elite benefits like club lounge access and amazing room upgrades."
2. Book Award Tickets Immediately... Or at the Last Minute
This is a tip many travel-hackers agree on. When it comes to awards flights, timing is everything.
Grant Thomas of Travel With Grant, a BoardingArea blog, explains: "When it is time to search and book your award ticket, you have the greatest chance of success if you book way in the future (10–12 months before your flight) or last minute (one to two weeks before your flight). This does not work 100% of the time or during holiday travel, but it works pretty consistently."
Daraius Dubash and Emily Jablon of Million Mile Secrets echo this advice. They take it one step further in suggesting you book saver-level awards seats, which let you use a minimum amount of rewards points, as soon as you find them — they don't last long, especially for flights during peak times such as summer or during holidays.
3. Say Hello to the Avio
Jonathan Sacks, frequent jet-setter and blogger behind Everybody Hates a Tourist, makes use of this great little hack involving the British Airways club currency, Avios. "While everyone wants to redeem miles for exotic destinations, it can be hard to find those awards," Jonathan explains. "For only 4500 Avios, you can fly on any Oneworld Alliance flight of up to 650 miles."
This can be a killer way to score rewards flights on typically short, but pricey trips. You can earn Avios through the airline's co-branded card, or by transferring points from participating rewards credit cards.
For those who aren't in the know, Oneworld Alliance is not just British Airways, either. This group of affiliate airlines includes American Airlines, Air Berlin, Japan Airlines, Quantas, LAN Airlines, and many others.
4. Get Companion Pass Status
How cool would it be if your spouse, parent, or best friend could tag along on flights with you — for free? If it sounds too good to be true, it's not. Enter the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass.
This top-tier benefit is awarded to frequent fliers who accrue up to 110,000 qualifying points in one year with the airline's co-branded rewards card. Once you hit that milestone, your Companion Pass will let a travel partner of your choice fly free with you for the remainder of the calendar year and all of the next! Get your timing right, and that's almost two years of free flights.
Robert McNamara, the Vagabond behind The Frugal Vagabond, is a big fan of the Companion Pass. "My fiancé and I have traveled all over the U.S. and Mexico — me on miles, her on the Companion Pass — for only the cost of airport taxes," he says. "In May, we traveled to Mexico for a total of $95 each in taxes, round trip! For domestic flights, those taxes come down to only $11 per person round trip! Unbeatable!"
5. Forget Layovers... Enjoy a Stopover!
Stopovers give travelers the opportunity to literally stop and see the sights of a location en route to their final destination. While this can be a costly decision for conventional travel, it becomes a killer value when using rewards points. Drew Macomber, expert travel hacker, explains:
"Most miles allow you to stop in at least one other destination for as long as you want. Spend one week in London, and then one week in Rome... and it doesn't change the price of the ticket! If you did this with a revenue ticket it would increase the price a ton, but with most airlines, it doesn't cost any extra miles."
Drew has a breakdown of airline stopover rules, including "open jaws" (flying between three cities with one leg of the journey open), on his blog, Travel Is Free.
6. Stay in Style
Rewards cards aren't just for miles. With a little research, you can find co-branded hotel rewards cards that not only grant you frequent flyer miles, but free nights in any resort bearing their brand. Many also award killer freebies and extras when you hit certain spending requirements. Robert Winter of My Lake Country Travel has scored an amazing value with this type of co-branded card.
"By spending just $2,500 in four months, [I got] a two-night weekend certificate and gold status," he says." "This [got me] a $1200 per night room at the luxurious Conrad Maldives including daily breakfast and happy hour. I just used this award and it was amazing!"
7. Pick Up the Phone
Did you know that many airline websites don't show all of their affiliates in search results? Instead of trying to book your miles through the Internet, pick up the phone. Call the airline rewards program directly and ask them to do the booking for you.
Kyle Zuvella, the travel-hacking pro behind The Faraway Guide, breaks it down:
"Let's face it: calling an airline is usually a terrible experience. But it also holds hidden value, because almost all airline agents can view partner airlines not shown on the website. This means that flyers have an immense amount of unrealized options when it comes to their itinerary. More options equals more potential for value."
8. Prepare for Peak Season
Peak seasons are a point of consideration for any form of travel. You should definitely consider time of year when using your miles, too. John Z. Wetmore, who travels frequently to film his public affairs TV series Perils for Pedestrians, points out that much like when purchasing normal travel amenities, seasonal demand can totally change the value of a rewards mile.
"With American Airlines, a round trip to Europe is just 40,000 miles after the middle of October, versus 60,000 miles during the summer," he points out. Do a little homework to find out what time of year will net you the most value for your hard-earned points.
9. Watch Out for Fees
Wetmore also points out that in addition to costing you miles, a flight can also come with taxes, airport fees, and sometimes other arbitrary charges. That's money directly out of your pocket — and the more you spend, the less bargain you're really getting for your rewards miles. For example, booking through American Airlines partners (OneWorld Alliance) may require you to do a bit of price-comparison.
"American waits for you to select a flight before telling you the cash cost," John explains. "You need to go back and forth to make sure you have the best deal."
He also points out that British Airways is known for its higher-end fees. A point to consider.
10. Use Multiple Rewards to Steer Clear of Crazy Connections
As we all know, getting from Point A to Point B in an airplane can involve lots of annoying stops along the way. This is where accruing miles across different programs can be a lifesaver. Instead of being tethered to one airline or limited group of affiliates, you can look at several different options for getting to your destination in the shortest possible time, with the most straightforward connections.
John Wetmore shares an example: "If you want to fly from Hong Kong to Honolulu with the American Airlines program, they send you all the way back to the U.S. mainland, and then back to Hawaii. But United will send you from Hong Kong to Honolulu via Beijing, Seoul, or Tokyo, saving you many long hours of backtracking across half the Pacific."
Look before you book.
11. Join a Forum or Two
If you're new to the world of rewards miles and travel-hacking, you may want to connect with your fellow travelers online through forums or groups. This is a great way to pick up some insider tricks of the trade for earning points, netting the best redemption values, and finding amazing deals. Kristen Addis, investment banker turned lifestyle traveler behind Be My Travel Muse, is a fan of online travel-hacking communities, even if you have to pay a fee to join.
"It's worth reading up on forums and joining groups that share travel-hacking strategies, so that you can maximize every dollar you spend in an intelligent way," she shares. "It takes some time to learn the ropes, but it's worth the investment in order to get elite status for free."
She points out the crazy-but-true story of the man who racked up 1.25 million miles buying pudding. Being in the know ahead of time will let you jump on great opportunities to rack up points before the issuing company realizes it's too good to be true.
12. Keep Track of Your Miles
Imagine the bummer of your miles expiring before you got to use them. Don't let that happen — it's money burned. Expert travel-hackers are unanimous in their diligence of carefully tallying and monitoring their rewards points, and many swear by AwardWallet. Simply sign up, input your credit cards, and let AwardWallet alert you when your balance changes or points are nearing expiry. It even has accompanying (free!) apps for iOS and Android devices.
How do you make the most of rewards miles?
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