Now that you’ve got your travel rewards credit card in hand, you’re probably wondering how you can join me in business class and go see the world. Not so fast though, there are still a few things you need to learn before you can jump into that business class seat for free.
I often say that racking up miles is the easy part but actually redeeming them is the hard part. Airlines love to hand out big sign-up bonuses and reward frequent flyers with tons of miles but that doesn’t mean they have to make it easy to use them. If you want to fly smart, you’re going to have to do a little bit of research ahead of time and figure out the most effective way to purchase your travel.
Generally, airlines will only release award tickets when they know there is going to be a lot of availability. Since they are likely to sell out most seats during peak travel times you will really need to plan ahead if you want to use your travel awards during the summer or during holiday breaks (both are peak travel times since kids are out of school).
Your best bet for redeeming travel rewards credit card miles for award travel is to book way in advance or wait until the last minute. Airlines will generally release a couple seats many months in advance and then release a few more a couple days before the flight. Since it’s very unlikely that that seat will sell with only 24-72 hours to go, airlines figure they might as well let an award traveler use it.
Award travel is best reserved for trips where you have some flexibility but you can always book a trip with your rewards earning airline credit card.
If you just don’t have the patience to search for award travel or you need to confirm your travel plans immediately, then you’ll have to pay for your ticket the old fashioned way: with a credit card. But remember, you’re not just using any old credit card.
Airline travel rewards credit cards generally earn 2-3x points on their own airfare purchases and that flight will also earn you Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM’s). EQM’s are used to reach elite status and unlock benefits like first class upgrades, lounge access and more. But remember that how credit card airline miles work is you won’t get any EQM’s if you pay for your trip with miles.
If you’ve got some flexibility with your travel plans then award travel is going to be your new best friend. Most airlines charge double points for travel during peak times (if they even release seats at all) but only half that amount for off-peak travel. And unlike cash fares, one way tickets booked with miles will only cost you half the miles a round trip ticket would cost you.
You won’t get any frequent flyer miles when you redeem points for award travel but all of your other card benefits like priority boarding and free checked baggage (if applicable) will still apply. Some cards even offer discounted award fares to airline card holders so that’s something to keep an eye out for.
You can book award travel relatively easily using your airline’s flight search engine. But one tool that I like to use is called Expert Flyer since it lets me save searches, set up alerts for award seats and search multiple airlines/routes.
The last things you need to watch out for when redeeming miles for award travel are taxes and fees (like fuel surcharges). These fees are levied whether you pay for your ticket with your airline credit card or use your miles. Some carriers charge extensive fees and taxes to fly into certain airports but others like United won’t ding you for any fuel surcharge fees if you pay with points.
It all depends on the airline though so make sure you price out a few itineraries ahead of time. If you’re using points, most airlines will actually allow you to search for award travel even if you don’t have enough miles in your account to purchase that flight.
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