By Samuel Greengard | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
5 Min Read | January 17, 2020 in Cards
By redeeming travel rewards credit card points and frequent flyer miles, you can cut your vacation-dollar outlay significantly.
But it’s important to start planning early and be flexible.
Special sales and promotions may get you discounted mileage levels, and combining miles and dollars can also help you save.
Whether your desired vacation destination is Philadelphia, Paris, or Phnom Penh, travel reward credit card points and frequent flyer miles can help you trim costs and put more money in your pocket for tours, meals, shopping, and more.
But cashing in rewards isn’t always straightforward. Depending on where you want to go, when you book, and many other factors, the number of miles or points required can vary greatly. The travel rewards credit card you have and the partners with which you book can make a difference, too.
I’ve traveled to 47 U.S. states and 62 countries and racked up numerous rewards along the way. Here are some ways I’ve used that may help you get more bang for your rewards, too.
Most airlines begin redeeming miles for seats between 331 and 355 days before the flight. In many cases, the best seats are booked within 20 days.1 So, if you’re looking to cash in on travel reward credit card points, or your card’s frequent flyer miles, check for availability very early.
Airlines generally don’t provide reward seats for every flight, and they often allocate more seats for some flights than for others. If no rewards seats are available, you may want to consider traveling different routes or adding a stop. For example, instead of flying from San Francisco to Madrid with a single stop in New York, you may find a reward seat by traveling through Minneapolis and Amsterdam. Another strategy is to use alternate airports for departures, arrivals, or both.2 Calendar grids at airline websites display routes, dates, and redemption levels at-a-glance. You can often change airports and criteria to avoid checking each date manually.
Almost every airline has occasional reward sales, offering discounted mileage-redemption levels for flights and sometimes fare classes. During non-peak season, airlines might offer reward seats for 60% fewer miles than standard rewards. Make sure you receive promotional e-mails from your favorite airlines so you know when such sales are taking place.3
However, if you can find a great fare—say, a discounted business-class or first-class ticket—it’s sometimes a better deal to buy the ticket outright and accumulate the miles. The actual monetary value of a frequent flyer mile can vary widely from one airline to another, and at different times. Valuations and redemption methods are complex, but the range is typically between about .04 cents per mile to above 1.5 cents per mile.4
One way to defray the cost of a vacation is to pay for hotels and rental cars with your travel reward credit card points or miles from an airline ticket purchase. However, you may have to wait a month or two for the points from credit card purchases to appear in your airline account.
There several highly effective hacks you can use to get around that limitation. Some travel rewards credit cards generate cash credits that are available instantly when you apply travel points to a purchase. This means you can pay for travel expenses and receive points that you can translate into dollars to pay for more travel expenses—immediately.5
Another trick is to use multiple credit cards—say, business and personal cards—to accumulate points for the same airline,6 or use a travel rewards credit card that increases your flexibility by allowing you to apply your points to several airlines or hotel chains.7 Still another trick is to use the credit card company’s site or portal to redeem points for tickets. Because the card company is purchasing tickets from the airline, the airline’s typical restrictions may not apply, allowing you to buy two or more tickets even if the airline's own web site doesn't show any award seat availability.8
Combining miles and dollars can help if you don’t have enough miles for a reward ticket. It also may open up seats that aren’t available when booking only with miles.
If you’re short a few miles for the award you seek, you can buy the miles you need from the airline. However, this approach is often pricy. Unless you only need to buy a few miles for that award, or the airline offers a steep discount for the miles, it may be better to make up the difference by making a few purchases through the airline's shopping mall or its retail partners.9 These purchases can generate miles that appear on your account within a few days.
Airlines team up in alliances that honor each other’s airline miles credit card rewards. And sometimes, a partner airline may offer lower redemption levels and better seat availability for the same journey. To find out, you can use a tool such as Google Flights to slice and dice your way through airlines and routes, filtering results by alliance.10 You can try calling the airline’s sales department to explore routing and partners. Airline websites don’t always display all the partner and flight options available.
Explore transferring rewards miles or points directly to a partner airline, rather than placing them into your main airline’s frequent flyer account and then redeeming them with a partner. That approach may allow you to get the same ticket for less.
Savvy travelers understand that taking the time to research deals and understand the best ways to redeem travel reward credit card points and airline miles goes a long way toward slashing the cost of a vacation.
1 “When Do Airlines Open Award Seats?” One Mile at a Time
2 “How to Use Google Flights to Plan Your Next Award Trip,” The Points Guy
3 “Delta SkyMiles Summer Flash Sale,” Frequent Flyer Miles101
4 “How Much are Miles Really Worth? Assigning a Value to Points from Each Program,” View from the Wing;
5 “Tips for Optimizing Your Frequent Flyer Miles,” Travel Babbo
7 “Best Ways to Redeem Amex Points on SkyTeam Airlines,” The Points Guy
8 “5 times you should book travel through your card’s travel portal,” Creditcards.com
9 “The Best Ways to Accumulate Frequent Flier Miles,” USA Today;