For points enthusiasts, it’s a well-known fact that booking business class and First Class flights represents the best value that you can achieve with your points. That’s because premium cabins tend to cost 5 or 10 times more than economy class flights in the cash market, whereas points redemptions command a much smaller markup.
But ultimately, not everyone who plays the game will be shooting for those high-value awards, and that could be for a myriad of reasons. Many people, for example, would rather use their hard-earned miles for two trips in economy class than one trip in business class (while I'd agree with this in principle, I'd also remind you that you can always earn more points and book two trips in business class as the best-case option).
Or perhaps you have a large family, which makes redeeming for premium cabins more difficult (though by no means impossible) because of limited award seats and the extra miles required.
Still others – myself included – enjoy redeeming for premium cabins on long-haul routes, while sticking to economy class for their short-haul trips but still hoping to attain good value with their points.
That’s why it’s useful to be aware of the best ways to deploy your points on economy class flights. Before we begin, remember the principles of "value": the higher the average cash price of a ticket and/or the lower the points cost required for a redemption, the better value you’re getting out of your points.
1. Stopovers, Open-Jaws, and Long Layovers
There are plenty of sweet spots within frequent flyer programs’ stopover policies and routing rules, and they’re often discussed in the context of maximizing a business class or First Class redemption. But just because these sweet spots can be leveraged to their greatest effect with a premium cabin booking doesn’t mean that they don’t also provide very good value for economy class flights.
Take the Aeroplan Mini-RTW, for example, which lets you stop in up to three cities around the world for the price of one. Leveraging these principles remains one of the best ways to book a trip in economy class for amazing value.
That’s because there’s simply no way you’re going to be able to buy a reasonably-priced cash ticket from Google Flights that lets you make three stops around the world. It would most likely price out as four separate one-way fares, which would cost you a small fortune.
Throw in the ability to add open-jaws, long layovers, and creative routings, and you can see how the Aeroplan Mini-RTW remains all-powerful even in economy class. Visiting all six continents for 90,000 miles, the price of a North America to Australia award? It truly doesn’t get much better than that.
The same is true for Alaska Mileage Plan and their generous stopover policy of allowing stopovers on one-way awards. I recently wrote about some fantastic ways to redeem Alaska points, and all the premium cabin examples are valid, in principle, for economy class redemptions as well.
For example, flying Cathay Pacific (which has one of the world's better economy class products) from North America to South Africa with a free stopover in Hong Kong, all for 50,000 Alaska miles, is a great deal considering the alternative cash price, and you’d still get a value of 4-5cpp.
Of course, the only caveat would be the fact that it might be worthwhile to pursue a business class redemption, which costs only 12,500 miles more.
2. Last-Minute Travel
Last-minute travel tends to be costly if booked using cash, as airlines know that travellers are less price-sensitive if they need to travel at a moment’s notice. On the flip side, award availability at the last minute tends to be particularly good, as airlines have a good idea which seats are likely to go unsold and put them up as awards to capture the extra revenue. This dichotomy makes last-minute award bookings an extremely valuable way to use points.
Take the below award redemption from Montreal (YUL) to Zurich (ZRH) tomorrow and returning a few days later. The award costs 60,000 Aeroplan miles, plus a negligible amount in airport taxes and fees, while the cash price is a whopping $2,419. That gives you a value of 4cpp, which is a very compelling return for an economy class award.
Forget fancy flights in premium cabins for a second – some of the most heartwarming “success stories” when it comes to redeeming Miles & Points involve using points for last-minute travel in the case of family emergencies.
In times like these, you really don’t need the stresses of shelling out thousands of dollars for a plane ticket to add to your burdens, so it’s a small silver lining to be able to draw upon your points balances and redeem them for good value at a moment’s notice.
3. Atlantic Canada with Aeroplan
I’ve written about this one before: hopping around Eastern Canada is a spectacular use of Aeroplan miles. That’s because cash prices for flights in this region are disproportionately expensive, and at the same time, Aeroplan considers all four Atlantic provinces as one “short-haul” region and therefore only charges 15,000 miles for a round-trip within Atlantic Canada, including a free stopover.
You can read the Exploring Atlantic Canada with Aeroplan article for the full rundown, but in short, redeeming as low as 40,000 Aeroplan miles allows you to visit up to four cities in Canada’s Atlantic provinces from anywhere in North America.
You do this by combining a long-haul North America roundtrip (25,000 miles) with a short-haul intra-region roundtrip (15,000 miles) and taking advantage of the free stopover on both tickets. Such an itinerary, if booked with cash, can easily cost upwards of $2,000.
It’s common for Canadians to bemoan the high cost of travelling domestically and seeing the sights in our own backyard, and Aeroplan miles represent one of the best ways to tackle Atlantic Canada, one of the worst offenders in that regard.
4. Canadian Arctic with Aeroplan
Perhaps THE worst offender in terms of Canadian destinations that are far too expensive to visit would be the communities in our country's three territories: Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. While the prices aren't exactly unreasonable given the remoteness of these locales, many Canadian travellers don't realize that there's a much better way to get up north: by redeeming Aeroplan miles for travel on First Air and Canadian North.
These two airlines have excellent coverage all over the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, with flights to Edmonton, Montreal, and Ottawa providing connectivity to the major Canadian metropolitan centres. Round-trip flights cost 25,000 Aeroplan miles and allow you to enjoy one free stopover. If you're only flying between Ottawa and Iqaluit, that counts as a short-haul flight and can be booked for only 15,000 miles.
You can combine Air Canada flights with either First Air or Canadian North flights, but not both. Some of these airlines' routes allow you to get really, really far up north, making it possible to do some crazy flying around the region that would otherwise burn through your savings rather quickly. Take the below itinerary on First Air, for example:
Availability is the tricky part with these flights, since seats are limited and tend to get snapped up months in advance. You can search for Canadian North availability on ExpertFlyer, but not First Air – you'd probably have to call Aeroplan to inquire about that one.
5. The Caribbean with Aegean Airlines
Aegean Airlines Miles+Bonus is one of the few frequent flyer programs that lumps all of the Caribbean islands together with North America, and charges only 25,000 miles for a round-trip within this region. What's more, Aegean is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, meaning that you can transfer over 20,000 Starpoints (soon to be 60,000 Marriott Rewards points) in order to make this redemption happen, taking into account the 5,000-mile bonus for transferring in chunks of 20,000 Starpoints.
This allows you to fly as far south as Trinidad & Tobago, on itineraries that usually cost upwards of $500 and often close to $1,000, for only 25,000 miles. Given the wide coverage of Air Canada and United all across this region and the fact that these flights are rarely long enough to make shelling out for business class worthwhile, this is a good opportunity to use points to fund your next Caribbean getaway.
The one restriction with Aegean Miles+Bonus is that you're only allowed one layover in each direction on your itinerary. This may pose a challenge if you live in a city that isn't connected to a major hub.
6. Hawaii with Korean Air SKYPASS
Here's another one that I've mentioned before on the blog. Most frequent flyer programs classify Hawaii as a separate region from the North American mainland, and award flights between the two regions typically begin at 40,000 miles in economy class.
The Korean Air SKYPASS program is unique in that Hawaii is grouped together with North America, and a roundtrip flight on Delta, Korean Air's SkyTeam partner, only costs 25,000 miles. You're also allowed either a stopover or an open-jaw, which really opens up the possibilities.
Check out The Best Way to Hawaii on Points for the full details. In short, though, you're able to fly from Toronto to Honolulu with a stopover in any Delta hub, like Seattle, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, or Atlanta. Alternatively, you could place your open-jaw within the Hawaiian islands, flying into Honolulu and out of Maui on the same ticket, filling in the gap with a cheap one-way fare.
Korean Air SKYPASS is another SPG transfer partner, meaning you can transfer 20,000 Starpoints over to SKYPASS in order to unlock this redemption. Search for the availability on either the Delta or the Air France/KLM Flying Blue websites and book on the Korean Air website directly.
7. Short-Haul Direct Flights with Avios
British Airways Avios is well-known for its distance-based award chart, and in particular the sweet spot in which it only charges 4,500 Avios for a one-way journey under 650 miles. Thanks to the extremely low points cost, your flights don't need to be particularly expensive in the cash market for you to attain good value.
Take for example the Hong Kong–Taipei shuttle operated by Cathay Pacific. One-way fares on this segment are usually between $150 and $200, so redeeming 4,500 Avios would get you a value of at least 3cpp.
Alternatively, consider the case of international travel within South America, which is usually quite an expensive market if you aren't a local resident. Given that the distances between many major South American cities typically fall within the first two bands of distances, Avios can make hopping around South America a very inexpensive proposition. For example, Lima (LIM) to Quito (UIO) and Buenos Aires (EZE) to São Paulo (GRU) both clock in at 7,500 Avios one-way, while cash fares regularly hover around the $400 range. That's a cool 5cpp+ of value right there.
When redeeming Avios, always check how much the ticket would cost you if booked with cash. Short-haul flights can be very costly in certain parts of the world and very cheap in other places, so make sure to check that using points is the right option.
8. Long-Haul Direct Flights with Avios
The most often discussed benefit of the Avios program is its utility on short-haul flights, but there are certain situations when long-haul travel is a particularly good deal as well.
The first thing to note is that since Avios is a distance-based program, you are effectively penalized for having connections. Therefore, the only way to get good value out of booking long-haul flights is to book direct flights from your origin to destination. In particular, you'll want to look for flights whose distances fall just under the thresholds for its respective "Zone".
An example will illustrate. Vancouver (YVR) to Tokyo (NRT) on Japan Airlines clocks in at a distance of 4,674 miles, which falls under the 5,500-mile threshold of Zone 6 in the chart above. That means that an economy class flight costs only 25,000 Avios one-way (based on the Peak award cost; the Off-Peak cost is only available for British Airways and Aer Lingus flights). As a point of comparison, Aeroplan would charge you 37,500 miles for the same journey.
Another outstanding sweet spot involves Aer Lingus, which can be redeemed at the Off-Peak pricing, and unlike British Airways flights doesn't incur any fuel surcharges. This makes redeeming Aer Lingus flights on Off-Peak dates an amazing deal – for example, Toronto (YYZ) to Dublin (DUB) clocks in at 3,279 miles, making it a Zone 5 redemption, whose off-peak cost is only 13,000 Avios!
Even considering how inexpensive flights to Europe can get, this still represents a very good way to use your points. The Off-Peak dates for Aer Lingus can be found here, and note that Aer Lingus awards can't be searched on the British Airways website, so you can use the United.com website to search and then call British Airways to book.
There are endless more examples, such as:
- Madrid (MAD) to Dakar (DSS) on Iberia for 10,000 Avios
- Seattle (SEA) to Honolulu (HNL) on Alaska Airlines for 12,500 Avios
- Miami (MIA) to Recife (REC) on LATAM for 20,000 Avios
- Montreal (YUL) to Doha (DOH) on Qatar Airways for 30,000 Avios
Let me know which ones you find!
9. Flying Blue Promo Awards
Air France/KLM Flying Blue occasionally puts up some pretty crazy deals on certain routes that they fly, known as Promo Awards. These deals tend to be most pronounced for economy class awards. For example, right now you can book flights between Chicago and either Paris or Amsterdam for 50% off the usual award cost.
Since Flying Blue uses variable award pricing rather than a traditional award chart, you can't immediately see the actual amount of miles needed, but rather you need to click through to the booking page. In the case of the Chicago deals, you'll see that a one-way ticket to Paris costs as little as 11,000 Flying Blue miles, which is an excellent deal.
Flying Blue is another SPG transfer partner, meaning that a single transfer of 20,000 Starpoints could net you enough miles to fly roundtrip between North America and Europe on Promo Awards. These deals won't always make sense for everyone given the need to book positioning flights, etc., but it's useful to keep an eye on any new Promo Awards that are offered in case there's one that works for you.
10. Fixed Points Rewards with RBC Rewards / CIBC Rewards
Last but not least, our very own banks' in-house points programs sometimes throw up good deals for economy class travel. If you examine the travel redemption charts of RBC Rewards and CIBC Rewards, you can see that certain geographic zones offer better value than others if you use up the entirety of the Maximum Ticket Price.
In particular, short-haul and long-haul trips within North America present opportunities to get 2cpp or more on your Avion and Aventura points. Because these points currencies are harder to redeem for high value than something like Aeroplan, getting around 2cpp of value is already a great use of your points.
CIBC Rewards in particular often puts on promotions with Porter Airlines or WestJet that allow you to fly short-haul from Toronto, Montreal, or Ottawa for extremely low pricing. I took advantage of such a deal on my weekend getaway to New York in January, and in fact, there's a similar promotion going on right now that lets you book round-trip travel on Porter Airlines to a whole bunch of destinations for as low as 8,000 Aventura points!
Considering that you can earn 30,000 Aventura points by signing up for a single credit card, this could be a great way to secure a few cheap weekend getaways for the summer.
Ultimately, economy class is how people travel. While many points collectors focus on premium cabin experiences as the way to maximize the value of their points, we'll all sooner or later find ourselves in the back of the plane. It's important to recognize when redeeming points for economy class represents a good deal and when it'd be better to pay cash and save your points for the next trip, and I hope this article has been helpful in outlining some of the opportunities to achieve the former.