Good to see that you've done your homework. You've applied for a few credit cards, pocketed the signup bonuses, referred a couple of friends, and topped up with the points you earn from everyday spending as well. You're all dusted and ready to book the first of many dream trips. But where do you start?
I often hear one particular sentiment expressed over and over again when I talk to casual miles and points earners. Usually, they've actually accumulated a decent stash of points over the years and are pretty happy about it.
But they either have no idea what to do with their points, or don't know how to go about redeeming them for their desired trips.
Welcome to the other side of the mileage coin. We're going to address these concerns with a step-by-step guide to redeeming your miles and raising your travel game. This is the fun part, so let the wanderlust flow through you and follow along.
As we begin, the one thing to keep in mind is that flexibility is often the key to a successful points booking.
For example, a traveler who is flexible between two or three destinations and has alternative travel dates in mind (even if it's just by one or two days) is going to have a much easier time getting his or her desired flights, compared to someone who's intent on bringing his family of four to Bali on fixed dates over Christmas and New Year's.
Let's imagine that your ideal trip this year is to spend three weeks in Paris in November. You've managed to earn 110,000 Aeroplan miles, enough for a round-trip in business class according to the Aeroplan Reward Chart.
Step 1: Research the Routes
First, consider what your points allow you to book. For example, with Aeroplan, you'll be able to book award tickets on any Star Alliance airline – that's 27 member airlines whose flights you can mix and match to get you to the City of Light. But which airlines of these 27 can actually get us there?
A fantastic starting point for researching routes is Google. If you search for "AAA-BBB flight schedule" with your origin and destination's airport codes, it'll give you a nice summary of the direct flights available, as well as the flight times and the days of the week on which the routes are operated.
In the above example, there's two flights a day between Toronto Pearson (YYZ) and Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), but only the flight operated by Air Canada (a Star Alliance member) would be bookable with Aeroplan miles.
Let's also find some one-stop options just in case the direct flight isn't available for an award booking on the dates we want. Once again, Google is your loyal servant. This time, using Google Flights, you can quickly survey a few convenient routings. Remember to filter for Star Alliance!
We can quickly note down a few possibilities. Lufthansa via Frankfurt, Austrian via Vienna, United via Chicago, Brussels Airlines via... you guessed it, Brussels.
Step 2: Find Availability and Fend Off Surcharges
This is where things can get a bit complex. The important thing to keep in mind is that award availability is a different beast from booking regular flights with cash. Airlines manage their inventory for award tickets separately from revenue tickets, so just because you saw a routing on your Google Flights search doesn't mean you can splash your points on those exact flights.
Let's kick off proceedings with the most obvious place to look: the Aeroplan.com search engine. Plug in your origin, destination, and dates, and let's see what it spits out:
Great, there's Air Canada flights available both ways! We get to fly the national airline and catch a direct flight back as well. Not bad, eh?
Click the "Select" buttons and you're almost set... but hold on, what's this?
$1,057.16 in taxes and fees? That can't be right, can it? Click on the "Taxes, fees, & surcharges" link to investigate...
Time for a brief reality check: you'll always have to pay some taxes and fees on award bookings, such as the government-imposed aviation taxes and airport improvement fees you see above. There's no way around those.
But some airlines rather nefariously tack on a "carrier-imposed surcharge" as well. In other words, you have to pay this fee just because the airline said so (a few years ago it was called a "fuel surcharge", but when oil prices tanked and everyone saw through the ruse, the airlines just slapped a new label on it). That's the $870 you see in the above example – a pure money grab.
Frankly, it's a ridiculous business practice, and it's unfortunate that some of the biggest carriers in Star Alliance, such as Air Canada and Lufthansa, charge offensively high carrier surcharges.
But all is not lost. There are quite a few very good airlines that don't levy such surcharges, such as Brussels Airlines, Swiss, SAS, Turkish Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and EVA Air. Fly on these airlines and you won't have to face the ignominy of shelling out so much cash in surcharges that you're almost better off just paying for the ticket outright.
Below is a breakdown of all 27 Star Alliance members with the surcharge-free carriers shown in full color. Avoid the grayed-out airlines!
Just how much difference does the carrier surcharge make? Let's look at an itinerary without fuel surcharges on Brussels Airlines, which was also available in our search results above:
Wow! If you fly with Brussels Airlines instead of Air Canada, you'll only pay $180.46 – that's $876.70 worth of savings. So if you're like me and want to minimize out-of-pocket costs, then be sure to look for flights on surcharge-free airlines!
Step 3: Consider the Value
One last step before you hit the Book Now button. Whenever you're spending your hard-earned points, consider the value you're getting out of them. How much cash are your points saving you?
The basic thing to understand is that when using your points, the more expensive your redemption would have cost if you had paid with cash, the more value you're getting out of your points.
This is why miles and points enthusiasts love business and first class flights so much. These relatively luxurious experiences can cost three, five, even up to fifteen times as much as an economy ticket when purchased with cash. With miles, however, they typically only cost between 1.5 times and three times as much.
If you're even slightly curious to give premium cabins a try, you should consider using your points towards those experiences. It might cost an extra handful of miles, but miles are easy to earn, remember? Nothing compared to the tens of thousands of dollars you'd have to pay otherwise.
Follow our masterplan and you'll soon be on your way to booking some epic trips. But do keep in mind a few things. First, we've looked at Aeroplan as an example, but the general three-step plan applies regardless of your chosen rewards currency. If you had British Airways Avios or American Airlines AAdvantage miles, you'd be looking at Oneworld rather than Star Alliance; if you were an Alaska Airlines miles collector, you'd aim to book with one of Alaska's many partner airlines, and so on...
The other thing to note is that each of these steps comes with more advanced details worth knowing about. These nuances run the gamut from creative routing ideas and powerful availability search tools, all the way to visiting three destinations for the price of one! The really good stuff is yet to come, so watch out for next week's installment as we wrap up the Miles & Points Intro series.