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Miles & Points for Beginners: Crafting a Dream Redemption

Once you’ve mastered the art of earning points, the next step is to learn how to redeem them effectively by building knowledge and remaining flexible.

Written by Tyler Derksen

On 2024-06-13

Read time 18 mins

So far in our Miles & Points for Beginners series, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at earning points.

The truth is that earning points through welcome bonuses and credit card spending is the easy part. Redeeming credit card points effectively is much more challenging.

Trying to find the flights you want can be incredibly frustrating, as you’ll have to contend with the intricacies of award availability, fixed versus dynamic pricing, and more hurdles that we’ll go over in this article.

However, when you finally lock in the exact flights that you were dreaming of at a fraction of the cost compared to paying cash, it’s an incredibly satisfying feeling.

Navigating Award Availability

By far the biggest barrier when you want to redeem points for an aspirational flight is award availability.

One of the most important factors to know about Miles & Points is that just because a seat is available to purchase with cash doesn’t necessarily mean that you can book it with points.

Airlines will often withhold available unsold seats from award bookings in the hopes that they can sell them for cash. This is especially true with business class and First Class award seats, and particularly with the most desirable products.

While most airlines will have at least a couple of award seats available on every flight, a few airlines actually guarantee a minimum amount of award availability.

British Airways is one such airline that guarantees a minimum number of award seats on every flight, outlined as follows for flights to/from London Heathrow:

  • Eight seats in economy
  • Two seats in premium economy
  • Four seats in business class
British Airways guarantees at least four business class (Club World) seats are available to book with points on every flight

In other words, you can predict with 100% certainty that there will be the above numbers of seats available to book with points on every British Airways flight. Once they booked up, the airline may or may not release more, and there’s no guarantee.

When an airline releases an award seat that can be purchased with points, it can be booked from that airline’s own loyalty program, and most of the time, it can also be booked from partner airline loyalty programs.

For example, a United “Saver”-level award flight can be booked with United MileagePlus miles, but can also be booked with Air Canada Aeroplan points or Avianca LifeMiles, because all airlines are members of Star Alliance.

As a reminder, there are three major airline alliances: Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam.

Generally speaking, you can redeem points or miles for flights with any airline within the alliance using points from any program within the alliance.

This means that you can book Air India award flights with Air Canada Aeroplan points, Avianca LifeMiles, United MileagePlus miles, and more. Which points program to use will depend on your ability to access the program in the first place, as well as differences in award pricing between programs.

You can book award flights with airlines using points from most programs that belong to an alliance

In addition, airlines that don’t belong to one of these alliances may have partnerships with an airline that does.

This is why you can redeem Aeroplan points for Virgin Australia flights, even though Virgin Australia is not a member of Star Alliance.

When you’re looking for award availability, it’s often best to book through the airline’s own loyalty program, or at least begin your search there. That’s because airlines will often prioritize their own members, giving them “first dibs” on award flights before anyone else, or access to more award seats than are available in other programs.

For example, one of the most popular business class products in the world – Qatar Airways Qsuites – can be booked through Qatar Airways Privilege Club around 361 days from the day of travel.

If you have American Airlines AAdvantage miles, you can also book Qatar Airways Qsuites since both airlines are members of the oneworld airline alliance; however, you can only redeem AAdvantage miles for award flights around 330 days from the date of departure.

This means that you’ll have first access to Qatar Airways award seats by booking through Qatar Airways Privilege Club. If there are any leftover award seats when American Airlines AAdvantage gets access, you can book them; however, with such a competitive product, most are typically gone by the time this happens.

Qatar Airways Qsuites is one of the most popular business class products in the world

Some airlines will allow you to book any seat with your miles or points, which is through what’s called dynamic pricing.

If the cash price for a flight is low, then the cost in points will also be lower; however, the available seats may be prohibitively expensive if the flight is nearly sold out.

For example, a one-way Air Canada business class flight from Vancouver to Sydney can cost as few as around 85,000 Aeroplan points with “Saver”-level awards…

However, most of the time the same flight costs significantly more, often exceeding 450,000+ points.

We’ll explore dynamic pricing and fixed pricing in the next article in this series.

Why Flexibility Matters

The number one way you can overcome the many nuances of award availability is with flexibility.

It’s rare (but entirely possible) that you’ll be able to find the exact flight you want on the exact day, but if you’re flexible with dates, airlines, and even with your destination, you’re more likely to find something that works.

Flexibility with Dates

Award availability changes day by day. The more flexible you are with your dates, the better chance you’ll have of finding an award seat for a good deal.

The best way to search for award flights when you have flexible dates is by using an airline loyalty program that allows you to search in “calendar view,” which will show you all the available award flights in a given month.

Even if you don’t have points in that specific program, you can still search for award flights on its website, and return to the program you do have points with to make the booking.

For example, if you have Aeroplan points, and you want to look for an award flight on a Star Alliance airline, you can use United Airlines’s calendar search feature to see a month’s worth of pricing at a time. 

If you award availability for, say, Turkish Airlines business class, you can then return to the Aeroplan website to complete the booking.

To find award flights with oneworld airlines, you can use American Airlines AAdvantage’s calendar view to quickly find the flights you’re looking for, especially if you use the filters to only show non-stop flights in the class of service you’re hoping to fly.

If you’re looking for a SkyTeam airline award flight you can use the “secret calendar” on Air France KLM Flying Blue‘s website.

Simply search for round-trip flights and leave the date fields empty, and you’ll then see a calendar appear with a month’s worth of the lowest award pricing.

Then, when you click “Search”, you’ll see a month’s worth of availability with the lowest price each day for the class of service you select.

Using calendar searches instead of painstakingly searching day-by-day helps to speed up the process in finding a good deal, which we’ll also explore more in the next article in this series.

Flexibility with Airlines

Depending on where you’d like to travel, there are going to be multiple airlines that fly to the same destination, either directly or indirectly.

You’ll have better luck finding award seats when you expand your search to include all airlines that fly to the city or country you want to fly to, rather than just searching for a specific one.

For example, you can fly from Canada or the US to Australia with Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Qantas, United, or Air Canada.

If you have Aeroplan points and you only have your eyes set on flying direct with Air Canada, you might encounter sky-high award pricing at first.

But, instead of limiting your search to direct flights from Vancouver to Sydney and looking at single-connection options through major US hubs too, you could fly United Polaris business class across the Pacific Ocean with a quick connection at a fraction of the price.

In an ideal world, we’d all be able to fly direct, but sometimes, taking a quick connection or a positioning flight winds up saving you a tonne of points.

Flexibility with Destinations

Lastly, if you can be flexible with your destination, you’ll have much better chances at finding that coveted award availability.

When searching for flights, try considering an entire region as the destination, rather than just a specific city.

In some cases, major cities have multiple airports, so be sure to expand your flight search to include all of them rather than just a single one. This is what’s known as co-terminal airports.

Likewise, if you want to spend a part of the summer in France, you’ll certainly search for flights to Paris.

You could also consider looking for award availability to other cities in France, such as Toulouse, Nice, or Lyon, and you could even consider flying to a nearby major city in a different country, such as Brussels, Amsterdam, or Frankfurt, and then looking at alternative transportation options to get to France.

By thinking about your destination as a region rather than a specific location (whenever possible), you’ll increase your odds of finding an award seat at a great price.

Knowledge Is Power

If you have a flexible schedule, you’re open to trying out different airlines, and you don’t limit yourself to one specific city, you’ll have a much better chance of scoring a great deal on an award flight. However, there’s still a lot more to learn, and ultimately, the more you know, the more you’ll be able to get out of Miles & Points.

If you dive into the intricacies of different loyalty programs, figure out each program’s sweet spots, and learn about the quickest way to earn points with each program, you’ll be able to find and book your own award flights with ease. This takes a while to learn, but before you get there, you’ll need to build up a foundation of knowledge.

It may seem odd, but by simply knowing which airlines fly where can help you visualize the steps you need to take to get on a particular flight.

With hundreds of airlines covering thousands of routes, it isn’t practical to memorize all routes. A great tool to help with learning airline routes is FlightConnections.

FlightConnections is incredibly helpful when you want to find out which airlines fly between two cities, as it shows you both direct and indirect routes.

For example, you can fly direct from Vancouver to London, but there are also plenty of options to fly via other cities in Canada and the United States, or via countries in Europe with a single connection.

With this information, you can search for award flights on direct and indirect routes, thereby getting you to the same destination but increasing the likelihood that you find something at a great price.

Every major airline will operate flights to the airline’s home country – if you’re flying to Qatar, you’ll certainly have the option of flying with Qatar Airways.

However, there are certain airlines that you may be surprised to learn fly between two cities far away from their own airport hub, or even their own country of origin. These flights are called “fifth freedom” flights.

For example, Singapore Airlines operates a daily flight between Frankfurt and New York City, which means you don’t need to fly to/from Singapore to try out one of the best airlines in the world. Likewise, Emirates flies from Miami to Bogota, and also from Bangkok to Hong Kong, and many airlines offer flights between Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. 

As it turns out, fifth freedom flights tend to have excellent award availability, and in some cases, favourable cash prices, even in premium cabins.

Fifth freedom flights should be on everyone’s radar

There’s a lot to explore in the world of Miles and Points, and the more knowledge you have, the further you’ll go.

If you’d like to fast track your learning, one of the best ways to speed up the process is through Points Consulting.

With Points Consulting, you’ll have a one-on-one call with one of our points experts to personalize your own credit card strategy, help you with award searches, or just spend time on general learning.

Conclusion

The world of Miles & Points offers an exciting opportunity to make your travel dreams come true at a fraction of the cost.

While earning points is relatively straightforward, mastering the art of redeeming them for award flights requires a strategic approach.

By understanding award availability, maintaining flexibility, and gaining in-depth knowledge of various loyalty programs and alliances, you can unlock incredible travel experiences.

With the right knowledge and support, you’ll be on your way to enjoying remarkable travel experiences while saving thousands of dollars on your next adventure.

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