Award flights are flights that you redeem with points. They are subject to award availability, which is a small percentage of seats that airlines make available for people to book with points, as well as the routing rules of the frequent flyer programs you're using. You don't earn additional miles when you fly on award flights.
Regular flights are the kind of flight that you normally book through Expedia or an airline's website. They are built up from an airline's published fares and are subject to fare rules. You'll earn miles when flying on regular flights, which you can then use to book award flights.
You can book flights with cash or with points. Booking with cash is the way most people do it – they go on Expedia or Google Flights and they search for reasonably priced flights. These flights are therefore also known as “cash flights”, “paid flights”, or “revenue flights”, since they bring revenue to the airline.
Meanwhile, when you use points, you’re accessing a small percentage of seats that an airline has made available for people to book with points; hence, the term “award availability” to refer to flights that you can redeem your points for. This is also known as “distressed inventory” in the aviation industry, since the airline estimates that it won’t be able to sell the seats to paying customers, so filling it with someone using points is better than letting the seat go out empty.
When you book regular flights, you can book virtually any route in the world operated by any airline – you just have to pay the fare.
Meanwhile, when you book award flights, your options are limited by the points program that you’re using. For example, if you have Aeroplan miles, you won’t be able to use them to fly to Easter Island since Aeroplan doesn’t partner with the only airline that flies there (LATAM).
Likewise, if you have British Airways Avios, you can’t use them for domestic flights within Canada, since British Airways doesn’t partner with any airlines that operate such routes.
Each program also has its own award charts, which determine how many miles a given flight would cost, as well as their own routing rules, which describes how you are allowed to combine flights together on a single award itinerary. Understanding the “sweet spots” of each program is therefore essential to getting the most value out of them.
Regular flights also allow you to earn miles by virtue of adding your frequent flyer number on your reservation. When you redeem miles for an award, those flights don’t earn you any additional miles, since you had booked them using miles in the first place.
In terms of the actual flights themselves, most airlines treat revenue and award customers exactly the same, with a few exceptions. For example, Air Canada only allows paid customers to access their Signature Suite, and many airlines that offer chauffeur service to their premium passengers restrict it to paid tickets only.
Last updated 17 November 2018. Any questions? Contact me.