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Airline rewards can create invaluable travel opportunities beyond what most of us can afford. While earning miles is easy enough, redeeming them for flights is inarguably challenging. Airlines design their programs that way because if everyone maximized their miles for the best flights possible, they would go out of business. Hence, finding award availability can be challenging — though not impossible.
Nowadays, many great tools exist that simplify the process. Some provide comprehensive award inventory searches, while others let you set alerts and make it easier to book any flight you want with points. There are even tools for those who want to take a DIY approach.
If you’re ready to master the art of redeeming rewards for flights, here are the best tools to use:
ExpertFlyer is one of the oldest award-searching tools out there, providing availability with 400 different airlines. There’s a bit of a learning curve involved in using ExpertFlyer, but it’s an invaluable tool for finding award inventory using a wide range of criteria.
If you can’t find award space on your preferred travel dates and cabin, you can set an alert. You’ll then receive a notification when a seat opens up. This is a great way to put your award search on autopilot, so you don’t have to keep checking the various airline websites.
ExpertFlyer has several different membership types, starting at $4.99 per month for the Basic plan, which includes 250 queries. The Premium membership offers unlimited queries for $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year.
Point.me is a new tool that cuts through all the hassles of finding the best award flights. It offers a simple interface perfect for beginners who want a simple award-searching tool. Think of it like Google Flights for award tickets. You’ll enter your travel dates, departure, destination and cabin type. Point.me will generate a list of frequent flyer programs with award availability based on that criteria.
While Point.me markets itself as a “search and booking engine,” you should be aware that neither Point.me nor ExpertFlyer actually let you book flights directly. Point.me offers step-by-step booking instructions once the best fit is found for your points or miles, but you will have to book directly via the airline or award program.
Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly helpful tool that makes redeeming miles for flights easier. The only downside? It’s not free. You can buy a day pass for $5 or a subscription for $12 per month. Annual billing includes a 10 percent discount, for a total of $129 per year.
It’s worth noting that award inventory can fluctuate, so you may not always find what you’re looking for during a single-day search. Sometimes airlines release award space closer to departure and other times, seats open up when people cancel their flights. So you may need more than a day pass to find the seat you’re looking for.
The subscription makes sense if you use the tool more than twice a month. You also can cancel it during months you’re not using it.
Credit card travel portals
If you have a credit card that earns transferrable rewards, you probably have access to a travel portal where you can redeem points at a fixed cost. While this typically isn’t a good redemption value, there are exceptions. You’ll get to redeem any available flight with no blackout dates. Plus, you’ll actually earn miles on the flight through your chosen frequent flyer program.
Here’s a look at how much your points are worth through booking portals:
- American Express Membership Rewards: 2.0 cents per point
- Capital One miles: 1.7 cents per point
- Chase Ultimate Rewards: 2.0 cents with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and 2.0 cents for Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- Citi ThankYou points: 1.0 cents per point
Redeeming rewards through a travel portal lets you bypass all the hassles of finding award space across multiple airlines. You can see the flight you want and book it. The only downside? It’s not the best value proposition on premium cabin flights. Since redemption rates are tied to cash rates, you’ll end up using more points than through an airline program.
Tools for DIY flight booking
If you like a challenge (and want to save money on subscriptions), you can always do it yourself. Researching and booking your own award flights can be challenging but immensely rewarding. Not only is it a useful skill you won’t have to rely on others for, but mastering it can help you stumble across award space that you may not otherwise find.
Here are some tools to keep on hand for DIY award bookings:
The first step in redeeming rewards for a flight is knowing how many miles you have. Award Wallet is a great tool that tracks most miles and points, credit card travel credits and elite status. Why is this helpful when redeeming rewards? Because you can quickly see how many points and credits you have available. You can narrow down your search based on this information and decide to transfer points from one account to another, if needed.
Knowing your elite status is also worth noting because it can influence your booking decisions. If you’re just a few miles short of top-tier airline elite status, paying for a flight and redeeming Capital One Venture miles toward it might make sense.
It might seem strange to start your reward flight search with Google Flights, but there is a good reason why you should. You can compare the cash airfare against the award rate there, and then decide if you’re getting sufficient value from your miles or whether you should instead book with cash.
Sometimes cash fares are pretty cheap and you’re better off saving your miles for another time. For example, programs like American AAdvantage and Alaska Mileage Plan charge 60,000 miles for round-trip tickets to Madrid. Meanwhile, TAP Airlines frequently has fare sales that include economy class fares as low as $300. By redeeming miles, you would get just 0.54 cents per mile — about half of Bankrate’s valuation of AAdvantage miles.
Wikipedia seems like another odd tool to use in your award redemption journey. But it’s an essential step once you’ve decided to use miles. Wikipedia’s airport pages contain detailed information about the airlines serving each airport and from which destination. You can use this information to piece your trip together.
Many airline award tools are unreliable, so you need to familiarize yourself with routing options. For example, if you’re trying to get from San Francisco to Doha, you can fly there directly on Qatar Airways using American AAdvantage miles. But if you can’t find award space on that route, you might find more availability on the Los Angeles-to-Doha route. Simply work in a connecting American Airlines flight between San Francisco and Doha and you’re all set.
If the American Airlines booking engine doesn’t piece this together automatically, you may need to call customer service and ask them to do it manually. While this sounds like a hassle, it means the difference between redeeming an award flight and paying for it.
The bottom line
Booking award flights can be a challenging and frustrating experience, especially if you’re new to points and miles. With the right tools in your arsenal, it’s much more manageable. With tools like Point.me taking the guesswork out, you really don’t need to be an expert to maximize your points anymore. But if you want to be, the tips above will hopefully guide you on your journey to mastering this skill.