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The Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Airline Miles

12 minute read 24 June 2024
woman enjoying the view out the plane window
Written by: Sarah Cash

If you’re new to the world of traveling using points and miles, the idea of getting an airline ticket for virtually zero dollars sounds like a scam. It’s not! Earning miles is actually really easy – you could receive a free flight to just about anywhere with a single rewards credit card sign-up bonus. The tough part is figuring out the best way to redeem them. Read on for our top tips on maximizing your airline miles.

Choose an airline that serves your home airport

The points and miles you earn should be convenient to use — it doesn’t make sense to collect Southwest points if Southwest doesn’t fly anywhere near you, right? Even valuable points and miles can be practically useless if they’re too difficult to redeem, so lock in your travel rewards with a carrier that flies to your home airport—or that has partners that do.

Use partner airlines

Yes, we just said not to choose an airline you’ll never fly on, but there is a big caveat to that. Carriers typically have multiple airline partners you can book with using frequent fler miles.

For example: Just because you never fly Air Canada doesn’t mean you shouldn’t collect Air Canada Aeroplan points. Air Canada is a member of Star Alliance, which includes major airlines like United Airlines, SWISS, Turkish Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and many more — meaning that you can get just about anywhere you’re trying to go without ever stepping foot on an Air Canada plane.

Stay flexible

To maximize travel rewards, flexibility is key. Do you some wiggle room around the dates of your trip? Are you willing to drive a little further to an airport that’s not the closest to your home? Are you willing to fly to an airport near your destination?

If you answered yes to at least one of the above, it shouldn’t be hard to find a great deal. 

Flexible travel dates

Here’s the dirty little secret about award flights: The price you pay is rarely predictable. You’ll have to check your exact date and route to see:

  1. Whether there are available award seats.
  2. How much the airline will charge for those seats.

If you’ve got wiggle room with your travel dates, you can let an airline’s award calendar dictate when to take your vacation. Generally, booking 11 to 12 months out or 14 days before a trip allows you the cheapest rates. This is more critical for transoceanic premium-class seats. 

Flexible origin airports

Do you live near multiple airports? If so, take a look at the award prices from all the airports you’d be willing to drive to. I.e., if you live in Clearwater, Florida, your closest airport is St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport (PIE). But you’ll really increase your odds of finding a good rate by searching Tampa Bay (TPA), Sarasota (SRQ), and Orlando (MCO) too.

Flexible destination airports

It also makes sense to consider alternate arrival airports — popping in an Uber, taking a train, or renting a car to reach your final destination can be well worth it.

You should even check major hubs in surrounding countries, especially when planning an overseas trip — a quick flight to your vacation spot can be astonishingly inexpensive. If you want to fly to London, for example, look into flights between the U.S. and cities like Dublin, Madrid, and Frankfurt, where you’ll often find one-way fares to London for less than $30 on low-cost airlines.

Follow the deals

Airlines regularly release sales. Sometimes, they aren’t advertised. During your flight award search, you may stumble upon an offer you can’t refuse. If you’ve got the flexibility to let the deals dictate your itinerary, you can really stretch your travel rewards.

For example:

  • American Airlines and Delta Air Lines will release domestic flights at closeout prices, seemingly at random. Specific sales depend on route and travel date.
  • British Airways prices its award flights differently depending on the time of year. It publishes a calendar showing these “peak” and “off-peak” rates, which can help you plan your trip around cheap flights.
  • Flying Blue (the airline loyalty program of Air France and KLM) runs a promotion called “Promo Rewards,” which sharply discounts flights to popular destinations.

You can also use the point.me Explore tool to find the cheapest flight to anywhere from your home airport. It’s a great way to find a new favorite destination while saving a ton of frequent-flier miles.

Know the talents of your credit card points and miles

Airline rewards programs have unique strengths — and some little peccadillos. To maximize your points and miles, you need to know what each one is good at.

For example:

  • British Airways prices its awards according to the distance you fly, as well as the number of connections you have. The fewer connections, the less your flight will cost (though there are some weird and rare exceptions we won’t get into). If it’ll take multiple stopovers to reach your final destination, British Airways Avios points likely aren’t your best option.
  • Southwest only serves the U.S., Caribbean, and a few destinations in Latin America. If you’re collecting points and miles for your dream trip to Southeast Asia, don’t invest in Southwest points.
  • Air Canada Aeroplan is great for families traveling internationally with small children. Lap infants cost just 2,500 miles each way — which can save you a bundle if you’re flying in first or business class, as airlines often charge 10% of the cash value of an adult fare for lap infants.
  • Delta routinely offers incredibly low prices on a wide range of domestic routes, making Delta miles useful for domestic travel. But its prices for overseas travel can be nightmarish — often more than 300,000 miles one-way for a lie-flat business-class seat.

It’s wise to collect credit-card rewards, such as American Express Membership Rewards points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points, instead of focusing on a single airline’s frequent flyer program. Flexible credit card points like these give you the freedom to transfer points to the airline rewards programs that best suit your situation.

Read our comparison of the Amex Platinum Card vs the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Check the cash price of the ticket before you book

The primary goal of points and miles is to reduce your out-of-pocket cost. Whether you want to travel more luxuriously or you simply want to travel more often, earning points is the way to go.

But sometimes it’s a better idea to pay out of pocket for the sake of your future trips. If you check the cash price of the award flight and find it’s extremely reasonable, it’s a good idea to save your points and miles for a more expensive flight later on.

Take a quick peek at the cash price of your air travel before booking an award flight. You can easily figure out the value of your award flight by using the following formula: (Cash price of flight – taxes and fees of award flight) / required travel rewards = Value per mile

For example, if an $80 flight costs 12,500 airline miles and $5.60, you’ll receive a value of just 0.59 cents per mile: ($80 fare – $5.60 in award taxes) / 12,500 miles = 0.59 cents.

As a (very general) rule of thumb, redeeming points and miles is a bad deal if your return will be less than 1 cent each. point.me can help you to make sure you’re getting significantly more value from your travel rewards.

Read our guide to general fares to expect when paying with points.

Open the right airline credit cards

A co-branded credit card can help you maximize your points and miles in several ways. Beyond the ability to skyrocket your points and miles balances (airline co-branded credit cards often come with a welcome bonus worth hundreds of dollars — even $1,000-plus in some cases), they sometimes come with valuable perks that make it easier and cheaper to redeem miles.

For example, the United Quest Card comes with a 5,000-mile rebate (maximum two uses per year) when booking an award flight with United miles. It even unlocks additional “Saver” award seats (the least expensive prices) on United flights. Only United cardmembers and elite status holders have access to these seats. If a flight is nearly full, this benefit could save you tens of thousands of miles during a single trip.

Another good option for award travelers, the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card comes with a 15% discount when you redeem Delta miles for an award flight on Delta (called “TakeOff 15”). It also offers a feature called Pay With Miles, which lets you redeem Delta miles at a rate of 1 cent each toward the cost of a Delta flight (paid in increments of 5,000 miles).

All that to say, travel rewards credit cards can make maximizing points and miles easier!

Use your points and frequent flyer miles in a way that makes you happy

Maximizing your miles goes beyond simply getting the most monetary value from them. Maybe you want to buy your lap infant their own seat to give yourself more room. Or perhaps you’d like to book that pricey nonstop flight instead of the cheaper one with two connections. Points and miles can bring better options into your price range, helping you save money while enhancing your travel experience.

In other words, don’t stress too much about getting the biggest bang for your mile. You own them — they don’t own you.

point.me to maximum airline miles

All those tips and tricks we just discussed are really great to know. But with point.me you don’t have to know them.

point.me will scour the blackout dates, peak and off-peak pricing, partner airlines’ award charts, and more — and it’ll plop the lowest price for your desired dates and routes in your lap. Yes, it’s still handy to play with your origin and destination airports, but the search function takes all the award travel “expertise” out of the booking process, doing the heavy lifting to get the most from your points and miles.

Just enter the number of passengers and the type of seat you’d prefer.

You’ll then see a comprehensive list of flight options that you can filter by airline or loyalty program. You can even choose to view only the flights that are bookable with the travel rewards you currently have (after first disclosing your points balances to point.me).

You can then sort flights by the quickest commute, lowest price, or a healthy balance between the two — called point.me picks.

You’ll also find pertinent information about which rewards and loyalty programs you can use to book each flight, including transferable rewards and partner airline miles.

Select the flight you want, and the next page will guide you through the steps to book your specific flight, including:

  • Opening a frequent flyer account with a specific airline’s loyalty program
  • Transferring points to those airline frequent flyer programs
  • Navigating to the airline’s website to complete your booking

You don’t have to be an expert to book award travel with credit-card points. point.me gives you the tools and guidance to make it easy. You can even have a point.me concierge walk you through each step — or book your travel for you altogether. Anything you need, just give us a shout.

Frequently asked questions about maximizing airline miles

Can I earn more miles if I consolidate my frequent flyer accounts?

You won’t necessarily earn more miles by consolidating your frequent flyer accounts. Diversifying your rewards is a smart play in the travel-hacking game, but utilizing fewer rewards currencies will likely result in fewer “orphaned” points across multiple accounts.

Is it better to search for award seats through an airline or credit card program?

Several banks, including Chase, Citi, and American Express, have travel portals where you can search and book award flights. However, you generally get a much better value from your points when you book directly with airline websites. It doesn’t have to be the airline you’re actually flying — it can be a partner that sells award seats on the airline you plan to use. point.me makes it easy to see all the options, so you can find the best for you and then transfer your points to that airline and book it.

What are the best ways to earn extra points or miles?

Credit card welcome bonuses are the best and fastest way to earn extra points and miles. Depending on the credit card, one welcome bonus could present you with more than $1,000 in travel.

Which airline loyalty program is best for finding award seats?

It depends on which award seats you’re looking for. For Star Alliance flights, United Airlines is an excellent resource; for SkyTeam, try Air France; for Oneworld, try American Airlines.

Which credit cards will best maximize your airline miles?

Credit cards that offers some perk associated with award redemptions will help you best maximize your miles. For example, the United Quest Card comes with two 5,000-mile award rebates per calendar year, helping you to stretch your miles for future trips. It also unlocks hidden Saver award inventory that’s only available to United cardholders and elite status holders.

Find the best flights with point.me
Rather than sifting through 10 different websites and 30+ different airline programs to figure out award travel, point.me does the work for you. All you need is your dates, your airports, who’s traveling, and where, and our real-time search and booking engine handles the rest.

Try it today

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