Find the Least Expensive Award Options for Your Destination (2020)

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  Award Ticket Strategies

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Each frequent flyer program has their own award chart that determines the number of miles needed for an award ticket, although with some programs, the number of miles dynamically adjusts to market conditions.

The number of miles required for an award ticket is based on the frequent flyer PROGRAM you are using, not on the AIRLINE you are flying. Tickets for the exact same flights require different amounts of miles with different frequent flyer programs.

If you have transferable credit card points, you can transfer them to whichever program offers the cheapest award for your upcoming trip.



Choosing the optimum program to book your award

  • When there is award availability on a given flight, you can usually book a frequent flyer ticket with your choice of several different frequent flyer programs. For example, you can book a flight on American Airlines using British Airways, Cathay Pacific, or Etihad miles (which you can get from one of several different credit card programs), with Malaysian, Qantas, or Qatar miles (which you get from Citibank cards), with American, Japan Airlines, LATAM, or Qatar miles (which you can get from your Marriott credit card) or with Alaska Airlines miles.
  • Each different requires a different number of miles for the same flight. For example, if you are flying from Miami to Turks and Caicos, you could fly round trip for as little as 15,000 miles with British Airways or Cathay Pacific, for 25,000 miles with American (off-peak), for 35,000 miles for American (peak), or for as much as 40,000 miles with other airlines. Obviously, it’s better to use only 15,000 miles, rather than the “normal” 35,000 miles.
  • Not only are the differences in the number of required miles, there are differences in the fees. For example, if you book an award ticket on Lufthansa to Frankfurt with Lufthansa miles, you'll pay hundreds of dollars in extra "surcharges", but if you bought it with United miles, you would only pay a small amount of taxes.

With so many different programs, how do you figure out which option requires the fewest miles and fees for the specific trip you want to take?

Award redemption comparison tools

The fastest way to compare your options is to use an award comparison tool.

Several different services will do the work for you—calculating the miles that different programs would require for the flights and letting you compare your options.

Unfortunately, each of these tools has flaws. The services cover different, but overlapping, sets of frequent flyer programs, they occasionally calculate the required miles incorrectly, and they are not always kept completely up to date. As a result, it is still often best to take the time to use multiple comparison websites for each trip.

And because they don't show the associated fuel surcharges and other award fees, you'll get better results by checking each program directly.

  • Juicy Miles. If you use the pay-to-use Juicy Miles site to find award space, it provides great information on the required number of miles with different programs.
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  • AwardHacker.  Since the demise of AwardAce, AwardHacker is probably the best all-around site. While it supports fewer programs than Milez, it searches most of the major program, is more accurate, and is much easier to use. 
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  • Milez.  Milez.biz supports many less often used programs that are not supported by AwardHacker. However, the information is somewhat less reliable, and the website is much harder to use. For example, you can’t sort the results by the number of miles required—it requires you to scan through a hard-to-read list instead. Furthermore, it often does a terrible job calculating the required amount of award points with distance-based programs.  However, it is the only way to uncover good award redemption opportunities with programs that are not supported on other sites.  Especially if you have might be using Marriott points, which transfer to a large number of less often used programs, we strongly recommend checking this site, along with AwardHacker.
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  • Reward Expert, FlyerMiler, and Travel Codex’s Award Maximizer don’t add much additional value. These sites provide similar functionality, but don’t need to be part of your search strategy. Their supported frequent flyer programs are already covered, usually in a more accurate or more efficient way, by the two websites above.
  • Finding good redemptions by searching the web. An alternative approach (for uncovering which reward program to use) is to search the web using something like “best redemptions to asia” or “best redemptions to japan”. You are likely to find several blog posts that discuss various frequent flyer options. Just bear in mind that they are rarely comprehensive and typically somewhat out of date. However, they might help you discover a good option to book your flight that you won't uncover with the tools discussed above.

Tips for using award comparison tools

  • Ideally, you should use multiple tools each time you are planning a trip. This makes it more likely to uncover the best option and detect any erroneous results that you might get from using only one tool.  It only takes a minute or two to enter your information into each of these tools.
  • The number of miles required by a frequent flyer program can vary based on your specific routing. Many distance-based programs calculate the miles you need based on the total miles you are flying and some will make you pay separately for each connecting leg of your trip. Therefore, a nonstop flight will be cheapest, connecting flights will be slightly or significantly more expensive, and the price for a connecting flight will vary based on the city you are connecting through. Many zone-based programs have different charts depending on the airline you are flying on.
  • AwardHacker allows you to filter programs based on the credit card points you have. This can help you more quickly uncover the best program that you can actually take advantage of. With Milez, you’ll need to cross-check the results against the programs that you can transfer to.
  • Be careful when filtering by alliance. AwardHacker allows you to filter the results to programs that belong to the different major alliances. If you know you need to book an award on a Oneworld carrier, you may be tempted to filter to just show the Oneworld programs. This mostly works. However, the tools will also filter out non-alliance frequent flyer programs that might also be partners with the airline you want to fly. It is more reliable to just scan through the results manually.
  • These tools are not comprehensive. If you have transferable credit card points, you can take advantage of many different frequent flyer programs. AwardHacker doesn't support some of the less common, but potentially lower-priced, programs. Even Milez doesn’t cover all the possible credit card transfer partners. It is missing Air New Zealand and Hainan. While they are not comprehensive, they are easy to use, and are usually sufficient.

Don’t forget about transfer bonuses

Periodically, reward programs offer transfer bonuses to certain airlines. Or an airline will offer bonus points for transfers from hotel partners including Marriott Bonvoy.  For example, you might receive 40% extra British Airways points when you transfer your Membership Rewards points. When this happens, flight awards with that program become less expensive and can easily become the best choice to use for a trip.

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For example, British Airways only requires 25,000 points for flights on Alaska Airlines between the West Coast and Hawaii. In contrast, Flying Blue would require 30,000 points and Alaska itself would require 35,000 points. However, if Amex is offering a 40% transfer promotion to Flying Blue, you'd only need to transfer 21,500 Membership Rewards points to get the 30,000 Flying Blue points you would need.

The best listing of current transfer bonuses is Frequent Miler’s Current Transfer Bonuses page.

You need to consider fuel surcharges

The award comparison sites can help you find the frequent flyer program that requires the least amount of points for your flight. But that isn’t always the best choice for booking your award ticket.

  • It is worth spending extra points to avoid fuel surcharges. Depending on your airline and destination, you may have to pay substantial surcharges to book your award ticket. You may be better off finding space on a different airline. Or it may be possible to avoid the fuel surcharges by booking your award with a frequent flyer program that doesn’t pass through the surcharges. For example, British Airways requires the least miles to fly nonstop between Charlotte and London. But they will add fuel surcharges even on American Airlines tickets.
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    If you can find space on American Airlines, you are better off using more miles from the American, Alaska, Etihad, JAL, or Cathay Pacific programs, to avoid paying these fees.

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  • You don’t need to worry about fuel surcharges on flights within North and South America. Airlines don’t charge fuel surcharges for these routes, so just use the program that requires the fewest number of miles. If you are flying to Asia, fuel charges are typically much lower than to Europe, but may still play a role in which program you choose.
  • There is no convenient way to compare fuel surcharges across programs. Just start with the program that requires the least miles. If the fees look high, check out the next program on the list.

For more details on which airlines charge fuel surcharges, and which frequent flyer programs will let you avoid those surcharges, see Avoid Fuel Surcharges on Award Travel.

Checking each program directly

The only way to get complete and accurate information is to check each program directly. The award comparison tools aren't comprehensive or accurate enough to be completely relied upon for determining the required number of miles. More importantly, they don't show you the fees you'll need to pay.

Avianca Roulette

The required number of miles for Avianca awards are often different than what you would expect from their award chart. If you don't mind taking the extra time, it is always worth checking Avianca's own website whenever you can use their miles to book a ticket.

Other considerations

Fuel surcharges aren’t the only reason to consider using a program that requires more miles.

  • It can be worth spending extra miles to use a program that provides free stopovers.  Some frequent flyer programs allow you to add a free, or inexpensive, stopover on your trip. Other programs limit you to round trip travel or make you pay separately for each part of a multi-city itinerary. If you are interested in visiting more than one destination, it can make sense to pay more miles to book with a program that allows free stopovers, rather than paying fewer points for the main part of your trip and needing to use additional points or dollars to buy the extra flight between your destinations. Use Free Stopovers to Visit Two (or More) Places for the Price of One.
  • It can be worth spending extra miles to use a program that has lower booking fees. If you are booking a flight within the next few weeks, many frequent flyer programs will charge you a close-in booking fee. You may be better off switching to a different program, to save some money. Similarly, if there is a good chance you may need to change or cancel your reservation, you might want to avoid programs that have expensive change or re-deposit fees.
  • A good summary of many different frequent flyer program's potential fees, is available from UpgradedPoints.

  • It can be worthwhile paying extra to use a program where your points will transfer instantaneously. If there is limited award availability for an upcoming trip, the award space may disappear, while you wait for your points to transfer from the credit card program. This is primarily true for ThankYou and Marriott points, as Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards points usually transfer nearly instantaneously. If the award availability disappears while your points are transferring, you will wind up with a bunch of points stranded in the frequent flyer program you were transferring to. You may be better off paying a few thousand more points to transfer your points immediately and lock in your award tickets. Point Transfer Waiting Times.
  • It can be worthwhile to spend some extra points with a program that is easy to deal with. Some programs are simply easier to deal with than others. They allow you to book your tickets online, have well-designed websites, answer the phones quickly, have customer service representatives whose native language is English, and will spend the time to help you work through complex itineraries. Other programs, less so. Your time is valuable, and you might want to stick with a more accessible frequent flyer program, rather than trying to squeeze the maximum value from your points.
Great Redemption Options

Here are some of the best awards "sweet spots" where a frequent flyer program lets you book award tickets for significantly less than the normal amount of miles.




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