2. Choose the Least Expensive Frequent Flyer Program for Your Ticket (2021)
Each frequent flyer program has their own award chart that determines the number of miles needed for an award ticket. In addition, each frequent flyer program can add on very different amounts of additional surcharges.
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. And depending on the airline you are flying, different programs will add different fees.
If you have transferable credit card points, you can transfer them to whichever program offers the cheapest award for your upcoming trip.
Just as there isn't a great way to search for award space across many different airlines, there is no great way to see what the costs would be for each of your booking options.
- Award costs depend on the program you use
- Award redemption comparison tools
- Tips for using award comparison tools
- Don’t forget about transfer bonuses
- You need to consider fuel surcharges
Award costs depend on the program you use
- 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 types of credit card points), with Malaysian, Qantas, or Qatar miles (which you get from ThankYou points), with American, Japan Airlines, or Qatar miles (which you can get from your Marriott points) or with Alaska Airlines miles.
- Each different program 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 and avoid paying these fees.
American Airlines requires an extra 2,500 miles but saves over $170 in extra fees.
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?
Finding your cheapest option
We wish we could tell you some secret way to quickly figure out your best option. But, unfortunately, there is no quick and reliable way to compare your options.
Option 1: Juicy Miles
As with searching for award space, the easiest way to compare your booking options is to use Juicy Miles. They show the mileage cost and estimated surcharges for many of the possible options for booking your award ticket and even factor in current mileage transfer bonuses.
Unfortunately, it has a few drawbacks. It costs money to use ($10 for 5 days, $30 per month), will only show you booking options for flights it uncovered (not for award space you might have found elsewhere), and requires you to manually click through the different points programs to uncover the best option (rather than showing them in a single view). Also their information about surcharges is not always accurate, which could possibly cause you to choose the wrong program to use.
Option 2: Manually check the likely options
Unfortunately, the only way to get complete and accurate information is to check each program directly.
- First, determine the set of programs that can be used to book your tickets. Look up each of the available airlines in our List of Which Miles Work for Which Airlines.
- Eliminate any programs you don't have points for. For example, if you only have Ultimate Rewards points, there may be only a few programs you can use to book a specific ticket
- Check each program directly. Assuming you don't want to use Marriott points for award tickets, the following programs are the mostly likely to offer a good combination of points and fees. But other programs can sometimes be good options.
Air Canada (Aeroplan)
MR UR TY C1 Mar
ANA (All Nippon Airways)
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
Cathay Pacific (Asia Miles)
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
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.
Option 3: Search 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 other approaches.
While this can be a haphazard way to find the lowest option for a specific flight, it can help make sure you are aware of the best potential options for your trip.
You can also check our collection of the best awards "sweet spots" where you can book award tickets for significantly less than the normal amount of miles.
Award comparison tools
Several different services will compare the miles that different programs require to book an award ticket for a specific trip. And unlike Juicy Miles, they don't cost money to use and will easily show you the costs for different programs regardless of whether they found award availability.
- They can be a good option for narrowing down your options. You'll get a quick glance of how many miles you need from different programs. This can help you focus your award search on the best options or prioritize which programs to check manually.
- But since they don't show the associated fuel surcharges and other award fees, they are only a potential solution for award tickets on routes or airlines without fuel surcharges. If you are flying on a flight with fuel surcharges, they don't compare the fees across programs.
- In addition, each of these tools has flaws. The services cover different, but overlapping, sets of frequent flyer programs, they occasionally incorrectly calculate the required number of miles, and they are not always completely up to date.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- The number of miles required by a frequent flyer program can vary based on your specific routing. Many distance-based programs calculate the required miles 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
Reward programs periodically offer transfer bonuses to certain airlines. Or an airline will offer bonus points for transfers from hotel partners (including Marriott). For example, you might receive 40% extra British Airways points when you transfer your Membership Rewards points during a promotion. When this happens, flight awards with that program become less expensive and can easily become the best choice to use for your trip.
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.
Particularly for flights to Europe, several popular programs offer promotional rates for different routes. It can be worthwhile seeing if any of these promotional rates apply to your trip, as the promotional prices usually require the fewest points of any option (but typically have hefty fuel surcharges). Fly to Europe Using Half the Number of Miles Using Promo Awards.
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 using 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.
- 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. Points Transfer 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.
A good summary of many different frequent flyer program's potential fees, is available from UpgradedPoints.
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