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How to find the best award your miles can buy

SmarterTravel

When it’s time to spend your hard-earned miles on a free trip, keep in mind that some frequent flyer awards are better deals than others. We compared the mileage requirements for free travel on the six major U.S. carriers to determine which ones have the best awards miles can buy.

And the winners are…

The least expensive frequent flyer awards are for standard economy-class tickets, which cost fewer miles than unrestricted awards but often have capacity limitations and blackout dates.

The best awards from North America are:

Destination Airline(s) with lowest cost Miles cost Cost on most airlines
North America US Airways 20,000 [1] 25,000
Mexico American 25,000 [2] 35,000
Caribbean American 25,000 [3] 35,000
Hawaii Delta 30,000 35,000
South America American 30,000 [4] 35,000-50,000
Europe American and its partners, US Airways, Singapore Airlines (using Delta miles) 40,000 [5] 50,000
Africa Delta 50,000 [6] 80,000-90,000
Asia American, Singapore Airlines (using Delta miles) 50,000 [7] 60,000-70,000
Australia and New Zealand United and its Star Alliance partners 60,000 80,000
Middle East Continental 70,000 [8] 80,000-90,000

[1] Off-peak travel only, from September 15 to February 28
[2] Off-peak travel only, from September 7 to November 14
[3] Off-peak travel only, from September 7 to November 14
[4] Flights to northern South America (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela) only, for travel January 16 to June 14 and September 7 to November 14
[5] Off-peak travel only, from October 1 to April 1 on US Airways, and from October 15 to May 15 on American; Singapore Airlines does not have any seasonal restrictions
[6] Flights to northern Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia) only
[7] Flights on American only to Japan for travel October 1 to April 30
[8] Flights to Tel Aviv, Israel, only

Of the six airlines, American has five of the lowest award costs (all for off-peak travel only), while Northwest has none of the best and Continental and United only have one each. The best awards are usually 5,000-10,000 miles cheaper than the typical award; saving those miles could mean the difference between getting another free award ticket or upgrade and having to pay precious dollars for your next seat.

Additional ways to maximize your miles

Don’t forget that small airlines, such as Frontier, Southwest, and America West, offer loyalty programs that have some of the best awards in the business. For instance, you can get a domestic round-trip ticket on Frontier for only 15,000 miles. However, a small airline may not fly to as many destinations as its larger competitors, or have as many partners. When you choose your preferred airline, think about where you plan to travel, as well as where you can get the best value in an award ticket.

Earn bonus miles:

Award flights usually do not earn miles, but three airlines are offering 1,000 bonus miles for award tickets booked online

If you want to maximize the value of your frequent flyer earnings, it’s often better to use your miles to upgrade a paid fare, rather than to use them for a free ticket. Upgrades can cost anywhere from 5,000 to 60,000 miles, but if you find a good deal on a coach seat, the miles you use for an upgrade could be worth thousands of dollars (the difference between an economy and business-class ticket).

Also, pay attention to discounted award promotions. Sometimes, an airline will offer award seats on certain routes for fewer miles in order to promote traffic on that route. For instance, Alaska is currently offering flights between select Western cities for 7,000 fewer miles than the regular award levels.

Tips on snagging the award seat you want

It’s not enough to find the best award deal; you also have to find available seats to be able to go where you want, when you want to go. Frequent flyer expert Tim Winship provides additional advice on how to book an award ticket. Here are five of his tips:

  • Book early or book late: If you book when award seats first become available, or within two weeks of departure, when award seats are added back to empty flights, you’re more likely to find a seat on your preferred travel date.
  • Book travel for off-peak days or holidays: If fewer people want to fly on those dates, you’re more likely to find an available award seat.
  • Be a contrarian destination-wise: It’s often easier to find award seats on flights to less popular destinations.
  • Fragment the family: As it can be hard to find more than two empty award seats on any given flight, split your family into groups and take different flights that arrive within an hour of each other.
  • Leverage your award status: Elite members can often get greater access to award seats, whether by official policy or by unofficial special favors.

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