It’s no secret that everything has gotten more expensive in recent years, including domestic and international flights. Sticker shock from an airline ticket alone may be enough to deter you from moving forward with your vacation. But before you let your dream trip disappear, there may be a solution that can reduce the amount of money you pay out of pocket for airline tickets. Here’s everything you need to know about awards flights and how to use points to book flights.
Awards flights, airline miles, points—these terms are all referring to the same concept. Awards flights are flights booked with airline miles or points instead of paid for with cash. Virtually every major airline has its own rewards system that allows you to redeem miles or points in exchange for flights. Most major airlines also have their own loyalty programs, which allow you to earn and redeem points and miles toward their specific brand and sometimes its partners.
For example, Alaska Airlines has a loyalty program called Mileage Plan. After signing up for free, you can earn miles every time you fly that can be redeemed for a flight in the future after you’ve earned a significant amount. You can also earn Alaska Airlines miles through purchases from some of the company’s partners, as well as by using the Alaska Airlines Visa credit card. (Most major airlines have partnerships with credit cards.)
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There is an entire travel hacking world out there centered around finding the best ways to earn and use airline miles. While it can be very rewarding (no pun intended) to get into the intricacies of this part of travel, we’ll stick to the basics today.
The simplest ways to earn points and miles are by frequently flying with a specific airline and using a travel credit card. As we mentioned earlier, if you sign up for a loyalty rewards program through a specific airline, you will earn miles every time you fly with that airline. While this requires the least amount of work from you, it will take a long time to get enough miles to redeem toward a future flight unless you fly frequently. If you only go on vacation once every year or two, this method won’t be enough to book you an awards flight anytime soon.
The other easiest way to earn points and miles is by using a travel rewards credit card. This again takes minimal effort on your part—every time you make a purchase, you will earn a certain number of points or miles for each dollar you spend. This can also take a long time to accumulate points, especially if you don’t spend a lot of money.
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A quick moment of truth here: You’ll see many airline miles/points enthusiasts who claim they book first-class tickets around the world every year by using travel credit cards. Unfortunately, this is only possible if you have a decent disposable income and buy a lot of stuff. No hate to those people, but if you want to book flights with points and don’t have a substantial income, you won’t be racking up hundreds of thousands of points every year.
The one exception to this is utilizing credit card sign-up bonuses. Many travel credit cards offer a set amount of bonus points/miles that you can earn if you spend a certain amount of money within the first few months of opening the card. These bonuses can be quite lucrative and are usually the only way for an average traveler with an average income to earn enough points to redeem a flight later.
There is a lot to learn about travel credit cards, but if you’re thinking of signing up for one, be sure you sign up while a bonus is being offered. Depending on how many flights you want to book and where you’re traveling to, this signup bonus may be the only way you’ll be able to book a flight with points.
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The number of points you need to book a flight will vary greatly depending on the airline and the flight itself. You can find domestic economy class flights for as few as 2,500 miles one-way and international first-class flights for over 300,000 miles one-way. If you want a general idea of what you can expect to spend on a specific airline, NerdWallet has broken down average redemption prices for seven major airlines.
So, you’ve figured out the flight you want and you’ve earned enough points to book that flight. Now you’re probably wondering how to book award flights. Once you’ve gotten to this point, it shouldn’t be that difficult.
If you have been redeeming points or miles with a specific airline, they should be kept in your mileage account online. When you go to book your flight, simply select “Use Miles” when searching for your flight through the airline’s website. On the purchase page, you will be able to redeem the points in your account for your flight. Note that you will be required to pay some fees in cash while booking with points, but this is usually a relatively low amount of money.
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Booking award flights can be confusing and is often a long process from beginning to end. So why bother booking with points or miles at all?
The most obvious reason to start accumulating reward points is to save money in the future. As long as you aren’t spending more money than normal to earn points, these are accumulated over time for free. And, if you’re able to get a good deal on a rewards flight, these points can end up saving you thousands of dollars on a trip.
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Even if you can’t earn enough points to book a first-class ticket overseas, airline points and miles can be redeemed for other travel perks instead. Many airline loyalty programs offer flexible redemption options, allowing you to use points for flights, seat upgrades, hotel stays, or even car rentals.
Airlines frequently run promotions and offers that allow you to maximize the value of your points. This might include discounted redemption rates, bonus miles for specific routes, or partnerships with other travel providers. Check your airline of choice frequently to make sure you can access these deals when they are running.
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Using points or miles to book a flight can be a lucrative way to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Understanding the basic information about booking flights with points will allow you to get started on this process for your next vacation.