The best airline miles and hotel rewards points can help you save hundreds of dollars on travel. You might hear about people who “travel for free.” One way they do this is by banking up frequent flyer miles and hotel points.
Airline miles are usually worth more than other travel rewards points because the award flight space is so competitive. Since plane tickets are more expensive than most travel purchases, there’s also more room for negotiation too.
Here’s a quick rundown of the best airline miles to book your next flight.
Fly For Free…Just Pay Fees and Taxes
When you book a free hotel room, fees and taxes are usually included in the award night cost. With award flights, you must pay fees and taxes.
On most domestic flights, you pay $5.60 per ticket each way. On a round-trip ticket, expect to pay $11.20 per award flight. If you fly first class or internationally, you fees can be even higher as you might have to pay carrier-imposed fuel surcharges too.
If you’re flying internationally, try to fly on a domestic carrier like United, American or Delta to avoid the fuel surcharge fees. With some airlines, this fee can be almost as much as the cash ticket price.
First Class Flights Typically Have the Best Value
Each airline values their miles differently, but you should try to get a redemption rate of at least 2 cents per point.
First class flights are the most expensive but they usually have the best redemption value. You typically want to avoid economy flights that have a cash value of $100 or less. You can get the 2 cent redemption rate, but usually, people prefer to save them for the more expensive flights since you save more.
These Airlines Have the Most Valuable Miles
When possible, you should try to fly these airlines first. Hopefully you live near one of their hubs so you can routinely earn miles from flights and their co-brand rewards credit cards.
Alaska Airlines is one of the best options if you live on the U.S. West Coast. They offer some of the best award flight rates to Hawaii with economy seats starting at 15,000 miles one-way. If you fly domestically within the continental U.S. and Alaska, a one-way economy flight costs 5,000. This is one of the most affordable award flights when you need to fly 700 miles or less.
Southwest might be the nation’s most popular discount airline. They fly to just about anywhere in the U.S. and Caribbean. Starting in 2019, you can also fly to Hawaii on Southwest.
While Southwest doesn’t have a published award chart, their award flight rates are generally lower than the legacy U.S. carriers like United, American, and Delta. You also get two free checked bags with Southwest which means you can save money when Southwest flies to your destination.
JetBlue seems to fly to the places where Southwest doesn’t. Specifically on the U.S. east coast. If they both serve the same airport, JetBlue is another low-cost alternative.
Families can also pool points with JetBlue which makes award travel easier to reach!
Of the major carriers, United might have the most flight options. If nothing else, they at least have a good award chart. They might not always be the cheapest carrier, but they’re rarely the most expensive.
Flights shorter than 700 miles cost 10,000 miles and longer flights within the U.S. cost 12,000 miles one-way. They also have plenty of reasonable international options to Europe and Asia.
American Airlines lets you book flights for 7,500 miles on domestic flights shorter than 700 miles. You can also save points flying off-season on domestic and international flights.
Delta SkyMiles often have a bad reputation in award travel circles for being called “SkyPesos.” While short award flights start at 5,000 miles, most flights cost substantially more than United or American award flights. This might not be the case if you live near a major Delta hub like Atlanta, Detroit, or Minneapolis. Another frustration is that they don’t have a fixed award chart, the number of points required to book a flight is linked to the cash value price and current route demand.
On the bright side, Delta miles never expire and their Medallion program has some nice perks if you fly Delta constantly.
Aer Lingus is one of the most affordable international carriers to Europe. The only catch is that they only fly to Ireland from a handful of U.S. and Canadian cities. Once you land in Ireland, you can book intra-Europe flights for a bargain. On the TransAtlantic and intra-Europe flights, you won’t pay a fuel surcharge. That’s rare for international carriers.
When you’re flying to Asia, Singapore Airlines offer plenty of options. They also have a great first class award program too. Although these award flights cost more because of the distance, you can transfer points from select travel credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Platinum Card from American Express.
Don’t Forget About 1:1 Point Transfers
Flexibility is the key to booking bargain travel. Being able to fly multiple airlines is one of the easiest way to maximize your airline miles. With point transfers, you can use your points with airline partners. Sometimes you can book a flight online, other times you must call customer support.
One of the easiest ways to quickly earn these flexible airline miles is with a travel rewards credit card. The two best programs are Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards. These two programs each have more than a dozen airline transfer partners.
Each credit card purchase earns points that can be redeemed for flights with any of the airline partners. Before you apply for a card, compare the current list of airline partners to see which ones you’re most likely to fly. You’ll see that both Chase and Amex have several overlapping partners.
American Express lets you transfer to Delta and several regional and international airlines like Emirates, Etihad, AeroMexico, and Hawaiian Airlines. But, Chase is the exclusive transfer partner for United and Southwest Airlines.
Once you find the transfer partners you like, choose the flexible rewards card that has the best purchase rewards that match your spending style.
You can also get an airline-specific credit card. While you sacrifice point transfers, you can enjoy other airline-specific benefits like free checked bags, priority boarding, and other flight discounts.
Discount airlines usually provide the best value, but they also fly to fewer places. The major airlines all have their own strengths and weaknesses. If you live near a major airport, take advantage of the flexibility of choosing the cheapest airline.