One of the most significant challenges for newcomers to the world of points and miles is reserving their first flight.
In this guide, we’ll take you through the entire process, from understanding the basics of reward programs to creating a plan for accumulating points and miles.
By following our step-by-step instructions, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a savvy travel rewards pro and enjoying the perks of free or heavily discounted flights.
Points and Miles: What They Are and How to Earn Them
Before diving into booking flights with points, let’s clarify what exactly points and miles are.
In the travel rewards space, “points” and “miles” are often used interchangeably. Points function as a currency, and can be redeemed for travel-related expenses like flights, hotels and rental cars. Using points, you can reduce or even eliminate out-of-pocket costs on many travel expenses.
Credit card points are generally earned using travel rewards credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers points for every dollar spent in addition to a welcome bonus. These points can be transferred to various airline partners or redeemed directly for travel expenses at a fixed value.
Airline mileage programs allow you to earn miles when flying with the airline or its partners. Additional earning opportunities include shopping, dining, or utilizing the airline’s co-branded credit card, such as Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card.
For more information, see our comprehensive guide on earning points and miles.
Two Options for Booking Flights With Points
Earning points is great, but the real goal is to turn those points into free travel.
This guide focuses on redeeming points for free flights. Flights are often regarded as one of the best uses of your points.
There are two main ways to use your points to book free flights:
- By using fixed-value points, which have a consistent redemption value when redeemed for travel. For example, Capital One’s fixed-value points can be redeemed for travel expenses at a rate of 1 cent per point, which means that 50,000 points can be used to book a $500 flight.
- Through an airline’s mileage program. For instance, if you use United MileagePlus miles, you can book a one-way award flight to New Zealand for as low as 40,000 points.
When you hear about people booking first-class travel or other premium cabin flights, they’re probably not doing it with fixed-value points. Instead, they’re using points accumulated with (or transferred to) airline partners.
We’ll cover how to do this in-depth in this article.
However, what’s valuable to you is personal. Fixed-value rewards have their advantages, as they offer more flexibility and can help you achieve certain travel goals that might not be possible with points transferred or earned within an airline’s mileage program.
Option #1: Booking Airfare with Fixed-Value Points
A challenge of using points through airline mileage programs is the limited availability of award seats. Airlines allocate a specific number of award seats, and during peak travel times, the available award space may be scarce or even non-existent.
This can make it difficult or impossible to find award seats during popular travel periods.
Fixed-value rewards offer a valuable alternative as they let you book cash fares, using your rewards as a credit to cover the market price of the tickets.
Credit card companies’ travel portals allow you to search and book a wide range of flights available for sale, similar to sites like Kayak and Expedia. When you go to purchase your flight through a travel portal, you can then redeem your points towards a credit for your flight.
For example, in my Chase Ultimate Rewards account, I currently hold 35,743 Chase Ultimate Reward points. Since I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, if I were to use these points to book travel through the Chase travel portal, they hold a fixed value of 1.5 cents each.
In this case, I can apply these points as a $533.16 credit for a flight that costs $555.88, and only need to pay the remaining $19.72 for the ticket (as shown in the screenshot below).
Major credit card companies like Citi, Chase, Capital One and American Express all offer fixed-value point redemption options for travel purchases, although each works a bit differently.
Redemption rates — which represent the value of each point when redeemed — vary between these companies and their respective cards.
Here’s an overview of their unique redemption rates and features:
|Credit Card Company||Fixed-Value Redemption Rate||Features|
|Citi||1 cent per point||Citi ThankYou points can be redeemed for travel through the Citi Travel Center or used to book flights directly with airlines.|
|Chase||1 to 1.5 cents per point||Chase Ultimate Rewards points vary in value depending on the card. For example, Chase Sapphire Reserve offers 1.5 cents per point when redeemed through the Chase travel portal.|
|Capital One||1 cent per point||Capital One miles can be redeemed for travel expenses (such as flights and hotels) through the Capital One travel portal, or as a statement credit for travel purchases.|
|American Express||0.6 to 1.54 cents per point||American Express Membership Rewards points can be used to book travel through the Amex travel portal or as a statement credit for eligible travel purchases. Redemption rates vary by card type and how the travel is purchased.|
As you can see, when booking with fixed-value points, you typically get a point value of between 0.6 and 1.54.
In other words, 10,000 points will get you between $100 and $154 in travel credits.
So, there isn’t necessarily a lot of outsized value here, compared to any other cash-back credit card.
Nonetheless, it’s still helpful to understand that fixed-value rewards provide flexibility and simplicity in booking airfare and other travel-related expenses and come in handy when you’re having difficulty finding award space or just want to take a completely free vacation without dipping into your savings.
Option #2: Using Airline Loyalty Programs to Book Free Flights
To get the most value from your points, booking flights using points through an airline loyalty program is the best strategy.
It’s common to redeem points for over 3 cents per point, particularly for business class tickets that may cost thousands of dollars. In this scenario, 10,000 points redeemed at 3 cents per point would equal $300 in value.
Major travel credit card issuers partner with airline loyalty programs, enabling you to transfer your points to the partner airlines’ loyalty programs. This flexibility adds to the value of these points.
Each credit card issuer offers different transfer ratios to airlines, making some more beneficial than others. Marriott Bonvoy, while not a credit card issuer, is one of the few hotel loyalty programs that allows you to transfer to partners.
Below is an overview of the major credit card issuers and loyalty programs, along with their transfer partners:
|Credit Card Company||Transfer Partners|
|Chase||Aer Lingus, Air Canada Aeroplan, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Emirates, Iberia Plus, JetBlue, Singapore Air, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic.|
|American Express||Aer Lingus, AeroMexico, Air Canada Aeroplan, Air France/KLM, ANA, Avianca, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, Etihad, Hawaiian, Iberia, JetBlue, Qantas, Singapore, Virgin Atlantic.|
|Capital One||Aeromexico, Air Canada Aeroplan, Air France/KLM, Avianca LifeMiles, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, EVA Air, Finnair, Qantas, Singapore, TAP Air Portugal, Turkish Airlines.|
|Citi||Aeromexico, Air France/KLM, Avianca LifeMiles, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, EVA Air, JetBlue, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Singapore, Thai Airways, Turkish Airlines, Virgin Atlantic.|
|Bilt Rewards||Aer Lingus Avios, Air France/KLM, Air Canada Aeroplan, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates Skywards, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia Avios, Turkish Miles & Smiles, United MileagePlus, Virgin Atlantic.|
|Marriott||30+ including Air New Zealand, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, American Airlines AAdvantage, Hawaiian Airlines and more.|
In addition to transfer partners, most airlines belong to alliances, which expands the number of airlines you can book award flights with. For instance, United Airlines is a Star Alliance member, which includes airlines such as Air Canada, Lifelmies, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.
By transferring your points to United Airlines, you can potentially book award flights on any of these airlines, greatly increasing your options.
Note that I say “potentially” because award availability isn’t always the same across partner airlines and can be subject to restrictions or blackout dates.
Generally, there are two types of award space: saver and standard (sometimes called “everyday”).
Saver award space is often more limited and costs fewer miles, while standard or everyday awards are more expensive but have greater availability.
When booking an award flight with an alliance partner, such as using Avianca’s loyalty program LifeMiles to reserve a flight operated by United, you’ll typically find that only saver award space is available.
This means that if you see saver award space when searching for flights on United’s website, it’s likely that the same flight can be booked using LifeMiles or miles from another Star Alliance partner.
It’s important to note that Chase is the sole transfer partner of United. However, LifeMiles has multiple credit card transfer partners, providing you with more options for booking.
Additionally, the same flight may cost different points in different programs. For example, even though you might be flying with United, booking that flight through a partner like Lifemiles sometimes requires fewer points.
Booking an Award Flight Step-by-Step
Concepts like transfer partners, alliances and point redemption value are a lot to try and make sense of when you’re a beginner. And it’s often at this stage where people give up. However, the best way to learn is through hands-on experience.
Even after doing this for over a decade, I still pick up little tips and tricks every time I book a trip with rewards. So next, I’ll walk you through a step-by-step process to help you put what you’ve learned in this article into practice.
It’s here that most people find themselves in one of two situations: either they have points but are not sure how to maximize their value, or they don’t have points yet and are looking for the optimal strategy to earn points for free travel.
If you’re in the first situation, use the principles in this process to explore available options based on the points you already have. An example is someone who has 40,000 points with Chase and is trying to figure out how to use them for travel.
For those in the second situation, use the principles in this guide to help you choose a destination and devise a plan to earn the necessary points. While starting a bit behind here, you’ll have greater options because you’re not limited to a specific points program.
Step #1: Brainstorm Potential Destinations
While you may have specific travel plans in mind, such as visiting Maui from October 14th through October 21st, it’s best to remain flexible.
For example, consider visiting Maui sometime during the fall, exploring one of the Caribbean islands, or flying business class to a European destination of your choice.
Being open to various destinations and travel dates increases your chances of finding award availability.
The primary limitation in booking these types of award trips lies in how quickly you can get approved for the best travel credit cards and how fast you can earn the welcome bonus, which depends on your spending.
Here’s a very rough guideline when it comes to what you can do with the number of welcome bonuses you earn, so you can get a sense of what’s possible and what’s required:
|Traveler(s)||Round-trip domestic economy flight||Round-trip international economy flight||Round-trip international business class flight|
|Solo traveler||1 credit card welcome bonus||1 credit card welcome bonus||2 credit card welcome bonuses|
|Couple||1 credit card welcome bonus||1-2 credit card welcome bonuses||2-3 credit card welcome bonuses|
|Family of four||1-2 credit card welcome bonuses||2-3 credit card welcome bonuses||3-4 credit card welcome bonuses|
In the example below, I’m going to have the general goal of visiting Maui sometime in the fall as a solo traveler.
Step #2: Open Up Google Flights
Once you have a few destinations in mind, head over to Google Flights and start entering both your beginning and potential ending dates.
Here’s what you’re doing during this step:
- Reviewing potential routes. Understand which airlines operate flights between your desired destinations, as this can help you identify which transfer partners might be most useful.
- Comparing flight durations. Some routes may have shorter flights or better layover options. This may help narrow your focus further, or conversely, eliminate airlines that require multiple layovers to a destination.
- Identifying peak travel times. By exploring different travel dates, you can understand when the busiest times are for your desired destinations. Award availability is usually scarce during peak seasons, so awareness of these periods is useful.
- Exploring alternative airports. Sometimes, flying into or out of a nearby airport can provide better award availability or lower costs, which Google Flights often shows. A good tip here is just to enter a city (e.g., New York) instead of a specific airport (e.g., JFK) and Google Flights will show all nearby airports.
Using our example of a trip to Maui, below is the price graph over time Google shows for flights from Chicago to Maui while filtering out excessive layovers.
When looking at the cheapest flights during Fall, they’re coming in around $540 on both American and United.
Southwest is the one major American airline that doesn’t list their prices on Google Flights. So if you know they fly that route (which you can check on their website), it’s worth checking prices from Southwest as well.
Step #3: Checking Award Availability Directly with Airlines
After our visit to Google Flights, we now have some essential information:
- Estimated cash fares (e.g., $540 round-trip).
- The most affordable dates to fly to Maui.
- Airlines to begin our award availability search with.
The next step is to check for award availability directly with the airlines — in this case, United or American.
Many airlines require you to sign up for their loyalty program to search for flights using point redemptions. In this example, American Airlines allows searches without signing up, while United Airlines requires you to sign up for MileagePlus, their free loyalty program.
To find award flight availability, return to the homepage of the respective airline and search for flights while displaying fares in miles instead of cash prices. This typically requires clicking a checkbox on the primary booking page.
Upon entering our preferred flight destination, American Airlines is showing award availability in September, with round-trip tickets starting at 45,000 miles round trip plus $11.20 in fees.
United flights are the same, costing 22,500 points one-way or 45,000 miles round-trip, along with $11.20 in fees.
Pay close attention to the flight details during your search. Cheaper award redemptions often come with longer flight times or multiple stopovers. To ensure a fair comparison with the best cash fare you found, make sure you’re considering a flight that aligns with your preferences.
Step #4: Checking Award Availability With Members of Airline Alliances
Alliance members often price their award tickets differently, and it’s possible to find the same award ticket for less on one platform compared to another.
For example, United is part of the Star Alliance, which has over 20 carriers.
Fortunately, you don’t have to log into every one of those partners to find the best deal; there are now many free tools that allow you to search flights across all alliances.
While some tools use a freemium model, the free version is usually suitable for our objective.
Using one of these tools (point.me), I was able to see the following options for my desired flight:
With Miles and More (which is Lufthansa’s loyalty program), you can book a United award for as little as 15,000 miles round trip. They also brought up the option of booking with Southwest for 19,688 miles (which would require you to transfer over 20,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points).
In our case, that Southwest flight — for roughly 20,000 one-way and 40,000 round-trip — becomes the lowest-cost reasonable point fare. While Miles and More flights are cheaper, they’re running a minimum 18-hour flight time.
There’s also no major credit card issuer that allows you to transfer points to Lufthansa’s Miles & More program; there’s only a co-branded credit card.
On the other hand, Southwest allows point transfers from Chase and has personal and business credit cards you can earn from.
Step #5: Compare Using Fixed-Value Rewards to Airline Miles
Our last step is to compare our:
- Best option using fixed-value rewards.
- Best option using an airline’s loyalty program.
The best redemption we found using fixed-value rewards was a $540 cash fare. The best value we found using airline miles was Southwest at 40,000 points round-trip.
When it comes to fixed-value rewards, the value of your points depends on the credit card you’re using.
For instance, if you’re using the Chase Sapphire Preferred, a $540 flight costs fewer points than if you were using a card with a 1 cent per point redemption rate.
To better illustrate this, let’s examine the cost of the $540 flight using fixed-value redemption rates of 1 cent per point, 1.25 cents per point (offered by the Chase Sapphire Preferred), and 1.5 cents per point (offered by the Chase Sapphire Reserve).
|Redemption Rate||Points Required for $540 Flight|
|1 cent per point||54,000 points|
|1.25 cents per point (Chase Sapphire Preferred)||43,200 points|
|1.5 cents per point (Chase Sapphire Reserve)||36,000 points|
Comparing these fixed-value redemption options to the Southwest award seat at 40,000 points round-trip, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the only card where it would make sense to simply use fixed-value rewards. In other instances, you’d be better off transferring 40,000 points to Southwest to book the flight.
The goal then becomes working backward to determine the optimal way to earn the points for the trip of your choice.
You’ll want to consider factors such as the annual fees of the credit cards, current welcome bonuses, and how the bonus spending categories line up with your spending.
Options here could include:
- Signing up for a Southwest credit card, which often offers high sign-up bonuses and a low annual fee.
- Applying for a credit card with flexible points, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve, which allow you to transfer points to Southwest.
How to Transfer Points from Credit Cards to an Airline Loyalty Program
When transferring points from credit card issuers to airlines, not all transfer partners are created equal. While these airlines have similar award costs for flights, earning points to redeem for them can be quite different.
For example, earning American Airlines miles can be more challenging if you don’t fly often or use their co-branded credit card. Unfortunately, no major credit card issuer allows you to transfer points to American. Bilt Rewards does, but they don’t have any current sign-up bonuses.
On the other hand, United and Southwest are transfer partners of Chase. This means you can earn points with Chase through sign-up bonuses and everyday spending, then transfer them to United or Southwest to book your flight.
The last thing I would do before transferring is to check the expected fees on the award booking. This is particularly important for international flights, where fees on certain airlines can sometimes reach thousands of dollars.
These fees can include taxes, fuel surcharges, and other carrier-imposed fees that can significantly increase the cost of your “free” flight.
Some airlines will provide you with an estimate of the fees you’ll have to pay when you’re searching for an award booking. Others make it harder to find, especially if you don’t have the points in your account to make the award booking.
A few last tips when transferring points:
- Always ensure that the award flight you want is available before transferring your points.
- Check to see if there are any transfer bonuses available. Some credit card issuers may offer bonuses when transferring your points to certain airline partners, which can give you more value.
- Consider the transfer ratios. Different airlines have different transfer ratios, impacting how many points you need to transfer to get the desired award flight. In most cases, it’s 1:1, but there are exceptions.
- Be aware of transfer times. Transfer times can vary by airline and take anywhere from an instant to a few days. Make sure to factor in the transfer time when planning your trip. A quick Google search should give you your answer quickly.
- Keep in mind that transferring points is often irreversible. Once you transfer your points to an airline partner, you can’t transfer them back to your credit card issuer. Ensure you’re committed to using your points for a specific award flight before transferring them.
Booking Reward Flights FAQs
Travel rewards credit cards are the most popular method for accumulating points and miles. You can earn rewards through airlines’ co-branded credit cards or credit card issuers offering flexible rewards programs. See our top travel credit card options for beginners.
If you value simplicity and not being limited to travel-related redemptions, a 2% cash-back card can be a good option. Conversely, travel rewards credit cards often have much higher sign-up bonuses than 2% cash-back cards. So, by applying for multiple travel rewards credit cards with generous sign-up bonuses, you can accumulate more points. As a result, the overall potential earnings from travel rewards credit cards are greater than the benefits of using a 2% cash-back card.
You can often book flights for someone else using your reward points. However, each airline has its own policies, so review its guidelines before booking a flight for another person.
Booking award flights well in advance increases your chances of finding available award space. However, some airlines may also release additional award seats closer to departure. That’s why it’s a good idea to always be earning points, and ideally flexible points with programs like Chase, American Express, Citi and Capital One, as you never know when they’re likely to come in handy.
Most airlines charge fees for booking award flights, such as taxes, surcharges and/or booking fees. These fees can range anywhere from $5 to over a thousand dollars; the latter is sometimes the case on international flights.
Maximize Your Award Travel Potential
Booking award travel may initially appear overwhelming, but it becomes a learnable skill with time and practice. As you gain experience, you’ll become more familiar with each program’s nuances and be able to make decisions faster.
What to read next: If you’re looking to level up your travel rewards game, check out our in-depth series on travel hacking where we cover everything from managing your credit with travel rewards credit cards to using similar techniques as you learned here to book free hotel stays.
You can also see examples of real trips I’ve booked over the years in my travel hacking case studies article.