When it Pays to be Flexible With Your Award Travel

By Julian Mark Kheel, ContributorOct. 30, 2014
By Julian Mark Kheel, ContributorOct. 30, 2014, at 11:42 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

When it Pays to be Flexible With Your Award Travel

Perhaps you've walked into a local neighborhood store and spotted a sign on the wall that read, "Cheap, Fast, Good — pick any two." 

This is informally known as the "Value Triangle" and it describes how customers sometimes have to compromise on one of their priorities. If you want a high-quality product or service at a low price, you'll likely have to wait for it. If you want that same quality with a quick turnaround, it'll cost you extra. But if you want it fast and cheap, you usually get what you pay for.

Travelers often get frustrated when they attempt to redeem airline award miles. But you can make the process easier if you think of award tickets using the same "triangle" concept. Only when it comes to using airline miles, the points of the value triangle are dates, speed and price. With a little bit of flexibility, you can still have two of these three.

The reason it can be difficult to redeem miles is because airlines limit the number of seats available at the lowest award levels, and they make those determinations based on supply and demand. If the airline thinks it can sell those seats for cash, it's much less likely to release the seats for cheap mileage redemptions — making award space extremely limited on the most popular travel dates. 

If you're hoping to fly home using miles on the Friday before Christmas, you probably won't have much luck. But there's much less demand for seats on Christmas Day. You might be able to book a 9 a.m. flight using miles and still make it home in time for Christmas dinner. On the way back, if you're open to flying on New Years Day, when everyone else is still recovering from the festivities, you may end up snagging a free round-trip ticket for the entire holiday.

How about that European vacation you've been dying to take? If you're hoping to travel in the highly popular summer months, you're going to be disillusioned when you look for a ticket using miles. But in the winter, flights to Europe are nowhere near as full, and there's often a bounty of award redemptions available. Instead of a June trip to Greece's beaches, why not make it a ski vacation in the Alps, or experience a true German Oktoberfest?

Perhaps your schedule only allows you to get away to Paris in August, or you simply must be home on Christmas morning to see your niece or nephew open presents under the tree. In that case, you might need to compromise on speed. 

Demand for nonstop flights is high, and airlines act accordingly by releasing limited award space. Trying to use miles to get from Los Angeles to New York without a connection during the holiday season may prove impossible, and finding availability on a Chicago to Paris nonstop flight is going to be a major challenge in the summer months.

Look for award tickets that involve a bit of inconvenience. If you're willing to change planes in Columbus, Ohio or Salt Lake City, you'll have more luck redeeming that free coast-to-coast ticket. If you're willing to make more than one connection, you'll probably have a lot more luck. Consider the routes that no one else wants to fly — that's where you'll be able to redeem miles to get where you want to go.

If you're going from Chicago to Paris in July, you'll have some extra options if you can stop in New York or Washington, D.C. on the way there. But don't forget you can make connections on the other side of the Atlantic too, and that opens up a ton of other possibilities. Chicago to Paris nonstop may not have any redemption options, but Chicago to Dusseldorf, Germany or Chicago to Brussels will likely be much more open. When you're willing to make a connection in Germany, or even spend a night in Belgium before taking a short flight onward to Paris, the availability of mileage tickets opens up considerably.

Sometimes, we don't have any flexibility in when we can travel or how long we can take to get there. In that case, look to compromise on the third point of the Value Triangle — price.

Most mile collectors think a domestic round-trip ticket costs 25,000 miles, but that's only the lowest price level. Every domestic airline has multiple award levels, and the higher ones have a great deal more seat availability. If you can't find that nonstop holiday award ticket at 25,000 miles, you may be able to find it for 50,000 miles.

But aren't you getting less value for your miles by redeeming at the higher price? Not necessarily. When you pay for an airline ticket with cash, it's not unreasonable to expect to pay more for flights at popular times on more desirable routes. The same is often true of the price in miles.

If you're saving the cost of a $2,000 airline ticket to Europe by spending 130,000 miles, you're still getting 1½ cents for each of your miles. Maybe that redemption won't maximize the value of your miles, but if it means you can take a trip that you wouldn't be able to afford otherwise, it's a great redemption no matter how much value you're getting.

Like any other currency, miles lose value over time. A mile unused is a mile wasted. In other words, don't hoard miles. Use them for trips that matter. Just be ready to be flexible on when, how long or how much it costs to get there.

About the author: Julian Mark Kheel learned the ins and outs of travel loyalty programs while flying more than 200,000 miles a year as a TV producer and director. He takes a contrarian view on travel wisdom in his "Devil’s Advocate" series every Thursday at the blog Travel Codex. You can also reach him on Twitter @dvlsadvcate.

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