some frequent-flier basics (part three: award charts)

So in the previous step you found the price to purchase the ticket you want, now it's time to see if you can find a mileage reward seat.

Most airlines publish award charts with fixed redemption rates between regions (e.g., 50,000 miles for flights between North America and Europe). Additionally, most have a concept of a "Saver" reward and a "Standard" reward. Like finding low fares, finding Saver rewards often requires planning a trip pretty far in advance, flying at the very last minute, or flying at an unpopular time of day, but the reward is that you can get the flight for a lot fewer miles — often half of the Standard award. (Some have "high", "medium", and "low" but the concept is the same).

United Award chart for flights from North America to Europe

A few airlines (Virgin America, JetBlue) do away with the whole award chart and simply use a flat rate to convert your miles to cash (usually at a rate around 1.5¢ – 2¢ each) and you then pay the current price for the flight you want. So if you're flying from A to B next month and the cash fare $200, it'll cost you 10,000 miles, but if you're flying from A to B tomorrow and the cash fare is $400, it'll cost you 20,000 miles.
With revenue-based award programs the miles needed is proportional to the flight's dollar cost

The nice part about these fixed-value plans is that they'll usually let you use miles to buy the last seat on the plane, even on holidays. Whereas with the Saver/Standard plans the airlines usually only have a few seats on each flight that they've allocated as "mileage award seats" and on popular travel days (Christmas, Thanksgiving) there are often no award seats at all. This is why you hear people planning their first-class mileage vacations fully 12 months in advance — if you want to be certain you have 2 (or more) mileage reward seats together, it can be very hard to find if you don't book as far in advance as possible. On some flights there might only ever be a single reward seat in first class (or worse – none at all), so you might need some extra flexibility with your travel if you really want to fly up front.

On the flip-side, airlines will often release extra award seats at the last minute, so if you can be spontaneous (or if a family emergency requires you to jump on a plane RIGHT NOW and the price is sky high) you can sometimes find incredible values using your miles.

So if you're booking on JetBlue or Virgin, you're done – there's no need to see if there's a good deal or not since the value is fixed. If you've got the points, spend 'em! If not, then you need to see if there are any smart point redemption opportunities for your trip.

on to part 4 ➡️
<< back to part 2


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