Redeeming those fuckin’ points, part 2

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Ok, here’s where we actually get to the guts of booking points travel, following on from part one.

First off, I usually start at Google Flights or Kayak, just to see who goes where so I know where to start looking first, and also to see what the cash price is — if it’s low or medium, it may make sense to pay with points, rather than trying to transfer points to a frequent flyer program for an award ticket, which is more work.

If you have a low tolerance for research, then just find the same dumb flight you want in the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, or AmexTravel.com, and use points to pay for it. Or call them, if you are scared of computers. If you have the right card combo (Chase: Sapphire Reserve + Freedom Unlimited; Amex: Blue Business Plus + Business Platinum), you won’t come out too badly, earning between 2.25% and 4.5% of your spending (Chase) or 3% (Amex, with some limitations — you have to have more points up front before some are rebated back to you, and if you’re buying economy, it has to be on your single yearly designated domestic airline to get that rebate).

But If you’re prepared to do this right, get your loved ones and other distractions out of your life for an afternoon, and get ready for some hardcore flight searching. What you’re gonna need to do is go to the web sites of each and every one of the transfer partners available for the points you have, and see if they have award travel available. In many cases you’ll need to create a frequent flyer account with them first, before you can search.

For some airlines, searching for award travel is just a matter of clicking a box (United, American, Delta, etc), and for some, it’s like you gotta go to a whole different web site where you have to figure out where to “spend your miles” or some such shit. It’ll vary by site. For international carriers, you may want to also call them (I know, fun), because often their web sites don’t always list what’s available or possible (e.g. Singapore). Airlines all have other airline partners they can book you on, but their web sites might not show you what’s available on the partners.

Award tickets prices are usually based on an award chart. Some airlines publish these, and a few don’t (I’m looking at you, Delta). There are usually multiple tiers of award pricing. In the most basic form, there are “saver” awards — typically 7,500-12,500 for a domestic economy one way, and my rule of thumb is to double it for business or international, or quadruple it for both. When saver awards aren’t available “standard” awards are usually double the cost of Saver awards, or more. (Some airlines like Delta and JetBlue don’t visually distinguish, and have variable pricing — they just show you how many points are needed on a given date. That’s one reason I usually avoid these airlines for award booking — usually, you need a lot of points if the cash price is high.)

I try to book Saver whenever possible, but sometimes I just gotta book Standard when it’s not available. I also always check to see whether the cash price is low enough to make it fewer points for me to just pay with Chase or Amex points. My rule of thumb is that your average domestic flight is $250 one-way, so each mile is worth a theoretical 2 cents (but only when there’s saver availability). So when a ticket is less than $250, it might make more sense to pay with points; and when it’s more than that, it makes sense to get a Saver award ticket, if I can. For business class tickets, I consider an average domestic ticket to be around $750, making each point worth 3 cents — but only if you can find Business Saver, which can be rare indeed, so I often end up paying with points for those.

Keep in mind that you may actually find a domestic award flight on an international carrier — for example, I’ve flown American domestically, but on a British Airways award ticket. (Protip: if you’re booking less than 21 days in advance, this is a good way to avoid AA’s $75 fee.) So you really might want to look at all of the airlines you can transfer to. It’s work, but that work got us Business class to Paris on Air France outbound (Chase transfer partner) and Swiss on return (Swiss is an Aeroplan/Air Canada airline partner, and Aeroplan is an Amex transfer partner).

If you find something tasty, consider booking it as two one-ways, if that doesn’t increase your out of pocket cash cost. One-ways will give you much more flexibility if you need to change things, and frequently it might work out to fly out on one airline and back on another. There’s no award ticket scenario I’m aware of where it’s a better deal to book round-trip, except when there’s a close-in booking fee (if you book two-one ways, you’d have to pay the fee twice.)

If you want to start with the airlines that are most likely to be winners, after you’ve done the Google Flights or Kayak or whatever search and identified some flights you like, you could go to AwardHacker.com, or AwardAce.com, to get an overview of what the minimum and maximum amount of points you might need to spend on a given airline is, and which kind transferrable points can be used.

That’s practically the whole story. If you’re flexible on dates, you’ve got a better shot of finding an award ticket; it just takes patience. If you find one you want, though, pounce on it, because they’re usually scarce and sought after in biz class, and I have literally seen them disappear overnight. And no, I am not misusing “literally.” It happened, and it sucked. And many airlines (all domestic ones, anyway) offer 24-hour cancellation with a full refund, even for award tickets.

If you’re not flexible on dates, or they just fuck you by offering you nothing for an entire month, then you can certainly consider paying with points if the cash price of the ticket is low enough. For example, if a one-way biz class ticket to Cali is $600 on United on a specific date I need, but there’s no award ticket available, I might just spend 40,000 Chase points to buy it, since it’s in the ballpark of the 35K it would require as a business Saver Award (that I can’t even get), and well less than the 60K it would require as a business Everyday (formerly Standard) Award. And even if there’s an economy saver award ticket available: fuck no I do not want to fly economy. It’s full of…people. I’d rather pay with points for biz.

It’s also sometimes smart to pay with points if you’re trying to earn elite status on an airline, since from the airline’s point of view, paying with points is a revenue ticket that earns status miles. (And, in business class, double status miles, at least on United.) An award ticket issued by the airline doesn’t earn jack.

We clear? Anything not make sense? Fine. Ask it below and I’ll try to answer. But hopefully you’re re-reading this from 30,000 feet because you redeemed your fuckin’ points for the flight of your dreams.

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