Secrets to finding great value in award miles

Anyone who flies should open an account with their airline’s loyalty program; it’s free, and even infrequent travelers might someday accumulate enough credit for an award flight, especially if they take advantage of the many ways to earn miles besides flying, such as staying at hotels, renting cars, using a credit card, or even sending flowers. But how do you go from earning the miles to booking that award? I’ve made this my life’s mission and want to share how to find good value from your frequent flier miles and get the most out of your membership.

Kauai visa signature card companion fare
My wife Megan and I on a trip to Kauai, Hawaii, booked using a companion fare from our Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.

Fly multiple airlines, but credit to one program

It’s easy to earn award miles when you fly, and some airlines make it easier to rack up the miles than others. Whatever you do, pick one program and build your account balance through that program’s airline partners.

One benefit of Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan is that even if you can’t fly somewhere on Alaska Airlines, you can earn and burn miles on 14 of their partners. Alaska has agreements with several domestic U.S. carriers, including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, and many leading international carriers, including British Airways, Emirates and Cathay Pacific. Just include your Mileage Plan number in your reservation.

Carefully study the award chart

There are lots of hidden values in airline award charts. Flights between an origin and destination are priced in dollars according to demand. But the cost of an award seat is often based on some other factor, like distance or region. That means an expensive flight could be a relative bargain if using miles. (Of course, some flights popular and will sell out, while others are so cheap it makes sense to pay cash.)

Routing rules for award flights are often far more flexible than for paid fares. Alaska will let you book a one-way flight for half the price of a round-trip itinerary, letting you book the outbound and return segments separately as you find the award space you need. You can also add one free stopover in each direction (stop in a connecting city for more than a day) to explore multiple destinations during a longer trip. Most paid fares require a surcharge for stopovers.

Searching for award space is key

Actually booking an award can be the most challenging part of using your frequent flyer miles. If you come up empty on the first try, take a moment to plot your route on paper and then search for each segment individually. Online search engines aren’t always good at piecing together every possible combination, so it really helps to know in advance which segments have award space, whether you ultimately book online or by phone.

Alaska’s award search engine is easy to use, allowing you to select an origin and destination and then see an entire month’s worth of availability at a time across most of their airline partners (Cathay Pacific and LAN award space are not available online but can be booked by phone). This makes is easier to find the best value for your miles. Keep in mind that Alaska will let you combine multiple segments operated by Alaska and one other partner, but you cannot combine multiple partners on a single one-way award itinerary. If you travel round-trip, you can travel outbound on one partner airline, then return home on a different airline partner.

Top redemption opportunities

Alaska Airlines and its partners offer several great award opportunities. Here are some that I’m looking forward to (all award levels are one-way):

Booking award travel to Fiji with the Alaska Airlines app

70,000 Mileage Plan miles: First Class on Cathay Pacific from Seattle to Johannesburg

Cathay Pacific has one of the best first class cabins in the air, and I slept so well on the way there that I forced myself to stay awake on the return trip to enjoy the other in-flight amenities. Using Mileage Plan miles to book another first class award on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong is a good deal in itself, and after my free stopover I can continue onward to Africa, India, or the Middle East at the same price.

62,500 Mileage Plan miles: Business Class on Air France/KLM from Seattle to Paris

One of the first “adventures” I took with my wife was a weekend trip to Paris. What woman would refuse another trip the City of Lights (and amazing cuisine)? Air France and KLM have several nonstop flights from the West Coast that make travel to Europe more convenient.

55,000 Mileage Plan miles: Business Class on Fiji Airways from Seattle to Fiji

Another of our aspirations is to visit Fiji, hopefully before we settle down and have kids! The problem with visiting most of these small Pacific islands is that few airlines serve them, and they often don’t partner with the major airline alliances. But Fiji Airways does partner with Alaska Airlines, flying non-stop from Los Angeles and Honolulu to Nadi.

12,500 Mileage Plan miles: Economy Class on Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to Dallas

Befitting its name, Alaska Airlines has the best award chart for travel to the State of Alaska, charging the same 12,500 miles each-way that it does for travel within the Lower 48 states. Most other airlines charge an extra 5,000 miles or more each way to visit Alaska. My in-laws really want to go on an Alaskan cruise and will probably choose a longer, one-way itinerary departing Seattle and flying back from Anchorage.

With a good plan, some insight into hidden value, and these tricks for finding the award availability you need, you could be taking your next vacation sooner than you think!