With travel slowing to almost a standstill in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people have stockpiled credit card rewards that they haven't been able to use. If you're one of them, you may be looking to plan a big trip soon.
Finding good award travel deals is a great way to do that, but the process can be complicated. Here are some steps you can take to get the most value out of your airline miles and hotel points.
- Finding the best award flights and hotel stay deals can be time-consuming.
- The more flexibility you have with your rewards and your travel dates, the easier it will be to find deals.
- Some airlines and hotels share deals directly on their website.
- Using an award travel booking service can be pricey, but it could save you a lot of time and stress.
Finding Award Travel Deals Can Be Tricky
It's generally easy to shop around and compare cash prices for things like flights, hotels, and car rentals, but sites that let you compare award prices for travel are rare.
And while some airlines share award ticket deals on their websites or via newsletters, that's not the case with all of them. So, while it is possible to search for award prices on your own, it’s difficult.
How to Find and Book Travel Award Deals on Your Own
If you have the time and you're interested in learning the tricks of the trade, here are some ways you can find the right deals for your upcoming travel plans.
Tally Your Points
Before you start your research, it's important to know what you're working with. Take a look at your reward balances to see how many points and miles you have and consider how you can use them for your upcoming trip.
For example, if you have points with a flexible rewards program that has multiple airline and hotel partners, you may be able to land a better deal on a flight because you can use your points for multiple airlines instead of one.
"If you have an airline-specific credit card, you only earn miles with that airline. And if you love American Airlines, maybe that works," said Brian Sumers, editor-at-large at travel research firm Skift. "But if you earn the credit card company's [non-branded] points, you have some flexibility."
The same goes if you have co-branded credit cards across multiple airline and hotel loyalty programs. For example, if you've racked up a lot of miles with Delta and Southwest credit cards, you can check itineraries with both airlines to determine which one requires fewer points or miles.
If you have hotel credit cards, you may also want to check if you have any complimentary award night certificates. Award night certificates don’t require you to use points to book.
Check Airline Websites
Some airlines list some of their award ticket deals on their websites. Here are some examples:
- You can use American Airlines’ award map to find flights all around the world based on how many miles you have.
- Delta Air Lines lists SkyMiles award deals for select itineraries and dates, and it has a separate page for SkyMiles flash sales. You can request to receive emails for award promotions in the Preferences section of your frequent flyer account.
- Southwest Airlines lists its ongoing fare deals, which you can search based on the cash price or the number of points required. You can also sign up to receive email alerts about new sales.
- United Airlines provides a list of featured award travel deals and also allows you to search by itinerary and based on your miles budget.
Consider bookmarking each of these pages, so you can easily find them as you plan your trip.
Airlines are offering other ways to see flight values, too.
"One decent thing that's been happening recently is most of the airlines have a calendar on their website," Sumers said. "You can pull up the month of June and it will show you which days in June have the cheapest award seats to where you want to go."
To access these calendars during booking, check for a calendar feature or indicate that your dates are flexible when you're looking up itineraries.
Find the Right Time To Book
Award travel deals can vary by season and destination, so it's a good idea to have some flexibility with your plans.
The best time to start looking at award flights and hotel stays is as early as possible. Booking six to eight weeks out can be a sweet spot, but if you start looking at flights and hotels months before you plan to travel, you'll have more time to check deals without worrying about price increases as your departure date gets closer.
If you’re looking for cheap airfare for international flights, CheapAir.com’s 2021 annual airfare study recommends the following timelines, which indicate the ideal number of days in advance to book:
- To Canada: 58 days
- To Mexico: 64 days
- To South America: 80 days
- To Europe: 120 days
- To Africa: 96 days
Look to Airline and Hotel Package Deals
Sometimes, airlines and hotel brands offer package deals that combine different aspects of a vacation for fewer points or miles than you'd need to book them separately.
For example, through the Marriott Bonvoy program, you can get a seven-night stay at a category 1-4 hotel plus 55,000 United MileagePlus miles for 255,000 Marriott points. Category 4 Marriott hotel stays can cost up to 30,000 points per night, or 210,000 points for a seven-night stay. You're essentially trading the remaining 45,000 points for 55,000 United miles, which is typically enough to book at least one round trip flight. The hotel chain offers similar deals with dozens of other airlines.
Marriott points are worth 1.05 cents apiece on average, according to The Balance’s valuation, while United miles are worth 1.98 cents each. Trading your Marriott points 1-for-1 with United points through Marriott’s vacation packages provides your points with a significant value boost.
Some airlines that offer vacation packages you can book with rewards points or miles include American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and JetBlue Airways.
As you research your options, take a little extra time to find out what the trip would cost in rewards and cash if you were to book the flight and hotel separately. Also, make sure you read the fine print to understand if there are any limitations or exclusions that could affect your trip plans.
When to Consider an Award Travel Booking Service
Because the process of finding award travel deals can be so onerous, some travel experts offer to do the hard work of finding the best award deals for you. Sumers recommended skipping a paid service for a domestic flight because the savings won’t outweigh the cost. However, hiring an expert could be worth it for an expensive trip.
"If it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, like you're going on a honeymoon and you want to be in business class or first class and it's going to be $7,000 per person," he said, "the pros can probably find the deal that you want."
The Cost of Award Booking Services
Award travel booking services aren't free, so you'll need to compare the cost to the amount of time you'll save and the upside of the rewards savings you might get. Here are some examples to give you an idea of what to expect:
- Awardadvocate: $100 for domestic flights; $149 for most international flights.
- Award Booking Service: $150 per successfully booked ticket per person plus $50 for flight research, and $50 for an optional 30-minute coaching session.
- JuicyMiles: $200 to book a ticket on your behalf, $29.99 for monthly access to award searches and JuicyMiles services, $9.99 for five days of access to award searches.
- Award Magic: $179 per person for one-way or round-trip tickets, $279 per person for flights with three or more destinations. You have to pay a non-refundable $25 deposit to start your booking request.
- PointsPros: $300 for assistance in research and booking, $100 for changes to an existing booking, $75 to monitor opportunities for upgrades and flights with better layovers. Members can pay $28 per month or $300 per year to get complimentary and discounted services.
Choosing an Award Travel Booking Service
If you're thinking about investing in an award travel booking service, the cost will likely be a huge consideration, especially if you're traveling with a group of people. You'll want to research the process each service uses and also read reviews by previous customers.
Also, keep in mind that if you don't do the work yourself, you may feel the need to return to one of these services in the future. Taking the time to learn the ins and outs of award travel could save you a lot of money in the long run.
If you decide not to hire an award expert, you could use the Travel Codex Award Maximizer to get an idea of what a one-way ticket would cost based on airline award charts. It’s a free tool offered by Award Booking Service.
The Bottom Line
If you want to take advantage of deals and maximize the value of your points and miles, it's important to know where to look.
"It's not rocket science to find the best award travel," Sumers said. "You just have to be sort of obsessed with finding it."
While some airlines and hotel brands provide deal options on their websites, you may need to spend a significant time searching and comparing prices across multiple rewards programs.
In some cases, it may be worth it to hire an award travel booking service to do the work for you. Consider this option, though, only if you can afford it and the cost is worth the amount of time you'd save doing the research on your own.