File this one under a category of “Mother of all posts.” The following will mostly be helpful to new(ish) miles and points hobbyists, but I hope my regular readers will pick up a tip or two. Are you ready?
Last week my gal reader who goes by the name of TropicGal has suggested I do some posts on economy travel. Her words:
“I would like to see more in-depth analysis of airline miles programs, showcasing “sweet spots” in Economy. Most of what I read on the other blogs focus on business/first class awards, and although I realize that’s where you get the most bang for your points/miles, for regular families like us who are not big spenders or fly regularly for work, flying economy makes the most sense.”
It’s true that this industry is primarily focused on “fancy” aka aspirational type of travel. First, let me say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with redeeming miles and points on business or even first class. I’ve done it before by encouraging my in-laws to splurge on upfront seats for their Boston-Dublin flight.
The cost was only 12,500 Avios extra each (it’s more now), so it made sense, at least IMHO. Next month my family of four is flying roundtrip in first-class to Seattle. I coughed up extra 100,000 miles (ouch!) for this privilege, something many think is a total waste on domestic itineraries.
Obviously, I don’t feel that way and in fact, strongly encourage you to at least consider business class redemption on night flights and when there is a better departure/ fewer connections. Personally, I would rather use extra miles to fly at noon than have to wake up my kids and husband (worse) at 6 AM and leave my precious stash of miles intact.
This blog was never intended to be a shaming mechanism for miles and points “elite” class. Ok, if someone complains and says that life is no longer worth living because they don’t have enough Alaska miles to become a member of “mile high shower” club, they should be shamed. Sorry, but it’s gotta be done!
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I honestly feel that how people choose to spend their hard-earned points is their business, pun intended. That said, for many families, especially those who are just starting out in this hobby, redeeming miles for business seats is simply not an option.
It’s all they can do to just get enough for economy tickets. Well, the good news is, finding four seats on the same flight in coach is WAY easier than in business. So, here are a few things you should be aware of:
1) If you live near an airport served by Southwest Airlines or Jet Blue and are looking to travel within Lower 48 States, those programs will probably be your best bet.
With Southwest you don’t have to worry about award availability, bags fly free and you can cancel and redeposit your points with no penalty. It doesn’t get much better than that when it comes to family travel! They also have some very good deals, especially if you book early.
There are even flights to Caribbean and Mexico, though coverage isn’t as extensive as that of legacy airlines. I’ve written about Southwest before here and here You might also want to investigate Jet Blue program which is very similar to Southwest model. Coverage isn’t as extensive, but they have a decent presence in Caribbean.
Both programs have co-branded credit cards associated with them. If you are looking to sign up for Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier version, here is my personal referral link. You will get 50,000 points after spending $2,000 in 3 months. First year annual fee of $99 is not waived.
You can usually find working referrals for Plus ($69 annual fee) and business versions in this Flyertalk thread. You’ll be able to use 50,000 points for approximately $750 worth of flights on Southwest or redeem them for $500 in gift cards, including Amazon.
The sign-up bonus on Jet Blue co-branded credit card isn’t quite as generous, but could still be worth considering for some. You can read about it on this page. The value you get per point varies between 1.1 and 1.8 cents, depending on the route.
Southwest Rapid Rewards points transfer 1:1 from Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Jet Blue points transfer 250:200 from Amex Membership Rewards.
2) Don’t automatically dismiss Spirit program due to bad publicity.
Folks in the miles and points hobby LOVE to hate on Spirit. Honestly, some of it is well deserved. They have a reputation for occasionally canceling flights and stranding passengers overnight, charging for everything under the sun, and the list goes on.
Still, there is plenty of value to be had as long as you learn the rules of the game and get their co-branded credit card. See my comparison between Southwest Rapid Rewards and Free Spirit.
Spirit is an excellent program for short couple getaways, as I just wrote recently. It can also be good for going to Caribbean for peanuts from their Fort Lauderdale hub. I know several people who flew Spirit without any issues, and my reader Audrey prides herself on being a Spirit-ess (her term).
My advice is to stick to non-stop flights to avoid potential issues, and get travel insurance that offers trip delay benefit. Think about it. Spirit is staying in business somehow and is quite profitable. If every single passenger had something horrible happen to them, surely there would be a negative impact on their bottom line.
3) Consider traditional airline programs that have cheap (ish) fixed redemption options.
Obviously, when you are looking to redeem miles for a family of 4 (or more), you need to find a way to stretch your stash. The biggest player in this niche market is Avios (British Airways) program. Some of their redemptions are downright horrible, and come with huge fuel surcharges. There are a few exceptions, though.
For a family living near American or Alaska Airlines hubs (or who plan on flying there), this program can offer some good deals starting at 7,500 miles one-way (used to be 4,500). I’ve mentioned their “sweet spot” redemptions on quite a few occasions, see my latest post here Avios lets you pull miles for family members in one household account, which can come in handy when you are short a few thousand miles.
People love to hate Delta, but with some flexibility, a family can get decent value out of this program. Delta no longer publishes their award chart, but some short, non-stop routes will cost you only 5,000 to 7,500 miles one-way. The trick is to find them.
4) If you are looking to fly to Alaska and Hawaii, very often you will do better by focusing on foreign frequent flyer programs.
I’ve written a post on ways you can get to Alaska in economy. Most of the time, you will end up paying 25,000 miles roundtrip, except if you live on the West coast and can utilize Avios program. It now costs 30,000 miles roundtrip to fly to Alaska via AAdvantage. Not a huge jump, but still. I also wrote about some ways you can get to Hawaii by utilizing Air France and Singapore KrisFlyer programs.
If you are wiling to navigate the maze that is Korean Sky Pass and are able to find low-tier award seats on Delta (a partner), you can potentially fly to Hawaii for only 25,000 miles roundtrip. Remember, this award has to price out at 45,000 miles roundtrip on Delta own website.
It’s a challenging redemption that has many caveats, but could work for those willing to go the extra mile, figuratively speaking. Read this post on VFTW on some of the quirks you will likely encounter if you decide to give it a shot.
5) When it comes to award availability, United will probably be your best bet.
Not always, of course. But in general, United has the best availability out of all American-based programs. That doesn’t mean that you should only invest in United program itself. For example, let’s say you need four seats for a flight from Florida to Alaska. And lo and behold, you found 4 roundtrip saver tickets on United Airlines on the dates you need to fly.
The problem: You only have 35,000 miles in United program itself. But you have 25,000 Citi Thank You points (plus a card like Citi Prestige or Premier) and 50,000 Membership Rewards points. What’s the best strategy?
Well, if it were me, I would first transfer Citi Thank You points to Singapore program. It does take a few days for transfer to go through. Once the miles are in the account, I would check if the award seats are still available on United.com If yes, I would then transfer 50,000 MR points to Air Canada (instant). Both Singapore and Air Canada are partners of United.
While it costs 35,000 miles roundtrip for Alaska award tickets that are booked through United.com, it will run you 25,000 miles through partners. In general, it’s better to book one-ways (permitted in all three programs). This will give you more flexibility if you need to make any changes in the future.
6) It’s always best to invest in flexible points programs rather than individual miles.
Why? Flexibility, duh! I’ve written several posts with a breakdown of all four major programs. While each has its pros and cons, my favorite is Chase Ultimate Rewards. But all are good programs to consider, especially when it comes to credit card sign-up bonuses.
7) If you are looking for inspiration, you might want to check Travelisfree “Cheapest miles to…” series.
Just as the name implies, it will show you sweet spots to various regions and ways to maximize your miles and points. You see how much it costs to fly to Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, you name it. Of course, the prices do change over time, but this series will give you a general idea on what program you should focus on.
8) If you are looking for a specific redemption between cities A and B, there are free tools to quickly calculate the cost.
You can see various award chart prices by plugging in your airport codes on this calculator on Travel Codex. I will say that it’s not always accurate, still, the tool is constantly improving. I really like how simple it is to use. For more advanced travel hackers, you might also want to check out FlyerMiler tool.
9) Large families should at least consider airline programs with mild fuel surcharges.
It can be extremely difficult to find 5 award seats (or more) on the same international flight. I wrote a post on some programs you should look into if you are planning to fly to Europe. However, before you burn miles, you may want to investigate my strategy in the last point.
10) Don’t forget to always check revenue options and be on a lookout for mistake fares.
If the price is right, consider just paying with real cash instead of redeeming miles. Last Friday I wrote about mistake fare to Europe, and in the past I was able to book tickets to South Africa for only $360 roundtrip. There are websites dedicated to finding these deals, and I strongly recommend you subscribe to receive alerts.
Some good ones are TheFlightDeal, SecretFlying and Airfarewatchdog Obviously, don’t go crazy and book every good deal that pops up. But if you just want to take your family somewhere on the cheap, a mistake fare could be the ticket, pun intended.
Well, it’s a wrap for now! I encourage you to always contact me if you have any questions on a specific redemption or route. You can find a list of credit card bonuses that you can use toward your award or revenue tickets on this page.
Readers, what would you like to add to this write-up?
Click here to view various credit cards and available sign-up bonuses
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.
Thanks a lot, Leana! I know posts about economy flights are not exactly click magnets, so I really appreciate it! There is a lot of info to digest, specially when it comes to redeeming on partners, foreign programs, taking advantage of stopovers & open-jaws, etc. But if you want to see the world on a small budget, there is no other choice but to learn the ropes 😉
A little background: Hubby doesn’t really have the travel bug. On one hand, it makes my planning easy as I can pick any place of my liking and he’ll just follow along since he doesn’t have any particular place he is dying to go to. On the other hand, travel is not high on his list, so he gives priority to other expenses like the latest Apple gadgets, home improvement projects, hobbies, etc. At the end, it’s up to me (and my much smaller income) to come up with travel strategies and funds. As I am late to the MS game (wouldn’t been comfortable doing it anyway), and banks are tightening up their rules, I’ll have to stretch every point/mile I can get my hands on.
So far, road trips have worked great for our family vacations, and we have also taken advantage of cheap fares to the Caribbean on JetBlue, since we live near FLL. I am lucky that I can fulfill some of my wanderlust through my work travel within the US, Canada & South America, although it’s not often enough to accrue a substantial amount of miles and/or meaningful status.
Biz/First would be nice, but if it comes to the point of “Economy or Nothing”, I’ll gladly take Economy 😉
@TropicGal I know it’s a lot to digest! I didn’t call it a “mother of all posts” for nothing. 🙂 I do think focusing on Southwest/Jet Blue/Spirit trifecta will probably be your best bet for domestic and Caribbean destinations. FLL is a major hub of all three. Definitely look into Spirit, I just booked tickets to Puerto Rico for my relatives for only 5,000 miles roundtrip plus $23 in tax non-stop from FLL. So what if you have to pay for checked luggage?
For flights to Europe, look into promo awards from Air France. At times, you can get a discounted economy tickets from Miami to Europe for only 12,500 to 17,500 miles one way. There is a fuel surcharge of $83 or so on outbound flights, but it’s still a good deal. Avios is great for Miami as well.
Overall, you are definitely in a good area to take advantage of many “sweet spot” redemptions. Email me anytime with specific questions.
I think families are best served focusing on a few airlines. I’ve gone all in on Avios/American and Southwest, with Thank you Points serving as a cash like reserve when availability is an issue. I find my plans work best when I have a lot of points in a few airlines vs spreading myself thin. Southwest is very valuable because their points are like cash in that every seat is available, and their domestic presence is focused on family friendly destinations. American works great because there have been so many ways to get those points with various sign up bonuses across Avios earning cards, AA earning cards, and the former us airways cards.
Spread too thin across airline loyalty programs, then families have to break up, or risk having an orphaned flyer on another airline.
I think that eventually we’ll all have to deal with points and miles subsidizing our trips vs. fully funding them.
Cheapblackdad, that’s definitely a good strategy. I really love Southwest myself, to the point that I took on extra minimum spending so I wouldn’t miss out on their co-branded credit card bonus. For most families, it’s the perfect solution to the problem, namely lack of travel funds. It also takes the frustration out of redemption process, a major plus for busy families. Most people don’t have the patience to stalk award seats the way I do.
Rapid Rewards is also a great commitment mechanism because you get 1.5 cents per point, so it encourages you to spend your stash on flights rather than cash them out on gift cards. But it’s nice to have both options. Unfortunately, not everyone lives near airports served by Southwest, so that would be the only deal breaker.
I do like Avios as well, but that currency works best for those who live near major AA or Alaska hubs or who like to fly there. Once again, some families don’t fall into that category.
I would have to agree with you, hobby environment is changing drastically. I have enough points for few years worth of trips, but eventually, I will probably have to cough up cash now and again. Oh well, that’s what Theflightdeal and Secret Flying websites are for! Cash is king, always.
I’ll do that too. MIA is our international hub, so focusing on AA/Avios makes the most sense.