Editorial Policy

Using Your Rewards Miles on Holiday Travel

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By Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.
October 29, 2012

QHi Eva,

I’m trying to get tickets home for the holidays with my AAdvantage card rewards. I have 40,000 banked. Is it even possible to get reasonable rewards flights around the holidays? And what are your tips for doing so? — Sara

ADear Sara,

Well, everything is relative. In the same way as you can expect to pay a premium for airline tickets when flying over the holiday season, for the most part, the number of miles required for a free rewards trip will be higher, too, in peak travel periods.

That said, if you have some flexibility in your travel schedule and don’t mind early-morning departures or late-evening arrivals, it is possible to book your AAdvantage rewards flight at a very reasonable rate — as low as 25,000 miles.Ask Eva

The online AAdvantage booking system allows you to easily see which flights are available in different redemption categories on different dates. For example, at the time this was written, a trip from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to New York City will cost you 37,500 to 50,000 miles if you opt to fly out on Dec. 20 and return on Dec. 28. However, leave a day earlier, on Dec. 19, and return on Dec. 27 instead, and that same trip can be had for 25,000 miles. If you were to pay for the same ticket, it clocks in at $459, so your rewards miles would be saving you a pretty penny.

Similarly, if you were to fly from Kansas City, Mo., to San Francisco, Calif., you can get a free rewards trip for 25,000 miles by leaving on Dec. 18 and returning on Dec. 26. If you fly at any other time during the holiday season, again, you’re looking at 37,500 to 50,000 miles.

Of course, you need to take into account the trade-offs. If leaving earlier means missing a work day, well, that rewards ticket may not really save you any money. Similarly, if catching an early morning flight forces you to spend a night in the hotel by the airport or rent a car longer, the savings may not be worth it. So these are important things to consider when researching your free rewards flight options.

Here are a few additional tips for finding the best holiday deals:

1. Check different routes. If you have the option to fly into or out of different airports, check rewards pricing for all of them. Large cities have a generic code, which allows you to include all airports in that city. For example, airport code NYC will enable you to get a listing of all rewards flight options going into all airports in the New York City area. This makes it easy to quickly get an overview of the best rewards options.

However, if you’re not flying out of (or into) a large U.S. city, you’ll have to check your target airports individually. Prices can vary tremendously between airports within a one- to two-hour radius. For example, flights out of airports that serve discount airlines, like AirTran, tend to be more competitively priced — and that could mean more rewards flight options as well.

2. Start early and keep checking. Rewards flight availability often changes quite a bit. So if you don’t find an option you like at first, keep checking back every few days over a week or two. One caveat, of course, is to not wait too long, as prices are more likely to go up rather than down, the closer you get to the holidays.

3. Don’t buy extra miles. Most airline rewards programs allow you to pay cash for extra miles if your existing balance isn’t quite high enough. If you can’t find a suitable flight using your existing miles, it’s easy to get tempted into buy the extra miles.

However, buying miles directly from your frequent flier program is rarely worthwhile. The cost of miles typically clocks in at 2.75 cents to 3 cents per mile. In your case, purchasing an extra 10,000 miles to bring you to 50,000 miles would cost you a full $275 — essentially meaning that you can wave goodbye to any real rewards travel savings.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.