The Zen of Cheap Flights. Part 3: How To Protect Your Cash by Using Miles and Points.
Miles from frequent flyer programs and points from travel credit cards are the proven methods to get those cheap flights everyone is craving. Sure, you need to sign-up and earn some miles or points first (but it’s easier than you think, read on). Rest assured though that your patience will be rewarded – those loyalty programs provide most opportunities to get real discounts on flights and are the best ways to fly for cheap.
There are lots of misconceptions about frequent flyer miles. Even the terms “frequent flyer program” and “miles” are misleading. The truth is, you don’t have to “fly frequently” to qualify for a program. And “miles” you earn have nothing to do with the distance you can travel. Surely, you can earn frequent flyer miles by taking flights, but it’s not the most efficient way to do so.
As an explanation of how frequent flyer programs work is beyond the scope of this article, we recommend that you read those two introductions available here and here.
Being part of our “The Zen of Cheap Flights” series, this article will show how to use your frequent flyer status and your miles collection effectively. Learn how to get extremely cheap tickets (sometimes even free seats) to anywhere in the world.
Are frequent flyer programs worth it?
There are over 70 airline mileage FFP (Frequent Flyer Programmes) worldwide. The frequent flyer status gives not only an opportunity to earn and redeem miles for cheap flights but also access to lounges, priority check-in, priority boarding, free checked baggage, upgrades, and more.
Joining the best frequent flyer programs can be a huge help while traveling both domestically and internationally. Let’s put it this way: If you’re booking flights with a major airline and you’re not earning miles, you’re throwing away free money (!).
Do some research before you join am FFP. Luckily, there is no limit on how many programs you can join, and most of them come with no sign-up fee. For a start choose the airline that has the most flights out of the hub near your, or the one that serves the destinations you are likely to visit often.
While taking flights certainly can earn you airline miles, it’s an inefficient strategy. For the typical person who only flies a few times per year, earning miles by flying isn’t all that lucrative. Collecting enough mileage for a free (or heavily discounted) flight would take so long that it would barely be worth it.
Luckily, there are much better ways to earn frequent flyer miles — and you don’t even have to visit an airport.
Hotel stays and car rentals. The vast majority of airlines have established partnerships with travel industry partners, most notably hotel chains, hotel booking websites, and rental companies. By using them you can earn anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand airline miles. For instance, Qantas will give you some extra miles for your Airbnb bookings and Uber rides – all you need to do is to connect your Qantas Frequent Flyer account with those two popular services. Further, you can visit specialized booking websites such as PointsHound and Rocketmiles, where you can rapidly earn miles for your hotel stays.
Shopping websites. Many airlines also have shopping portals or come into partnerships with well-known brands and shopping websites. You can earn points on your purchases. Look for promotions, as during the holidays the airlines offer extra miles and better deals.
Dining out. Dining at selected restaurants, ordering take out, or getting food delivery can be a fast, relatively inexpensive way to earn miles without flying. Just visit the airline’s dining program webpage to check which restaurants in your area participate in the program. You can earn even 3-5 miles per dollar spent when dining out, so it’s worth it.
Points conversion. If you own a credit card that accumulates reward points, or you are a member of one of the myriad loyalty programs out there, the chance is you can convert those points into the airline miles. Check on the airline website which programs are eligible for the point conversion.
Just go online or step out of your home, and you can start collecting frequent flier miles. As one magazine put it, “the biggest collectors of miles today are not frequent flyers but frequent buyers”.
Multiple partners of Asia Miles loyalty program. Earned miles can be then redeemed for flight awards for Cathay Pacific, Air China, British Airways, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, and Qatar Airways (among others).
One eye-opening tip for cheap travel worldwide
It’s as simple as that: get a travel rewards credit card and run your money through in order to accumulate points. Points are the same kind of internal currency like miles and can be redeemed for free/discounted flight tickets.
Travel credit cards are smart financial instruments when used properly. They often come as co-branded cards issued by a bank partnering with an airline. Choose a card that offers a sign-up bonus, as this is the fastest way to get tens of thousands of points right from the start. On top of that, you will be earning points from your everyday spending (in fact, there is usually a spending requirement before you can receive that sign-up bonus). The truth is: the right card can get you cheap flights in no time. A typical credit card user can collect hundreds of thousands of miles per year – and that enables you to travel for free.
Make sure to check the credit card’s terms and conditions, as you can find there some additional hints such as category bonuses – some kinds of purchases may earn you more than the others. For example, for every dollar spent you may get 2 points on restaurants, 3 points on hotels, and 5 points on airfare.
Qantas Premier Platinum credit card offers 80,000 points as a sign-up bonus plus extra benefits such as Qantas Business Lounges invitations
Here are some examples of co-branded credit cards for those who often fly in the region of Asia Pacific:
BigPay app from AirAsia is a step towards the digital banking platform. It offers an e-wallet connected to a credit card, money management features, money transfers, and discounts on AirAsia flights and add-ons.
If you are not sure which airline you want to go with, picking a so-called flexible rewards card is the way to keep your options open. Points earned with flexible rewards cards can be transferred to multiple airlines when you need it.
For example, instead of being stuck in just one program with little flexibility, you may choose the Citi ThankYou Rewards program, where points can be moved between Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Air France, or Qantas (among many others).
Both miles and points can have a different value that depends on how they are spent. In the following sections of this article you will learn how to get the most out of them, how to maximize the possible discounts, and how to travel business or first class without spending a dime – the comfort most of us would never be able to afford otherwise.
Miles or points?
Long story short: credit card points offer more flexibility than frequent flyer miles.
In the world of airline loyalty programs, there are two different types of currencies: airline miles and credit card points that come from banks. And they’re not interchangeable.
Also, you can’t combine or transfer miles between airlines. Sure, within an alliance it’s possible to use one airline’s miles to book its partner’s flight, but it’s not possible to combine those two different miles currencies.
Credit card points are much more flexible. While airline miles are stuck with that airline, bank points can be used like cash toward the airfare, or transferred to several different airlines. That transferability is what sets points apart from miles. It’s a better option for people who aren’t particularly loyal to a single airline.
And sometimes, there’s even more. While you don’t earn miles when you pay for a flight with miles, you will get miles if you pay with points.
Which flights offer the best redemption value?
Long haul, international, round-trip flights are usually the best trips your miles/points can buy. You can greatly reduce your travel costs as the redemption value here is high.
Shorter domestic flights and one-way trips tend to value your miles or points much lower. As a rule of thumb, don’t redeem your miles for flights shorter than 1000 kilometers or cheaper than $200. They will be worth 20-40% less, so better use cash and save your miles for those long flights, especially if you intend to fly business class.
Unwritten rule: the cheaper the ticket, the lower the redemption value. It holds true about 70% of the time. You will get the most bang for your buck if you redeem your miles for high-cost items: long-haul, business or first-class tickets, instead of using them for economy class tickets or for upgrades.
When buying fights with miles/point keep those few additional rules in mind:
To get the most out of your miles, calculate the real value of redemption. This article will help you to understand how it works.
Even if the points/miles values are low it makes sense to use them if they’re about to expire (better use it than lose it).
Not all miles are worth the same. A Qantas mile might be worth 0.8 US cents while and United mile is worth 1.3 US cents. It doesn’t mean that Qantas mile is less valuable – you need to take into account that Qantas miles can be earned at a faster rate than the United miles. It only makes sense to compare prices in miles within the same frequent flyer program.
A great advantage of redeeming miles for a flight is that airlines often allow to change or cancel the trip for a relatively low fee. And in case of canceling the award flight, your miles will be returned to your FFP account. However, if you cancel a nonrefundable, cheap flight-for-cash, you will most likely lose your money.
What is the best time to book a flight with miles?
It pays to plan far ahead of your travels. The cheapest tickets, whether you pay with miles or money, are becoming available around 10-11 months before a flight. This is the right time to book your award flight if you intend to travel during a busy time of a year such as summer holidays or popular events.
There’s another good time frame and it starts around 5-6 weeks before the departure date. This is the time when airlines know more or less what level of seat occupancy they can expect, as most people who use cash, have already booked. While airlines prefer to get cash over miles for a ticket, if a route has unsold seats as it nears departure, airlines will try to fill the plane by offloading award seats for loyalty program members.
The third time frame covers the last-minute flights – let’s take a closer look at what to expect during this period.
A surprising case of last-minute flights
Award flights tend to be more stable than flights-for-cash which, as we know, can fluctuate wildly as the departure date comes closer. A ticket bought a few days before the departure can easily cost three times as much (!) as the ticket booked reasonably ahead of time.
While the last-minute flight is a no-no when using cash, the frequent flyer miles can work really well for you when booking last-minute travel – for example when your plans change and you just must take this flight.
Besides the prices being more stable for award flights, some airlines open up more rewards seats during the days (or even hours) leading up to departure if they see that flight is under-booked. It may be caused by a weaker demand or by passenger flight changes and cancellations. As getting paying customers is less likely, releasing those empty seats for frequent flyers willing to pay with miles is just a common sense.
It’s not unusual that airlines even open up a business or first-class tickets for rewards if there are still seats remaining just before the flight. Even great airlines like Emirates, Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines make more business award seats available within a month of departure. If you’re flexible, this is the way to travel in comfort and quite cheap.
A word of warning though: that may not be the case if your airline applies dynamic award pricing which is more closely pegged to the price of airfare. Dynamic mileage rates will start increasing fast in the last few weeks before departure, matching the prices of tickets offered for cash.
Master the award charts to find a needle in a haystack
Most airlines show the prices for flights in miles with an award chart.
Award charts present the flight prices based on regions or zones: South Asia to Europe, USA to Australia, Middle East to North China, etc. A few airlines use simplified award charts where flights are priced in tiers based on the distance.
You can use those charts to find which frequent flyer programs are best for a given route.
Just remember, that award tickets are subject to seat availability at the time of redemption, and this is controlled by the airline at its sole discretion.
There may be also additional fees in cash, for example Singapore Airlines charges $24 in taxes for each booking made with KrisFlyer miles, plus $100 for each stopover on top of the first complimentary stopover.
Unfortunately, some airlines replaced award charts with multi-tiered, dynamic award pricing which is not that easy to work it out. Being more closely pegged to the price of airfare, dynamic mileage rates will start increasing fast in the last few weeks before departure. As dynamically priced award flights tend to match the prices of tickets offered for cash, it’s much harder to achieve a good value of your miles or points.
Singapore Airlines provide a lengthy award charts based on zones
An airline alliance is an arrangement between two or more airlines to work together. It provides several benefits for both airlines and travelers: the airlines within an alliance share flight routes and resources such as airport lounges, ground crews, and even their booking systems.
Airline Alliances also offer reciprocal perks and benefits to one another’s frequent fliers. This includes interchangeable miles: you can earn frequent flyer miles on one airline and redeem them on another allied member. It means more routes to book with your miles, easier miles collecting and spending, access to over airport lounges around the world, and recognition of one’s elite status by all partner airlines.
There are three big airline alliances: Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld, in order of size. Most major airlines and several large regional airlines belong to one of them. Among the exceptions are Emirates, Etihad, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, AirAsia, Southwest, JetBlue, and Ryanair. Those airlines sometimes form partnerships with one another that work similarly to alliances, just on a smaller scale. Some examples of airline partnerships are Etihad and American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Delta, Cathay Pacific, and Air Canada.
Please note that budget airlines usually are not part of alliances, and don’t form any relationships too often. They also don’t offer any loyalty programs, so you are out of luck when it comes to earning miles.
Understanding the alliances is the key to maximize the value of your miles. By leveraging that knowledge you can open the whole world for yourself and fly cheap flying or nearly free using your miles. The trick lies in choosing the airlines you fly and crediting the miles you earn to a single airline for an award flight at a great value. Often the best strategy is earning miles on less popular airlines just to use them to book a ticket on a popular airline.
Airline alliances practice bag interlining. You can start your travel with Malaysia Airlines, then change the flight to Qatar Airways without worrying about bag collection and checking at the stopover. When it comes to checked baggage allowances on such multi-airline flights, the policy of the first carrier usually applies.
Air New Zealand
South African Airways
TAP Air Portugal
China Eastern Airlines
Middle East Airlines
Royal Air Maroc
Flash sales: the cheapest tickets ever!
If you want to score the cheapest possible flights (and you are patient enough), wait for big flash sales. During those special, one-off events the airline sells award flights for dirt-cheap rates, charging far fewer miles than a regular price. The deals vary greatly, but it’s not unlikely to save thousands of miles on a flight with a halved price.
It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on airlines if you want to catch those supercheap tickets. Follow their social media accounts, subscribe to their newsletters, set the price alerts. Or, just visit Tiket2 Promo Radar page, where we publish an up-to-date list of sales and promotions from all popular airlines out there.
Generally, airlines prefer to receive money for the tickets rather than miles: it’s just more profitable this way. But they will offer flights for miles (and at a discounted rate) if the demand is low and they want to fill the remaining seats faster.
AirAsia is famous for its flash sales when millions of free seats (all you need to pay is the airport tax) go on sale.
Do not buy airline miles with cash, unless...
Airline loyalty (frequent flyer) programs offer a lot of perks for its members, including award flights at great prices that are paid in miles – the program’s currency. But is it ever worth forking over money for miles instead of earning them through flying or credit card spending? The answer no, in most cases.
While the airlines offer purchase miles programs, the costs can be pretty steep. The price at which miles are sold usually exceeds the value of what they can be redeemed for. It means that the award flight costs more than you would pay for the flight with cash – a very poor value, indeed.
Bottom line: it’s always cheaper to earn miles through flying or everyday transactions with travel credit cards. Do not buy miles with your hard-earned cash. Well, unless…
Airline miles depreciate over time. Airlines intentionally devalue miles by increasing the redemption cost or tacking on additional fees. Try to spend miles whenever you can.
Sometimes, it makes sense to buy the miles and redeem them right away. Imagine that the award ticket to your dream destination is available at a great price, and you have almost enough miles to buy it. The clock is ticking, the price may go up anytime. You need that remaining miles fast. The best decision here is to buy some extra miles and get the ticket.
Another case: you should buy additional miles or points when your current balance is close to expiring. Redeeming your miles for an award flight is better than losing them – even if you spend some cash in the process.
Third, last case: change fees tend to be more expensive for tickets bought with cash than with miles/points (up to three times!). If you are unsure about your travel dates, it’s another good reason to use miles/points, even if their values are low.
Don’t use miles to upgrade (or buy add-ons)
While it may sound like a good idea to use miles (rather than cash) to get a higher cabin class, prepaid extra baggage or in-flight Wi-Fi, it tends to be a poor deal. The amount of miles needed for the upgrade or add-on is usually tied directly to the cash price. You really can do much better by using those hard-earned miles for flights.
And often it’s not even possible to upgrade with miles. Only a small subset of fare classes are eligible for upgrades, and those are usually the tickets with a higher price tag. So-called “cheap flights” you can find on metasearch websites like Skyscanner, Kayak or Expedia rarely are eligible for upgrades. If you add up miles you pay for the upgrade and the regular price of a ticket, it may not be a good deal at all.
There is only one exception that justifies doing it: your miles are expiring soon and you are still far from the amount that could be used to buy an award ticket.
Airlines make frequent flyer miles difficult to understand and use for a reason. Hard to grasp and constantly changing rules leave customers confused, so they get rid of their miles for much less (often in response to catchy advertisements), increasing this way the airline’s revenue.
You deserve free checked baggage
We all know that: airline checked baggage fees can add up quickly, especially for families that often travel with more than 1 bag per person. These fees are typical $20-$30 per bag, which can easily set a family back a few hundred dollars.
Becoming a member of an airline frequent flyer program or signing up for an airline co-branded credit card can often solve this problem, and let bags fly free.
Typically, your checked baggage allowance will be determined according to where you’re flying and your frequent flyer tier level.
For example, when traveling on Emirates, Skywards Platinum and Gold Members are eligible for 1 additional piece of checked baggage above the baggage allowance shown on the ticket.
Some Qantas Frequent Flyer and Qantas Club members are entitled to an increased weight allowance of checked baggage:
Checked baggage allowance that applies to Qantas premium customers
When it comes to co-branded credit cards, you should pick up the one that offers free checked bags on every flight. It’s usually just one of the many benefits that come with the travel rewards credit cards out there, and truly a worthwhile perk.
In the United States the top award cards to consider are:
Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard – American Airlines
Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Car – Delta
United Explorer Card – United
[Appendix] List of frequent flyer programs
The frequent flyer programs listed below are the most popular loyalty programs in the region of Asia Pacific.
Getting the most out of your miles and points can be a tedious task. Luckily, the web offers some great resources aimed at speeding up the process. Let’s take a look at a few that we find most helpful:
Award Hacker. It’s a specialized flight search engine focused on flight prices in miles. It covers the most popular frequent flyer programs and can be used to find the best possible redemption options. There is no availability information, so you’ll need to look for it on the airline websites.
Milez.Biz. Global frequent flyer awards rate calculator. It can quickly tell you how many miles you need to fly to a specific destination.
Mileage Calculator. A tool providing mileage earning calculations for frequent flyer programs based on airline, route, and seat class.
PointHound. Hotel booking website where hotel stays will earn you miles from more than 20 loyalty programs.
RocketMiles. Another option if you want to book a hotel and earn rewards in miles.
TravelFreely. A website and mobile app that recommends the travel credit cards that would work best for you.
Maksim is an industry expert and digital editor at Tiket2. He is also a frequent flyer, travel writer, photographer, and the truest evangelist of the company.
Zen of Cheap Flights™ [Part 3] Protect Your Cash with Miles and Points
Frequent Flyer Programs (FFP) are proven methods to get the cheapest possible flights. Learn about tips for free (or almost free) travel worldwide, miles and points hacks, last-minute cheap flights, flash sales, class upgrades, and more.