Step 6: Putting it All Together & Making that First Booking
In this post we will tell you exactly how we make our award bookings. We will take you through every step from getting your first credit card to sipping on Dom at 35,000 ft in the air.
Getting Your First Credit Card
The first new credit card you sign up for can be anxiety provoking. But don’t worry if you read our Guide to Credit Card Application Rules and Guide to Chase 5/24 Rule you will be well on your way to getting that approval. Check out Step 3: What Credit Cards to Get for more details, but generally it’s best to start with Chase cards first.
Meeting the Spending Requirement
To get the signup bonus you usually need to meet a spending requirement, usually between $1K – $5K over a period of several months. During this time our strategy is to put almost all of our every day purchases on this card to meet the requirement. Make sure not to overspend as the interest you will have to pay offsets any points you will have earned.
Keep in mind that you may have slightly less than the stated time frame to meet the spend requirement. This is because the credit card company frequently starts counting from the day you open the account, not when you actually receive the card. You also want to meet the spend requirement at least a few days before deadline because it may take a few days for the charges to actually post to your account.
Once you meet the spending limit, the bonus will usually post a few days to weeks after your credit card statement cycle closes.
How to Redeem Hotel Points for Free Nights
Redeeming points may be the most complicated part about travel rewards. While hotel points and free nights are relatively easy to redeem, airline rewards can be more complex.
We will start off with hotel points and then get into airlines.
It’s easiest to go directly to the hotel chain website to look for rooms. Check the box for using rewards points. If the room type comes up as available book it and you’re all set!
Things to keep in mind when redeeming HOTEL points:
- Usually only the standard/base category room type is available for free night bookings. Some hotel chains allow you to book a higher level room or suite for an additional amount of points.
- Most hotel programs don’t have “black out dates”. If the base room type is available to be booked with cash it SHOULD be open to book with points. However while Hyatt and Hilton strictly adhere to this policy, IHG and Marriott hotels are allowed to “restrict” this award inventory. Meaning some IHG and Marriott hotels may block award dates even if the standard/base category room is available to be booked for cash. In short though if the room is not showing up to be booked for points, you generally won’t be able to book it for points.
- Most hotel programs have free cancelation for free night bookings, up to 3 days before check-in. However this may change especially during peak season.
- IHG, Marriott and HIlton offer a 4th (IHG) or 5th (Marriott, Hilton) night free on award bookings if you are looking for a longer stay
How to Redeem Airline Points for a Free Flight
Ok this is where things start getting a little confusing.
If you recall from my previous post Step 5: Understanding Airline & Hotel Points, there are a few very important points to note about redeeming AIRLINE points:
- Using airline points/miles means that you are using those points to book a flight on that airline or any of the airline’s partners.
- You will need to need to understand point redemption and routing rules for the airline whose points you are using.
- You are NOT transferring those airline points to another airline to book the flight.
Other tips include:
- It pays to be flexible when searching for award flights. If you can be flexible on either the dates, routing, destination or even which points you use, you will have a much higher chance of success than if you are only searching for one flight on one day using only one type of airline points.
- If you really want to maximize the value of your points, try to fly premium cabins to destinations in Europe, Asia or the Middle East. These routes often have the best premium cabins and service.
- Certain routes tend not to have as nice cabins such as intra US, intra Europe and from the US to Mexico/ Caribbean/Central American. Of course there are exceptions to this.
Use Travel Codex Award Maximizer to Find the Best Deal with Points
But how do you know if you are actually getting a good deal on your redemption?
The first way is to make sure you are getting at least 1.5-2 cents/point of value from the redemption for airline miles. Hotel points are generally valued slightly lower, ~0.5 cents/point for IHG and Hilton, ~1 cent/point for Marriott, and ~1.5-2 cents/point for Hyatt. However with many business class and first class redemptions you can get much more value for your points.
The second way is to check Travel Codex Award Maximizer. This is simply an amazing tool that I use every time before I make an award booking. Even though I’ve been doing this for years and have a pretty good idea of redemption rates, sometimes I am surprised by an especially good deal.
The way this works is type in your origin and destination in the search page. I will use LAX-CDG as an example.
Don’t get overwhelmed though. Check the cabin you want to fly in and scroll down to find average award costs and the cheapest award cost. In this case if we are looking at a business class cabin, Korean Air is the cheapest redemption at 40K one way.
The colored circles next to the airline names tell you which transferable points can be transferred to that airline.
If you want to learn more about that airline’s routing rules, clock on the “Learn to Book” box on the right.
If we wanted to fly a Star Alliance carrier to Europe, we could use either 88K ANA points round trip, or 60K-70K United points one way (120K-140K round trip). Korean Airlines is part of SkyTeam.
You probably don’t have ANA points at this point, but as you see from the transfer partners, both Amex and Marriott points transfer to ANA. Now you can start to see why transferrable points are so valuable! We could use 88K Amex points to fly round trip to Europe, or 120-140K United points. Of course using those 88K Amex points to transfer to ANA, we would then be subject to the ANA routing restrictions and additional fuel surcharges. We would also have to book a round trip award ticket, and sometimes that’s not possible due to award availability.
Ok let’s get back on track..
As you can see it costs 60K United points to fly United Airlines from LAX-CDG, or 70K points if we fly one of United’s partners. This isn’t a bad redemption by any means, especially since United doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges (which can be in the hundreds of dollars if not more).
At this point though if you followed our advice and got Chase cards first you will have a nice stockpile of Chase and hopefully United points. This makes it easy to use United points for an award redemption (Chase also transfers to United).
One point to note is that while this Award Maximizer tool is great starting point, there are several programs that offer fantastic value that are not on here (ex: Virgin Atlantic, Turkish Airlines, Aegean etc.) This is getting into more advanced booking techniques, so for your first few bookings, Award Maximizer is a fantastic starting point.
Now that we know what the award should cost, lets get to making that booking.
How to Search Award Availability for Flights
As you recall from my previous post Step 5: Understanding Airline & Hotel Points
there are 3 major airline alliances, Star Alliance, Oneworld and Skyteam.
In this case we will be using United points to book a flight on United or a Star Alliance partner (Air Canada, Lufthansa, Swiss etc). To search for Star Alliance award availability, I generally use United.com or Aeroplan.com
Let’s put in a test booking. On the United.com webpage put in LAX-CDG, March 17th, 1 adult, business class. Make sure to check the box that say s book with miles. I usually start by searching one way. It’s easier for the search engine to spit out results for a one way, and it’s easier to make changes to your booking.
As you can see there is “Saver Award” availability. This is what you will be looking for. We can see it costs 70K points for a one way, which is the same as what Travel Codex Award Maximizer told us.
There’s also an option to search for 30 days at a time, which can be useful if you are quickly scanning for open dates. As you can see in March there are a number of days available for the “Business Saver Award” level. This isn’t surprising as March is over 6 months away at this point and it is the low season for travel to Europe. If you try booking a few months in advance for a summer trip to Europe, you will see little “Saver Award” availability.
Going back to our example however, the best option is probably this first flight operate by Air Canada with only one stop. As you can see there are 3 tickets left at this price.
If you click on the details button, it brings up additional flight information, routing and aircraft. Make sure your entire flight is in the cabin you actually want (or at least the long leg of the flight). Sometimes one or more legs will be in a lesser cabin. Aeroplan is notorious for charging you business class prices, but the long leg of the flight is actually in economy!
Click select and it will bring you to the next page reviewing your flight details and the total cost for the flight. Since I don’t have enough miles, it brings up a warning on the next screen. This may happen to you as well if you don’t have enough miles. If you have chase points though, those can be instantaneously transferred over to United to make the booking. If you wanted to continue on with this flight you could . The next page would ask you to enter in passenger details and after paying your $5.60 in taxes and fees, this would be your flight!
Remember this booking was made using United points, so you have to follow United award rules. If any changes need to be made before day of travel, you would contact United. However you will use aircanda.com however to choose your seats and make your meal selection. Also some airlines will not allow you to book an award flight online so you will need to call the airline whose points you are using if that happens.
If you have any questions about making an award booking you can reach out to us at [email protected] or leave a comment on this post!