The Free Flight Primer, Part One: Introduction and Taking Inventory of Your Points


Over the next week I will be releasing a series of posts entitled “The Free Flight Primer” in which I show, step by step, how to earn and then redeem frequent flyer miles.  We’ll start at the very beginning of the process and work our way through every step, from picking a destination all the way up to booking the ticket.  In between we’ll talk about tips for figuring out how many miles are needed for a certain flight, how to earn those miles, how to find seat availability, and much more.  I’ll be providing links to tools and websites that are helpful, tons of screenshots of various steps that may prove confusing, and of course, my own thoughts and opinions on the process.  I’ve decided to break it up in to multiple sections and multiple posts, which will make it easier to read and easier to use as a reference at a later date.

To better illustrate the process, I will be providing a case study of a real-life situation that I am currently working on for a client.  When I recently received a request for help on getting an award ticket to Italy in late September, I thought “why not take the readers along for the ride”?  If you’ve ever tried to book an award ticket, you know how difficult it can be.  If you haven’t, then just take me at my word.  While getting a free ticket can be exhilarating, it can also be tedious and frustrating.  Hopefully, after methodically breaking it down in great detail, you’ll be able to use this as a guide to make your experiences easier in the future.  Let’s get started!

Step 1:  Pick a Destination

Before you do anything, you should determine a concrete goal.  Want to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef?  Attend the World Cup in Rio?  Drink wine and nibble cheese in Tuscany?  While this goal may change as you move along in the process, it will help by giving you a clear focus on what miles and points you want to earn and how many you will need.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do you want to depart from and where do you want to go?
  • How many people will be going?
  • Are there any specific dates you want to travel?

Case study:  For Rob, my client, the answers are the Philadelphia/New York City area, Italy, 2, and sometime in late September, preferably between Sept. 28-October 13.

Step 2:  Take Inventory of Your Existing Points

Find and Organize Existing Points

Figure out what, if any, miles or points you already have.  If you are unsure, start trying to find “lost” points.  You can do this by signing in to your frequent flyer accounts at the individual airlines websites.  If you don’t even know that information, you can always try calling the airline directly.  I highly, highly recommend Award Wallet for keeping track of your miles and points.  It keeps all your miles and points balances in one place, automatically updates, and is free!  You can’t beat that!

Case study:  Rob informed me that he currently has 38,000 American Advantage miles and 18,000 Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points.

Get Creative With Your Points

See if any of your points can transfer to airlines or hotels that you have other balances with.  If you have AmEx, SPG, or Chase points, these are especially valuable because of the multitude of transfer options

Here is a great visual chart of transfer partners, made by idoru over at flyertalk.  Feel free to give him credit at this flyertalk thread.  Thanks idoru!

 Case study:  Right off the bat I know that Rob’s 38k AA miles aren’t enough to even book one roundtrip ticket to Europe.  But SPG are super valuable because they transfer to so many partners, one of which is AA.  And, if you transfer in blocks of 20k points, you get an extra 25% bonus, meaning your 20k SPG points turns in to 25k AA miles.  Since Rob only needs less than 2k SPG points to reach 20k, I’d tell him spend on that card as quickly as possible so that he can top off his balance at 20k.  Then, he can choose to transfer his SPG points if he wishes, bringing his total to a potential 63K AA miles.

SPG points can also transfer other airline partners with the 25% bonus, so Rob has 25k miles towards a ton of airlines, except for United/Continental, which transfer at 2:1 and therefore only give him 12,500 miles.

Step 3:  Determine How Many Points are Needed to Fly to Your Goal Destination

Each airline and airline alliance has different mileage requirements for their routes and sometimes there are even “off-peak” specials that you can take advantage of to get even cheaper fares.  Knowing what airline charges what for which route and at what time of the year takes years to memorize, so luckily the good folks at have created a search engine that will give us a good place to start.

I say to start because as of right now, does not include all airlines and only calculates the standard, regular peak fares and does not account for “off-peak” specials or any other promotions.  Therefore, it pays to still do your homework.  For example,  AA, which is part of the OneWorld alliance, has a standard economy ticket for 30k miles each way from North American to Europe.  However, during their “off-peak” season to Europe, which runs from October 15-May 15, you can get that same ticket for 20k miles each way.  The “off-peak” seasons falls just outside our date for this case study, but if you are on the fence on when to visit Europe, it may be worth it to push that trip back up a few days in fall or up a few days in spring to take advantage of these reduced fairs. would have not shown you the 20k “off-peak” fare, so be sure to check out the actual awards charts as well.  You can find a list of the awards charts on the Airline Awards Charts page.

Case study:  Rob already has AA miles, so the first consideration would be flying OneWorld.  We know that he will have to fly during peak season, and so a standard economy ticket will be 30k each way.  However, we want to keep all options open, so we’ll consider flying a Star Alliance carrier, which would mean most likely getting and using United or USAirways miles (which we’ll discuss later).  Checking the United rewards chart shows that Star Alliance charges 30k each way as well and that there no off-peak specials, so no matter which alliance we choose, we have set a baseline of needing 120k total miles (30k each way x 2 people).  You may think this sounds impossible, but reading a few more posts of the Free Flight Primer, you’ll see just how easy this can be!

Continue to Part Two:  Determining Airline Routes to Your Destination

Using Miles for Domestic Flight Redemption (What are you, crazy?)

One of the most common questions surrounding frequent flyer miles and points is “how much are these worth”? And while the idea of value is a major part of every discussion about points and miles, the funny thing is that there is no clear answer.  Each person has different travel goals; one person may wish to use their points to fly to as many destinations as possible, eschewing business and first class to save miles, while another person is equally as content to spend more miles to fly more comfortably.  So, how to value them?

CPM:  The End All and Be All?

Many people will attempt to quantify the value of their miles using cents per mile (CPM).  To do this is, you take how much a ticket would cost if you were to buy it outright and divide that by the amount of miles you must spend instead for that same ticket.  While CPM is a good place to start, it certainly only tells part of the story.

For example, let’s look at flying round trip non-stop from Tokyo to New York in mid-February, a trip I may end up taking.  The cheapest nonstop economy ticket on American Airlines is $1527.  The amount of miles for that same flight is 50,000 since it is off-peak season (September-May).  This would equate to just about 3 cents per mile.  If we look at the same travel parameters for business class, the cost for the cheapest ticket jumps to $9911, whereas the cost in miles doubles to 100,000 miles, giving us almost 10 CPM.  By bumping all the way up to first class, the ticket price skyrockets to $26,588.  The cost in miles for the same flight in first is 125,000, leaving us with a CPM around 21.

If we are only looking for the best value through the lens of CPM, the first class ticket is a no-brainer and the economy ticket isn’t even an afterthought.  However, I would never even remotely consider purchasing a ticket for $9,000, let alone $26,000, which means that CPM alone cannot determine the best value for my travel needs.  Being younger and able to withstand the rigors of travel more easily, I would almost always choose the economy ticket, which would allow me to take the same trip twice for the amount I’d pay to take it once in business class.

Using Miles for Domestic Flights Is Awful Value, Right? 

The discussion of value and the best redemption strategy only intensifies when you begin talking about domestic vs. international.  Almost always, first class international travel will give you the greatest CPM, often by a longshot, simply because first class tickets are soooo expensive (tell me, is anyone actually PAYING for them?).  There are many out there in the travel world that cannot begin to understand why someone would redeem valuable miles for anything less than the optimum CPM, but I would argue that it isn’t always so cut and dry.

A perfect example of this came up while I was planning my winter vacation to Australia.  I booked for flights from Tokyo to Melbourne with Qantas on December 21st for 30,000 miles a person for my wife and I.  However, I ran in to a major logjam in attempting to get tickets home, as all award travel leaving from anywhere on the east coast of Australia was booked solid through January 11th, and I needed to be home the 9th.  I got creative and found flights on Jetstar, Australia’s most popular budget airline, from Cairns to Osaka for $600, leaving January 9th.  And while I’ve become incredible spoiled and always get annoyed by having to pay for flights now, this was my only option.

Now, the problem became getting to Cairns.  I’d be in Sydney on New Year’s and since we wanted 4 days at the Great Barrier Reef, so the latest I could possibly leave Sydney was the morning of January 5th.  Of course, booking tickets during the holiday season only 3 weeks in advance is never an easy (or cheap) task, and even Jetstar, whose tickets between Sydney and Cairns traditionally run at about $130, was going to run us $400 a person.  Shelling out another $800 had me in an awful mood until I had an idea:  what about using miles?

Could using my hard-earned miles on a domestic flight possibly be worth it?  I checked the OneWorld reward chart (I’d be using American Airlines miles but flying Qantas) and was elated to see that a one way domestic ticket within Australia would cost me 10,000 miles a person.  I called, found availability for the evening of January 4th, and booked immediately.  After taxes and the booking fee, the total paid was $90, saving me $710 off the Jetstar price.  Since I was using 20,000 miles, I was getting a 3.5 CPM!  And while this was not the crazy 21 CPM of the above first class example, it is exactly what I NEEDED for MY travel (and pretty good for a domestic flight, to boot!).

So yes, domestic redemption can be worth it, especially when you make use of it at peak times when prices on tickets, even on budget airlines, are inflated.  And remember, it isn’t always the highest CPM that determines the value of your miles, but the best use of those miles for YOUR specific travel.

Three Takeaway Points:

  • CPM is a good place to start when talking about value, but don’t let it completely cloud your thinking.  It can be easily skewed by exorbitant prices on flights you wouldn’t ever think of taking.
  • Domestic travel is often eschewed as “not worthy” of using miles on, but if you use them during peak times, you can actually get a good value (CPM-wise).
  • Use your miles for what works best for YOU.  If you’d rather use your miles to see your grandma in Pittsburgh than lie on a beach in Bora-Bora, then do it.  You’ve earned them, use them how you want!

Have you used miles before on a domestic redemption, and if so, why?  Do you hate the idea of people using miles and not maximizing CPM?  Got a grandma in Pittsburgh?  Comment below!

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