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How to Snag Credit Card Rewards Flights in Peak Season

May 31, 2018
Credit Cards, Travel, Travel Credit Cards
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We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

As an elementary school teacher, Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie tends to take vacation when everyone else does — namely, during the winter and summer holidays. But that doesn’t stop her from finding great travel deals when booking with credit card points and miles.

When planning a trip to Prague with her mom and sister during her school’s winter break, she ran into limited award seat availability on nonstop flights to the city. But she pieced together the trip with cheap award tickets to London on Virgin Atlantic, then from London to Prague on British Airways. On the way back, she used miles to fly to Philadelphia, rather than New York City, where she’s based.

“We had a great trip. It’s one of our most favorite memories together,” says Sills-Dellegrazie, founder of the travel blog The Globetrotting Teacher. “It just took a little flexibility.”

Here’s how you can turn your points and miles into a vacation during popular travel times, too.

See where your rewards offer wiggle room

Your ability to snap up a good flight deal with points and miles depends, in part, on what type of rewards you’re earning. Travel rewards fall into two buckets:

  1. Points and miles associated with a certain loyalty program (such as United Airlines miles or Delta Air Lines miles)
  2. Points and miles associated with a certain credit card issuer, which may be transferred to other loyalty programs, redeemed against travel costs or used to book on your issuer’s travel portal, depending on the card (for example, rewards earned on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card)

With the latter, booking during peak season is a breeze; you can compare your redemption options and choose the one that’s most valuable. But if you’re collecting the airline points and miles, limited availability could present more of a challenge.

In this case, “always look at the partners,” says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, noting that some airlines allow you to book award travel through other airlines. In some cases, you might be able to find a similar route for fewer rewards.

Look for alternative airports

If you want to find a great award travel deal during a busy time of year, consider other airports, like Sills-Dellegrazie did on her trip to Prague.

“Look into Haneda Airport in Tokyo versus Narita Airport,” Hobica says. “Or leave out of Stewart Newburgh [in New York] rather than Newark [in New Jersey]. Or fly into Gatwick versus Heathrow” if you’re heading to London. By comparing different routes, you might stumble upon a deal.

Try an airline with high award seat availability

In the world of award travel, some airlines make it easier than others to score a low-cost award fare.

According to a 2018 survey by consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany, Southwest offered 100% award seat availability, defined as the percentage of queries that had a minimum of two award seats available priced up to 25,000 points per round trip. JetBlue was also close to the top of the list, with 94.3% availability. Because the survey measured the availability of “saver-style” award seats — that is, the least expensive award fares — airlines that ranked lower didn’t necessarily lack award seats. In some cases, they just charged more in rewards.

“United, American and Delta have plenty of award availability,” says Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorksCompany. He authored the study, which was sponsored by the travel firm CarTrawler. “But it comes at a price.” He notes that you may not be able to get a ticket at the “saver” level,  but you’ll likely find tickets that cost more in points and miles. To spend fewer rewards, look for those saver fares.

Book early, if possible …

The upside of a limiting schedule: It can often be predictable. If it is, you’ll have an easier time finding low-cost award seats before anyone else can.

“Book as far in advance as you possibly can book,” says Sills-Dellegrazie, who books trips when her school’s calendar allows. She gets her schedule a year in advance, which makes it easy to plan. Generally, with this information, she says, “you know if you want to travel over the holiday season, or you know if you want to take that trip in summer.”

… Or, book at the last minute

Sometimes, the best award deals show up at the eleventh hour. In the days and weeks before departure, airlines often add award seat availability to flights that aren’t selling out, Sorensen notes.

“Airlines like full airplanes of cash-paying customers,” Sorensen says. “In the absence of that, they like to have full planes.” That’s why they may add more award seats later.

As your break approaches, keep an eye out for these last-minute steals. When a deal pops up, be ready to pounce.

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