Frequent flyers have a renewed interest in airline promotions, web specials and other award deals. While these “sales” vary in scope and length, they all let you book award flights for fewer miles than usual — that is, if you’re able to jump through a few hoops.
With most U.S.-based airlines moving to dynamic award pricing and away from fixed award charts, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to determine how many miles you’ll need for a free flight.
Obviously, not knowing how many miles you’ll need to fly to Paris or Dubai could be a real problem if you’re actively trying to save up miles in your favorite program. With dynamic award pricing, however, your award fate will ultimately be decided by the airline gods and the number of miles they require once you’re ready to book.
With so much uncertainty hanging in the air, many frequent flyers seem to have a renewed interest in airline promotions, web specials and other award deals. While these “sales” vary in scope and length, they all let you book award flights for fewer miles than usual — that is, if you’re able to jump through a few hoops.
How airline promos work
So, where can you find all these magical airline deals anyway? Most major airlines offer ongoing promotions that can help you save miles, but you may have to check on their websites to find them.
For example, Delta SkyMiles has ongoing SkyMiles deals that often let you book cheap award itineraries like New York to Nassau in the Bahamas for as little as 14,000 miles plus taxes and fees. Air France/Flying Blue offers “promo rewards” that work similarly, making it possible to book flights to destinations like Europe and the Middle East for up to 50 percent fewer miles.
American Airlines has even rolled out its own “economy web specials” that let you book some domestic flights for as little as 5,000 miles one-way. The catch is, tickets with economy web special awards don’t allow changes, and the only way to get your miles back is to cancel and pay a reinstatement fee.
While each of these programs offers different sales, they all offer only short-term deals and limited availability.
In other words, airline promos may only be good for travel over a short time frame — and you may need to book quickly to lock them in. And since they tend to change at the drop of a hat, you’ll have to keep your eye on each airline’s deals page to wait for a sale that makes sense with your travel plans.
Where consumers can go wrong
Airline award deals can save you a boatload of miles, but there are plenty of restrictions that can make them very difficult to use.
Travel expert Jun Yun of Getting Away with Points noted that many promos only offer award sales out of major metropolitan areas, and even those can be limiting.
Yun lives in the Washington, D.C., area within two hours of four major airports, but he still has trouble finding promos that work for his travel plans. In fact, he says the sale routes he finds are commonly on obscure city pairs or to destinations he would never want to visit anyway.
Travel expert Kevin Payne of Family Money Adventure says that’s his main gripe about these programs.
“There may be a super cheap flight from Detroit to Denver you like, but you live in Philadelphia,” he says. “That doesn’t help you at all.”
On top of limiting departure airports for award sales, some fare restrictions are so specific that it’s hard to take advantage – like when they offer a reduced award fare for Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday departures only. Even if you found a deal from your home airport for a destination you wanted to visit, it wouldn’t do you much good if you could only travel Saturday through Saturday.
The duration of the sales can also be so short that it’s hard to keep up. If you’re busy and don’t have the time to check on airfare deals every few days, it’s likely you’ll only hear about promo awards after they’re already over.
How to make the most of airline promos and award sales
Airline promos may seem like a dream come true, but they work best for awards enthusiasts who position themselves to take advantage. Experts suggest the following tips for anyone who hopes to maximize their miles using award sales that change all the time and may be hard to predict.
Be flexible with your travel plans
Consumers who are best able to take advantage of award sales are the ones with the most flexibility in their travel plans, says travel rewards expert Caroline Lupini. If you are willing to travel on variable dates or consider a number of different destinations, you’ll have a better shot at taking advantage of one of these sales.
Be ready to act fast
Ariana Arghandewal, who shares her travel rewards expertise at PointChaser.com, says some of these deals are limited to a certain number of tickets, meaning they frequently sell out fast. That’s why you have to be ready to book once you find a deal you like.
“There’s no time for an internal debate or days of comparing deals with these,” says Payne. “It’s either book now or you’ll probably miss out.”
Consider driving to alternative airports
Since most airline promo deals are airport-specific, you may also want to expand your list of potential departure airports, says Lupini. The time you spend driving — and the money you spend on gas — can be well worth it provided the savings you receive from your award sale is significant enough.
Lupini says it can also make sense to take a quick “staging flight” to get to the right airport. For example, you might find an epic award sale from New York to London but first use airline miles to fly to New York City from your home airport.
Just remember that when you book flights on different itineraries, your final airline is not required to accommodate you if a delay or cancellation on your positioning flight causes you to miss your sale fare.
Keep your finger on the pulse of award sales
Since airline promo deals tend to be fleeting, you’ll really need to look for them on a regular basis. It might be smart to check all of your favorite “deals” pages a few times per week. And it never hurts to follow your favorite frequent flyer programs on social media.
“Be sure to sign up or opt-in for marketing emails and promotion emails from all of the airlines you have a loyalty account with,” says Yun. “They may be considered junk emails to some, but they are valuable when it comes to finding out the latest in sales and deals.”
Have your miles ready
Finally, you need a stash of miles you can rely on when the perfect award sale strikes. You can earn miles by flying with airlines, of course, but you can also do it with a co-branded airline credit card that lets you earn airline miles for each dollar you spend.
Yun says you can also consider signing up for a credit card that lets you earn points that transfer to airline loyalty programs, including cards in the Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards programs.
That way, you can keep earning and banking miles and wait to transfer them until you’re ready.