Rewards expert who writes the “Cashing In” reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com
If you have used credit cards to stockpile a lot of airline miles, or if you have reward points that can be transferred to airline miles, you have probably heard the advice that it’s best to be flexible when looking for award tickets.
That is usually good advice. If you have your heart set on flights on a particular date at a particular time into a particular city, you are likely to be disappointed when the airline says it has no award seats available precisely when you want. This is especially true if you are trying to fly at peak times, such as a Thursday or Friday evening (when people start a long weekend), almost anytime Sunday (when they return) and Monday mornings (when business travelers often start their weeks).
It is also tricky to find award seats at the lowest levels certain busy times of the year, such as Thanksgiving week, mid- to late-December, and around three-day weekends such as the Fourth of July. Cities hosting marquee events are also tough, such as New Orleans during Mardi Gras or wherever the Super Bowl is being played each year in early February.
You might occasionally find a deal if you fly one of these peak times, but often you will find the airlines want you to cough up more miles than the minimum, which makes your miles less valuable. Being flexible is the key.
If you are really looking for a good deal with airline miles – and have a lot of flexibility – you might consider the exact opposite approach from flying during busy times. Some airlines offer off-peak awards during times and to destinations they anticipate will attract fewer paying travelers. Flying to Paris in February, for instance, might mean your romantic walk along the Seine with your loved one might be cut short because of drizzly and cold weather (average high: 45 degrees Farenheit), but there is plenty to do and see indoors. And in any event, you use fewer miles than you would for a summer trip.
Of U.S. airlines, American is the most transparent about its off-peak awards. An off-peak round trip coach ticket to Europe – for travel between Jan. 10 and March 14 or Nov. 1 and Dec. 14 – is just 45,000 miles, down from the usual 60,000. A round trip to the Caribbean, Central America or Mexico between Sept. 7 and Nov. 14 or April 27 and May 20? Just 25,000 miles instead of 30,000. There are similar discounts to Hawaii, South America and Asia, with dates varying by destination. They’re available only for coach seats, not first class or business class.
Those lower published mileage levels aren’t guaranteed to be available on every flight, but they tend to be more widely available if you aren’t fixated on a certain flight on a certain date.
If you’re traveling with a family, the savings multiply. That can make those big sign-up bonuses on travel reward cards go further. Every major U.S. airline has an affiliated credit card with sign-up bonuses – usually more than one card, actually. In addition, bank rewards cards often allow you to transfer points to airlines. Sign-up bonuses after spending a few thousand dollars in a few months typically fall in the 40,000-to-50,000 mile range.
United and Delta don’t have the same award discounts as American, though their lowest-level awards are far more available in off-peak times than in peak times. There is much more availability to Europe, for example, at the 60,000-mile level round-trip in February than there is in July.
See related: How to use points on international discount flights
The same strategy also works on airlines such as Southwest, which determines the number of miles required for a flight based on the flight’s price and popularity. For instance, flying one-way from Dallas to Cancun in early April can be had for as little as 4,392 Southwest miles. The same one-way trip in mid-June starts at nearly twice as many, 8,568 miles.
The cash price for off-peak flights tends to be lower, too, so sometimes using miles during these times isn’t the bargain you might expect. But by flying when the crowds aren’t, you can often use fewer miles – which means you can save them for more trips in the future. And when you get there, if you have hotel points, you will probably find they will go further, too.