Purchasing a flight for holiday travel using miles? Book now
Award seats fill fast, but you might have other options
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. Every week, he answers readers’ questions about credit card rewards programs in his “Cashing In” column.
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When is the best time to book a flight for traveling around the holidays using miles?
Award seats fill fast and availability is usually limited around the holidays, so it's always best to book as soon as possible.
However, you might have other options, including paying for a flight using points from general-purpose travel rewards cards.
Dear Cashing In,
I have a lot of frequent flyer miles from using credit cards, and I am planning to go to my parents’ house for Christmas.
When is the best time to get the tickets and be able to use the miles instead of having to pay for the tickets? – Herman
If you have ever heard the saying “there’s no time like the present,” you should know that it also applies to booking airline tickets with frequent flyer miles.
Finding award availability can always be tough. But it becomes even more challenging over the holidays.
Any time the airlines have high demand for flights – around holidays, during the summer, on Sundays – they tend to make fewer award seats available so they can fill planes with paying passengers.
That’s why the usual advice to be flexible when booking award tickets is smart. Don’t expect to find tickets on the precise flights you want.
The holidays can be especially tricky. Not only are more people flying, but you often lack flexibility in destinations and dates, and you’re often looking for tickets for multiple people.
If you can’t find award tickets, paying for tickets can be a lot more expensive than usual. So, the stakes are high.
Finding award seats around the holidays
If your flexibility is limited, there are generally two ways to approach finding award seats.
- The first is to hunt for seats as soon as possible. Airlines generally make award seats available 11-12 months ahead of time. If you can commit that early, you might find some seats.
- The other possibility is waiting until late, maybe just before the flight, to see if something opens up – a much riskier proposition, because the seats might not materialize.
Although airlines say they routinely make more seats available between when they are first available and takeoff, there is no guarantee.
Waiting and hoping new award seats to open up is a gamble, so if you can find flights that are acceptable on miles, you should book them. The earlier the better.
See related: Best travel credit cards
Tip: Figure out what your points are worth before you redeem them. Some cards, including Capital One Venture Rewards card and Barclays Arrival Premier World Elite Mastercard, offer fixed-valued points. Other cards offer flexible and transferrable points. These include Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred. Do the math before using your points for holiday travel.
A third option: Pay for flights using points
If those strategies fail, another option to explore is using miles on airlines that have a lot of availability, or using miles and points that allow you to purchase tickets.
This approach might cost more in miles or points, but it can get you there.
- For instance, Southwest has award seats available all the time on just about every flight. If Southwest flies to your destination, or close to it, check that out. If you have Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can transfer them to Southwest.
- JetBlue also has a ton of availability, and you can transfer points to its frequent flyer program from Chase or American Express Membership Rewards.
- Or, if you happen to have Chase Ultimate Rewards points, American Express Membership Reward points, Capital One Venture miles or Citi ThankYou points, you can use those points to buy a ticket on just about any airline.
As the cost of tickets goes up, the number of points you need will rise, too – but you can get on the plane for the holidays without spending an actual small fortune on tickets.
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