Tips for booking holiday flights using airline miles

Summer Hull
Personal Finance Writer
Summer Hull writes the weekly "Get to the Points" column for CreditCards.com

Get to the Points

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Flying home for the holidays can easily cost a family of four an average of $1,496 just in airline tickets, and that is assuming you book a standard domestic round trip in advance. If you wait until the last minute or are flying internationally, that total can increase significantly.

The turkey and dressing, songs by the fire, time with family, and a lifetime of memories can be worth the expense, but what if you could have all of the wonderful holiday family time and memories without the $1,496 airline charge on your credit card to go along with it?

The fact is is you can fly home for the holidays without big out-of-pocket costs if you put your airline miles and credit card points to good use. If you think that you can’t use airline miles to fly on peak travel dates around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, that isn’t the case at all.

It is true you may have to spend more miles to fly on a peak date than an off-peak date, but it can be done, and if you use some strategy you can sometimes fly home for the holidays at the lower, saver award level.

Check multiple airline programs

If you have a variety of airline miles and credit card points to use, then this is the time to check each program individually to see what flights they still have available, preferably using a flexible calendar date search option. Some programs are generally better than others at making award seats available on peak dates at a reasonable rate, but you need to check each program to know exactly what is offered.

As an example of how one program works, United normally offers its saver award seats in the lower 48 states at 12,500 miles each way, but when a saver award isn’t available, those with a United co-branded credit card or United elite status typically can secure an award seat at the 25,000-mile standard award level each direction, as long as seats are still available for sale with cash.

Another great program to check is Southwest Rapid Rewards since it always has award seats available on points as long as they are for sale with cash. It does correlate the award price with the cash selling price, but Southwest has recently been running sales for Thanksgiving week, and when you book an award with Southwest points you can always cancel without penalty or reprice the award for fewer points if the price drops. Not only that, but with Southwest you won’t have to budget for checked bag fees!

Other good award programs to check for holiday travel include those from JetBlue, American Airlines and Delta.

Fly on slightly different dates

You probably already know that flying on the actual holiday itself or at least flying a day or two before or after the big crowds can save you money when paying cash for an airline ticket, but it also can save you a ton of miles when shopping for airline award tickets. If you aren’t sure which dates have lower demand around the holidays, target the green days on the calendar made by CheapoAir.

Currently, if you want to fly from New York City to Miami for Thanksgiving, there are no United saver awards available if you fly out on the day before Thanksgiving and return home that following Sunday as those are the peak travel dates. If you want to fly those dates it will cost you 50,000 United miles for a round-trip standard award, however, if you fly on almost any other days that week you can book your round trip for just 25,000 United miles.

For example, you could leave New York on Tuesday and come home Saturday and spend half as many miles as you would one day later.

Use credit card points

If you don’t have much flexibility and aren’t finding the flights you need to get home for the holidays with traditional airline miles, then turn to your credit card points that can be used at a fixed value toward travel.

As an example, that average $374 advance purchase domestic airline ticket to go home for Thanksgiving could be secured using 24,933 Chase Ultimate Reward points at a rate of 1.5 cents in travel per point from the Chase Sapphire Reserve when you book the flight through the Chase travel portal. In that case, you can book the exact flight you want without worrying about award availability, and you will even earn redeemable miles with the airline for your flight. If you do this, be careful you aren’t accidentally booking a basic economy-type of seat that doesn’t allow carry-on bags or assigned seats.

Fly first class

I’ve saved my favorite holiday award travel tip for last, and it is to consider flying first class to save miles. Since business travel plummets during holiday weeks, airlines often make first-class awards available at the saver award level even when economy seats are selling like hotcakes.

For example, if I wanted to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to Houston on the Saturday after Thanksgiving using my United miles, the cheapest economy option is currently 25,000 miles one-way. However, the cheapest option in first class on the very same flight is also 25,000 miles, so be sure to check both the economy and first-class award options in case it makes more sense to sit up front!

Unless you are OK rolling the dice and waiting until the last minute, I recommend locking in your holiday travel flights as soon as possible whether you are using cash, miles or credit card points.

See related: Use miles, points for last-minute Northeast fall foliage trip, Scare up miles, cash back on Halloween expenses, How to use credit card rewards to upgrade your flight


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Updated: 11-25-2017