Does it seem like plane tickets are more expensive, while your budget for holiday travel is the same or smaller? If you have frequent-flier miles, you may be able to cut your travel bill.
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To find out how many frequent-flier miles it takes to travel during the holidays, we've examined your redemption options on three major airlines for economy travel within the 48 states. To facilitate comparisons among airlines, we'll look at two of the most popular air travel routes in the United States: Los Angeles to New York (LAX to JFK) and Chicago to New York (O'Hare [ORD] to LaGuardia [LGA]). We'll also provide some tips for actually scoring a frequent-flier ticket during the busy holiday travel season. (For related reading, see Drawbacks Of Travel Reward Programs.)
On American Airlines, frequent-flier tickets cost either 12,500 miles or 25,000 miles, each way, depending on when and where you fly. Therefore, to fly between LAX and JFK this December, you'll need 25,000 miles each way, for a total of 50,000 miles, unless you can fly out as early as Dec. 13 or return as late as Jan. 6. If you're flying between ORD and LGA, you may be able to snag a 12,500-mile seat as late as the Dec. 23 or Dec. 25, but you'll probably need 25,000 miles to return home.
While American does not have any blackout or restricted dates for award travel, there are only so many award travel seats on each flight, so if you see a good deal, snap it up. You can put an award reservation on hold while you finalize your travel plans or book paid tickets for other family members who will travel with you. Make sure to book your award flight at least 21 days in advance, to avoid paying a processing fee.
To start planning ahead for next year, you may want to apply for Citibank's AAdvantage Visa card. This credit card will give you 30,000 miles after you spend $750 in your first four months as a card member, awards one mile per $1 spent and has no annual fee for the first year. It also gives you a $100 statement credit off your first American Airlines flight purchase and two miles per $1 spent on AA plane fare. The 30,000 mile bonus won't help you this year, because it takes eight to 10 weeks for the bonus to post to your account. However, the $100 statement credit and two miles per $1 will be available. (For related reading, see Best Loyalty Programs For 2011.)
On most airlines, one mile is worth one cent, so if you're spending 50,000 miles, make sure you're getting a ticket that would cost at least $500 if you were paying cash. If not, save your miles for another occasion.
One-way award travel on Delta will cost you either 12,500, 20,000 or 30,000 miles, for a total of 25,000 to 60,000 miles round trip. From JFK to LAX, the prime travel days of Dec. 22, 23 and 26-31 each cost 30,000 miles, and nearby dates cost 20,000. You'll have to depart by Dec. 14 to get a 12,500 mile flight, and most return flights cost 20,000 miles. Travelers from LAX to JFK will need the same number of miles, only the outbound flight will be less expensive and the return flight will be more expensive. From ORD to LGA and vice versa, you'll probably need 40,000 miles for a round trip ticket.
Delta also provides perks for its credit card holders. The Delta SkyMiles American Express card lets you pay for part of your trip with miles, so if you don't have enough miles for a free ticket, you could still get a discounted one.
To fly between JFK and LAX right around Christmas, you'll need 50,000 miles, with Delta. If you can leave as early as Dec. 19 and return as late as Jan. 5, you might be able to score a flight for 25,000 miles, but few people can take that much time off from work and the other responsibilities of their regular lives. Passengers flying between ORD and LGA have a good shot at getting a round trip flight for 25,000 miles or 37,500 miles. There are no blackout dates for United reward travel, but there are only a few 25,000 mile award seats per flight, so book early.
United also has a Miles & Money option that could save you money on your ticket, if you don't have enough miles for a full award. However, even though you'll be partly paying cash for your flight, you won't earn any miles at all on a Miles & Money ticket.
Finally, the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card could help you get a free flight next year with its 25,000 mile sign-up bonus and no annual fee for the first year. If you'll be flying United this holiday season, the card will also save you money on checked bag fees. The cardholder and one travel companion each get their first checked bag free with the card, which is worth $50 per person.
Choose the flexible dates option when conducting your award flight search, to look for dates outside of your ideal range, when you might be able to use miles. Being open to a flight that isn't non-stop can also increase your odds of booking a reward flight, but could also increase your risk of travel delays. Being willing to fly at unpopular times can also improve your chances.
You may also be able to save money or miles by flying into or out of an airline hub city. Also consider nearby airports; they may be less convenient, but the savings could be worth it. Finally, book your award ticket online, to avoid booking fees, however, you'll still have to pay government-imposed security fees of up to $10 per round trip.
As another option to reduce travel costs, some non-airline credit cards have reward points that can be redeemed for travel. If you have one of these cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or Citi ThankYou Premier card, look into using your points to pay for all or part of a flight. You could also turn your points or miles into gift cards that you can use to pay for holiday presents, if you can't find a workable reward flight.
The Bottom Line
Just as it often costs more to travel during the holidays, it also often requires more frequent flier miles. There are many variables involved, including your departure and destination cities and how far in advance you're booking. Sometimes it's impossible to find a frequent flier ticket that you have enough miles for, during peak travel times. If you're patient enough to explore all the options, however, you can probably at least find a way to use your miles to cut the cost of your flight, even if you can't cover it completely. (For related reading, see 10 Reasons To Use Your Credit Card.)