Does it seem like the cost of airline tickets constantly increases, while your holiday budget remains the same or even shrinks? If you have frequent-flyer miles, you can reduce your travel budget significantly.

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To find out how many frequent-flyer 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 scoring a frequent-flyer ticket during the busy holiday travel season. (For related insight, read about the drawbacks of travel reward programs.)

American Airlines

As of November 2018, American Airlines’ frequent-flyer tickets to any of the contiguous US states range between 7,500 and 90,000 miles. Under the MileSAAver award level, tickets can be as low as 7,500 miles each way (limited availability and within 500 miles or less from the destination). Under the AAnytime award level, frequent-flyer tickets can be as low as 20,000 miles each way; this level has no blackout dates and miles can be used anytime on an American Airlines or American Eagle flight. To fly between LAX and JFK this December, you'll need at least 12,500 miles each way, for a total of 25,000 miles.  

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. Make sure to book your award flight at least 21 days in advance to avoid paying a processing fee.

To plan ahead for next year, you may want to apply for Citibank's AAdvantage Visa card. This credit card will give you up to 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles; 40,000 miles are awarded after making $2,000 in purchases in your first three months and 10,000 after making a total of $6,000 in purchases in the first 12 months of card issuance. In addition, the first checked bag is free, travelers enjoy 25% off on eligible in-flight food and beverage purchases, two AAdvantage dollars are earned for every $1 spent at gas stations, and much more. (For related insight, read more about loyalty programs.)

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 costs at least $500 if paying with cash.  If not, it might be prudent to save your miles for another occasion.

Delta

Delta Airlines employs a SkyMiles loyalty program, where participants can earn miles for flying and various activities. The miles can be used towards travel on any Delta flight with no blackout dates. One-way award travel on Delta will cost between 12,500 and 70,000 miles if flying within the continental US. From JFK to LAX, the prime travel days in December (e.g., Dec. 22, 23, and 26) will cost 41,000 miles each way. You'll have to depart by Dec. 12 to get the least expensive flight; however, most return flights cost approximately 20,000 miles. 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; if you don't have enough miles for a free ticket, a discount may be afforded to you with the use of the credit card.

United Airlines

To fly between JFK and LAX around Christmas, you will need between 50,000 and 80,000 miles with Delta. With United, 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 12,500 miles each way. Unfortunately, few people can take that much time off from work and away from other responsibilities. Passengers flying between ORD and LGA also have a good shot at getting a round-trip flight for as little as 25,000 miles. There are no blackout dates for United reward travel, but there are only a select number of inexpensive mile award seats per flight. It’s advisable to 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. It is important to note that even though you will pay a portion in cash, you will not earn miles with a Miles & Money ticket.

Finally, the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card could help you get a free flight next year with its 40,000 miles sign-up bonus (after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months after activation) and no annual fee for the first year. If you plan to fly 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 (a $30 value, each way, per person).

Additional Tips

If your flight dates are not concrete, consider using the flexible dates option when booking your flight for better deals. Being open to a flight that is not non-stop can also increase your odds of booking a reward flight, but it 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 will 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, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or Citi ThankYou Premier card, consider 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.

The Bottom Line

Just as it often costs more to travel during the holidays, it also often requires more frequent flyer miles. There are many variables involved, including your departure and destination cities and how far in advance you book. Sometimes it's impossible to find a frequent flyer ticket that you have enough miles for during peak travel times. If you're patient to explore all the options, you can probably find a way to use your miles to cut the cost of your flight even if you can't cover it completely. (For related insight, read about the best reasons to use your credit card.)