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Those who are passionate about travel rewards have long known that international award flights in business and first class are among the best ways to redeem your points and miles.
It’s not uncommon to redeem something like 140,000 miles for a business class ticket that would have cost $6,000 or more. These awards can often give you something like four or five cents in value per point or mile redeemed.
And just as with so many other things in 2022, there’s a shortage of available award travel seats on international business class flights, at the lowest mileage levels. It often seems like all that is left are awards at highly inflated prices, or no awards at all. But don’t give up hope, as there are still ways to snag those coveted seats if you’re crafty and persistent.
1. Understand transfer partners and airline partnerships.
The key to finding available award seats is to understand both how credit card issuers partner with frequent flyer programs and how these programs partner with other airlines.
First, there are the major travel rewards programs operated by credit card issuers. These include Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points and Capital One Miles. Each of these programs allows you to transfer points to miles with one of several airlines, which is incredibly valuable.
But there’s more. Each of the airlines that you can transfer your rewards to will allow you to redeem your miles for flights with its many partners. For example, the United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flyer program is a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, used by cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® and Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
Chase Sapphire Preferred®
Secure application on issuer’s website
- Our Rating 5/5 Read the review
- APR20.24% – 27.24% (Variable)
- Annual Fee$95
60,000Chase Ultimate Rewards Points
Earn 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $1,320 (60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points * .022 base)
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is at the top of our list of starter travel rewards cards. Between a digestible $95 annual fee, valuable Chase Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to over a dozen hotel and airline partners, and easy ways to earn points, this is a top card for rewards beginners and experts alike.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred actually works like having over a dozen different rewards credit cards. That’s because this credit card allows you to transfer your rewards points into miles with 11 airlines and points with three hotel programs.
Although the Chase Sapphire Preferred might not be ideal for the most frequent travelers and highest spenders, it’s part of a family of Chase cards that has a built-in upgrade path. So when it comes time to take your travel rewards game to the next level, you won’t have to start from scratch with an entirely different credit card and rewards program.
The card has a $95 annual fee, but the $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit effectively reduces that fee to $45. Plus, the credit card allows you to continue earning points through bonus categories and a 10% anniversary points boost. But when it comes time to redeem your rewards for travel, this card really shines. You can take advantage of some really strong transfer partners such as United, Southwest, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Hyatt. Similarly, you can just book any reservation you want through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
- Points are easily transferable to airlines and hotel partners
- Accelerated earnings on dining, travel & household purchases
- Excellent travel and purchase protections
- No foreign transaction fees
- Not ideal for the highest spenders
- $95 annual fee
United will then allow you to redeem your miles for flights on United and any one of its 25 Star Alliance Partners, such as Air Canada and Lufthansa. You an also redeem your miles on several non-alliance partners such as Aer Lingus and Hawaiian Airlines.
The Star Alliance is one of the world’s three major airline alliances. The others are SkyTeam which includes Delta, Air France and KLM, and OneWorld which includes American, British Airways and Qantas.
Miles earned with any member of these alliances can be redeemed with any other member. Once you understand how these rewards programs and airline alliances work, you can use your miles for some incredible things. For example, you can transfer your American Express Membership Rewards to ANA Airlines of Japan, which will allow you to redeem them for flights on their Star Alliance partners to the Middle East and Africa. These awards are just 104,000 miles round-trip, in business class.
2. Mix and match flights.
It’s extremely difficult to find available business class award seats at the lowest mileage levels, and many people give up after a few brief searches. But the available seats are often there for those who look the hardest. First, keep in mind that most airlines will allow you to book one-way award flights for half the mileage of a round-trip. So there’s no reason that why you can’t redeem your American Airlines miles for the flight out, and your United miles for the return.
If you still can’t find an award for the leg you need, try searching portions of it. For example, if you wanted to travel from Denver to Milan, you could search for flights from gateways such as JFK, Chicago and Atlanta, and then add a positioning flight on another airline. Likewise, you might find a flight from Denver to Paris, and then book a discount carrier the rest of the way to Milan. Just be sure to leave plenty of time between two flights on different tickets, or just use the opportunity to stopover and see another city.
3. Leverage schedule changes.
Making travel plans in 2022 usually means enduring frequent schedule changes as airlines try to adjust for rapidly changing passenger demand, as well as aircraft and crew availability.
But instead of getting frustrated when an airline changes your ticket, think of it as an amazing opportunity. That’s because most airlines will let you change your flight to any other that it operates, regardless of availability. So while you might have selected a low-priced award flight that has a circuitous routing and long connection times, you could use the schedule change to request a more direct route with a shorter travel time. Just remember that an airline can only open up award space on the flights that it operates, not on partner flights. But knowing this trick can allow you to book less than ideal flights, and have the opportunity to change them to your preferred flights at the first instance of a schedule change.
4. Book early.
There are several reasons why you’ll want to book your award flights as early as possible. First, there are many airlines that will release their award seats when they open a flight for reservations, typically 11 months in advance.
Booking early also allows you the maximum chance of taking advantage of the previously mentioned schedule change trick. Furthermore, many airlines have now gotten rid of their change fees, which allows you to “upgrade” your reservation constantly as new award flights appear. And if you keep searching for better itineraries as your departure approaches, you might find the flights you’re looking for as airlines open up unsold seats as awards. In particular, Lufthansa is widely known to offer unsold business and first-class seats as awards within two weeks of departure.