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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 around 140,000 miles for a business class ticket that would have cost $6,000 or more. These awards can often give you 4-5 cents in value per point or mile redeemed.
If you're planning a dream vacation overseas or scheduling your holiday travel, here are some savvy ways to snag those coveted seats.
1. Get to Know Transfer Partners and Airline Partnerships
The key to finding available award seats is to know both how credit card issuers partner with frequent flyer programs and how these programs partner with other airlines.
The major travel rewards programs operated by credit card issuers include:
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 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®
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- APR21.49% - 28.49% (Variable)
- Annual Fee$95
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60,000Chase Ultimate Rewards Points
Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $1,380 (60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points * 0.023 base)
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is one of the gold standards for earning travel rewards. It has a generous sign-up bonus and you can earn points on travel and dining expenses. The card does have an annual fee, but you can continue earning points through bonus categories and an anniversary points boost.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is pretty flexible as it lets you transfer rewards points into miles or points several airlines and hotel programs. You can take advantage of strong transfer partners such as United, Southwest, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Hyatt. Similarly, you can book any reservation you want through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Although the card might not be ideal for the most frequent travelers, it has a built-in upgrade path, so when it’s time to level up your travel rewards game, you won’t have to start from scratch.
- 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 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.
Star Alliance is one of the 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.
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2. Mix and Match Flights
It's difficult to find available business class award seats at the lowest mileage levels, but available seats are often there for those who look the hardest. Keep in mind that most airlines let you book one-way award flights for half the mileage of a round trip. So you could 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.
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3. Leverage Schedule Changes
Making travel plans can be challenging, but it can also be amazing opportunity. Many airlines will let you change your flight to any other 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 a schedule change to request a more direct route with a shorter travel time. Just remember that an airline can only open 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.
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4. Book Early
There are several reasons why you'll want to book your award flights as early as possible:
- Many airlines release 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.
- Many airlines have gotten rid of their change fees, which allows you to "upgrade" your reservation when new award flights appear.
- If you keep searching for better itineraries as your departure approaches, you might find the flights you're looking for as airlines open 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.