Should you use frequent flier miles to get home for the holidays?

If you’ve started hunting for flights home over Thanksgiving and the holidays, the sticker shock might have you eyeing that pile of rewards miles you’ve been saving up.

Sure, you originally slated that 50,000-mile credit card sign-up bonus for that bucket-list trip to Paris … someday. But that flight home to spend Thanksgiving with family is more than $500, and you need to buy it soon. Should you raid your hard-earned miles?holiday rewards flights

“Ultimately, I feel like the best use of miles is the one that makes the person happy,” says Tiffany Funk of PointsPros, a company that helps clients book reward travel. “For many people, being able to book a flight between Chicago and Phoenix to take their family to visit Grandma is worth more to them than a trip to Europe. It’s a little hard to assign a value judgment.”

Still, there are still some things to keep in mind before cashing in your points to get home for the holidays.

The type of miles you have makes a difference

The terms “miles” and “points” refer to rewards currency, but they don’t always mean the same thing. There are two main types, and which type you have can make a difference when you book domestic reward travel over the holidays:

  1. Legacy carriers (American, United, Delta, US Airways) set fixed redemption amounts for reward seats — usually 25,000 miles round trip for the lowest-level economy domestic tickets and increasing amounts for the next levels. See American Airlines’ redemption chart for one-way travel with in the continental U.S. as an example:
  2. American Airlines award chart cropped

  3. Budget carriers (JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America) base the number of rewards you need for a free flight on the ticket’s cash price. Each point is worth a fixed amount toward a ticket. Southwest’s points are always worth 1.4 cents toward its Wanna Get Away fares, for example. You might also include “miles” from general-purpose travel rewards cards in this category, since they’re always worth the same amount.

Now, here’s why the type of miles you have can make a big difference:

Legacy carrier miles can be worth far more (or far less), depending on how you redeem them. Your best bet is to get a ticket with a high cash price for the lowest redemption level. Problem is, airlines know their planes will fly full over the holidays, so they won’t unlock as many reward seats at those low redemption levels.

“There probably won’t be ‘saver’ seats over Thanksgiving,” Funk says. “So you’re not getting that 25,000-mile round trip.”

Instead, you’re looking at 40,000 miles or more round trip for economy — or 50,000 or more for business/first class, if no economy reward seats are available.

Those 50,000 legacy-carrier miles can be worth much more down the road, especially on international premium-cabin trips. Those fixed-value budget-airline points on the other hand? They’re going to be worth the same amount year round. So you might as well use them to get to Cincinnati for the holidays.

“Fifty thousand Southwest points are never going to get you more than $700 worth of travel,” Funk says. “But 50,000 American miles are enough for business class to Europe, one way.”

That said, not everyone is going to fly to Europe in business class, and there might be value in using legacy-carrier miles for a holiday trip home. Just do the math first.

“It’s really a cost analysis whether it’s a good deal to use miles during the holidays or save them for later,” says Rand Shoaf, founder of the Well Traveled Mile, a website that shares his travel-hacking tips.

For example, he says, if you’re booking a 50,000-mile reward ticket from Dallas to Chicago on a legacy carrier, and a paid ticket would be just $300, you’re getting less than 1 cent for each mile.

“Then it’s not a good deal,” Shoaf says. “But if that same ticket will cost $900 to buy, then it may be worth it.”

Flexibility is key

You wouldn’t expect to buy a dirt-cheap flight with no layovers at your ideal departure time during the holidays. The same applies to getting good reward seats.

“Your biggest friend when using airline miles for award flights will be flexibility,” Shoaf says.

That means, to snag a seat for the lowest number of miles possible, sacrifices may have to be made.

“It’s that red-eye flight with a connection, or the one that gets in at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving day,” Funk says.”Holiday rewards flights pull quote Shoaf

Start looking early and keep looking

“In general it’s never going to hurt to look sooner rather than later to book a reward flight over the holidays,” Shoaf says.

Airlines generally make flights available for bookings nearly a year in advance. However, because airlines aren’t transparent about how many seats (reward or otherwise) are available, you’re largely flying blind.

“Airlines release a certain number of award seats which are mostly unknown to the public, and the same goes for the timeline of when they are released,” Shoaf says.

So if you don’t find a good reward seat at first, keep watching.

“Another traveler may cancel their reservation and a seat may open up,” Shoaf says. “For these reasons it can pay off to check often to see if new award seat availability has opened up.”

Just don’t wait too long. Six to 10 weeks before departure is generally a no-go zone, Funk warns.

“In fact, that’s the worst time to try to use your miles anywhere, any time of year,” Funk says. “Because that’s when people are actively shopping and airlines are actively trying to sell things.”

The airlines might post some saver reward space a week before departure, Funk says, but of course, there’s a huge risk in waiting that long: not getting to spend the holidays with your loved ones.

Consider booking, then re-booking

This one’s easy if you’re flying Southwest, which doesn’t charge you for changing your flight, Funk points out. Because the number of reward miles needed fluctuates with the ticket’s cash price, you can book early, monitor ticket prices and then rebook for fewer miles if the price drops.

Even if you’re flying a legacy carrier, this strategy could make sense, especially for families who have dates they need to lock in early. You book the high-mile reward tickets and then eat the change fee and get half your miles refunded if saver space opens up later.

“Or if a parent has elite status with the airline, they can get those change fees waived,” Funk says. “In some cases, that change fee might be over $100 a person, but if you’re saving half your miles, it’s a trade-off. Again, miles redemption is very personal.”

Holiday international travel has its own rules

If you don’t care about spending time with family, the holidays can be a great time to book rewards travel abroad – especially Thanksgiving.Holiday rewards flights pull quote Funk

“Thanksgiving is great for international travel because it’s not Thanksgiving anywhere else in the world, and U.S. business travelers aren’t traveling,” Funk says. “You can get almost whatever you want over Thanksgiving”

It can get a little tougher for families who want to go abroad between Christmas and New Year’s Day, to take advantage of school holidays. It depends on when those holidays fall, but, in general, Funk says, you’d “be surprised at how many options there are” if you avoid leaving the day after Christmas and avoid coming back the weekend right after New Year’s Day. Being willing to make connections on an international flight instead of flying direct can help as well.

“You can cross oceans for a lot fewer miles if you just have a little flexibility,” says Funk.

So is using miles to get home for the holidays a waste?

Funk recalls some acquaintances who, combined, used a couple hundred thousand miles on a domestic flight for Thanksgiving. While she thought to herself, “You could have gone to Paris!” she emphasizes that reward redemption value is a personal matter, and can often boil down to saving money rather than exotic travel aspirations.

Shoaf agrees.

“Each person will value their miles differently and the best use of your miles is for the travel experiences that you want,” he says. “At the end of the day, like with most things in life, if it makes you happy just do it and don’t worry about the rest of it.”

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