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The Ultimate Guide to Credit Card Travel Rewards | Part 4

Choose FI has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Choose FI and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. Disclosures.

Welcome to part 4 of our 6 Ultimate Guide to Credit Card Travel Rewards series. So far, in part 1 and part 2, we’ve laid out the basics of travel rewards, when to apply for travel reward credit cards, and the basics of travel reward gains. Then we moved on to tackle the different travel rewards strategies, the best credit cards for travel rewards, and the importance of flexibility. In part 3 dive we did a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of applying for cards, business cards (where applicable), and maximizing your return on travel rewards.

Making the Most of Your Airline Miles

Let’s take a look at how airline miles, also known as frequent flyer miles, can be used for a variety of different airlines and how to book the best flights based on where you are. We’ll also give you the tools to make the best decisions on when and with whom you should book your next flight.

All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club

One of our favorite airlines to redeem international flights for is ANA.

Maximizing Stopovers And Open Jaw Flights With ANA

You can only redeem for roundtrip flights on ANA, which is a bit of a pain, but ANA Mileage Club more than makes up for that with:

  • generous redemptions
  • a free stopover in Tokyo
  • and a free open jaw booking, which is a two-way ticket where the origin and/or destination on departure is different from the return leg.

Stopovers and open jaws may sound confusing, but they are actually pretty simple concepts.

We’ll start with layovers, the cousin of stopovers. 

If you’ve ever had to switch planes to get to your final destination, you’ve had a layover.

If your layover is longer than 4 hours in the US, or 23 hours internationally, (tah-dah!), you’ve had a stopover. These usually cost more, but some travel itineraries (like with ANA) actually let you stay several days or weeks.  Why not leave the airport and check out the city?

An open jaw is also pretty simple–it’s when you have a pair of two-way tickets that is not a roundtrip. Here are three examples:

Destination Open Jaw

Origin Open Jaw

Double Open Jaw

So here’s one itinerary that gets the most out of redemption with ANA, complete with a stopover and two open jaws.

  • New York City to Tokyo (stopover).
  • Tokyo to Bangkok
  • Singapore to Seattle (via layover in Tokyo).

For all this travel in economy, you’re only paying 65,000 miles (and ~$340 in fees), and you can choose to do the Tokyo stopover on the return leg if you prefer.

That’s a very hard deal to beat. With United, it would have cost ~100,000 miles (and ~$110 in fees). And if you choose to do the same routes in business class, it’ll only cost 110,000 miles and the same fees.

That may sound like a lot of miles, but you get to visit three international cities (Tokyo, Bangkok, and Singapore) in a premium cabin featuring excellent in-flight service, and you get to visit a US city.

Yes, for this itinerary, you’ll have to book a separate flight from Bangkok to Singapore, which will cost less than $100 on one of many low-cost carriers connecting those two cities. You’ll also have to get a flight between Seattle and New York. But what a great deal spanning 4 cities (5 if we include New York, the starting point) for an excellent adventure.

Domestic Flights In Japan

Even though Japan Rail’s Shinkansen bullet trains capture the imagination, it is not the only way to get around the country. Another great alternative is to fly.

On ANA, domestic hops are just 5,000 ANA miles. Like everything else in Japan, these flights run like clockwork.

Actually, domestic flights run a bit like Japan’s trains–it’s super-efficient, and the time printed on your boarding pass is the actual departure time, not the boarding time. If your pass says 14:05, and you show up at the gate at 14:00, you’re probably going to miss the flight.

How To Stash ANA Miles

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • American Express Member Rewards
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:

  • None in the US.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

If you liked the Alaska Airlines stopover perk, you’re going to love taking that perk with you around the world on Alaska Airlines’ international partners as part of the One World network.

However, not all the partner flights can be redeemed on Alaska Airlines’ online tool

So, even though some of the best international redemptions are on Cathay Pacific and LATAM, these require you to call Alaska Airlines. For that reason, we’re leaving these two airlines for a later section.

Also, since Alaska Airline miles are harder to earn, you shouldn’t use them for programs where the points are relatively easy to accumulate. Unless you are swimming in Alaska miles, avoid using them for partners like:

  • Aer Lingus
  • American Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Singapore Airlines

Of the remaining airlines, the following shows up when searching flight availability:

  • Condor
  • Emirates
  • Fiji Airways
  • Hainan Air
  • Icelandair
  • Japan Airlines
  • Korean Air
  • Qantas

Depending on the partner, the number of miles needed varies widely, although most international redemptions seem to start at between 30,000 to 35,000 for economy class.

Most Alaska partners allow you to plan an extended stopover for one-way flights if you are connecting through that partner’s hub, but only if there isn’t any other airline besides Alaska in that booking.

Free Connections To Your International Departure

If you do not live near an airport that is an international hub, you’ll love that Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan actually includes positioning flights in the redemption at no extra points. Yup, you basically get a free segment from your home airport to the international hub that the Alaska Airlines partner serves.

Here Are Some One-Way Examples:

  • Boston to Tokyo on JAL: 35,000 in economy, 60,000 in business, plus about $19 in fees.
  • Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji on Fiji Airways: 40,000 in economy, plus $19 in fees. This includes a free positioning flight on Alaska Airlines from most US cities to Los Angeles.
  • Seattle to Reykjavik, Iceland, on Icelandair: 30,000 in economy, 50,000 in business, plus the $19 partner fees.
  • Las Vegas to Frankfurt, Germany on Condor: 40,000 in economy, plus a $46 partner fee.
  • Seattle to Incheon, Korea on Korean Air (ROUNDTRIP): 70,000 in economy, 105,000 in business, plus a $30 partner Note that a one-way redemption via Alaska’s Mileage Plan costs the same as a roundtrip on Korean Air, so be sure to go for a roundtrip itinerary.

There is one thing you might find annoying about Mileage Plan though; when a flight comprises mixed cabins, it still shows up as an all-premium cabin until you click on the itinerary for details.

On the mobile app, it is a little better as you get an alert of the actual class of service.

How To Stash Alaska Airlines Miles

Transfer partner programs:

  • Bank of America Alaska Airlines card.
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Singapore Airlines Krisflyer

When it comes to international travel, Singapore Airlines is known for its swanky premium cabins.

While a flight in the famed Singapore Suites is the ultimate in aspirational travel, most of us probably have our sights set a lot lower.

Up To Three Redemption Stopovers

It’s a good thing that Singapore Airlines lets you have up to three stopovers on a single booking.

Krisflyer redemptions come in a Saver category and an Advantage category that has more availability but costs more points. Here’s how it works:

  • Advantage tier (more availability, but also more points): Round-trip redemptions come with two free stopovers, while a one-way redemption comes with just one.
  • Saver level (less availability, but also fewer points): Round-trip redemption comes with one free stopover and none for one-way redemptions.

Free redemptions can be added during the online booking process, but you can actually call into a Singapore Airlines local office and pay $100 per stopover, up to three total (including both free and paid stopovers).

How To Stash Singapore Airline Miles

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • American Express Member Rewards
  • Citi Thank Rewards
  • Capital One Miles
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:

  • None in the US.

United Airlines MileagePlus

One of our favorite uses of the United Airlines MileagePlus program is the use of its Excursionist Perk, which is applicable for all redemptions on United and most Star Alliance Partners.

Editors Note: As we write this in April 2022, United removed its award chart, and it is unclear how that might affect values with the Excursionist Perk. We’ll update you when we know more.

The United Excursionist Perk

The way it works is when you book a destination open-jaw ticket to a city in a region specified by United, and then depart from another city in that same region, you get a free segment between those two cities.

So, if you were to fly from Atlanta (ATL) to Amsterdam (AMS), then leave Europe from Athens (ATH) back to Atlanta, you’d get a free flight between Amsterdam and Athens.

This three-flight international itinerary would cost 60,000 miles and ~$178 in economy at the Saver level.

Not bad. The neat thing is that the perk can be a lot more generous and flexible because it works as long as you meet the following rules:

  • You leave and return to the same region as defined by United’s redemption charts. It doesn’t have to be the same city; it just needs to be the same region.
  • The free-flight perk needs to be within one region, but it can be in any region. This is the neat part. We’ll show you why in a bit.

Leveling Up Excursionist Perks

As with the previous example, you again fly from Atlanta (ATL) to Amsterdam (AMS). This is the opening segment of the perk. However, when your time in Amsterdam is done, you can take a low-cost flight or hop on the train to Paris (CDG).

After you are done with Paris, you can use the Excursionist perk to fly much further than just western Europe, but still in the same region as defined by United. So, you go to Istanbul (IST), Turkey.

When you are done with Istanbul, you can pay for a low-cost flight to Athens (ATH), Greece. From Greece, you can return to Atlanta. This is the closing segment of the perk.

The cost of this four-city itinerary? Also 60,000 United miles plus $127 in fees, not including the extra cost of getting between Amsterdam and Paris, Istanbul and Athens.

How To Stash United Airline MileagePlus Miles

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:

  • Chase

Iberia Plus

Spain’s flag carrier offers valuable business class redemptions from cities on the East Coast to Madrid for the price of what many other carriers charge for an economy ticket. Just remember to avoid any British Airways flights that are offered as you’ll be forced to pay the junk airport fees that Brad hates so much.

Chicago : The Hidden Gem

Chicago is grouped together with the east coast destinations like Boston and New York City.

While United charges 30,000 United miles for one way between Chicago to Madrid in economy, it’s only 34,000 Avios for a direct business class flight when redeemed via Iberia Plus. In the Iberia economy, it’s only 17,000 Avios.

From Los Angeles to Madrid, it’s 42,500 Avios for a direct business flight, and 21,500 Avios in economy.

Wait, Avios?

Yup–the same currency as British Airways, which means you can transfer Avios from British Airways back and forth. A third sibling airline, Aer Lingus, also uses Avios, but we’ll get to that a little later.

There Are Two Caveats Before You Can Transfer Avios Back And Forth:

  • Your Iberia account has been opened for at least 90 days
  • There has been activity in both BA and Iberia programs, such as transferring in points from Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Member Rewards.

So, open and season your Iberia account now to start the 90-day-clock before you need it, but do not transfer Avios until you know for sure there is an available flight that you want on Iberia.

As a bonus, one of the great things about Iberia is that you do not pay the exorbitant fuel surcharges that British Airways charges. You really get a lot more value for your Avios if you can book with Iberia.

How To Stash Iberia Plus Miles

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • American Express Member Rewards
  • British Airways Avios (with conditions)
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Co-Branded cards:

  • Chase

Aer Lingus AerClub

The third airline in the British Airways family that uses Avios as its currency is Aer Lingus, the flag carrier of Ireland. As with Iberia Plus, Avios redemptions on AerClub can be a much better value than on British Airways itself.

For instance, off-peak redemptions in economy from cities in the Northeast are only 13,000 Avios, again without the ridiculous fuel charges that British Airways charges.

These cities include New York, Newark, Boston, Hartford, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and, yes, Chicago again, even though it is nowhere near the Northeast.

For other cities in the US, such as Orlando, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, it’s 16,250 Avios.

How To Stash Aer Lingus Miles

Transfer Partner Programs:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • American Express Member Rewards
  • British Airways Avios (with conditions)

Co-Branded cards:

  • Chase

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Virgin Atlantic USED TO really shine when it came to redeeming lie-flat business class seats on Delta flights from the US to Paris and Amsterdam in Europe pre-Pandemic.

Before Covid disrupted the flight networks for much of the world, you used to be able to get Delta’s business class cabin, called Delta One, at a generous discount when redeeming through Flying Club.

For instance, for the same one-way flight on Delta One from Seattle to Amsterdam:

  • Delta (Paid): Up to $5,350.
  • Delta: 250,000 Skymiles plus $5.60 in fees.
  • Through Virgin Atlantic Flying Club: 50,000 miles plus $5.60 TSA fee (yes you read this right!).

You could also redeem Delta One flights through Flying Club to Asian cities like Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai for 60,000 miles, but we think you would get better in-flight service from most Asian carriers, and maybe even for fewer points.

Here’s hoping that things get back to the way they used to be, including accessing these great deals!

How To Stash Virgin Atlantic Miles:

Transfer Partner Programs

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • American Express Member Rewards
  • Citi Thank Rewards
  • Marriott Bonvoy

Key Points

This section armed you with everything you need to know to start traveling outside the country. We covered everything from places to fly from (and to) to the best airlines to fly on.

But believe it or not, we still aren’t done.

Our next section will cover even more ways to save on flights. It will take time and patience, but these next tips can help you level up your free travel game.

Uncover Your Own Redemption Sweet Spots

Most people are probably here just to get almost-free travel with minimal effort. That’s why we started with easy and solid redemptions domestically and internationally.

If that is you, this section is optional because we’re diving deeper for the person who doesn’t mind trading time to get the most value out of every single travel mile and point.

Since this is, after all, a beginner’s guide to travel rewards, we’re not going to get too much into the weeds. But we will arm you with enough know-how and tools to take your travel rewards game to the next level.

Useful Tools To Start With

Here are a few other nifty tools that will be useful if you want to find and redeem your own award flights.

Matrix Airfare Search dashboard image

ITA Software By Google

We mentioned Google Flights as a great tool earlier in the course to figure out which airlines connect two destinations together, and whether there might be stops.

But Google has another resource that is also useful, called ITA Software by Google.

It includes a detailed breakdown of fees and displays the timing of every flight on a chart. I use it instead of Google Flights to find out which airlines meet my needs and which routing has the lowest ancillary fees. Only then do I search for award availability using Expertflyer.com or the airlines’ websites.

Seat Guru

Seat Guru is a free tool we used before we subscribed to Expertflyer to make sure our seats were either in the exit row or had access to an aisle. For the times we flew in business class, we used this to make sure there were fully reclining seats.

Great Circle Mapper

I love using Great Circle Mapper to visualize my flights when I plan trips, and also to find out the distance between them for loyalty programs that have distance-based award charts. Every map you’ve seen in this course was plotted using Great Circle Mapper.

Airline Mobile Apps

You should also download the mobile apps of all the major US carriers, and also, their major international partners. If you haven’t already, create accounts as well, and store the details in a spreadsheet or list.

Airline mobile apps make travel easier

Best Ways To Track Down Award Availability

Expertflyer

If you ever decide to go deep down the rabbit hole of travel rewards, the gold standard for finding award and upgrade availability is a paid subscription to Expertflyer.com.

Yes, you can search for free on the websites of every airline, but that can get clunky. For an easier almost one-stop shop where you can search multiple airlines using one app, Expertflyer is it.

There is a free version that lets you know when the seat you want becomes available, but to uncover award and upgrade availability, you will need to upgrade to a paid version.

The system lets you plug in departure and final destinations, as well as any connecting airports. Then you pick the desired dates, the airline and the class of service you are trying to find award flights on, and let the machine do its thing.

Can’t find anything that works? Set up an alert, and Expertflyer will notify you via email when award space opens up.

The premium version lets you choose to see availability three days before and after the date you selected. It also lets you save your searches, so that you can jump back in when notified of a change.

Other features that I’ve found useful on Expertflyer are the ability to figure out the type of plane on any given route that an airline is flying, the way the seats are configured, and if there are lie-flat seats in the premium cabins.

Don’t want to pay? Here are some slower but free ways to find award availability:

Star Alliance

Star Alliance is the largest alliance, with almost 30 airlines in the group. We’ve discussed three Star Alliance members already. They are:

  • All Nippon Airways (ANA)
  • Singapore Airlines
  • United Airlines

One other partner that is useful to know about is:

The best way to search for award availability on most Star Alliance airlines is with Air Canada’s loyalty program, Aeroplan.

In the example below, Aeroplan returned flights from five other carriers, which is why it’s great for searching up Star Alliance availability.

Two other sites that you can use to search Star Alliance availability are ANA Mileage Club (Remember, you can only book award roundtrips or open jaws) and United’s Mileage Plus.

If you are looking for availability on premium cabins on Singapore Airlines, you’ll have to use the airline’s Krisflyer site.

SkyTeam

SkyTeam is the second largest alliance, with 19 airlines. However, the number of members that are useful to American travel rewards hobbyists is shockingly small–just three:

  • AirFrance
  • Delta
  • KLM

The best way to search for SkyTeam availability is AirFrance/KLM’s Flying Blue site.

However, it doesn’t return results for domestic Delta flights, so you would have to use Delta’s site for those.

OneWorld

OneWorld is the smallest of the global airline alliances. So far in this course, we’ve discussed a few of the OneWorld alliance members such as:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Iberia
  • Latam

Three other partners were mentioned in passing due to their partnership with Alaska Airlines:

  • Fiji Airways
  • Japan Airlines
  • Qantas

The best way to find award availability on OneWorld carriers is by using Qantas’s website, followed by British Airways.

Since many of the OneWorld carriers are Alaska Airlines partners as well, the Alaska site might be an alternative way to discover award flights.

If you are planning to fly on American Airlines, and the partner site requires you to call a representative, check to make sure the flight can’t be reserved online. Otherwise, you may be charged a call-in fee.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

We’ve covered Alaska Airlines extensively. It’s a great program, with a great website and mobile app that helps you find award availability on many of its One World alliance partners.

As mentioned before, just be aware that if you pick a premium cabin, click through the options to verify that all segments of the itinerary are indeed in that class of service.

The biggest issue we’ve ever had with the Alaska site is that it groups mixed-class flights as premium flights. So you may be paying a lot of points expecting a lie-flat seat, only to be rudely surprised with a seat in coach.

Tips To Handle Agent-Assisted Partner Redemptions

Although our preference is to book all our redemptions online or on a mobile app, we’re not going to miss out on excellent redemptions just because they require a call to an airline representative.

On occasion, you may have to pick up the phone. Here’s what you can do to remove the friction:

Before calling to make an award booking on an airline’s partner, gather all the details for your award flight using the techniques we talked about above. Your goal needs to be to make it easy for airline representatives to help you.

Be sure to have the following details:

  1. How many days it would take for points to transfer in. Some transfers will happen in seconds, and others might take a couple of days. Ideally, you want to transfer the points at the last moment.
  2. Whether a tentative booking can be made even though the requisite miles have yet to transfer in.
  3. All flight numbers, including the two-digit airline code before the numbers.
  4. The departure and arrival cities for every segment in the itinerary I want.
  5. The class of service, and the number of seats I want.
  6. The expected number of points it will cost.
  7. Alternative flights in case something goes awry–maybe traveling on another day, or via another connecting city.

Sounds like a bit of work, right? That’s why we generally prefer to book our award flights on an app or computer. But if there’s a high-value deal that requires a call, you should pick up the phone.

How To Use Your Points To Book Awards For Others

If you are getting a flight for a family member, it can sometimes be more cost-effective and neater to first move flexible currency points to that person’s account. Then, transfer their new flexible points to their airline loyalty program of choice.

This is because not all airlines allow the pooling of points and those that do often charge a fee. Similarly, not all airlines let you redeem flights for others, especially if you are not traveling as well.

So transferring points from flexible currencies can be a good workaround.

Capital One

Capital One lets you transfer points to anybody else with a Capital One Miles account by calling in. But the bank says that soon, you will be able to do online transfers as well.

Citibank

Citibank lets you transfer ThankYou points to anyone with a Citi ThankYou account, but these points expire after 90 days of the transfer. Do this only when you are certain to be redeeming your flights within 90 days.

Chase

Chase lets you transfer Ultimate Rewards points to another person in the same household immediately, so that’s pretty neat.

American Express

Amex is more restrictive in that it only lets you transfer Member Rewards points to an authorized user’s frequent flyer program.

Key Points

Yes, we’ve gone through A LOT of information at this point. Congrats young grasshopper, your parents would be proud.

We’ve done a deep dive into strategies on how to get the best flights based on your location, time of year, and the cards you have. We’re rounding the bend now, with our final two parts of the series. You can move on to part 5 of this series right here: Travel Rewards 101: The Ultimate Guide to Credit Card Travel Rewards (5/6)

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Choose FI has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Choose FI and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. Disclosures.
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