Key takeaways

  • When redeeming points for flights, a little research can help you master the basics.
  • Numerous programs exist that make searching for award inventory easier.
  • If you’d rather not invest time or money into research and tools, consider hiring a concierge service to do it for you.

Airline rewards can create invaluable travel opportunities beyond what most of us can afford. While earning miles is easy enough, redeeming them for flights is inarguably challenging. Airlines design their programs that way because if everyone maximized their miles for the best flights possible, they would go out of business. Hence, finding award availability can be challenging — though not impossible.

Nowadays, many tools exist that simplify the process. Some provide comprehensive award inventory searches, while others let you set alerts and make it easier to book any flight you want with points. There are even tools for those who want to take a DIY approach.

If you’re ready to master the art of redeeming rewards for flights, here are the best tools to use:

Redeeming rewards for a flight can be immensely challenging and overwhelming.  If you’re new to loyalty programs and don’t know how to book flights with points, these programs can make booking award travel easier:

ExpertFlyer Point.Me Award Hacker Seats.Aero
Membership tiers
  • Free membership
  • Basic: $4.99 per month
  • Premium: $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year
  • Free membership
  • Starter pass: $5 for 24 hours
  • Standard: $12 per month or $129 per year
  • Premium: $260 per year
  • Free membership
  • Pro: $9.99 per month
Best for Advanced users who know exactly what they’re looking for Beginners who want a user-friendly interface Looking up award redemption rates Quick search for Oneworld and Star Alliance awards
Pros Accurate seat alert function Requires no knowledge of points, includes an “Explore” tool for flexible travelers and offers a 24-hour “starter pass” for one-off searches Very fast search function Generates results quickly, free award alerts, includes hotel availability and no login required
Cons Can be difficult to use for beginners and those who don’t have some knowledge of airline routes Search results can take a long time to load, and membership costs more than competitors No live award availability Award availability is at least an hour old, users can only search one-way at a time and SkyTeam awards are absent

ExpertFlyer

ExpertFlyer is one of the oldest award-searching tools out there, providing availability for hundreds of different airlines. There’s a bit of a learning curve involved in using ExpertFlyer, but it’s an invaluable tool for finding award inventory using a wide range of criteria.

Star Alt


Keep in mind:

If you can’t find award space on your preferred travel dates and cabin, you can set an alert so that you’ll receive a notification when a seat opens up. This is a great way to put your award search on autopilot so that you don’t have to keep checking various airline websites.

ExpertFlyer has several different membership types, starting at $4.99 per month for the Basic plan, which includes 250 queries. The Premium membership offers unlimited queries for $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year.

Point.me

Point.me cuts through all the hassles of finding the best award flights, offering a simple interface that’s perfect for beginners who want a user-friendly award-searching tool. Think of it like Google Flights for award tickets. You’ll enter your travel dates, departure, destination and cabin type, and Point.me will generate a list of frequent flyer programs with award availability based on that criteria.

While Point.me markets itself as a “search and booking engine,” you should be aware that it doesn’t actually let you book flights with points directly. Point.me offers step-by-step booking instructions once the best fit is found for your points or miles, but you will have to book directly via the airline or award program.

Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly helpful tool that makes redeeming miles for flights easier. The only downside? It’s not free. You can buy a day pass for $5 or a subscription for $12 per month. Annual billing includes a 10 percent discount, for a total of $129 per year. If you’d rather leave the booking process to a pro, you can take advantage of Point.me’s concierge service, which costs $200 per traveler (though you can save 10% by paying $260 per year for a Premium plan).

It’s worth noting that award inventory can fluctuate, so you may not always find what you’re looking for during a single-day search. Sometimes airlines release award space closer to departure and other times, seats open up when people cancel their flights. So you may need more than a day pass to find the seat you’re looking for.

Star Alt


Keep in mind:

The subscription makes sense if you use the tool more than twice a month. You also can cancel it during months you’re not using it.

Point.me vs. ExpertFlyer

Point.me and ExpertFlyer are very different tools aimed at different user levels. Point.me is best for beginners and those who want a simple way to search for award inventory. It requires merely knowing your departure, destination, travel dates and preferred cabin class (though the Explore feature simplifies this even further). You’ll get live award availability with precise award redemption rates.

ExpertFlyer, on the other hand, is designed for more advanced users. It searches numerous airlines for award space, but doesn’t provide information on the number of miles required like Point.Me does. The search function is also less flexible, requiring you to enter the airline you want to fly. Essentially, it requires you to do your research before even using the tool. However, the ability to set seat alerts offers an incredible value that’s unique to ExpertFlyer.

Award Hacker

Award Hacker is a free tool offered by the U.S. Credit Card Guide blog. It works fast and is perfect if you just want to know how many miles you need for a specific flight. You can specify your preferred departure and arrival airport, cabin class and number of stops on the itinerary. Award Hacker also lets you specify a frequent flyer program, though you can proceed without this information.

The results page will then display the mileage rates in ascending order, along with directions on where to transfer miles from and how to search and book your flight. Award Hacker does not provide actual award availability, making it less convenient and comprehensive compared to Point.me. However, it is a good free tool if you want a quick overview of the cheapest award flights before proceeding to the airline’s website for the actual search.

Seats.Aero

If you’re seeking a free tool, Seat.Aero offers the perfect balance of complimentary search function and the ability to set alerts. The downside? Award inventory isn’t live but is generated every 1-5 hours, so that seat that appears in the search results may already be booked. You can set alerts for both award flights and hotels up to two months in advance, and the inclusion of hotel inventory is unique compared to other booking tools.

While most functionality is free to use and doesn’t require a login, you can upgrade to a Pro membership for $9.99 per month. Doing so allows you to search up to a year of availability on all routes, use advanced filters to narrow down options, receive availability alerts via text and gain access to a members-only Discord group.

Credit card travel portals

If you have a rewards credit card that earns transferable points, you probably have access to a travel portal where you can redeem points at a fixed cost. While this typically isn’t a good redemption value, there are exceptions. You’ll get to redeem any available flight with no blackout dates. Plus, you’ll actually earn miles on the flight through your chosen frequent flyer program.

Here’s a look at how much your points are worth through booking portals:

Redeeming rewards through a travel portal also lets you bypass all the hassles of finding award space across multiple airlines. You can see the flight you want and book it. The only downside? It’s not the best value proposition on premium cabin flights. Since redemption rates are tied to cash rates, you’ll end up using more points than through an airline program.

Other tools for DIY flight booking

If you like a challenge (and want to save money on subscriptions), you can always do it yourself. Researching and booking award flights can be challenging but immensely rewarding. Not only is it a useful skill you won’t have to rely on others for, but mastering it can help you stumble across award space that you may not otherwise find.

Here are some tools to keep on hand for DIY award bookings:

  • The first step in redeeming rewards for a flight is knowing how many miles you have. Award Wallet is a great tool that tracks most miles and points programs, annual travel credits and elite status. Why is this helpful when redeeming rewards? Because you can quickly see how many points and credits you have available. You can then narrow down your search based on this information and decide whether to transfer points from one account to another, if needed.

    Knowing your elite status is also worth noting because it can influence your booking decisions. If you’re just a few miles short of top-tier airline elite status, paying for a flight and redeeming Capital One Venture miles toward it might make sense.

    Lastly, Award Wallet will alert you if your points are about to expire or if your account has been hacked. The last thing you want to do is find out that the points you were planning on using for a trip are no longer available.

    About 10 years ago I learned from an Award Wallet account that hackers had gained access to my Radisson Rewards account and redeemed all my points for gift cards. I rarely checked my Radisson balance and wouldn’t have figured out the points were gone until months after the fact. By registering my Radisson account with Award Wallet, I was able to avoid a possible catastrophe.

  • It might seem strange to start your reward flight search with Google Flights, but there is a good reason why you should. It’s the most comprehensive tool for finding the lowest cash airfare. You can use this information to compare against award rates, and then decide if you’re getting sufficient value from your miles or whether you should instead book with cash.

    Sometimes cash fares are pretty cheap and you’re better off saving your miles for another time. For example, programs like American Airlines AAdvantage and Alaska Mileage Plan charge 60,000 miles for round-trip tickets to Madrid. Meanwhile, TAP Airlines frequently has fare sales that include economy class fares as low as $300.

    By redeeming miles, you would get a value of just 0.54 cents per mile — about half of Bankrate’s valuation for AAdvantage miles. In this case, you can save your miles for a higher value redemption and opt for a low cost paid ticket.

  • Wikipedia seems like another odd tool to use in your award redemption journey. But it’s an essential step once you’ve decided to use miles. Wikipedia’s airport pages contain detailed information about the airlines serving each airport and from which destination. You can use this information to piece your trip together.

    Many airline award tools are unreliable, so you need to familiarize yourself with routing options. For example, if you’re trying to get from San Francisco to Doha, you can fly there directly on Qatar Airways using American AAdvantage miles. But if you can’t find award space on that route, you might find more availability on the Los Angeles-to-Doha route. Simply work in a connecting American Airlines flight between San Francisco and Los Angeles and you’re all set.

    If the American Airlines booking engine doesn’t piece this together automatically, you may need to call customer service and ask them to do it manually. While this sounds like a hassle, it means the difference between redeeming an award flight and paying for it.

    In fact, I often use Wikipedia to reverse-engineer an award ticket. I’ll start with the destination I’m traveling to and see which airlines operate direct flights and from which cities. Then, I’ll look up award inventory on the airline website on that exact route.

The bottom line

Booking award flights can be a challenging and frustrating experience, especially if you’re new to points and miles. Start with a top travel rewards credit card, add a few other tools to your arsenal and it gets much more manageable. With tools like Point.me taking the guesswork out, you really don’t need to be an expert to maximize your points anymore. But if you want to be, the tips above will hopefully guide you on your journey to mastering this skill.

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