Purchasing airfare during peak holiday travel periods can be painful for your wallet. It’s even worse if you wait too long and find yourself needing holiday flights at “last-minute” prices.
But you can still fly for virtually no out-of-pocket cost if you have been stashing away airline miles. Award availability can be tough on peak travel dates, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find if you use these five tips.
1. Be flexible
Finding award availability for departures the day before Thanksgiving may be tough. However, if you can be flexible about your travel dates, you will likely find more award options.
The same is true with the times of day you fly, the routings you take, and the airports you are willing to fly into and out of. For example, you may not find something out of JFK or LaGuardia, but maybe nearby Newark will have the availability you need.
Also consider flying your outbound leg using one type of airline miles, and your return trip with another carrier. Many airlines permit one-way awards.
If you are traveling with a larger family group, consider splitting up if that is the only way to get where you need to be. In some cases, there may not be four award seats on a given flight. But if you are willing to split up two and two, your odds of finding awards may increase.
2. Consider first class
Most of us are just looking for economy seats for domestic holiday travel, but don’t rule out first class. In some test searches, I found that first-class awards were available during the holiday season on various routes for the same mileage price, or even cheaper than some economy awards.
This is just basic supply and demand because most paid-fare and award travelers on the holidays are looking for the cheapest option. So, sometimes a first-class award will remain after all of the economy seats are gone.
As an added bonus, first class will secure you a more comfortable seat, priority boarding, free checked bags, access to potentially shorter “premier” lines, and maybe even an on-board meal and drinks.
3. Don’t limit yourself to what you see online
If you aren’t finding the award flight you need with a simple online search, remember that not all flight options and partners display online. This is especially true when dealing with international travel on airline partners, but it can even be true for domestic travel.
For example, perhaps you want to travel from New York to Florida, but there isn’t award space displaying online. After some investigation, you see an award flight from LaGuardia to Houston, and a flight a couple of hours later from Houston to Miami.
Jackpot! Call the airline and have them piece those two flights together into one award.
There are also award-booking services available that can help with this process if you aren’t able to find something that works on your own. Those booking services do charge fees, but the savings over the cost of last-minute paid airfare may well be worth it.
4. Look to programs with no blackout dates
Some airline frequent-flier programs don’t restrict award availability, but instead make any seat that is available for sale with dollars also available for miles or points. Turning to these programs, such as JetBlue and Southwest, can be the best way to quickly spot an available award on a busy travel day.
But the increased availability will come at a cost. Programs that make awards available without blackout dates also charge the points price based on the current selling price of the ticket. This means that very pricey last-minute tickets will also be pricey in terms of the number of points it will cost you.
This may not be an issue if you are “points rich” in one of these programs, but it is something to be aware of when searching for the best overall deal.
5. Pay the higher standard mileage price
With airline awards, there are usually multiple mileage prices available for any given flight. These often start at 12,500 miles each way, or 25,000 miles for a domestic round trip with the traditional carriers. However, there are often higher-priced awards available that are usually labeled “standard” awards.
These are typically not a good deal, but if the selling price of the holiday travel ticket you want is outside of your cash budget, paying the standard award rate to get a seat at the holiday table may be well worth the higher mileage price.
Got some tips of your own to save on holiday travel? Share them in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.
Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.