A quick Google search for points and miles information will give you hundreds of results, ranging from individual sites to blog aggregators to major sites that are branching out into the topic, like Forbes Advisor. You may even find a few airline and hotel programs down there in the search thread.
Any way you look at it, there is a ton of information out there. It can be difficult to sort through when you are trying to improve your knowledge, and it can be nearly impossible to pick the best things to read if you are just starting to learn.
Luckily, we are giving you a shortcut. We’ve put together a list of three of the most important things that points and miles experts know and that you should take the time to learn. Dig deep on these concepts and you will immediately be a step ahead of others who are just starting out.
Those of us who are experts in the points and miles world didn’t get here overnight. We’ve read countless articles, studied the programs (airline, hotels and banks), and we’ve already made the mistakes. These three topics won’t, by any means, make you an expert, but they will help you take that next step forward.
Flexible Currencies Are King
First, let’s talk about what makes a points currency flexible. It’s really quite simple. A currency is considered to be flexible if it can be transferred to more than one airline or hotel loyalty program.
Some well known examples of flexible currencies are Chase Ultimate Rewards (13 air and hotel transfer partners), American Express Membership Rewards (22 air and hotel transfer partners), and Citi ThankYou Points (16 air transfer partners). Capital One (14 air and hotel transfer partners) also recently made their points more valuable by entering the transferable points arena.
One program with flexible points that may surprise you is Marriott Bonvoy. In addition to redeeming your points for hotel nights, you can transfer Bonvoy points to an impressive 44 different airlines. None of the other flexible currency programs we mentioned even come close to having that many transfer partners.
Transferring hotel points to airlines is a carry-over from the old Starwood Preferred Guest program. Marriott chose to maintain this feature when they merged the two hotel groups, and it remains a favorite use of Bonvoy points for many points and miles experts.
What Makes Flexible Points Better?
Now let’s talk about why flexible currencies are the best type to collect. Again, it’s really fairly simple when you think about it. When trying to redeem your miles and points, you never know where you might find availability. Why lock yourself into the miles or points of a single airline or hotel?
When trying to book a trip, you may search four different airlines and only find the three seats you need available on one. You may find that out of the six hotel programs in the city you are traveling to, only three have base rooms available for redemption on your travel dates. If you have the wrong type of points, you won’t be able to use miles and points for your trip.
This is where flexible currencies are key. Each of the flexible currency programs mentioned above allows you to transfer points to airlines that are in multiple different alliances. Airlines in the three major alliances, Oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam, all allow you to redeem their miles for flights on any of the airlines in the same alliance.
If you can transfer your flexible points to at least one airline in each alliance, you will be able to book open award seats on any of the airlines in all three major alliances. Conversely, if you only had a single airline program miles, American AAdvantage for example, you would only be able to book award seats on airlines in the Oneworld Alliance. Star Alliance and SkyTeam airlines wouldn’t be available to you.
By collecting multiple flexible currencies, you give yourself the highest number of options when it comes time to book. You can find available seats, pick the alliance with the best award chart or the lowest taxes and fees, transfer your points and book whatever you need.
While it’s true that the same goes for hotels, it’s not necessarily the best use of your transferable points. You can find the available hotel room, and transfer your flexible points over to that hotel program’s currency, but you’ll generally get much more value from your flexible points by transferring to airline partners instead of hotel programs.
Think Outside Round Trip: Layovers, Stopovers and Open Jaws
When most people think about redeeming airline miles, they are planning on going to a single destination and are hoping to redeem their miles for either a one-way or round-trip flight.
But why not be more ambitious? Points-savvy travelers want to see more than one place when we travel. Whenever possible, we want to extend the trip. Most importantly, we want to stretch the miles and points we are using as far as we can.
A great way to get more value out of your points and miles is by using layovers, stopovers and open jaws to see more of the world for the same or fewer points than a standard itinerary.
You’re probably familiar with layovers. Any time you have more than one flight segment, that time in between is the layover. But did you know what when you are booking award flights, you can sometimes use those layovers to your advantage?
Although you are a bit more limited with domestic layovers, most airlines will allow you up to a 23 hour and 59 minute layover on an international connection. Don’t like the four and a half hour layover that comes up on your award search? Try searching the segments separately and build your own extended layover. You could spend the whole day exploring or even get a room for the night and fly out the next morning.
Extending your layover is a great way to get a quick taste of a city. Spend a day there on a layover and you’ll often be able to decide if it’s a place you want to return to later. Even a 12- hour layover will give you enough time to leave the airport, grab some local food and see a few memorable sights.
A stopover is just a super-extended layover. They function in the same way. Stopovers are also defined as the time between your connecting flights, but the main difference is that a stopover is at least 24 hours long on an international itinerary and can last for multiple days, weeks or even months.
A stopover gives you the opportunity to explore an area for multiple days and the best part is, it doesn’t count as the final destination for your award ticket. That means the price of your ticket won’t go up if you add in a stopover with many programs. It still counts as the same flight to your destination. You just stop for a little while along the way.
Every airline loyalty program has their own rules for stopovers on award tickets. Typically you need to fly a round-trip to be allowed a stopover. Alaska Airlines is the last airline left that allows a stopover on a one-way saver award. On round-trip awards, the number of stopovers allowed is up to each airline.
Some airlines don’t allow stopovers on award tickets at all. Others allow a single stopover on a round-trip itinerary. The most generous of programs allow 2, 3 or sometimes even more stopovers on a round trip award. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (2 stopovers), Japan Airlines Mileage Bank (3 stopovers), and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles (5 stopovers) are a few of the programs that you can really take advantage of to extend your trip and see even more of the globe.
An open jaw at the destination happens when you fly into one airport and return from another. An open jaw at the origin occurs when you start from one airport and return to a different one at the end of your trip. Open jaws only apply to round-trip awards and they can typically be applied on each end of the ticket.
Open jaws are a perfect way to add another location or two onto your trip. They work especially well when you can easily travel between two destinations on your own or position to or from your home airport at the beginning or end of your trip.
Open jaws are easier to visualize with an example. Say you want to visit London and Paris on the same trip. Using miles to fly to London, you then could take the Eurostar to Paris, then fly home from Paris. You would redeem a round-trip award, but it would actually be an open jaw ticket.
Europe is great for open jaws because so many countries and cities are close together and you can easily move around via trains or low-cost flights. Asia is another great spot to use an open jaw, since flights between cities can be quite inexpensive.
Again, as with stopovers, the rules for open jaws on award tickets are up to each individual airline. Some airlines allow two open jaws per round-trip award, some only allow one, and some don’t allow open jaws at all. When you’re ready to book a trip with an airline’s miles, check to see if you can use an open jaw to see another spot for no additional cost.
Right For Someone Else Doesn’t Mean Right For You
There isn’t a single “right way” to use your points and miles. It’s important to understand that everyone’s situation is different and the way you use the points and miles you’ve earned is completely up to you.
The reason that you need to know this is that many people have very strong opinions. As you participate in forums and online groups, you will inevitably see someone tell another person that they are using their points incorrectly. You may see several people shaming someone for using their points for flights in economy class. You may see people saying that others are wasting their points by booking through a fixed value portal.
You should do your best to ignore all of that. The only person who can decide if you are using your miles and points correctly is you. You know how you earned the points. You know what your financial situation is and whether you can afford to pay for travel with cash or if you need to use miles or points even to be able to go. You are the only one who knows the details.
Of course, you can find plenty of articles out there about how to extract maximum value from your points. I’ve even written a few of them. What you need to remember is that you don’t always need to redeem your miles for the maximum possible value. As long as you are comfortable with the redemption, and ideally are getting more value when redeeming than it cost you to earn the points, you should be happy with your booking.
There’s one exception to this rule: points for shopping. Merchandise is widely known to be the single least valuable redemption option out there. That said, if you must spend 10,000 points, which could easily get you a one way ticket on many airlines, on a $30 Kindle Fire, well, you do you. But at least we warned you.
From earning the best flexible currencies for your particular situation to upgrading your redemptions by effectively using open jaws and stopovers, becoming a pro in these areas will really help to up your points and miles game.
The most important thing you can do, though, is make sure to always keep learning. There is a tremendous amount of information out there, and each thing you learn will open up new opportunities for your travels.
In addition, loyalty programs are continually making changes to their earning, redemption and elite tiers. Continuing to learn is the only way to stay on top of these changes and be confident that you always have the most current information.
Most loyalty programs are designed to be a bit complex, but by understanding more about how they function, you can easily put them to work for you. You may not be an expert quite yet, but be patient. It takes some time to build up those skills. Just keep reading, practicing, and traveling, and you’ll get a little bit better each time you use your points and miles.