Got Miles? Tips for Timing Trips

Timing may not be everything, but it counts for a lot when booking a flight these days. Several hundred frequent flyer miles may not get you far in the middle of holiday season. But when fewer people are flying, the airlines will likely give you more mileage for your miles.

Here's what you need to know to time the best deal.

Know When It Pays to Fly

Many airlines have eliminated blackout dates, the especially busy travel periods when you can't buy tickets with award miles. That may seem good news for travelers--but the reality is more complicated.

Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly, a publication that covers the airline industry, explains that a carrier might let you buy a peak-period flight with miles but impose restrictions that make the flight less of a value.

''Just because a date isn't technically blacked out, that doesn't mean an airline will actually make award seats widely available,'' Kaplan says. Some carriers may require you to cash in two or three times as many miles as you would for a non-peak flight.

That could be helpful if you need to make an urgent or unplanned trip. But you may opt to wait and spend your miles on vacations when you can afford to be flexible.

Planning Can Save Miles

Kaplan offers the following advice for using your miles:

  • Get an early start. Frequent flyer tickets go on sale several months in advance, and they often sell out quickly. If you make travel plans early, you'll be more likely to find a flight schedule that is convenient and makes good use of your miles.
  • Miles may not equal miles. In some cases, 200 frequent flyer miles will purchase a traveler 200 miles worth of flying. But many airlines have moved away from an equal exchange of frequent flyer miles for actual miles. ''When you redeem your points, the redemptions are related only to how much that flight would cost you--not how far you're flying,'' Kaplan says.
  • Be flexible. Most travelers expect to pay more for flights during weekends and holidays. But there are less obvious times when tickets are likely to command a premium. When shopping for a flight, try shifting your travel plans forward or backward a day or two. A small shift can lead to a significantly higher or lower ticket price--which may dictate how far your miles will take you.

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