Travel Hacking 101: Booking Awards

The first half of travel hacking is about earning points. The second half of travel hacking is learning to use the points effectively. This is an area of travel hacking that I would still consider myself somewhat of a novice. However, one of the best and easiest ways to learn is trial and error.

Award vs. Revenue Bookings

AA Award Search

One of the first things you should be aware of is the difference between an award and revenue booking. Revenue bookings are flights or hotels that are booked with cash. Some people also refer to these as paid flights. When booking a revenue flight, you’ll typically earn airline miles for the amount you paid or distance you flew (depending on the frequent flyer program). When booking a revenue hotel stay, you’ll be able to earn stay credits toward loyalty statuses. Prior to getting into travel hacking, the only type of flights I used to book were revenue flights.

Compare this to award bookings, which are flights and hotel stays that are booked on points. You won’t be able to earn points when booking on points. That would be too easy.

Award Flights

Now that you know the difference between revenue and award bookings. Let me dig into some of the basics around award flights. First thing you need to know every airline is different.

Some airlines, like JetBlue and Southwest, base their award pricing on the revenue pricing. What exactly does this mean? Well say for example a Southwest flight costs $100. This same exact flight will cost roughly 6,250 miles not including taxes/fees. Now say for instance, the same flight goes up in price and now costs $150. That means it will now cost roughly 9,375 miles. I look booking award flights on Southwest because there are no change/cancel fees and if the price drops you can get a credit for the difference.

The majority of other airlines base their award pricing on their own personal award charts. Every award chart is different. For instance, for a round-trip (RT) economy (Y) award from the US to Europe, you’ll pay the following prices:

  • United: 60,000 miles + taxes/fees
  • American: 50,000 miles + taxes/fees (off peak: Jan-Mar and Nov-Dec)
  • Alaska: 40,000-60,000 miles + taxes/fees (depending on the airline partner)

This is just an example. All this to say, award charts can be very confusing and it takes a lot of time to figure out how to most effectively use your points. There are definitely sweet spots in every award chart. I am not an expert in these sweet spots, but there are plenty of other blogs that will highlight them. As I learn more about these different award charts, I’ll be sure to write blog posts. Be sure to check out the following blogs for some great write ups on booking award flights: Travel Is Free, Travel Codex, and One Mile At A Time.

Here is a practical example from an older blog post of mine regarding booking United award flights to Europe.

Award Hotel Stays

This is an area where I have a little bit more experience. Primarily because booking hotel award is a lot less complex. Similar to airline programs, each hotel program has their own award charts based on categories (with the exception of Wyndham, which charges 15,000 points for all of their properties). As the category increases, so does the amount of points needed to redeem for a free night. Typically, luxury hotels or hotels in big cities tend to be higher categories.

Some of the things that are worth noting about award hotel stays. Both SPG and Hilton give you the 5th night free when you book with points. Therefore, you only need points for four nights. This is great for long stays. Award hotel stays typically have no cancellation fees, which makes them flexible in case your plans change. SPG is one of the only hotel loyalty programs that you can earn credit towards loyalty status with award stays.


SPG Award Search – NYC

Hotels typically have a certain amount of rooms available for reward nights so it pays to book reward nights early (since you can cancel at any point).

Booking awards can be challenging
especially if the airline or hotel only releases a certain amount of reward seats or rooms. It is one of the things that takes practice. As you get more into travel hacking, you’ll learn some of the booking techniques and how to effectively use your points.  There are also many tools out there to help you such as: AwardAce and Hotel Hustle. The best way to learn is to try booking awards and see what results you get. You don’t have to actually book them. Just do searches to see what and where your points can get you. After all, practice makes perfect.