Full transparency - as much as I love that title, this post is about booking award flights with points and while the amount of points might seem like a lot for some, hopefully this post provides some strategies you use to take advantage of sign up bonuses that can give you a great head start in booking amazing experiences for you and your family :)
Booking award travel
Booking award travel is one of many ways people are able to travel the world without shelling out loads of cash. In this case, I'm going to be sharing how I was able to book 3 flights from Sydney to Houston for $260 USD.
While there are multiple ways to earn miles that you can redeem for travel, I won't go into extreme detail (I'll link some resources below if you're interested) but I will share how I got my points to book these flights.
Earning through United (or any airline)
Because I traveled for work in the before-times (pre-covid), I had points saved up in my United Mileage Plus account. I highly recommend you create an account for airlines in your region, even if you don't expect to travel with them soon. It just makes it easier when booking flights when you already have an existing account with your basic travel information.
However, even if you don't travel frequently enough to have a stash of points, the next way to earn points can more than makeup not having any miles from prior travel with an airline.
Credit card sign-up bonuses
Sign-up bonuses are the quickest way to accumulate a large number of points in a short amount of time. Many card issuers have sign-up bonuses across their various credit card offerings. In November, I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve since back then, Chase was offering 80,000 bonus miles, making the offer a lot more enticing. As we'll see soon, 80,000 miles can go a long way when booking international award travel.
Disclaimer: I'm not recommending that everyone apply for this card because it does carry a $550 annual fee. It took me a long time and some convincing with my wife Karla to get the okay for this but I was able to justify the cost of the fee pretty quickly through some of the benefits a card like this provides.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve provides many benefits:
- $300 travel credit
- $100 TSA Global Entry credit
- Complimentary DashPass and Instacart+ (both things we already paid for valued at $100 each)
- DoorDash/Instacart monthly credits meant
With just the credits and benefits listed above, the annual fee was canceled out within the first few weeks of owning the card. This doesn't even include some of the additional benefits this card provides, like 2 years of Lyft Pink, 3x points on travel and dining, purchase protections, etc. that I haven't taken advantage of yet. I promise I'm not trying to sound like an ad, but the card does offer a lot. You can read it all here and see if it's worth it for you.
If you think this card fits your situation, you can use this referral link. While your bonus offer doesn't change, I do get some extra points which will help fund our trip to the FIFA 2023 Women's World Cup!
Also, I am not, nor do I intend to be a credit card expert, so I'll link to a recent post from The Points Guy (not sponsored) that provides a good summary of current credit card offers and sign-up bonuses.
Flights to and from Australia are pretty expensive
This is the main reason using points makes sense - flights from Sydney to Houston are pretty expensive. I know I know. Airfare is expected to be the most expensive part of a 2-week international trip, but that doesn't mean I'm not always looking for ways to minimize out-of-pocket cash costs when possible.
Browsing Google flights, I was expecting to pay $800-$1,300 per person. There are three of us and this only includes getting us home from Australia. We still have to figure out how to get TO New Zealand and Australia. More on that in an upcoming post.
Know your preferred airlines travel alliance and partners
I'm typically looking for United flights because I live in and travel frequently from Houston. And because Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is a United hub, I have more options for flights to different destinations. However, many airlines are part of alliances and have other travel partners, which means you can earn miles and book award travel with other partner airlines.
United is part of the Star Alliance so depending on the destination and relationship, I could have technically used my points to book an award flight with any of the airlines below.
United award travel calendar
This is where things start to get real. The first step was to see how many points it would cost to book a one-way flight from Sydney to Houston. Looking at the award calendar, I was surprised to see that for most days, the cost of an economy ticket was cut down to 40k points from 100k points! When you see deals like this you can't help but get excited.
Doing a bit of math
Having found quite the deal, the accountant and me fired up the calculator app on my laptop to do some quick calculations.
Understanding CPP (cents per point)
If you dive into the credit card game you'll undoubtedly hear the acronym CPP thrown around. CPP stands for cents per point and it's a way to assign a dollar value to your points.
Without getting into the weeds, you'll find that across various credit card points programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express, their points are generally valued at $0.01 per point or 1 CPP. In other words, 100,000 points would be worth $1,000 if you redeemed them through your credit card issuer.
Maximizing CPP through travel partners
However, you often find more value when you transfer your points to a travel partner like United. Using Google Flights, I found the flight I was looking at had a cash value of $1,200.
So if we do some simple math, a $1,200 flight divided by 40,000 points means I would be redeeming my points for 3 CPP, which is much higher than the recommended 1 CPP redemption value suggested by most credit card experts.
Redeeming my points for 3 CPP meant that I would only have to pay out of pocket for the taxes and fees, which in this was $260 ($86.65 x 3 tickets).
Google Flights is your friend
While I can frequent the United website for flight times and prices, I always go to Google Flights first. I just find it a lot easier to use and it searches across multiple airlines without throwing a bunch of ads in my face. Those come at you when you're ready to book.
My favorite part has to be the fare calendar. I'm able to enter my route and a few filters, like the number of stops, airline preference, and number of checked bags, and then browse the fare calendar to see when prices change and what they're expected to be during my trip's time frame.
So what's the takeaway here?
- Take advantage of sign-up bonuses. These really do jump-start a trip like mine. Practice good personal finance habits and definitely don't go into debt for something like this. Be prudent but strategic. If you're going to be spending money on things like travel, groceries, and gas anyway, might as well find the card that maximizes the number of points you get.
- Timing is important. If there's a trip you really want to take, set up some Google Flight alerts and browse your preferred airlines' award travel calendar often. You never know when the deal is going to show up.
- Be flexible. I got lucky because our trip revolves around the FIFA Women's World Cup but if there's a destination you want to go to, the award calendar might dictate when you go.
This post is as of January 2023. Airline fares change consistently and what I was able to book may no longer be available when you read this.