Living with credit, Rewards, Travel

How to use your points to fly on the best airlines

Stephanie Zito

All airlines are not the same. There are budget airlines that charge you for everything besides the toilet; there are the standard “legacy” carriers such as United, American and Delta that get you there; and then there are the really nice airlines that make getting somewhere a fun part of the journey.

The best airlines in the world – the ones that make flying fun – offer amenities such as free nanny service for families, showers on board their planes, first-class suites with lie-flat beds, on-demand dining in business class, high-end cocktails and in-flight bars.

Even if you aren’t a first-class or business-class flyer, the best airlines provide perks for economy-class passengers: food that actually tastes good, meal service on all flights for all passengers (yes, even in the cheap seats), free checked baggage, helpful flight attendants, complimentary alcoholic beverages, and even city tours and accommodations for long or forced overnight layovers.

Sound too good to be true? These airlines exist, and Skytraxx annually names the 20 best airlines in the world. In 2017, the top five airlines on the list are Qatar, Singapore Airlines, ANA, Emirates and Cathay Pacific. While none are U.S.-based, they all operate flights to and from a dozen or so U.S. gateway cities.

What you may not know is your credit card rewards points often can land you a free seat on these list-topping best airlines.

How airline alliances can get you a seat on the best airlines
Most Americans who fly are likely to be collecting points in a single airline mileage program such as United, Delta, Southwest or American. Just because you gather an airline’s points, however, doesn’t mean that you have to always fly on its aircraft!

Nearly all the major carriers belong to one of the big three alliances: oneworld, Star Alliance or SkyTeam. For quick reference, American is part of oneworld, United is part of Star Alliance and Delta belongs to Sky Team.

As a result, you likely can use the points you’ve accumulated with one airline to book an award flight on a partner airline in the same alliance.

This month, for example, I’m flying to Hong Kong on an airline award ticket I purchased with points from American Airlines but I’m flying Cathay Pacific.

Here’s how I did that: I chose to buy the ticket with American miles simply because I’m earning most of my points in the American Airlines AAdvantage program (thanks to 100,000-plus miles I earned from my oneworld Round the World ticket and the 60,000 points I just earned from the Barclays Aviator Mastercard sign-up bonus).

To get started, I looked at the partner list on American Airlines’ webpage and noticed that American has 26 partner airlines and two – Japan Airlines (JAL) and Cathay Pacific – offer direct flights to Asia. With this information, I knew that in addition to American, I could purchase my ticket with points on either of these airlines for the same cost.

Because trans-Pacific flights to Asia are very long, I want to be flying on the most comfortable airline if I have a choice. I personally like Cathay Pacific best of these three options – and Cathay Pacific is No. 5 on the best airline list.

Cathay has the trifecta of great service, good food and a big selection of in-flight entertainment in all classes. And if you’ve got enough points to try Cathay Pacific’s first-class suites (110,000 AAdvantage miles from the U.S. to HKG), you’ll get high-end champagne, a caviar course on the menu, comfy pajamas and turndown service for your bed in the sky, and an arrivals lounge in HKG with showers and breakfast upon arrival.

In my opinion, this is definitely a good use of my American Airlines miles, and proof that it is possible to use the miles you already have for a flight that is better than what you think you can get!

How do you actually book the ticket?

After you have an idea about what airline you want to fly, start by plugging in your destination and travel dates in the online search tool and click the box for using your miles. In the best case, the partner award you are searching for will come up and you can book the flight online just as you would book any domestic ticket on that airline.

In many cases, however, you may not see the partner flight you are looking for in the ticket results. This does not always mean that there isn’t an award flight available. It often means that the airline has chosen not to include the award tickets from that partner airline in its online search results.

To check the actual availability, all you need to do is call the reservation number of your frequent-flyer program and ask for a partner award flight for your destination and dates.

How to book the best airlines with flexible credit card reward points
How does this work if you aren’t earning your points in a single airline program, but rather earn your points from a flexible rewards credit card like the Citi Prestige, Chase Sapphire or an American Express card that earns Membership Rewards?

With points earned in a flexible card rewards program, you have three different ways to fly the best airlines:

1. Book through your card issuer’s travel portal to pick whatever flight on whatever airline you want – regardless of alliance. This option gives you the maximum amount of choice, but buyer beware, the number of points that you pay will be determined by the cost of the ticket.

This can work in your favor for lower cost tickets, or if you’re traveling with a family and need multiple seats on the same flight. If you’re wanting to fly on a very expensive “free” business- or first-class ticket, however, you’ll most likely want to consider a different option to get the best value in using your points.

2. Transfer your points to your card issuer’s travel partner programs. With this option, you transfer your points directly to the mileage program of the airline you want to fly. While most people only think of transferring to a program in which they’re already actively collecting points, this doesn’t have to be the case.

If you want to fly on Singapore Airlines newest A380, for example, it’s as simple as transferring your credit card points to your Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer frequent-flyer program and booking your award ticket directly through the airline.

Don’t have a KrisFlyer account? Don’t let that stop you. Sign up for a free account online, and transfer the number of credit card rewards points you need for your flight to your new KrisFlyer account. Once you have points in your new account, use them to book your ticket. (Note: Don’t transfer too many points because you won’t be able to transfer them back to your credit card account).

3. Transfer your points to an airline that is a partner of the airline that you are aspiring to fly. Transfer your points to United, for example, and then from United use them to book a partner award for that very same Singapore Airlines ticket.

This option works best when you already have some points in an existing account that you need to top off to get a free flight, or when one airline offers cheaper award ticket fares or lower taxes. (For example, the same ticket could be 30,000 points when purchased as a partner award through United versus 50,000 when purchased directly through Singapore or vice versa). 

Ready to fly the best airlines?
The best option for booking your tickets on these aspirational airlines, of course, is the one that works with the points and credit card programs and strategies that you have for your own lifestyle and travel dreams.

If you’re ready to switch to flying the best airlines, learn a little bit about the rewards points that you already have. Take inventory of the points and miles in your current accounts, learn which alliance your primary airline is a part of, and study up on the airline partners you can access through your account balances.

The next time a travel opportunity comes around you’ll be ready to level up your flight experience on one of the best airlines in the sky – no extra points required!

See related: How to transfer your miles and points to other rewards programs, How to transfer AmEx points between airlines, 5 money-saving credit card tips for savvy family travelers

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