Plenty of people would be thrilled to use 25,000 miles for a free Coach flight from New York to Orlando, but frequent flyers who realize just how valuable their miles can be will often hold out for a much better redemption value. On a per-dollar value, international Business and First Class award tickets are hands-down the best deal out there. You can travel in significantly enhanced comfort for twice the number of miles, while a paid Business Class ticket could cost you four times as much as Coach or even more.
Building up enough miles to fly you and a friend (or your entire family) from A to B when you're trying to get to Europe or Asia in a premium cabin can be quite a challenge, however. Many credit card sign-up offers will earn you enough miles to fly across the country with just one bonus, but racking up enough to fly intercontinental Business or First Class on that "once in a lifetime flight" can take a lot of time and dedication. Here's how to get started:
1. Researching destinations is the first step when planning an international adventure. You don't need to narrow your trip down to specific cities, but having a general idea of which region you wish to travel to is key, as award redemption rates can vary drastically depending on where you're headed.
2. Pick dates within the next year, or at least a general timeframe to search for. Airlines devalue their miles all the time, and once you begin saving for a particular award, you don't want to get caught off guard by increased award rates. If you're saving for a trip many years down the road, plan to accumulate twice the number of miles you'd need to take that flight now, just to cover all your bases.
3. Search for availability now, rather than once you've banked all the necessary miles. Award seat availability is restricted, and even though it's likely to change as your dates approach (perhaps even for the better), it doesn't hurt to get an idea of what's available now. Search for flights between gateway cities now, since these are typically the most difficult to nail down (you can always pay cash for that 90-minute hop from Taipei to Hong Kong if you need to later).
4. Confirm air travel first, before booking guides, hotels and other non-refundable experiences at your destination. Keep in mind that your travel plans may change at the last minute as well, so it's best to book refundable reservations whenever possible. If you have a transferable award currency like American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards points, move those to your airline program of choice first -- hotel award availability is generally much more flexible, and you can usually book a stay at the same rate within a few weeks of arrival.
5. Book tickets separately as seats become available. You don't need to book your entire group on one reservation, so there's no reason not to scoop up available award seats once you have the necessary miles. Redeposit rates are generally quite reasonable, and having some award seats is better than having none. You can always pay cash for a ticket or two if you absolutely must, or use a fixed-value awards currency like Barclaycard Arrival points to secure remaining seats.
6. Upgrade later, and lock in Coach seats now. Flying Business or First Class is the ultimate goal here, but some airline programs will let you "upgrade" your reservation without a fee if a higher class of service opens up later.
Keep in mind that if your flight gets canceled, it may be possible to get your rewards points back.