How to plan for award travel when you’re an infrequent flyer


While some folks who read this site are avid travelers, zooming around the globe as frequently as a satellite, others may fly infrequently and think that award travel is completely irrelevant to them.

Nonsense. Award travel is open to all, as long as you prioritize it.

So this post is geared toward the folks who may only fly once a year and who aren’t avid travel hackers, but still want to eventually plan an award trip using their frequent flyer miles.

(For our purposes, we will assume that you’ve picked an airline and are going to bank your miles to that airline only, but we won’t be talking about specific airlines. We’re also not going to talk about credit cards.)

Figure out where to go first

First you need to figure out where you want to go, of course. This can actually vex some people. “I don’t know, I just want to travel.

If you don’t where you’d like to go, but are sure you want to go somewhere, I encourage you to sit down at your local bookstore or visit Wikitravel, and see what comes up. Close your eyes and put a finger on the map, if necessary. There is no wrong answer.

What type of award trip?

I generally divide airline travel into four options (though this is an oversimplification):

  • Domestic Coach: That trip to New York or San Francisco that you always wanted to take; seeing your family on the opposite side of the country.
  • Domestic First: Still staying in the country, but you’d like to sit at the front of the plane, where the seats are nicer (and where you’ve heard they actually served you food and drink for free)
  • International Coach: Did you ever want to go to Japan, not caring how comfortable it was along the way? I did.
  • International First: Lie-flat beds, five-star meals, and even showers; the best of the best.

In general, Domestic First and International Coach require twice as many miles as Domestic Coach, and International First requires twice more still. So the effort to get an International First flight is equivalent to two International Coach or four Domestic Coach flights. Keep this in mind as we discuss the options.

Domestic Coach

This is the “easiest” to attain. Most airlines allow for award travel at this level at 25,000 miles. That’s about 4-5 cross-country flights you need to take to earn enough miles for this trip.

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One thing to note about this is that, monetarily speaking, Domestic Coach is usually the least valuable use of your miles. International First is four times the miles of Domestic Coach, but the cost of International First is much more than four times domestic coach. I just priced out an itinerary from New York to London on United in First, and it was $7,500. How much is a Domestic Coach flight?

For this reason, Domestic Coach is best for traveling during peak times (like holidays), when flights are abnormally expensive. Otherwise, I’d save my miles for a bigger award.

Domestic First

A secret that I learned years ago is that virtually no one pays for First Class. Last year, I flew in First Class a bunch of times, and every time, it was because I was upgraded via the airline’s “elite status” program.

Unfortunately, elite status is hard to come by if you don’t fly a lot. At the moment, you can buy elite status outright with US Airways, but it’s rather expensive, and it’s hard to rationalize.

I’ve flown Domestic First, and it’s quite nice. But with 50,000-60,000 miles required for an award ticket, I don’t think it’s worth it, because …

International Coach

… Domestic First is roughly about the same amount of miles as International Coach. Would you rather have a nice seat on a hop across the country, or a tiny seat on your way to Europe or Asia? I’m unhesitatingly in favor of the latter. Yes, a trip across the globe could be challenging, especially if you’re tall and/or claustrophobic, but once you get there, you’re there! Which will last longer, the flight or the trip?

International First

Imagine a five-star hotel and restaurant in the sky. (I can’t, so here’s one trip review.)

This is firmly in Bucket List territory for me. International First can range in the 100,000 miles area, which seems pretty unattainable if you fly once a year. I’d also wonder whether it’s worth it for such an amazing-but-transient experience. Will it be worth it? Remember that you could get two trips in International Coach for the same amount of miles. On the other hand, I repeat: showers.

Sweet spot

For me, the sweet spot between value and attainability is International Coach. As much as I would love to take a shower on a plane and have a lie-flat bed, I’m fine favoring more trips over that. When I’m in Bangkok or Prague or Stockholm, I can take a shower and lie down there.

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My second choice would be Domestic Coach during holiday/peak travel. If you have to travel when everyone else is, at least you won’t have to overpay for the privilege.

(Yes, I’ve totally side-stepped the discussion of Business Class, one-way awards, and round-the-world trips, and much else. A full treatment of this topic is much too big to tackle in one post. Comment below if you’ve got a specific question.)

Your sweet spot may be in a different place, and that’s fine. There is no wrong plan here, as long as you plan something. After all, there’s a big world out there waiting to be experienced. Isn’t that worth planning for?

But enough about me. What kind of award travel do you prefer? And what adventures are you planning?

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