Talking to friends is the best part of all this. At dinner this weekend a friend mentioned that they have miles but absolutely no idea how to use them. I now feel like this is a pretty common sentiment and I want to help you get the most out of your miles.
To start, there are points and there are miles: points are associated with credit cards and miles are associated with airlines. The best use of credit card points is to transfer them into airline miles via your credit card's "airline transfer partners" rather than using them for cash back. The best use of airline miles is to use those miles for free flights that would otherwise be an expensive ticket if you were paying out of pocket.
The kicker with miles is that you must find dates where there is availability for a free flight using miles. To search for availability simply go to the airline's website and click the "use miles" option to see the availability and amount of miles needed. Some airlines require you to join their loyalty program to be able to search; fear not, it's free and I highly recommend becoming a member of as many airline loyalty programs as you can so that you may earn points with whoever, whenever you fly.
With certain airlines you may be able to use miles for any date, but in doing so you may be forced to use more miles for certain dates than others. Unless it's an absolute emergency please don't use more miles than you have to, miles are hard to come by and you want to get the most out of them. For our Christmas flights I wanted to leave the 18th of December returning the 31st, to get those exact dates would have cost 125,000 miles for our desired flights. I searched for similar dates and was able to find that leaving a day earlier would only cost 87,500 miles, which saved me enough miles for a separate domestic round trip at another time.
If you have credit card "points" with American Express, Chase or Citibank you will be able to search availability with many different airlines giving you an even greater chance of locking in your ideal dates. Simply look at who your credit card's "airline transfer partners" are and then search availability on each. Even if you currently have no miles with that airline, your credit card points can be instantly transferred into airline miles with any of those partners. Nice! Once you have found an airline with availability, which you would like to fly, transfer your points to that partner airline to create miles.
If you have miles with a certain airline you are stuck using their miles, but you might not be stuck flying their airline. Airlines have partners within their alliance, therefore if I have Delta miles I may be able to use them for a flight on their partner Air France, even though I have no Air France miles. One thing you sadly cannot do is combine points from different airlines, even if they are in the same alliance. If I have Delta miles and Air France miles I cannot combine them to create one lump sum of miles. Like I said, I can use those miles to fly on either airline, but I cannot combine the miles to create a free flight. I will have to have enough miles with one single airline to redeem miles for a free flight. As you may have guessed, the best practice is to pick an airline which has flights and partners of value to you and bank all of your points and miles to them creating a large sum of points. It doesn't hurt to have points with multiple airlines, but for the best free flights it's good to pick one and earn as many miles as possible.
If you are like most of us, who have miles with a specific airline, flexibility is the key to successful planning. The best practice is to book as far in advance as possible, but occasionally availability does open up even closer to the desired dates. If you are planning a trip and only have American Airlines miles, you will need to just keep plugging in dates that you can use miles to redeem for a free flight. If you just can't seem to make things line up in an acceptable way, think out of the box. If you are flying New York to Los Angeles for example, try plugging in Newark or Burbank (even closer to Hollywood) to see if that changes things.
Sadly in almost every case, a free flight does mean free flight but it does not mean free taxes. If you are booking a reward ticket using miles you wil have to pay taxes which will probably run between $6-$65 making your ticket almost but not quite free. In a world where airline fares have risen year over year, using miles becomes more advantageous every day. Don't let your points or miles go to waste.