Secrets to Redeeming Miles for Free Flights

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Dear Tim—

I am trying to find out the best way to use my Delta frequent flier miles to fly to Hawaii first class in October 2011.

I read your site every week, but I cannot find where this question has been asked or any place that can help me.

I am not very good at the computer looking things up. I was hoping that you could point me in the right direction for information about this topic.


Dear Robin—

The simplest solution is to redeem 180,000 miles for award tickets that are unencumbered by capacity restrictions or blackout dates. But that's a pricey way to go, with restricted Hawaii awards offered for just 75,000 miles.

Assuming you want to explore the lower-cost option first, try the following:

  • Book early: Award seats first become available for booking 330 days prior to the flight's departure date.
  • Book late: If a flight still has empty seats within two weeks of departure, the airlines often make more award seats available.
  • Consider an upgrade: If award seats are not available at an affordable price, consider buying a coach ticket and using miles to upgrade to first class.
  • Look into alternative airports -- You didn't specify either the airport you're flying from or which airport in Hawaii you'd like to fly to. There may be alternatives worth exploring. If you're having trouble finding award seats from New York's JFK Airport, for example, check to see if seats are available from Newark, La Guardia, or MacArthur Airport on Long Island.
  • Finding Frequent Flier Reward Ticket Availability

  • Travel on off-peak days: If your dates are flexible, look for seats on low-demand days. Since Hawaii is primarily a leisure destination, traffic tends to be heaviest around weekends, particularly Fridays and Sundays.

    By the same token, steer clear of the days immediately before and after holidays.

  • Call Delta: A reservations agent may be able to find award seats where none are available on Delta's own website. You'll pay a service charge if the agent is successful in making your booking, but it's well worth $20 if it makes the difference between getting to your destination and staying home.

None of the above guarantees success, however. For that, you'll have to redeem more miles for a less restricted award.

Tim Winship is editor at large for SmarterTravel , as well as the editor and publisher of, and a frequently quoted expert on frequent flier programs. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.