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Miles are easy to collect but harder to spend wisely

These days, there are so many travel credit cards available and tons of opportunities for you to gain miles. Stocking up on miles has never been easier, but what do you do with those travel miles once you have them? And how do you know that you’re getting a good value?

Airlines have decreased their capacity in recent years and planes are typically full of paid passengers. This translates to fewer seats offered to credit card reward members. Despite this, you can still redeem your miles for great rewards, if you are smart about it. So, before you start fantasizing about your next vacation, check out the tips below to learn how to get the biggest possible benefit from your miles.

Begin searching early and be adaptable

The number of available award tickets is usually limited, especially for popular travel times. Though airlines no longer publish their blackout dates, they do still blackout award seating on their busiest flights, for the most part. When and if these seats become available, they are usually quick to go.

Start your search for reward tickets as early as you can. This will give you the best odds of landing one that suits your needs. It also helps to be flexible with your travel dates. Often, adjusting your vacation dates by even a day or two can make a huge difference when looking for award tickets.

Book late, if you’re feeling lucky

Booking your ticket within a few weeks of your trip can be a serious gamble, but sometimes it really pays off. As the flight date draws nearer and nearer, airlines become more desperate to fill seats and open up more award seats. But this great deal sometimes comes with a price; some airlines charge a rush fee to reward miles customers who book late. That sweet deal you scored may turn sour rather quickly.

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Fly during the off-season

During the holidays and the summer, more travelers pack their bags and head to the airport. With fewer tickets available, your chances of getting a reward ticket decrease. If you can, book your trip during the off-season when fewer people are traveling. The off-season depends on where you are going, but you can usually enjoy cheaper flights and fewer crowds in mid-January to March, September, and October.

Upgrade your seat

Buying tickets outright isn’t the only way to take advantage of your airline miles. You can also use them to upgrade an existing seat to a better one. If you are taking a long flight, trade-in your miles for an upgraded seat in business or first-class with extended legroom. You’ll thank yourself for this later!

Fly on an international airline

United States airlines consistently fill over 90% of their available seats, so they’re a lot more tightfisted with their award seats. The same, however, is not true for international airlines. And many US carriers have partnerships around the world, which means you can use your airline miles for international flights (and you’ll likely have a better chance of landing a seat!). Delta, for example, partners with China Eastern, Air France, and Virgin Atlantic, among others.

United States airlines consistently fill over 90% of their available seats, so they’re a lot more tightfisted with their award seats. The same, however, is not true for international airlines.

Redeem your miles for other rewards

Did you know that you don’t have to trade in your travel miles for airline tickets? Airlines are offering all sorts of different incentives to get reward customers to use their miles. You can trade-in your miles for magazine subscriptions, hotel rooms, car rentals, boxes of chocolate, and more. Donating miles to charity is even an option. With so many different options to choose from, the best deal may not be on a flight at all!

A deeper dive — related reading from the 101:

Check out the best travel cards that offer the best rewards.

Collecting travel miles is simple with these helpful tips.