Want to use loyalty points to fly to Europe? So does everyone else—which is why availability tends to be tight (or nonexistent) and tickets costly. But it’s not impossible to score a deal, especially with these strategies.
Consider foreign reward programs.
Some charge far fewer miles than their U.S. counterparts, and let you transfer points from credit card programs such as American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou. ANA charges 88,000 miles for a round-trip partner flight in business class from North America to Europe, versus the 140,000 that United requires. Beware: foreign carriers sometimes levy high taxes and fuel surcharges on award tickets.
Look for obscure partnerships.
You know the major airline alliances: Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance. But some airlines also have separate partnerships with less competition for tickets. Alaska Airlines points work on Icelandair, American, Delta, British Airways, and Air France-KLM. Aer Lingus awards are a good bet, since you can book tickets using United or British Airways miles.
Fly an unusual route.
You can usually find open seats on LOT Polish Airlines (part of Star Alliance) from Chicago O’Hare to Warsaw; on American (Oneworld) from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to London; on Aeroflot (SkyTeam) from New York to Moscow; and on Air New Zealand (Star Alliance) from L.A. to London.
Watch for new routes.
In the first few weeks or months, there tend to be more award seats. In 2016, keep an eye on Delta’s new flights from Detroit to Munich and Salt Lake City to London Heathrow; Airberlin’s flights from Dallas and San Francisco to Düsseldorf, Germany; Lufthansa’s from San Jose, California, to Munich; and SAS’s from Miami to Copenhagen and Oslo.
Airlines often open up unsold seats at the eleventh hour for award bookings. First-class seats on Lufthansa, for instance, generally become available only about two weeks before flights.