Beginners Guide to Burning Miles

Beginner’s Guide: Burning Miles

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When you think about it, there are really only two steps required to travel for “free.” First, you need to earn miles. Then, you need to burn them. Simple right? Well, sort of.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert when it comes to burning miles. I understand the concepts and I’m okay at finding award tickets, but remembering stopover rules and booking complex itineraries is not my forte. If that’s what you’re looking for, this post is not for you – hence the title. On the other hand, if you’re new to the world of award travel or simply want to start learning about booking your own tickets, hit the break and I’ll help you with just that.

Stage 1: Planning

I do not mean plan the exact days you want to be gone or the exact place you want to go. The word “planning” is much more loosely used in this case. By that I mean, plan a general time frame you want to be gone (e.g. 1-2 weeks in August or September) and a few places you wouldn’t mind going to (e.g. Sydney, Hawaii, or Dubai). That way you’re much more likely to find an award ticket.

Don’t get me wrong, you could plan the exact day and the exact location, but award tickets get bought up quick, which means it will probably be much harder to find what you’re looking for. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, just harder.

After you have the place and the time “planned,” you need to determine how you want to fly. Do you want to fly in first or would you prefer to make your miles go further, and fly in coach? Whatever you choose, you should know that there is no guarantee you’ll find the exact ticket you’re looking for. Plan to be flexible.

In addition to what, where, and when, you should think about booking far in advance. Most awards are bookable 11 months out, so they can be quite picked over if you wait too long. On the flip side of that argument, some awards are released only a few weeks before the flight leaves. So, if you’re dead set on a certain vacation and your dates are flexible, it might be worth planning a last-minute award.

Stage 2: Searching

As I mentioned above, when searching for award tickets, it’s best to be flexible. That way you are much more likely to find something worth booking. Because of that, in the following examples, we’ll be searching for a very flexible itinerary.


When searching for oneworld availability, I prefer to use American Airlines. Why? Because, you can search American Airlines, airberlin, British Airways, Finnair, Qantas, Royal Jordanian Airlines, US Airways, Alaska Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines all in one place. That’s basically half of the airlines in oneworld. If you want to search other oneworld airlines, I would suggest searching through Qantas or the actual airline you want to travel on.

Anyway, let’s get to it.

To start your search, head to American Airlines’ website and go to “Find a Flight”.

Award Reservations Flight Search | American Airlines AAdvantage Frequent Flyer Miles |

As you can see in the above picture, there are a lot of options that I pre-selected. We’ll go through it line by line, so you know what it all means.

  • The first option is whether you want to book a flight with cash or with miles. We want to book with miles, so select ” AAdvantage Award.”
  • The second option is what type of search you want to do. You can search Round-Trip, One-Way, or Multi-City. Regardless of your actual plans, I suggest always starting with a One-Way search. That way the website has less chance of being wrong, which often does happen. For example, if you find two One-Way flights (one to and one from the location), but you can’t find a Round-Trip to and from the exact same location, you can simply call in and book it. That way, you know it’s possible and know there’s availability.
  • The third option is where you want to fly to and from. For this example, I chose Chicago to Honolulu.
  • Next, you can choose your dates. I chose a date at the end of May (7 months out), but as I mentioned above, the further out you book, the more likely you’ll find availability. You will also want to select “Dates Flexible.” That makes the searching process easier.
  • Now, select the passengers.
  • Then, select your cabin preference. Regardless of what you choose here, you can see the availability for all cabins.
  • Next, choose your award type. Just like cabin preference, it doesn’t matter what you choose here.
  • Finally, select “AA + AAdvantage Participating Airlines.” That means you will be searching AA and the partners I mentioned above, instead of just AA.

Once you have everything set up on the search page, continue.

Award Search American Airlines

This award chart is wide open. There are saver awards available for each cabin, so you could basically pick whatever date and cabin you wanted (assuming you had the miles). Now, let’s look at the return flight availability.

AA Award Booking

Again, it’s wide open, which means you would have no problem booking this vacation. This amount of availability doesn’t happen often, so don’t expect it. When it does though, it’s awesome!

Star Alliance

ANA offers the best award searching tool for Star Alliance, however, it’s kind of a pain to use. Because of that, I prefer searching with United. They don’t let you search all the Star Alliance airlines, but they offer enough where it usually doesn’t matter – especially for beginners.

To start searching Star Alliance, head to United’s website.

Side note: Doesn’t it look like it was made in the 90s? They really need to refresh the design…

United Star Alliance Award Booking

Just like with AA, there are many different options when booking on United. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • The first option is whether you want to book a flight, hotel, car, or vacation. Obviously, you want to book a flight. That’s a no brainer, especially since “Flight” is preselected.
  • Next, select Round Trip or One Way. As I mentioned in the oneworld section, I prefer to look at One Ways, but you can do either or.
  • Third, select your to and from city (don’t mind the LastPass asterisks). In this case, we’ll search for flights from Las Vegas to London.
  • Then, select whether you want to search flexible dates or a specific one, and what month you want to travel.
  • Finally, select your passengers and how you want to search (Award Travel, of course). Now, search.

United Award Availability

There are a lot of Saver awards available, which is great, because nobody wants standard awards. Now, let’s flip it and see if there is availability.

United Award Search

BAM! Muchos availability on the same exact dates, so roundtripping it shouldn’t be an issue at all.


Delta is the best website to search for SkyTeam availability, I think. Honestly, I do not have any experience booking SkyTeam tickets, so I’m just going off of what I’ve learned from reading other people’s blogs. So, head to Delta’s website and let’s get to work.

Delta Award Bookings


Delta’s options are no different from United’s or AA’s, so I’ll just quickly touch on them.

  • Select “Flight” because you want to find award travel not hotels ;).
  • Select your choice of Round Trip, One Way, or Multi-City.
  • Now, select your date(s) and where you want to go. In this example, we’ll look for flights from Miami to Dublin.
  • Finally, select Flexible Days, Miles, and Passengers.

Delta Award Tickets

There is only one saver award for this months, so we’ll move to June and check out the awards there.

June Delta Awards

There are a few more options in June, so this would probably be the month I’d book. Now, let’s check for the return flight.

Delta Award Ticket

It appears that there are ample amounts of Saver awards for the return flight as well, so this itinerary could be easily booked.

Stage 3: Booking

Booking is often easier than searching for the awards, however, in some cases where you need to call and sit on hold for hours on end, it can be more of a pain. If you’re lucky, though, you will find your itinerary completely online and will be able to book it that way. In that case, booking your tickets will be no more than 5-10 minutes.

Why would I need to call?

  • If you are booking with points or miles from an alliance member. and they do not show availability on their website.
  • If you encounter errors when trying to book online.
  • If you find 2 one-way tickets, but not a round-trip.
  • If you find availability on one website, but not another (e.g. Availability on BA, but not AA).

And the list goes on…

Calling sucks, so if you can avoid it, do.


There is no way I could’ve covered everything there is to know about award travel in this one post, but that’s okay, because this is a beginner’s guide. If you want to learn more about burning miles, I suggest exploring Travel is Free or Flyertalk.

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