FI Travel: How I Sensibly Spend Airline Miles and Rail Points

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Sensibly Spending on Travel
Southwest Airlines 737-300. Photo courtesy of Aero Icarus.

Sensibly Spending on Travel –  My Favorite Airline and Rail Rewards

I recently laid out my guiding principles for traveling as a financially independent individual, or as I creatively call it, FI travel.  Similar to my FI beliefs, the guiding principles I follow with FI travel are: sensible spending, active saving, and sound investing.  Today, I will focus on sensibly spending travel currencies, specifically via air and rail.  Before getting into my favorite redemptions for air and rail travel, I’ll describe my primary factors for sensibly spending on travel.

The Primary Factors

“Sweet spots” is a term many use to describe their most treasured/outsized/high-value redemptions.  What it doesn’t convey is the time, stress, and mental gymnastics that certain redemptions entail.  I do applaud those who put that considerable effort in and, hopefully, obtain their ultimate redemption.  Indeed, I have done so plenty in the past for international airline travel in premium classes, and I plan to again in the future.  But in my current life season, I prefer convenient, time-efficient redemption options primarily for domestic travel.  So what if I pay a few more points or miles than the other guy/gal?  I can always accumulate more points and miles, but I cannot make more time. I’ll pass on the endless emails and phone calls to Turkish Airlines for the possibility of 7.5k-mile Hawaii tickets that may never show up.

Of course, I aim for points and miles-efficient redemptions, as well.  Redeeming the minimum number of points or miles for any given itinerary is a natural goal.  I fully realize that I won’t have access to the cheapest option all the time, though, based on the travel currency, lack of elite status, timing of my journey, etc.  As a free agent who doesn’t care about airline/rail elite status, I try to find the best “deal” for each itinerary, though.  (But I will never fly Allegiant.)

Finally, I enjoy the flexibility for any given itinerary, if possible.  Of course, in order to get the cheapest redemption, I’m willing to give up some flexibility to cancel or change tickets.  Also, as an FI individual, I know my travel schedule is malleable, since I’m not tied down to work hours.

Primary Factors – The Short Version

So, I aspire for my redemptions to be:

  • Convenient
  • Cheap
  • Flexible

In general, I do not place importance on any one factor over the other.  Rather, the order of those factors’ importance varies based on my specific travel goal.  Let’s dive in to my favorites!

Sensibly Spending on Travel

#1.  Southwest Wanna Get Away Fares

This redemption type is probably my favorite, given it earns high marks from me on all three factors.  My experiences booking with Southwest have been very smooth, short of having to use multiple gift cards for redemptions in the past (which I just fixed).  For the majority of routes which I fly Southwest, the redemptions are lower than other competitors, and at worst, are comparable in the other situations.  Southwest’s flexibility for changes and cancellations is top-notch.  Indeed, not even their competitors’ recent enhancements meet Southwest’s policies.

Another reason I prefer this redemption type is my overall love for Southwest.  Their employees actually seem to enjoy their jobs (or they are excellent at faking it).  While I don’t check bags during solo travel, we love doing so for free on family trips.  And unlike many, I’m a fan of how Southwest boards its planes.  Sure, they treat all passengers like children in line during the boarding process.  But based on the behavior I’ve seen in domestic airports over the years, we Americans deserve it.

Sensibly Spending on Travel
Brand new American Airlines 787 aircraft.

#2.  American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards

Another solid, if not splashy, redemption type I enjoy is an American Airlines reduced mileage award.  AA credit cardholders can save up to 7,500 miles on a round trip award ticket (based on the Mile SAAver rate).  Yes, there are limited departure/arrival airport options which also change often, but I’ve been able to reliably and easily book these discounted awards.  You must call to redeem this way, but in my experience, the reservations agents have made redemptions a smooth, painless experience every time.  I’m continually blown away by AA’s excellent customer service on these redemptions.  I’ll quit trying to figure that out and just enjoy it.  Prior to this year, I redeemed this way a few times annually, and I look forward to doing so routinely in the future.

Another positive is that with the plethora of AA credit cards available, one can maintain this capability long-term while jumping from one card to another.  I currently hold the CitiBusiness AAdvantage Mastercard and the AAdvantage Aviator Blue Mastercard.

#3.  American Airlines Web Specials

AA discounts web specials from MileSAAver and AAnytime award rates.  While web specials cannot be changed, they are not subject to all of the limitations of basic economy fares.  Web specials start at 5k miles one-way, although I’ve most often booked these awards in the 8-10k range.  While flying economy is perfectly fine for me, AA does offer web specials on first class tickets, as well.  When I book with AA, I compare any reduced-mileage award flights with web special rates and take the better deal.  In my experience, I’ve easily found web specials between major airports with a bit of date flexibility.

Sensibly Spending on Travel

#4.  Amtrak Roomette

I absolutely love Amtrak.  As an FI’er, the slow speed of train travel is not an issue for me.  I actually enjoy the journey and experience more than any other form of travel.  Amtrak is the only way of seeing certain parts of the country on commercial transit, and I cherish every minute.  I could go on and on about my love for Amtrak.  But I won’t here – I’ll save that for a future article.

My favorite redemption type as a solo Amtrak traveler is for a Roomette.  I’ts basically their smallest version of a sleeper suite.  While Roomettes are big enough for two, I happily redeem Amtrak Guest Rewards points for a Roomette during solo travel.  I enjoy more space and privacy in a roomette than any premium domestic flight product.  Sleeper bookings include meals, and I’ve enjoyed all of my dining car meals over the years.  From my perspective, Amtrak dining is easily superior to domestic first class air travel and better than some international premium class dining offerings.  In addition to the Dining Car on long-haul routes, I have fond memories of dining in Acela’s First Class, as well.

Outstanding Point Values and Cancellation Policy

The amount of points required for a redemption varies based on the train and route, but I reliably get a value of about 2.9 cents per Amtrak point for all long-haul routes.  Also, I easily find Acela redemptions worth about 2.5 cents per point, although it’s tougher than it used to be.  The high return on points for awards makes up for this not being the cheapest form of transportation, in my opinion.  Amtrak’s award cancellation policy is still liberal compared to most airlines.  Any cancellation up to 14 days in advance only requires a 10% points penalty; all other points go back to your Amtrak Guest Rewards account.

Sensibly Spending On Travel – Worth Mentioning

While I don’t have experience with these next few options, I do know many obtain great redemptions via the following:

Delta Flights with Virgin Atlantic Miles

Many travelers have achieved outsized value by redeeming Virgin Atlantic miles for Delta flights, particularly in premium classes, but also in economy.  Often, the amount of miles needed is less by simply redeeming Virgin Atlantic miles rather than Delta miles.  The big wrinkle here is that Virgin considers each flight segment a different award, so this type of redemption only makes sense for a non-stop itinerary.

British Airways Mileage-Based Awards

You can redeem British Airways Avios for American Airlines flights at relatively low rates with British Airways’ mileage-based awards.  British Airways categorizes these rates by zones of travel bounded in certain mileage intervals.  Of course, this is particularly useful for short, yet normally high-priced flights, but many will find a variety of uses for these award redemptions.

Sensibly Spending On Travel – Conclusion

These are my primary redemptions for sensibly spending on travel.  Of course, they don’t get me everywhere I need or want to go, and I look forward to describing my thought process for those other situations in a different article.  However, as I look back on these different methods, I’m pleased at how I’ve been able to apply these efficient redemptions to a variety of trips over the years.  Do you redeem your points and miles in any of the above ways?  How else have you sensibly spended on air and rail redemptions?

Benjy Harmon
Benjy is a fan of points, miles, and financial independence (FI). An experienced world traveler, husband, and father, he currently focuses on roaming throughout the USA expense-free (or close to it). He enjoys helping others achieve their FI and travel goals.

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