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How to Take Your Dream Trip with Airline Miles

Here’s what you need to know to start planning the trip of a lifetime

For many of us, there are certain things we save our miles for. Like that big trip we’ve always wanted to take to climb the Great Wall or explore the outback. But how do you start planning for it? How many miles will you need to get to your dream destination? And which airline should you be with flying with to get those points? Here are some of the world’s most popular dream trip spots—and helpful suggestions to get you there.

Hawaii

It takes flexibility to find dates with free tickets to Hawaii, and your search should begin 11 months before your trip (that’s when airlines open reservations for flights, including award seats). But if you don’t find what you’re looking for then, keep checking, because airlines can release space at any time leading up to the flight. Most airlines charge 22,500 each way, but American puts award flights to the 50th state on sale between mid-January and mid-March and also between mid-August and mid-December, taking 2,500 miles off in each direction. To save up enough miles for a round-trip, a customer without elite status will have to spend $8,000 on tickets with American (under its new revenue-based program), but it’s worth noting that some credit cards give you enough miles for the ticket just for signing up. (All that said, you can actually get an even better deal on American if you happen to be flying out of Los Angeles: nonstop tickets from that city to Hawaii cost just 12,500 Avios points each way.)

Europe

American is generous with mileage discounts to Europe if you fly between mid-January and mid-March or November and mid-December. Economy class costs 22,500 miles each way (down from 30,000 the rest of the year or on Delta and United). There’s also a quarterly promotion from Air France’s miles program, FlyingBlue, which charges rates as low as 20,000 miles each way on either Air France or KLM between specific North America-Europe city pairs. Plan to book award seats as early as possible, but keep in mind that airlines may release seats as the date approaches if the flight is not full. This is especially true in premium cabins, but then you’ll need more miles for each one-way flight. American and United charge 57,500 miles for business class flights in each direction while Delta charges 62,500.

Morocco

If you want to see the mystical charms of Moroccan souks and the splendor of desert scenery, you should know that there’s a secret discount from Delta: It’s the only carrier that considers Morocco part of its Europe zone. This means it only charges 30,000 miles each way instead of the 40,000 miles that American or United partners charge, so you only have to spend $6,000 with Delta instead of $8,000 with United or American under carriers’ new revenue-based mileage programs.

Egypt

All of the major airline alliances charge 40,000 miles each way to reach Egypt, but once you’re there, you can find a great bargain if you pick the right hotels. Starwood’s Le Meridien, right next to the pyramids, has rooms for as low as 3,000 points per night, and Hilton’s Golf Resort can be as cheap as 10,000 points per night. How do you earn those points? You can get 3,000 Starwood points by spending $1,500 at a Starwood hotel (or just $750 if you have the Starwood American Express.)

China

If you’re making a once-in-a-lifetime trip to China, you’ll want to visit at least three or four cities. While United and Delta charge 35,000 miles for one-way flights to China and American charges 37,500 miles, Alaska has a better deal: The airline allows redemptions on partners Cathay Pacific or Hainan for as few as 30,000 miles. For travel within China, Delta is particularly generous with award redemptions, offering them for as few as 6,000 miles one way on some routes. One of the easiest ways to earn tons of miles is by using an airline’s shopping portal, which can offer as many as 40 miles for each dollar spent. To earn 35,000 miles, you might only have to spend $875 at online retailers (probably the same ones you frequent anyway).

Tahiti

Most people (including some airline phone agents) don’t realize that you can redeem American or Alaska miles on Air Tahiti Nui, and just 40,000 miles will get you all the way to French Polynesia (compared to 50,000 miles each way on Air France using Delta miles). To get the deal, you have to call American or Alaska (whichever you have miles with). And be warned: Air Tahiti Nui is not particularly generous in releasing award space, so you’ll want to start 11 months in advance to have the best shot at getting a seat.

Australia and New Zealand

These countries are bucket-list spots for many people: all three major U.S. airlines fly down under and can also help you connect to partner airlines once you’re there so that you can travel to a few different destinations. If you use stopover rules wisely, you can even get to more than one city for the same amount of miles. However, finding award seats in advance can be exceptionally tricky. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday travel dates usually have the most availability. Alaska, American, and United sell seats for 40,000 miles each way; Delta charges 50,000 miles per direction but often makes more space available on its partner Virgin Australia. Alaska also partners with Fiji Airways, which can get you to Australia with an interesting stopover between flights. For flights within Australia, you can also book domestic flights on Qantas for as few as 4,500 Avios points for short distances (like between Sydney and Melbourne), which is a killer deal.

A Trip Around the World

A trip around the world is the ultimate dream for most travelers. Sadly, Delta and American no longer let you redeem points for these kinds of tickets. But Star Alliance members United and Air Canada still do, and they charge 200,000 miles for the adventure. Both airlines let you make five stops along the way (typically using as many as 15 flights), but be careful with Air Canada, which tacks on expensive surcharges for flying certain airlines within Star Alliance. To make sure you’re getting the most you can out of your miles and points, contact the special agents that airline alliances employ just to help with these routings—with an itinerary this tricky, you’ll be glad you got professional help.

Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise, and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.