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How to score a free holiday flight using miles

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By Summer Hull/MoneyTalksNews

There is no denying that purchasing airfare during peak holiday travel periods can be painful for your wallet. This pain can be intensified if you waited too long and now find yourself needing holiday flights at "last-minute" prices.

If you are pricing holiday travel at this late stage, you will quickly find that being flexible and traveling on the less popular days, such as on the actual holiday itself or returning home a couple of days later than most, can result in securing less expensive airfare.

But you can do better than just finding less expensive airfare. You can fly for virtually no out-of-pocket cost if you have been stashing away some airline miles thanks to rewards-earning credit cards.

Award availability can be tough on peak travel dates, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to find if you use these five tips.

Be flexible

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Just as with paid airfare, being flexible will help you when you're using your airline miles as well, especially during the holidays.

Finding award availability for departures the day before Thanksgiving and returning the Sunday after Thanksgiving may be scarce. However, if you can be flexible with those travel dates, you will likely find more award options.

The same is true with the times of day you fly, the routings you take, and the airports you are willing to fly in and out of. For example, you may not find something out of JFK or LaGuardia, but maybe nearby Newark will have the availability you need. You can also consider flying your outbound leg using one type of airline miles and your return trip with another carrier. United, American, Alaska, Southwest and JetBlue all permit one-way awards.

If you are traveling with a larger family group, consider splitting up if that is the only way to get where you need to be. It is possible there aren't four award seats on a given flight, but if you are willing to split up two and two, your odds of finding awards may increase.

Consider first class

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Most of us are just looking for economy seats for domestic holiday travel, but don't rule out first class. In some test searches, I found that first-class awards were available during the holiday season on various routes for the same mileage price, or even cheaper than some economy awards.

This is just basic supply and demand because most paid-fare and award travelers on the holidays are looking for the cheapest option, so sometimes a saver first-class award will remain after all of the economy seats are gone.

As an added bonus, first class will secure you a more comfortable seat, priority boarding, free checked bags, access to potentially shorter "premier" lines, and maybe even an on-board meal and drinks.

Look to programs with no blackout dates

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Some airline frequent-flier programs don't restrict award availability, but instead make any seat that is available for sale with dollars available for miles or points. Turning to these programs, such as JetBlue and Southwest, can be the best way to quickly spot an available award on a busy travel day.

But the increased availability will come at a cost. These programs that make awards available without blackout dates also charge the points price based on the current selling price of the ticket. This means that very pricey last-minute tickets will also be pricey in terms of the number of points it will cost to purchase the ticket.

This may not be an issue if you are "points rich" in one of these programs, but it is something to be aware of when searching for the best overall deal.

Not all award options will display online

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If you aren't finding the award flight you need with a simple online search, remember that not all flight options and partners display online. This is especially true when dealing with international travel on airline partners, but it can even be true for domestic travel.

For example, if you want to travel from New York City to Florida and there isn't award space displaying online, but yet you see an award flight from LaGuardia to Houston with space, and a flight a couple hours later from Houston to Miami with space, then you may be able to call the airline and have them piece those two flights together into one award.

There are also award booking services available that can help with this process if you aren't able to find something that works on your own. Those booking services do charge fees, but the savings over the cost of last-minute paid airfare may well be worth it, especially because you don't pay anything unless they find a flight award option that will work for you.

Pay the higher standard mileage price

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With airline awards, there are usually multiple mileage prices available for any given flight. These often start at 12,500 miles each way, or 25,000 miles for a domestic round trip with the traditional carriers, but there are often higher-priced awards available that are usually labeled "standard" awards.

These are typically not a good deal, but if the selling price of the holiday travel ticket you want is outside of your cash budget, then paying the standard award rate to get you a seat at the Thanksgiving table may be well worth the higher mileage price.

As an example, if you have a United elite status or even just a co-branded United credit card, then you can book a standard award on any flight where there are paid tickets for sale for two times the price of the saver awards.

Finding airline awards for holiday season travel may not be easy at this juncture, but it isn't necessarily impossible if you use these five strategies. In addition to putting these five tips into action, also know that if a flight ends up with unsold seats in the day or two leading up to departure, even more award seats may appear.

I don't recommend waiting that long to secure your flights home for the holidays, but if you find yourself in need at the very last minute, sometimes luck can be on your side.