Not long ago, I booked a trip from Miami to Auckland, New Zealand, for less than $38 using airline miles. Last year, I booked a ticket from Bangkok to Miami for $70. Accumulating miles isn't hard — it's learning how to use them wisely.
Book one-way travel: A NerdWallet study shows that 62 percent of one-way flights offer better point values than round trips. Look for one-way deals, so that even if you have to pay a portion of your fare out of pocket, you'll still save a significant amount of money.
Only redeem your miles on flights: It's tempting to redeem miles on magazine subscriptions or apparel, especially when they're about to expire. Expiration dates can be reset in a number of ways, including buying additional flights and donating miles. There's no reason to redeem miles on anything not powered by jet fuel.
Wait for a good sign-up deal: The Chase Sapphire Reserve card has offered up to 100,000 points as a sign-up bonus, compared with its current offer of 50,000 points. American Airlines is now offering up to 75,000 miles for new cardholders, up from 65,000. Typically, you'll see special deals when a card launches, around the holidays and occasionally in-flight.
Avoid booking during peak travel times: The difference in miles required to book a flight during peak times can sometimes cover the cost of multiple tickets. I saw prices from Honolulu to Miami range from 25,000 miles to 90,000 miles in the same week. Big events such as the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta can exponentially increase the cost of award travel. Redeem on obscure dates and times instead.
Only buy miles when they're on sale: If you must buy them, take advantage of periodic sales offered by the airlines.
Use your miles for places that don't go on sale regularly: Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Nairobi, for example, are usually expensive to reach. Once you accrue enough miles, choose a destination that you wouldn't otherwise be able to find for cheap, and that isn't commonly accessed by budget airlines.
Avoid the upgrade on domestic flights: It's just not worth it. Those points could be helping you get to your next far-flung destination instead.