Have you ever said this or thought this? That is the response I get from people quite often. People seem to have this idea that if they have 25,000 miles, they should be able to book their desired domestic ticket because that is the amount required for an award ticket in the US. While that is technically true, in the real world it does not always work out like that.
Some of the comments I get/hear are:
- These miles are worthless
- The chart says it is 60,000 miles to Europe – how come it is telling me 140,000 miles?
- Why are flights not showing up when I search? They are available to purchase.
- How come all the tickets are gone to Honduras? Who is going to Honduras?
- I can’t find an award ticket at all!
I Can’t Find An Award Ticket!
Miles are a tremendous “currency” to have. It really does unlock travel for everyone. Because of miles and points, my family and I have had travel that we would never had otherwise. It is important to note though that miles are not magic – they do not allow you to just take any flight for free. Here are some tips to help keep you calm as you search for award tickets!
Check Your Dates
One of the things that you need to remember when you look for award tickets is what dates you are looking for. An example of this is if you are trying to get an award ticket to go to some large event (like the Super Bowl). The chances of award tickets being available to your final destination are not very good – in fact, even revenue tickets will be abnormally high.
In situations like that, look to depart one day earlier or return one day later. In some instances, you may need to increase your flexibility a little more than even that. Instead of going just for the weekend, look at turning it more into a vacation instead and make a week out of it.
In the photo above, the yellow shows standard availability which would be 40,000 miles. The green represents 25,000 mile tickets (or saver availability). By stretching this trip into more of a vacation-length trip, you could get your tickets for 15,000 fewer miles each. All you need to do is be more flexible with your dates.
As travelers, we obviously want something convenient. We do not want to go out of our way to use our “free” award tickets. Our desire is to book the flights we want to go from airport A to airport B.
Realistically, you need to let up on that a little bit. 🙂 It does not always work out that way, especially for airports in smaller markets. If you are not on an airline mainline, you may have trouble getting the flights you want all the time. Some of the hardest award tickets I have searched for have been for people that refused to go to any airport other than their “home” airport. This is for itineraries that had some pretty complicated routings in Africa and Europe – that was all fine, it was just the first leg (from the home airport) and the last leg (to the home airport) that I could not get availability on.
The tip is to look outside of your normal airport. In my case, my “home” airport is ROC – Rochester, NY. At one time, I lived 45 minutes from it, which also put me only 55 minutes from BUF (Buffalo, NY). Buffalo actually has far greater award availability on some trips/airlines than Rochester has. A couple of homes ago, I was only 10 minutes away from ROC and still traveled the 70 minutes to BUF because the availability was better.
Now, when I am booking revenue tickets for people, I always caution them about flying out from an airport that is that far away – especially if people are dropping them off/picking them up. The cost in gas and tolls (and the time and inconvenience) really requires the savings of the ticket to be greater than $80 each (for two tickets) to make it worthwhile. But, when it comes to availability on award tickets, that cost is not an issue since it is not a question of convenience but availability.
If you are looking at other airports around you, you may be surprised at the availability that they have with awards. This is especially true if it is a hub airport. So, expand your “home” airport to include other nearby airports to see what it might provide you with availability.
Build It Piece By Piece
While award engines can be helpful, they can also not be trusted. There are times that they will not show the true availability on a flight, there are times that they will sort the results to not display the cheapest options on the first page, and there are times when they just don’t work (like, with Delta it is pretty much broken all the time).
It is true that United Airlines has the best award engine of the domestic carriers, but even United does not always kick out the right flight availability. In situations like that, it is best to search for one segment at a time. This is especially for true for more complicated itineraries or those that require travel on multiple partners.
In the example above, I only included a photo of one of the segments breaking down the return but all the segments showed similar availability to the bottom photo. When looking segment by segment, the whole calendar opened up for the whole itinerary. This is in contrast to the first photo that only had three dates in the month of July with availability (this I know by checking each date).
To do this, you start with the longest segment of your preferred route. So, if you want to go to Europe (with United miles), your best bet might be to start looking from Chicago, Washington, NY, or Toronto (if you are East Coast based) to Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Istanbul, Geneva, or London. Once you find the correct route, you can then move to either end of the journey – the stop in Europe to your final or your origination to the hub on the US side. Depending on the time of year and your destination, it may actually take four segments to get to your destination. Take note of the times and days that you find and then you can assemble it under the Multiple Destinations selection (with United’s award engine) or call United to do it with a representative.
As tedious as it might be, break up your ticket and check it segment by segment for availability.
Feed Your Award Ticket
This goes back to flexibility on airports. There are times when it is actually impossible to find any award tickets at all from any of your nearby airports to the hub. In those cases, it might require you feeding your award ticket with other flights.
To do this, you have two options – you can book a revenue ticket from your city to the gateway city (which can be quite cheap, considering) or you can use miles from another program to book an award ticket to that city. A good example of that would be to use British Airways Avios to book a ticket from Rochester to Chicago to hook-up with a United award ticket departing Chicago to Europe.
This can work on the other side as well. In fact, it could actually come out even with as far as cost. If you look at a ticket from a gateway city in Europe to your final destination in Europe, you might find that low-cost carriers provide some decent cost options. When you combine this with the fact that you will save on taxes for having your award ticket terminate at the gateway city in Europe.
This works because the departure taxes in Europe can be high. So, if you end in, say Germany, your award ticket could only cost $5 in taxes and fees. If you are continuing on with your award ticket from Germany, your ticket could jump $80 or more! If you do the same thing with flights to London, you will find it similar – except the cost in taxes will be even higher for departure out of London. On the contrary, you can get cheap flights for under $50! So, if you cannot make the award ticket work, you can always book to Europe and then feed that ticket with a paid ticket.
Just because the award ticket is “free,” it doesn’t mean that you cannot go ahead and spend a little bit to get to the airports you need to – I know, it is not fun to do but somethings it is necessary!
Look For Business Class
While some people may be thinking that everything I have been talking so far has dealt with looking for business class tickets, it actually was for economy tickets mainly. Depending on your itinerary, it can be hard to find some coach tickets at certain times of the year. When using something like Delta, you might find yourself being quoted an award price of well over 100,000 miles just to travel in coach to Europe! Well, that is about the cost for travel roundtrip in business class to Europe! If you have to fly those dates and cannot find anything cheaper, just go with saver business class (if available) instead. I have found many instances where there is business class available at the low level and not coach. People automatically assume that business class costs more. While it does if all availability is equal, it does not in reality at times.
This also works with United and American. In their cases, booking coach on certain awards may not even be an option. In those cases, look at business class. Yes, it costs more, but if you are set on that trip and those dates, it may be your best move. Plus, it can be a lot more comfortable! So, do not just get fixed on one particular cabin of travel – check the other cabins as well and you might be surprised!
Mix It Up
Having flexibility in your point programs is really the answer to getting the awards you want. If you have a healthy balance in all the major carriers (or the potential by having Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards), then you are in good shape to find the award you are looking for.
Sometimes, your outgoing may work with one alliance and then the return might be better accommodated on another alliance. If you have enough flexibility with points, you can eliminate a fair amount of difficulty in booking award tickets.
Book Early or Late
Some airlines open up the most availability almost a year out while others open a lot of availability within a couple of weeks of departure. It can prove helpful to you to realize that you may not actually book your ticket until a few days before departure.
It can be very nerve-wracking but everytime I have had to book my tickets like that, I have had success getting tickets at the last minute. Remember, booking award tickets is not like buying a ticket. With paid tickets, the closer to departure you get, the more the price goes up. With award tickets, the price remains constant. In fact, airlines realize that they may not be able to sell all the tickets on their flight because of the high price, so they end up releasing more award availability as a result.
Now, the bad news is that you will pay a close-in booking fee with some airlines when it is within 21 days of departure. This may be something you are not comfortable with, especially if it is for more than one person. If that is the case, then start looking for your ticket as soon as you know your dates!
There a couple of ways to get around that fee – first is that Delta does not charge a close-in ticketing fee. So, if the airports and availability work, try booking your ticket on Delta. If you must use United, then consider getting the United Club card. While this card has a high annual fee, many get the fee waived for the first year. If you have this card tied to your United account, you receive a waiver of any close-in ticketing fees. And then if you are traveling within the Oneworld Alliance, consider using British Airways for your ticket instead of American or US Air. Remember that British Airways is a distance-based redemption program so this may not work but for the shorter trips but it is still an option since British Airways does not charge a close-in ticketing fee.
When All Else Fails, Ask the Pros
There are times when it can be impossible for you to find the award you need/want. In that situation, rather than pulling your hair out and spending hours upon hours trying to find it (the award, not your hair), hire a professional to do it for you.
There are several award booking services that are well-trusted and have produced some fantastic results. Some of the ones that I am most familiar with and hear the most good about are these (I do not get a referral for mentioning them or for you using them):
- Award Magic (one of the founders, Tahsir – the Bengali Miles Guru – writes over at Hack My Trip)
- Book Your Award (founded by Gary Leff from View From the Wing)
- PointsPros (founded by Ben from One Mile At a Time)
These services all cost between $139 – $200 for the first person (and some of them hold that price for other people in the reservation as well). While that might sound like a lot of money, consider the amount of money you are saving by using award miles for your trip! If you cannot find the ticket you want, paying this award to have them book it (or not fee) may just be worth your time!
Those are just a few tips to help you in your award booking
nightmare fun. It may seem sometimes like you cannot do anything with your award miles and they are useless, but just remember that there are people redeeming and flying on award tickets every single day. My family of 5 has flown to Europe on award tickets the last two summers – even though I had people telling me that they could not find one ticket! It is just a matter of how you approach it and what you do to make the experience better. While there are a lot more tips, including some advanced ones, I figured this might be a good list to help you see what things you can do to realize more value from your award miles.