Ever try to use your miles and find out there aren’t any flights available? Or maybe the airline wants to charge you double—even triple—the usual number of miles because the “saver” award space is all gone.
I have good and bad news for you. The good news is that there is a solution, and much more award space exists than you might realize. The bad news is you need to be flexible and put some extra effort into the solution. Frequent flyer miles can deliver huge value, but if you want the ultimate in convenience, then look for something simpler, like a cash back rewards card.
However, the extra effort isn’t that much. Here’s my approach.
Know Where to Look
Searches that come up empty don’t necessarily mean an absence of award space. American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Alaska Airlines have all created easy-to-use websites that help you find and book awards. The problem is they list some partners but not others. Award space could be available, and you would never know.
One of the best uses of miles from American Airlines and Alaska Airlines is on Cathay Pacific, the flagship carrier of Hong Kong with connecting flights to most of Asia. Their award space isn’t displayed, but you can find it on the websites of British Airways and Qantas, two of Cathay’s other partners. You can create a free account and search there, then call American or Alaska to book your award by phone.
Why not search on the Cathay Pacific website directly? Airlines often provide more award space to their own members than to partners. It’s difficult to tell the difference if you use the airline’s own website, but if you find the space on one partner’s website then it will probably be available to other partners, too.
These are my recommended websites:
Use Aeroplan (Air Canada) or ANA to search for awards booked with United Airlines MileagePlus or other Star Alliance programs. United’s site is actually pretty good for the majority of searches but excludes Singapore Airlines.
Use British Airways or Qantas to search for awards booked with American AAdvantage, other oneworld Alliance programs, or Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. The Qantas site is buggy but has a good award calendar to view alternate dates. British Airways is more reliable, but it does not display flights on Alaska Airlines.
An example of searching for award space on the British Airways website. It’s sometimes best to use the Qantas calendar for a broad overview and then do a deep dive on individual dates with BA.
Use Air France or Delta to search for awards booked with Delta SkyMiles or other SkyTeam partners. Keep in mind that Delta does not allow international first class awards, even if the award space is available.
Know How to Look
Run your search from the inside out. You want to look for individual segments, not the entire trip at once. That means lots of one-way award flights that you’ll later piece together. An over-water, international flight is going to be the most difficult, so create a list with some international gateways in each region and keep notes as you go. Once you find a candidate you will be able to build the rest of the trip around it.
For example, if you want to go from Seattle to Hong Kong, then also try searching for flights that depart Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver. Instead of Hong Kong, look at flying to Tokyo, Seoul, or Shanghai. Once you find the over-water segment, you can run additional searches to find connecting flights to and from these international gateways.
Sample flights between international gateways to Asia. Image credit: Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Sometimes there are no connecting flights. You might find it easier to just book a separate ticket, known as a “positioning flight,” and pay for that. If a $150 ticket in coach can get you from Seattle to San Francisco, where a first class journey to Hong Kong awaits, isn’t that worthwhile?
However, try to book flexible positioning flights with a carrier like Southwest Airlines. Sometimes the original award can be changed, allowing you to add more segments once award space opens later. This way you can cancel the positioning flight and add the new segments without redeeming any additional miles.
Once you piece together the segments, you should have a complete itinerary. Some airline search engines are really dumb and can’t find award space unless you search between those exact cities on those exact dates, which you now know. You could also try a multi-city search and enter each segment individually. If all else fails, call the airline ask to book the specific itinerary you found.
A final tip for risk-takers: Sometimes the best award space opens up at the last minute, a few days before departure. If you don’t have elite status, booking tickets this late can require additional fees. However, it often makes the difference between flying coach vs. first class and can eliminate unwanted connections. If you aren’t comfortable flying without a plan, at least book a backup award and change it when something better comes along.