AUTHOR: Gary Leff
Almost three years ago my blog was referenced as the ‘most established’ in the area of business travel by the New York Times. I’ve been writing since 2002, and the community that has developed–of readers and of other bloggers–has kept me interested in writing.
The best part of blogging about miles and points is the interplay across other blogs, many of which are collected at BoardingArea.com. In October, I read a blog post on best tips for booking award travel and decided to comment on and expand the ideas. Another blogger (and established journalist) wrote later that I was ‘her hero’ for doing so. Naturally, I blushed. And I’m pleased to have the chance to share some of the suggestions here.
The original tips started with being friendly to the agent on the other end of the phone so they’d be willing to do the work necessary to find you your award; be flexible in cities you’re going to or connecting through and your dates of travel; be willing to overnight if necessary; and know your mileage program’s airline partners and the routes they fly and suggest them to the agent you’re working with.
All good tips to be sure. And I would add checking availability on new routes (an entire schedule year is loaded into computer reservation systems for which mileage members haven’t previously had any opportunity to scour for award seats) and on “tag flights,” which are generally short continuing flights to an international destination beyond the nonstop international destination from an airline’s hub. Travelers and agents usually don’t even realize they exist.
Some common examples are Bangkok-Singapore on SWISS, Singapore-Jakarta on Lufthansa and Hong Kong-Seoul on Thai. Airlines with “fifth freedom rights” to fly between two countries not related to their home country generally offer strong award availability due to relatively light paid bookings. I’m looking forward to an upcoming award trip where I’ll get to try United’s new first class seat, Hong Kong-Ho Chi Minh City, as part of a single award which combines the three-cabin first class products of five different airlines.
In my own blog post, though, I wanted to lay out something a little more systematic about how to decide what miles to accrue, which to spend and how to search successfully for an award.
Which airline’s miles do you need, and how many?
Which airline’s miles are you collecting? I find the best options and availability come from Star Alliance carriers but that’s partly a function of where I’m looking to go (most frequently Asia, where Star has a ton of partners, and with which I’ve redeemed first class awards for myself and my wife to Thailand, Indonesia, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Korea over the past three years).
If I were primarily interested in flying U.S. to South America I’d probably be a oneworld guy and find myself redeeming miles on American and LAN. Having miles across programs is hugely helpful. First build up a single account with a big enough pool of miles for your desired redemption, but once you get there collect enough miles in other accounts as well. That way when it comes time to redeem you multiply your chances of finding the seats you want. No availability with American miles? Try your Delta account. No availability there either, try United.
Make sure you plan ahead to have the miles you need. Sometimes that means signing up for credit cards, other times just a simple shopping promotion, or a mileage run. Be proactive.
Consider whose miles you want to spend if you have more than one option. Use less valuable miles (in my personal view, such as Delta’s) first to conserve your more valuable currencies.
If you have multiple accounts that can be used to redeem for the same flight, consider using the one whose award chart requires fewer miles. If you have American Express Membership Rewards points and can transfer them into a Continental, Virgin or All Nippon Airways account to redeem for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class pay attention to the reward charts–Continental requires 100,000 miles, Virgin requires 90,000 miles plus a ton of taxes and surcharges, and depending on the distance of the flight, ANA might require only 63,000 or 68,000 miles plus some surcharges that are lower than those charged by Virgin’s program for the very same flight.
Once you have enough miles in your account–if you’re close it can sometimes even be worth buying the needed miles–you’re ready to start looking for your award flights. I recently helped a co-worker with a first class flight to New Zealand over New Year’s. He had to buy 30,000 miles but still spent far less than a coach ticket and wound up booking international first class.
Build your award itinerary yourself, and then call to book.
It’s time to figure out how to claim your award. And that starts before you ever call the agent to make friends.
Most of my redemptions are done over the phone, because Web sites usually don’t access all partners or allow booking stopovers or all available combinations of flights. The options you’ll get from agents won’t either. That’s the biggest reason people fail to secure the awards they want, they are told “nothing’s available” and they believe it, when frequently it’s the software that the Web site or agents are using, typing in an origin and destination and dates and not seeing anything but not realizing it’s possible to construct options that don’t come up automatically.
You need to figure out what’s likely available before you get on the phone with an agent. While Web sites are fairly lacking in functionality, there are several tricks to construct your own award and then direct the agent in finding your seats.
Say that I have US Airways miles and I want to go to Asia. I’ve signed up for an All Nippon Airways frequent flyer account, which is an indispensable tool because ANA offers online access to award inventory on most Star Alliance airlines (notably absent are SWISS and Air China, but I’ve blogged in the past a workaround for finding SWISS award seats online (http://boardingarea.com/blogs/viewfromthewing/2008/08/23/checking-swiss-award-availability-online/).
The ANA award booking engine is powerful, but limited. It won’t come up with every available option, it will only check a few possibilities for any given city pair and it will only check single connections. So you need to search each segment one by one. Start with the hardest to obtain, usually the over-water segments.
Looking to fly from the U.S. to Asia, I’ll check each North American departure gateway (e.g. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., Seattle, New York-JFK, Vancouver to name many but not all). And on the other end I’ll check each arrival city one at a time (e.g. Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai, Osaka, Ho Chi Minh City, to again name many but not all).
Once you’ve found the key over-water segments then you work backwards and forwards to get to your departure gateway and from your arrival city to your ultimate destination.
Checking for oneworld inventory can be accomplished with a Qantas frequent flyer account (though you won’t find Cathay Pacific inventory that way) or a British Airways Executive Club account.
If you’re trying to redeem Delta or Northwest miles, one place to start is Northwest’s Japanese site which offers several partners.
Working with your phone agent
The most important thing is to be pleasant, not to be pushy (or sound too knowledgeable too quickly) and recognize when to bail on the call.
Some agents are just unhelpful. I recently spoke to one who claimed that they had checked a full six weeks of availability on Asiana between Seoul and every U.S. gateway and found nothing available except coach. I knew that seats were available, and that the agent couldn’t possibly have checked so extensively in a mere 30 seconds. So I thanked her for her time, hung up and called back–and got a better agent who was able to help me.
Once an agent finds a key segment that I want I’ll put a hold on it, even with dummy flights for the rest of the award. There comes a point in a phone call with an agent, perhaps after 30 or 45 minutes, where there’s only so much more patience either of us have. It’s time to lock in the gains and start again on improving it later.
This strategy does not work with Delta, as they will no longer hold an award over the phone. But it works when I redeem my United (72-hour holds most of the time, but in a few cases such as when including Singapore Airlines on the itinerary, only 24 hours) or American (five days).
Some agents will go to the ends of the earth and back for you, and with some airlines that’s necessary–such as United, which is alone among Star Alliance carriers in denying their members access to award seats being offered by their partners. I once checked 51 days where Thai Airways had 53 separate flights showing two first class award seats available, and United wouldn’t book a single one of them. So United’s availability won’t always match what is shown on the All Nippon Airways Web site.
Success is just a phone call or an email away
Once you’ve done your research prior to contacting the airline, found available award seats and constructed your trip, you’re ready to call your mileage program. Be friendly and appreciative of your agent’s time, and treat them like they want to help. Have specific flights written down that can help them complete your trip.
With these tips, you’re on the verge of success, perhaps finding the ideal award itinerary that would have cost $20,000 if it was a paid international first class ticket–when most of the world believes it’s impossible to use miles (on that $300 hop down to Florida, usually).
And feel free to peruse my blog at http://boardingarea.com/blogs/viewfromthewing/, where I offer regular commentary on loyalty programs, tips on the best strategies for mileage and elite status accrual, and the best bonus offers. And I’m always happy to do my best to answer a question or help a reader achieve their award goals, so have a look around and then drop me a line.
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