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Sunday Reader Question: How Do You Book Complex Awards?

by on October 16, 2011 · 45 comments

in Air Canada, American, Continental, Delta, How To Guides, Sunday Reader Questions, United, US Airways

TPG reader Jim asks:

“How do you guys always book those multi-segment awards for the low mileage amounts?  I use Expert Flyer and can find the segments I want, but If I try to book it, it seems like it will charge me for each segment individually and not as a single 25,000 domestic or 40,000-60,000 international.  The same question applies to the milage runners who will find these tricky routings for a low price.”

Firstly, when I book complex awards, they are almost always over the phone. Most airline websites are quirky for even normal awards, let alone complex multi-leg itineraries. I have had success with Continental.com and Delta.com, but it takes a lot of finessing. In general, I find all of the availability leg by leg by using one of the many tools like ExpertFlyer and the ANA Tool (Star Alliance). Once you have the availability down, then go to the website of the airline whose miles you are using and attempt to replicate it via the “Multi-city tool.” Here’s how to access that tool for each of the following frequent flyer programs:

Aeroplan.com -> Use miles for Flights -> Multi-city tab. Aeroplan.com has a lot of partner award availability, but I often have issues with multi-city awards, so I usually end up calling 1-800-361-5373 to get awards booked.
 AA.com -> AAdvantage -> Redeem miles -> Book now -> Then select the multi-city button. AA.com only shows American availability so this is pretty useless. AAdvantage Phone reservations: 1-800-882-8880.
British Airways:  Multi-city itineraries need to be booked by calling the Executive Club (soon to be Avios) reservations desk at 1 800 452 1201 and it is only open from 7:30am-8pm eastern time daily.
Continental.com -> Multiple destinations -> Then add in legs using the “+ Add Another Flight to Your Trip” then at the bottom select the Reward Travel button right above the Search button. Onepass reservations: 1-800-621-7467
Delta.com -> Skymiles -> Use miles -> Award ticket reservations -> Multi-city. I don’t know where to begin with describing the level of quirkiness with Delta’s system, but it can be extremely frustrating. Sometimes you need to click “Start over” to refresh the screen and then real results will load. More aggravating is finally getting it to build a complex trip and then getting an error that the fare sold out. Delta.com only supports Delta, Alaska, Air France, KLM, and Alitalia availability. Skymiles reservations: 1-800-323-2323
US Airways only has US availability and does not have the capability to book multi-city awards. You have to call reservations at 1-800-428-4322.

Some tips:
1) Usually agents will assume you know nothing. I tend to let them know up front that “this is going to be a complicated trip, but I’ve done my research ahead of time to make this as easy as possible for you, so thanks in advance for bearing with me! The trip will start in X city and end in X city with stops in X,Y,Z and some overnight transfers. I think the easiest thing would be to give you the flights by day and flight number, but you tell me what you prefer.” From that point they’ll usually get the hint that you aren’t a novice.
2) Don’t trust everything the agents say – they make mistakes all the time. I often have agents look at the wrong flights, class of service and date – all things which can throw off the whole trip. Whenever they tell me availability doesn’t exist for my dates I ask them to verify all of the pertinent information and most of the time it’s a simple error on their part.
3) If the agent is nasty or doesn’t feel like helping, don’t argue with them. Simply hang up and call again! That’s one of the tried and tested ways of getting what you want when it comes to miles and points.
4) Push the limits. You’ll never know what’s possible until you try.
5) Don’t sound like you are trying to break/bend the rules. Playing dumb sometimes works in your advantage.
6) Be very friendly with the rep. I casually mention the reason why I’m constructing crazy routings, “Oh yea my best friend lives in Hong Kong and I haven’t seen her in a couple years – I can’t wait to have 23 hours there in between flights!” I also ask the phone agents how they are doing- small things like that can go a long way. If a phone rep likes you they can hook you up – I even once had a Delta rep ask revenue management to release a low level award so it would work better with my trip.
7) If they find your crazy award and are ready to book it – pull the trigger! You may not get the same result twice and they get (rightfully) really annoyed when they do a ton of work to find someone an award and then they aren’t ready to book. Many airlines will allow holds, so go that route if it’s available.
8 ) Once you get the award booked, ask them to waive the phone ticketing fee since the award was not bookable online. One of the other tenets of the miles and points game is, “It never hurts to ask!”

For more information on the routing rules and for general tips on maximizing the value of your miles, check out these posts:
Using ExpertFlyer.com for Award Availability
How to Use the ANA Award Tool to Search Star Alliance Award Availability
Air Canada Aeroplan: ‘Round the World’ Awards
Maximizing Stopovers, Transfers and Open Jaw Ticketing on American
How to Use British Airways Miles: Post 8, The Art of the Stopover
Maximizing Stopovers, Transfers and Open Jaw Ticketing on Delta
Maximizing Stopovers, Transfers and Open Jaw Ticketing on United/Continental
Maximizing Stopovers, Transfers and Open Jaw Ticketing on US Airways

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  • Paramount

    TPG… How come some flights allow stopovers and others do not? For example, I live in a small area near the TRI airport and fly to DTW often. It’d be nice to stopover in ATL some times but the fare rules almost always do not allow it.

  • http://twitter.com/brianyyz Brian B

    I would suggest using aeroplan.com to research complex Aeroplan tickets. For example, I am flying SFO-FRA-ZRH,ZRH-FRA-KIX-CTS,CTS-HND//NRT-LAX-IAD-YYZ in a few weeks. The second FRA and LAX are both ~23 hour layovers. I did all my searching on aeroplan.com, segment by segment. For example, I would search NRT-LAX with the departure date I wanted, with a return sometime in the future.

    After recording all my flights, I would then phone Aeroplan to book the flight. No need to use ANA in this case.

  • Rzheng87

    What is delta policy flying to asia via europe and/or returning via pacific? I know continenal some reps doesn’t allow it but you can do it by editing one leg at a time with same miles. Can you do it with Delta?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=41900029 Josh MacDonald

    Great read, right now the aeroplan tool is wreacking havoc on my upcoming trip, trying to fly F/C on the A380 :( right now I’ll have to settle with TG F – #firstworldproblems :)

  • MichaelP

    ANA website seems to be more up to date on award seat availabilty. I recently booked a AKL-SFO flight. Aeroplan and continental show seats on the calendar but when I try to book I got a message that it’s no longer available. Went to check on ANA website sure enough there is no seat. ANA also show seats not shown on Aeroplan and Continental. I had to call to book those seats. Seems like Areoplan and Continental database have delay in getting availability updates.

    TPG FYI, on the iphone safari your website doesn’t show number of comments in that small red bubble in the upper left of each article. It does work for other website, mommy points for example.

  • Paul

    Brian, I am getting ready to book a SE Asia trip with Cathay using BA miles. ExpertFlyer does not appear to support searches for CP flights, and I am unsure if BA’s website is showing me the right availability. For instance, I have been trying to identify availability for HKG-DPS for middle of next year in coach and nothing comes up. Any other tools/methods that you would recommend?

  • Paul

    When I log in to CP’s website using Asia Miles and conduct a search, I can see award availability that does not show up on BA’s website. Are such seats off-limits using BA miles, or is it a glitch on BA’s part, and I can still book such seats?

  • Gavinmac

    KVS tool has a new beta that covers Cathay flights for BA booking. It works well.

  • Anonymous

    I tried to maximize my upcoming F award trip and after many calls, I was finally able to get, well what I think, is a good trip. DFW-SFO-FRA-LHR-MUC-ORD-DFW. DFW-SFO and ORD-DFW are on UA and the rest are LH F. If anyone has any suggestions on how to maximize this trip , feel free to respond. :)

  • adam

    thanks for the post. my question is that how do you know what the ultimate price in miles will be for a multicity trip? Is it something you wait for the agent to tell you or do you already know this going into it?

    say for instance you find a ticket from JFK to LHR for X miles and a ticket from LHR to IST for Y miles, and a ticket from IST to JFK for Z miles, is the total trip going to cost X+Y+Z or some variant? also for delta, they dont allow one way trips so the mile values for the segments will be inflated. mind you i havent used expertflyer before.

    also, how much does the phone ticketing cost? is it common to get it waived? thanks again!

  • Mitch

    I’ve not done it myself, but some on FlyerTalk have reported DL’s computers allowing routing to Asia via Europe (or India via the Pacific). The key seems to be going 100% on partner metal on a routing where they publish a fare. For instance, AF/KL publish US East Coast-Asia fares routing via CDG/AMS. You likely can’t get delta.com to book this for you, but calling an agent and just listing the flights where you know there’s inventory should do the trick. (For US-India, people hare reported success routing via the Pacific on the Asian carriers.)

    I’m not sure that you could go via Europe and via the Pacific on the same award, but since it seems to be based on published fares rather than “We just don’t do that”, it’s worth a shot.

  • Ri Zheng

    I tried to do US -> Europe –> Asia to US via Pacific. I used all lowest award for coach, still ends up to be around 145K miles for coach. I think the issue was round the world itinerary, flying out Transatlantic and flying back via Trans-Pacific. (which is fine with Continental/United). Perhaps US -> Europe –>Asia –Europe–>US would not required additional miles?

  • sil

    US airways or Delta for biz /lst class tickets from LAX to HAN and from either SGN or PNH to LAX for approx 3 weeks for December 2012 to Jan 2013. I need to accumulate more miles for either one of the airlines but need to know what the awards availability may be. Am I correct in better availability if I book about 330 days in advance?
    For Delta, I only want the lowest tier as it gets way too expensive for other tiers

  • Mitch

    Were the US-Europe-Asia flights all on AF/KL/AZ, or were some on DL. I think once you throw in a DL flight, you need to go via the Pacific. Also, was the price generated on DL.dumb or via a phone rep?

  • Ri Zheng

    Some flights were on Delta, I did it via the phone, but prior to choosing the segments, I made sure each leg had the lowest mileage requirements available.

  • Anonymous

    Cathay releases more seats to their own members than they do to other OneWorld partner airlines.

  • Anonymous

    Delta partner China southern has great availability on LAX-CAN (and then anywhere they fly in Asia) so I’d probably go Delta and get the 120k needed for the roundtrip flight in business class.

    Booking 330 days in advance is no longer necessary- most airlines release awards throughout the year.

    If you book on Skyteam partners Delta awards are always at the low level.

  • Anonymous

    A multicity trip, if within the rules of the award, is the same price as roundtrip.

    To calculate how many miles you need, you just look at the region of origination and region of destination- in your example it would be JFK-IST. The London stopover does not add miles in- its just included as part of the price of JFK-IST.

    Phone ticketing fees waive- usually $25-$40 per ticket. It is common to get it waived depending on the airline. Some airlines will send you to their internet helpdesk who can waive the fee since the reason for your call was a website error.

  • Anonymous

    KVS tool is good. Also Qantas’ website should sync up with BA availability, though I’ve had issues with Iberia availability. http://thepointsguy.com/2011/05/how-to-use-british-airways-miles-post-10-using-qantas-com-to-find-oneworld-award-availability/

  • Anonymous

    I use a third party commenting system (Disqus) that allows smarter commenting, but it doesn’t sync perfectly with WordPress unfortunately. I will look into a fix!

  • Anonymous

    Poor guy! Keep checking- I’m sure space will open up closer to departure and use the ANA tool when you need a second opinion

  • Anonymous

    Delta does not allow routing via Europe to Asia- at least in my experience. They’ll charge you cumulative for US to Europe and then Europe to Asia. Some peopel have used miles/systemwides to upgrade Air France US to Asia via CDG, but I’ve never heard of someone getting a low level award at 80/120k

  • Anonymous

    Airline fare rules often make no sense. On domestic awards you are allowed a stopover (4+ hours) so that shouldn’t be an issue. Paid fares are a whole different ball game

  • Anonymous

    Airline fare rules often make no sense. On domestic awards you are allowed a stopover (4+ hours) so that shouldn’t be an issue. Paid fares are a whole different ball game

  • Paramount

    Ah… so with paid fares it is much tougher? I didn’t know that. You have a very informative blog!

  • http://www.awardtravelconsulting.com AwardTravelConsulting

    Great write up points guy! I find one of the best tools in my bag is knowing all the routes that airlines fly which significantly cuts down on time I need to spend looking for awards and increases the chances of finding exactly what I or a client are looking for.

    As for one of the most useful tips is the “if you don’t like the answer, hang up and call again.” You can usually tell which agents are going to be helpful and which agents are going to be difficult within the first few sentences back and forth.

  • http://www.awardtravelconsulting.com AwardTravelConsulting

    Great work! Did you manage to get SFO-FRA on the A380?

  • Anonymous

    Tools like expertflyer are golden when it comes to finding availability and exploring valid routing with maximum miles before you call, but getting a helpful agent on the phone is the most important part of booking a complex award. You have a better chance of getting one when you have premium status, but there are still some good ones at other status levels. I like to let them know up front I am looking to book a complex award and then quickly followup saying I hope they are having a nice day… If I hear a sigh or groan during this opening I quickly exit the call and try again. Don’t waste your time with agent that does not want to help you on complex awards. Some agents are literally excited to book a non-standard award and they often, NOT always, know what will work and not work. It can often take well over an hour to book a complex award with multiple partners. Good luck!

  • http://getgowing.wordpress.com Getgowing

    A few weeks ago, I was booking a (seemingly) simple itinerary for my uncle NYC-MNL using DL Skymiles in Business Class. Obviously, for low award levels, any DL award itinerary can get complex. I also wanted to put him on one of the new KE A380s. As I was attempting, I had a not-so-cooperative phone agent (I was calling the Platinum Line) so I got off the phone with her and called again. To my surprise, the same agent answered!

    TPG – has this ever happened to you? (Granted, when I was calling it was around midnight) Would you just hang up without saying anything and call again? What are ways to get out of this awkward situation?

  • Anonymous

    Sadly, no. I’m on a LH 747, here’s hoping to a new First Class! :D

  • Cudchew

    Maybe this is another Sunday Reader Question: How to book more than 2+ Business Award ticket to Asia from US using Skymiles. I can find 1 seat available on days Delta shows availability, but I need 2 tickets. I’m specifically looking for SFO-TPE (via Tokyo). I read that Delta blocks Business award availability on partner airlines, but looks like it’s true on Delta metal as well. So is there a way to book 2 business awards to Asia on Delta?

  • Anonymous

    Delta doesn’t block partner availability- whats available to other Skyteam partners should be available to Delta, though some agents get confused with what fare codes are bookable.

    As for Delta, you should be able to book more than one- you’ll probably just have to pay a lot more for a mid/high tier award. I’d call Delta and ask for Korean Air availability and be extra flexible- you should be able to make it happen for 120,000 miles a ticket. You should also check out SFO-LAX-CAN-TPE. Once you get to LAX, China Southern has lots of business class availability from LAX-CAN and beyond in Asia

  • Anonymous

    Its happened to me- especially with British Airways. It might be awkward for a second, but just say you accidentally redialed and hang up. (and then try again!)

  • Victoria

    HI Paul, I just booked ICN-HKG-DPS last night with British Airways, and for the HKG-DPS flights only I was able to use BA’s search tool without incident, and the BA rep had no problem booking that segment for me. ICN-HKG was a different story…BA’s web search showed daily availability but not so with the BA phone rep.

  • http://david.ulevitch.com/ Anonymous

    AFAIK, Unless you are super duper elite in Lufthansa, you can’t get an award in F on the A380 — So you’re better off on the 747 if you want to use miles/points to sit in F. If you are paying, then obviously the A380 is the way to go, at least to say you did it once.

  • Moira O’Connor

    This is very helpful! One thing that I haven’t been able to straighten out in my braing (as a beginner) is understanding the alliances. If I have BA and AA points, I can’t combine them to book an award; however i can use AA points for a BA ticket and vice versa, is this correct?

  • http://www.awardtravelconsulting.com AwardTravelConsulting

    If you get it before they swap out equipment, you can score these seats. See:
    http://milepoint.com/forums/threads/photo-tr-lh-a380-first-class-a346-old-first-class-jfk-fra-dus-fra-ewr.18852/

  • Heather ✈

    Hi Brian, talking about stopovers, transfers and open jaw, if you were to help me, what would be your charge? Is this considered one ticket? Or do you charge per boarding pass? We were thinking of taking a trip to Europe next year and going to different countries (on one ticket). Thanks.

  • Water Boiling

    You could also look at China Airlines (new member of the SkyTeam alliance), which has a direct flight from LAX to TPE everyday IIRC.

  • Paul

    Thanks for the input, Victoria. I have been trying to look up availability for DPS-HKG on BA’s website, and encounter no availability at all for all of aug, sep and oct! I am starting to panic :(

  • Anonymous
  • Paul

    Thanks Brian, for the quick response. I have been trying to use the Qantas tool, but keep encountering difficulties. While the initial calendar page (after executing the search) shows availability in economy across several dates, the moment I select the date and click on ‘select flight’ the next page shows only business class availability. This continues to happen across almost all dates :( I am yet to try the KVS tool. Will purchase it today and try it out.

  • Paul

    Hello Brian. I downloaded the KVS tool and tried it (JL-Oneworld method) for almost every single day in Aug/Sep for the DPS-HKG segment, and only see YS-. It is strange that business class shows up as being available for almost every one of those days, while there is nothing for economy. Is it possible that BA could still find availability (even though KVS shows none)? I guess the only way to find out is to call BA, which I shall do. My hopes aren’t high though :(

  • Anonymous

    Anything is possible. They may have not loaded any inventory yet and they are waiting to see how sales look first. You can call, but I doubt it’ll be different than what you see.

  • Paul

    Brian, with zero hopes on the Bali segment, I called BAEC today. They had seats available, although I could find none even on KVS! It was an uphill battle though getting them to book SIN-BKK-HKG-ORD, since the agent kept saying that it is not a direct route and therefore BKK cannot be included. Finally, got it done! Thanks so much for all your help and the info. I owe you a gift from our travels.

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