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10 Mistakes to Avoid When Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles

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One of the keys to a good award travel strategy is avoiding errors that can cost you time, money, and miles. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains how.

As the saying goes, “Everyone makes mistakes.” This pervades many aspects of life, but it’s especially applicable to using your airline miles. Even the most seasoned award traveler can slip up, resulting in a less comfortable flight, extra fees, or even an inability to travel. Fortunately, the most common mistakes when booking airline award travel are easy to avoid, so today I’ll take you through these errors and explain how to make sure your future award redemptions go as planned.

AA.com award airlines
You can use AAdvantage miles on 23 Oneworld and other partner airlines, but only 8 of them are bookable on AA.com.

Mistake 1. Relying solely on an airline’s website

This may seem elementary to seasoned award travelers, but I’ve had numerous friends and family members cry to me that there’s no availability on the dates they want because the American/Delta/United/US Airways/Whatever website doesn’t show any. Many times, partner airlines do not appear, and even when they do, the site you’re using may not show all of the available routings. Here’s a quick overview of notable airline websites for booking awards:

  • United — Typically viewed as one of the best options for finding Star Alliance award availability.
  • British Airways — Typically viewed as one of the best options for finding Oneworld award availability, (though the site can sometimes be buggy)
  • Air France — Typically viewed as one of the better options for finding SkyTeam award availability.
  • Alaska — While not a part of an alliance, Alaskaair.com shows availability for many partners, including Air France, British Airways, Delta, Emirates, and Korean.
  • American — AA.com shows availability for many partners (including airberlin, British Airways, and Hawaiian), but several others must be booked over the phone.
  • Delta — The new award calendar is a surprising improvement, and Delta.com has improved significantly of late with the addition of China Eastern and China Southern, among others. Unfortunately, some bugs still remain, so your results may not be completely accurate.
  • US Airways — Far and away the worst site for finding award availability, though this will only matter for another month or so until the AAdvantage and Dividend Miles programs are fully integrated.

Alliances and partnerships give you numerous additional ways to use your miles, but that doesn’t mean those airlines’ flights will show up online! With many partner awards, your best bet may be to call.

Your phone agent may not be able to help you!
Your phone agent may not be able to help you!

Mistake 2. Relying solely on a phone agent

Just as an airline’s website may not be completely accurate, don’t assume that its phone agents are always on point. Plenty of them don’t understand routing rules, or don’t know how to search for award inventory on a particular partner airline. I’ve often found that agents are unwilling to search across multiple dates, simply telling me, “There’s no availability” and ending the call. When you’re not getting a satisfactory answer, a good strategy is to Hang Up and Call Again  (HUACA — a common acronym on travel sites like FlyerTalk). Don’t assume that an agent knows more than you do.

Mistake 3. Not searching segment by segment

Another key mistake applies when you’re booking complicated itineraries with multiple stops. Occasionally, I have run into situations where a website doesn’t price awards correctly, or doesn’t display all flight options for one (or more) reasons:

  1. An inability to combine two (or more) partner airlines;
  2. An inability to combine a low level business class flight with a low level coach flight to price the ticket at a low level business class award;
  3. A tendency to “force” you onto the airline’s own metal.

Some websites allow you to search segment by segment using a “Multi-City” search, but just to be safe, I usually search for one flight at a time. Then, if I can’t get the website to properly join the flights, I will call to book the ticket. This way I’m armed with the exact flights I want, and can spoon-feed them to the phone agent.

If you're inflexible with dates or don't plan ahead, you may be out of luck!
If you’re inflexible with dates or don’t plan ahead, you may be out of luck! Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mistake 4. Being inflexible with dates

Airlines have complicated systems for determining which flights to make available for award redemptions, and some dates may never be available! If your travel plans are completely rigid, you may be out of luck. I understand that flexibility may be impossible in some cases, but even being able to alter your schedule by a single day can make the difference between a successful redemption and being shut out.

Mistake 5. Not planning in advance

A common myth among award travel hobbyists is that award tickets must be booked the very first second when flights become available. While such a policy may be necessary on certain routes and/or carriers, more and more airlines are adjusting award availability on a regular basis. However, that doesn’t mean you can wait until the last-minute. It always kills me when a family member comes to me in mid-May and says that she/he wants to use miles to fly business class to Europe the next month (and is then upset when I can’t find availability). Those seats may have been there 6 months earlier, but not at the last minute!

Mistake 6. Booking and forgetting about it

After you book a flight, it’s a good idea to check on it periodically. For starters, schedule and equipment changes may occur that can completely mess up an itinerary, and this may give you a chance to rebook a ticket (at no charge) on a more desirable flight. In addition, you might book a coach award ticket but then see business class availability open a few weeks prior to departure. American (for one) doesn’t charge a change fee to upgrade an award ticket from coach to business or business to first; you’ll just need to pay the mileage difference.

Adding a stop may extend the value of your miles
Adding a stop may extend the value of your miles.

Mistake 7. Ignoring stopover/open jaw possibilities

Many airlines allow you to build in a free stopover en route to your destination, or to fly into and depart from different cities, both of which are great ways to maximize your award ticket without spending any (or many) additional miles. When my wife and I flew to North Asia using US Airways miles back in December of 2013, we routed through Europe, stopped in Istanbul for New Year’s, and flew home via the Pacific. Our itinerary actually cost 10,000 miles less per person than a regular US-Europe round-trip award. This particular redemption has (unfortunately) gone away, but there are still many ways to take advantage of flexible routing rules to visit additional cities on your trip.

Mistake 8. Paying unnecessary fees

The airline industry has become addicted to fees over the last several years, and this applies to award tickets as well. Some airlines charge a fee for departing from a specific region (e.g., Delta on award tickets that originate in Europe), while others add fuel surcharges. You should always look for alternate flight options to avoid these fees. One particularly indefensible one (in my opinion) is the phone ticketing fee that is often charged even for awards that can’t be booked online. If a website won’t allow you to book a flight, be sure to politely ask the phone agent to waive the booking fee. After all, you didn’t choose to call; you had to call!

A whopping 8,000 miles for $236? No thanks!
A whopping 8,000 miles for $236? No thanks!

Mistake 9. Purchasing miles to top off a balance at booking

You’ve probably seen the notice when you’re trying to book an award flight and don’t have enough miles. Instead of waiting, you can purchase the remaining miles then and there, and book your ticket immediately! Unfortunately, these top-offs can be quite pricey. There are plenty of other ways to pad your account, including credit cards, partner purchases, and transfers from programs like Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Redeeming your miles for non-flight awards tends to be a poor value proposition
Redeeming your miles for non-flight awards tends to be a poor value proposition.

Mistake 10. Redeeming miles for something other than flights

I love choices, but when it comes to redeeming airline miles, flights are the way to go. Sure, there are exceptions: redeeming Delta miles for a one-way Level 5 coach ticket would likely be a terrible value, but don’t be swayed by advertisements for magazines or gift cards! For the most part, you’ll get the best bang for your buck when you redeem miles for award tickets.

Final thoughts

I’d love to say that I never make mistakes when using my airline miles, and that I always redeem for maximum value, but I’d be lying. Educating yourself on the ins and outs of booking award flights, and just being aware of these pitfalls is a critical first step to avoiding them. Hopefully these suggestions will help prevent your own mishaps and ensure you successful travel down the line!

What mistakes have you made when redeeming airline miles?

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