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Redeeming miles isn’t always easy, so anything that can facilitate the award-booking process is more than welcome. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains one strategy that can help you zero in on the itinerary you want even if your plans are still up in the air.
In an ideal world, your travel plans, mileage account balances and award availability would magically align when booking a trip, allowing you to lock in a redemption immediately. However, that isn’t always the case. Fortunately, several airlines allow you to hold awards while you verify the final details, and today I’ll explain how the policies of each carrier can help you plan your next award trip.
There are several reasons why an award hold may make sense:
- You need to top off your loyalty account. The primary reason for holding an award is that you may not have all of the miles needed for a particular redemption. As far as I know, no airline allows you to ticket an award reservation when you’re short on points (unlike Marriott). You might be waiting for a credit card bonus to post or a transfer from Starwood Preferred Guest to show up (which tends to take at least 24 hours but can take up to five days). This last activity is final and nonrefundable, so many travelers like to make sure their plans are set before initiating a transfer.
- You need to verify other plans. Chances are good that your award reservation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You’ll likely need to request time off work and book a hotel or make other travel arrangements. Holding an award allows you to verify these details before ticketing the reservation. If one (or more) of the other moving parts doesn’t work, you can simply cancel the hold or allow it to expire with no penalty.
- You need time to think. A final reason for putting an award on hold is the extra time it gives you to think. Do you really want to take that trip/routing/airline? Is it a good use of your hard-earned miles? When Etihad offered mistake fares to Abu Dhabi last Christmas, many commenters lamented the fact that they didn’t jump on the offer, given that they could cancel within 24 hours if they changed their mind. Award holds give you the same luxury of extra time to ponder your options.
The following details apply to airlines with award hold policies and leaves out programs that have workarounds or travel hacks that technically do not comply with the program rules. Strategies like the PayPal trick for United or the Delta workaround (since fixed) may work, but shouldn’t be relied upon to confirm award space without ticketing.
Below you’ll find a list of the airlines that allow award holds, along with the rules specific to each one.
AAdvantage has long been one of the more generous programs when it comes to allowing award holds. The specific details of these holds depend on how far in advance you’re booking. Per the carrier’s FAQ page, you can hold a reservation for the following durations:
- Five days when booked 15 – 330 days in advance
- One day when booked 1 – 14 days in advance
- Up to two hours when booked within 24 hours of departure
Holds can easily be processed online. If you have enough miles in your account to cover the reservation, you’ll see the hold as one of the options for payment on the Review & Pay portion of the checkout process:
If you don’t have enough miles in your account, the Review & Pay page will only give you the option to hold the reservation:
Unfortunately this may not apply to all awards, as the website includes the following language:
“Certain special awards and awards that include certain airline partners may have shorter hold times.”
Be sure to verify the exact conditions that apply to your award hold when booking online (or over the phone). Remember, too, that American recently eliminated its phone-booking fee for itineraries that don’t show up on AA.com, so if your desired routing includes an airline such as Cathay Pacific or LAN, you should be able to hold the award reservation over the phone at no cost.
American Airlines is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, allowing you to transfer Starpoints to AAdvantage miles at a rate of 1:1 (with a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints transferred). You can also open credit cards like the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, which currently offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. There are other AAdvantage cards with various bonus offers and spending requirements; check out Richard Kerr’s post on Choosing the Best Card for American Airlines Flyers to see other options.
For more information on holding AAdvantage awards, see these posts:
Korean is also incredibly flexible when it comes to holding award reservations through its SkyPass program. The big drawback is that awards can’t be held online; you must call one of the airline’s service centers. In the past, reports indicated that agents usually applied a very lengthy hold on awards (as long as several months all the way up until a few days before departure). Recently it appears that automatic hold periods have become shorter, though you can still ask the phone agent to hold a ticket for weeks or months and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, these lengthy holds only apply to flights on Korean metal; partner awards can usually only be held for a week (or less). Also, holds are only available when you’re redeeming Korean SkyPass miles; you can’t (for example) have Korean hold an award for you if you’re redeeming Delta SkyMiles. Finally, remember that the actual booking process (when you’re ready to ticket the award) is relatively convoluted.
Like American, Korean allows you to hold an award if you don’t have the requisite number of miles in your account. In fact, you can hold an award with an account balance of zero! This gives you some great flexibility (and added time) to earn miles, though remember that you won’t earn miles for many Delta fare classes, making Korean SkyPass a less-than-desirable alternative for banking Delta miles.
Korean Air partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards, allowing you to transfer points from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Ink Plus Business Card to Korean SkyPass miles at a 1:1 ratio. Korean temporarily disappeared from the list of Ultimate Rewards transfer partners in November, though the functionality was restored at the beginning of 2015.
For more information on Korean Air, check out these posts:
- Booking First Class Awards on Korean Air
- Korean Air First Class review
- Korean Air Business Class review
While it’s not the most commonly discussed mileage program out there, Lufthansa’s Miles & More program does allow you to hold award tickets, though the details vary depending on the airline:
- Flights on Lufthansa, Asiana, Austrian, Croatia, Ethiopian, Jet Airways and SWISS can be held for five days.
- Certain other partner awards can be held for 48 hours.
Lufthansa can be a nice way to get to Europe on various Star Alliance carriers, especially in business or first class. Not only does United now charge extra for these redemptions in comparison to flights on its own metal, but also Miles & More members actually enjoy better award availability on these flights. This inventory is searchable on ExpertFlyer as well.
For example, if you want to redeem miles from any New York area airport to Zurich on November 7, United.com will only return flights on United metal:
However, ExpertFlyer displays SWISS coach award space on both flights from JFK and the flight from Newark (along with business-class space on two of them):
Unless you’ve earned at least one mile in the Miles & More program, you aren’t allowed to search award inventory through the program’s website. Instead, you’ll need to use ExpertFlyer to look for that space.
Lufthansa is also a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, though sadly the program doesn’t partner with Membership Rewards or any other transferable currencies. You can also take advantage of the Miles & More Premier World MasterCard, which currently offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles (20,000 after your first purchase, and another 30,000 after $5,000 in purchases within the first 90 days of account opening).
Another option (when you have the miles) — 24-hour cancellation policies
If you have enough miles in your account for a particular redemption, you may be able to ticket an award and cancel it within 24 hours, and receive your miles back without paying a fee. Delta (for example) got rid of its award hold option back in 2013, but still allows risk-free cancellations until midnight of the day after the ticket was purchased. This policy applies to both paid tickets and award tickets.
You’ll definitely want to pay close attention to the rules of the carrier in question, as not all carriers allow cancellations.
Another option (when you don’t have the miles) — Paying for holds
The three programs above allow free holds on award tickets. However, other airlines may offer you the chance to pay a small fee to lock in a specific price, and in some cases, that includes award tickets. For example, United MileagePlus used to offer award ticket holds, but got rid of that policy in 2013. United now offers the FareLock program, which gives you the option of a 72-hour hold or a 7-day hold for both paid and award tickets.
Once you’ve found the flights you want, you’ll see this option at the bottom of the Review Trip Itinerary page:
Based on my research, it appears that 72-hour holds cost $9.99 and 7-day holds cost $14.99 (regardless of the route you’re attempting to book). That isn’t astronomical, and sometimes incurring a small fee may be worthwhile for the peace of mind. Just be aware that this particular program only applies to itineraries that are exclusively operated by United. If you add a partner segment, you’ll no longer see this option.
It’s unfortunate that this list is so short, but many airlines simply don’t feel a need to offer the ability to hold awards. When Delta announced the removal of award ticket holds back in 2013, the airline’s FlyerTalk rep claimed that “more than one million Award Seats per year are held by members who don’t use them.” Whether that’s true remains up for debate, but it’s clear that Delta (and many other carriers) don’t want to give you the flexibility of holding award reservations. Hopefully this post has given you some ideas for how to book awards even when your plans aren’t quite set or your balance isn’t quite high enough!
What are your experiences with holding award reservations?
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