Using Points and Miles to Book Award Travel for Others
Some of my favorite awards have been the ones I booked for other people, like taking my mom to Easter Island a few years ago, or treating my dad to a VIP experience at a Knicks game with Starpoints last year. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele shares his own experiences of booking award travel for others, and explains how you can do the same.
My family and I have plenty of points and miles in our accounts, but we don't always have time to travel far or often enough to make good use of them. In fact, the last big family trip we booked we had to cancel at the last minute. Rather than repeat that experience, we decided to use some of our miles to fly relatives to visit us at our home in Denver.
As it turns out, booking awards for others is one of our favorite ways to redeem points and miles. In this post I'll explain how to use your travel rewards when you're not the one traveling, including a look at various program rules, etiquette, and some tips to make sure your redemptions go according to plan.
Sharing the wealth
Much of my wife's family lives in Israel, but we didn't have time for our biennial "falafel run" this year. Instead, we offered to redeem miles for her cousin and his son to fly from Tel Aviv to Denver. We booked the tickets using our American Express Membership Rewards points last January when there was a 40% transfer bonus to British Airways Avios.
By transferring 115,000 Membership Rewards points, we received 160,000 British Airways Avios, which was enough for two round-trip coach tickets on US Airways between Tel Aviv and Denver. Unfortunately, we also had to pay an additional $867 in taxes and fees (for the two tickets combined), the vast majority of which was fuel surcharges tacked on by British Airways.
Nevertheless, our family members were overjoyed to visit the United States, and got to experience a major league baseball game, some real American barbecue, and even snowboarding — they had never seen snow before! In the past, I 've used my miles to fly nieces, nephews, and cousins here in the US to visit us in Denver, rather than packing up our entire family to go visit them.
Airline policies on redeeming awards for others
The most important thing to know about using your miles for someone else is that you do not have to pay the airline to transfer miles to their account. Airlines commonly offer to let you "share miles" at a substantial cost, without making any attempt to notify you that this service is unnecessary in nearly all cases. For example, American offers to let you share AAdvantage miles for 1.25 cents each, plus a $20 transaction fee, while Delta's price to transfer SkyMiles is 1 cent each plus a $30 transaction fee. In many cases it can be difficult to receive much more than one cent in value per Delta mile, so it's clearly a bad deal to pay that much just to transfer your existing miles to another account.
Furthermore, it's completely unnecessary, as nearly all airline programs will allow you to redeem miles from your own account for award tickets in another person's name. In fact, the account holder doesn't even need to be traveling on the same itinerary, so rather than redeeming your miles to visit a friend or relative, you can redeem your miles to have that friend or relative visit you, with a few exceptions. The same goes for awards redeemed with flexible points, like those booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal. Policies vary much more widely for hotels than for airlines, so check with the chain/property before booking an award night in someone else's name.
The most important exception is that every loyalty program has terms and conditions that prohibit the sale or barter of points and miles. You can probably get away with discreetly exchanging points or miles with a close friend or family member, but you definitely don't want to advertise that you're willing to buy or sell miles, or conduct any sort of public transaction. There are many reported instances where airlines have questioned passengers traveling on awards issued from another person's account. When those passengers either couldn't identify the source of the award, or even admitted that they purchased the award, their tickets were invalidated and the accounts that issued the tickets were suspended.
Another less notable exception is the rare program that doesn't allow awards to be ticketed in another name. For example, the Korean Air SkyPass program (a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner) only allows award tickets to be issued in the name of the account holder or an immediate family member, so you can't even book awards to travel with your friends or your cousins!
Etiquette for booking award travel for others
While my family normally books award flights in business class, we were unable to do so on behalf of our relatives for several reasons. First, we just didn't have enough Avios, but more importantly, the fuel surcharges for British Airways business class awards would have been even more outrageous, approaching the price of economy class tickets.
Thankfully, this didn't matter much to our guests, as they were thrilled just to be able to come see us. And although the miles were a gift, they were also happy to reimburse us for the $867 in taxes and fuel surcharges between the two of them, as it still represented less than a third of what they would have paid to book tickets themselves. In short, our gift enabled them to take a trip they otherwise couldn't have afforded, and they were grateful to us to be able to travel in any class.
In general, when you use your own rewards to book travel for someone else, it's reasonable to ask them to cover any applicable taxes or fees at your own discretion. Just make your expectations clear ahead of time so there's no confusion.
Making it all work smoothly
I've always believed that the best gift is something the recipient wants, but couldn't or wouldn't have purchased on his or her own. Following that line of thinking, the person who you book an award ticket for likely won't be a frequent traveler, and will need a little guidance from someone more experienced like yourself.
First, see what awards are available with your miles before proposing the idea of a gift. You don't want to get someone's hopes up before realizing that a scarce award just isn't available. Once you have a good idea that you can make it work, then you can let the recipient(s) know that you'd like to use your miles to help them travel.
It's also important to let them know that since you'll be using miles, they may have to be somewhat flexible about their times, dates, and routing. While there might be a non-stop flight on their route, you may only be able to book an award itinerary that includes a stop. Don't worry, the average person who isn't a frequent traveler will be excited to get a free trip, and will probably consider the stopover to be just part of the adventure. More seasoned travelers will likely understand the need for a stopover when redeeming miles.
Once you've settled on a proposed itinerary, you'll need to get birthdays, exact name spellings, and possibly passport or ID numbers before you book the flight. Don't get taken by surprise when you discover (too late) that someone you've known for years has actually been using a nickname! If the person traveling is crossing borders, always confirm that he or she will be able to satisfy entry requirements before booking the ticket. In our case, my Israeli relatives had to first obtain tourist visas to the United States before I was willing to book the tickets.
Once booked, select the best available seat assignments for them according to their preference. This is also a good time to obtain both the reservation confirmation numbers and ticket numbers of all the airlines they'll be flying. I like to send this information along with the entire schedule and copies of the e-ticket receipts in a single document. If you're not sure what all those things are, check out my post on 12 Confusing Travel Industry Expressions and What They Mean.
Finally, it helps to provide them some basic travel advice before they depart. For example, be sure to tell them how many bags they'll be allowed to check and carry-on for free, along with the maximum permitted size and weight, and the cost of additional bags. In addition, be sure to admonish them not to pack any valuables (such as electronics, keys, or medications) in their checked bags, and to carry on their toiletries and at least one change of clothes in case their checked bags go missing. While these tips may be old news to you and me, they're often overlooked by less frequent travelers.
Finally, make sure that they keep a copy of their itinerary on them at all times. You might even send them a terminal map marked up with arrows if you know they'll have to make a transfer at an especially large or confusing airport.
Award travel makes for an amazing gift; it just requires a little hand holding for less experienced travelers. In the end, many of the most satisfying awards I've ever booked were the ones I issued to other people.
What experiences have you had booking award travel for others?