Finding the Best US Gateways for International Awards
Most people search for flights by simply entering an origin and destination to see what pops up, but award travel sometimes involves more than just getting from A to B. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr looks at which connection cities give you the best chance to maximize your points and miles.
Finding a convenient, stress-free award itinerary can be challenging, especially when it comes to international flights. There are many variables to consider, such as departure times, availability or even which airline to choose, but one factor that's often overlooked is which airport(s) you transit through en route to your destination. In this post, I'll explain why you should pay close attention when selecting your gateway city (along with some general tips for planning your award), and I'll investigate which US cities stand out as the best gateways for international award tickets.
Follow the Three S's
I always recommend wading slowly in to your award search rather than cannonballing off the high dive. You need to do your homework in order to improve your chances of success and make the search more efficient. I follow theses three rules for each of my international award flight searches:
1. Schedule Check — Knowing which airlines serve your destination is the basis of any award search. You won't even know which alliance or airline program to utilize without this step. Begin at your desired international destination and see which, if any, airlines fly directly from the US.
You can use route maps from the big three airline alliances to instantly see all destinations from any airport served by any respective alliance members. However, an even better place to start is the Wikipedia page for the international airport nearest to your destination. Scroll to the Airlines and Destinations chart on each airport's Wikipedia page to see all routes flown to the US or to other international hubs that could be used as a connection point. Wikipedia isn't perfect, but it's usually pretty accurate. It's worth using a second source as confirmation once you've identified a route that works for you.
Once you've worked from your destination back to the US, repeat the process to figure out optimal routing to and from your home airport. This will sometimes require a hop to another US hub. Completing these airline schedule checks should give you a good sense of your options for getting all the way to a desired international destination from your home airport.
It's also important to note departure and arrival times when researching routes so you can gauge connection opportunities and the convenience factor when searching for award space. My basic rule of thumb for connection times is to leave myself no less than 1.5 hours at US airports and 2 hours at international airports.
2. Strategize — Once you've identified schedules and possible routes, you should try to figure out your best chance of finding award space. Consider the following with your possible routes in mind:
- When is peak travel season for your destination? How flexible are your travel dates?
- Which airline miles do you want to use for the trip, and which partners (both alliance AND non-alliance) can you access with those miles?
- Complete a simple search engine query for award booking tips on your specific international destination (e.g., search for "best award flight availability to Dakar").
3. Search — One of the more common questions I get is about how to search for award availability on a specific airline. Many airlines show award availability through their own websites or partner websites, while others require you to call in and rely on a booking agent to find availability. If you can find availability online (either through the airline website or ExpertFlyer), then I find the easiest way to piece together an itinerary is to search leg by leg while working backwards from your destination. Booking awards by phone can be a bit of a crapshoot, so if you're not getting the answers you want, try hanging up and calling again, since different agents may give you different answers.
Best US Gateway Cities to Popular Destinations
London — Naturally, British Airways has a major role in flight options to London, but we want to avoid those pesky carrier-imposed surcharges. The best nonstop options are on United or American out of New York, Washington or Chicago. Air Canada seems to have great availability connecting in Toronto or Montreal from any of its US destinations. I also recommend using SkyMiles on lesser-known Virgin Atlantic routes to Detroit, Orlando and Miami, and don't forget about the obscure nonstop flight to/from Raleigh-Durham.
Tokyo — My family and I have flown round-trip to Tokyo from the US over a dozen times in the last 27 months while living in Japan, and we have usually connected in Chicago. With American, Japan Airlines, ANA and United all offering multiple nonstop flights daily between the two cities, there always seems to be a seat open in both economy and premium classes.
Paris — The OpenSkies flight from Paris Orly to Newark is my go-to search option when all other routes seem in doubt. In addition to New York and Chicago, check Philadelphia and Charlotte for possible award seats. Transferring American Express Membership Rewards to Air France/KLM yields many more award seats than attempting to book with miles from a US program.
Best US Gateways for Transpacific Flights
Los Angeles — Unsurprisingly, all three airline alliances have multiple flights across the Pacific from LAX. During my time living in Japan, JAL has steadily and predictably released award seats on flights from Tokyo and now Osaka.
San Francisco — You can find nonstop service from SFO to Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. Korean Air's nonstop flight to Seoul Incheon is a pretty fantastic deal at 35,000 SkyMiles each way in economy, especially considering you can book it on Delta.com.
San Jose — ANA's nonstop flight to Tokyo is often overlooked among options for flying to Asia. It has good availability, convenient departure and arrival times and is flown on the 787 Dreamliner.
Denver — Much like ANA's San Jose service, United operates a daily nonstop flight to Tokyo on a 787 Dreamliner. Availability is decent, but not great. However, the nonstop option along with Denver's status as a United hub gives many one-stop options to get to Asia, and makes Denver a good connection point you may have not considered previously.
Best US Gateways for Transatlantic Flights
New York — Three international airports, a plethora of airlines, convenient overnight flights and thousands of daily seats over the pond give you an opportunity to find an award seat on most days — at least in economy.
Chicago — Much like New York, the sheer volume of flights and the city's status as a hub for both American and United make Chicago an excellent option for finding transatlantic award space. You might not find a nonstop flight, but connection options in Europe are plentiful. If you're headed somewhere obscure and can't make the routing work, keep in mind that you can always add a leg on a low-cost carrier or book a train ride to reach your final destination.
Atlanta — Home of Delta and (depending on which source you believe) the world's busiest airport, Atlanta may not be the cheapest for transatlantic flights from a miles standpoint, but you can book with SkyMiles to many destinations in Europe. Use Delta's five-week award calendar to easily find the cheapest dates and switch destinations. Qatar Airway's new route to Doha over the Atlantic seems to have excellent award availability beginning next year, and is bookable with AAdvantage miles or Avios.
Fort Meyers — Air Berlin's flight to Dusseldorf is a transatlantic route that often gets overlooked, but has plenty of availability. The best part is that this flight will only cost you 25,000 Avios and $5 in carrier-imposed surcharges.
Miami — Two daily nonstop flights to Madrid on Iberia and nonstop service to 9 other transatlantic destinations may surprise you. Don't forget about nonstop winter service to Helsinki, along with Qatar Airways service to Doha.
Philadelphia — Qatar Airways flights to Doha have excellent award availability. If I'm looking for an award using AAdvantage miles or Avios from the Eastern US to the Middle East, Africa or even Asia, this is usually where I start.
Best US Gateways for South America
Miami — TAM, LAN and American Airlines provide nonstop service to over 20 South American destinations. Off-peak AAdvantage awards cost 15,000 or 20,000 miles one-way in economy (depending where you're going), which is really a steal. Six destinations have nonstop service from Avianca in the Star Alliance.
Dallas/New York — Dallas serves 5 destinations in South America, while New York serves 6 on two different alliances between Newark and JFK. I'd rank the two cities in a tie behind Miami for finding award space to South America.
The discussion above isn't meant to imply that you cannot find award seats from other US cities, or that you will definitely find an available seat from the gateways mentioned above. Availability is subject to many variables depending on each airline, such as how early you're booking before departure. To improve your chances of finding award availability, it helps to familiarize yourself with specific program rules, like the fact that Lufthansa rarely releases First Class award space to United outside of 14 days from departure.
New York, Chicago and Miami seem to be the front-runners for the best international award availability, mainly due to the volume of seats flying out everyday. However, some of the lesser-known routes yield results for me time and time again.
Which US gateways do you found have the best award availability?