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We get a lot of readers asking about the best strategies for searching for airline awards. So we asked TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen to put together a guide of helpful hints for finding awards on Star Alliance carriers, including the websites to use, tips for finding routes or carriers with better award availability and more.
Star Alliance is the largest of the three major airline alliances. Its members include:
– Adria Airways
– Air Canada
– Air China
– Air India
– Air New Zealand
– All Nippon Airways ANA
– Brussels Airlines
– Copa Airlines
– Croatia Airlines
– Ethiopian Airlines
– EVA Air
– LOT Polish Airlines
– Scandinavia Airlines SAS
– Shenzhen Airlines
– Singapore Airlines
– South African Airways
– TAP Portugal
– Thai Airways
– Turkish Airlines
As you can see, the major US carrier on this list is United, and following up on TPG Contributor Richard Kerr’s post on How to Book Star Alliance Awards, United is still probably your best bet for searching for them.
However, two other websites — those of Air Canada’s Aeroplan and Japanese carrier ANA — also offer powerful award search engines that you should consider, depending on the awards you’re hoping to book.
Those mileage programs are also decent options for many travelers for a few reasons. United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so if you have either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus Business card, you can transfer points at 1:1 — by comparison, the transfer rate from Starwood Preferred Guest is 2:1, which isn’t nearly as good of a deal.
On the other hand, both Aeroplan and ANA are 1:1 transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards if you have a premium card such as the Premier Rewards Gold from American Express or The Platinum Card from American Express, as well as Starwood Preferred Guest (along with that 5,000-mile bonus for transfers in increments of 20,000 points). Both those carriers do impose sometimes-hefty taxes and surcharges on award tickets, though.
I won’t get into that now, since we’re focusing on the process of searching for awards here, but for more information, check out these posts:
- Aeroplan Devaluation Coming in December
- Post-Devaluation Aeroplan Award Strategies
- Aeroplan Award Taxes and Fees Overview
- ANA Star Alliance Search Engine is Back…With a Few Glitches
- Maximizing the New ANA Award Chart
- ANA Award Taxes and Fees Overview
- Analyzing Amex Membership Rewards Star Alliance Transfer Partners
For a primer on using United.com to search for Star Alliance awards, I’d suggest having a look at TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele’s post on How to Book Awards with United MileagePlus Miles. However, the website does look a little different these days, so it’s worth going over the process again.
Here are the quick things to take away from using United.com, though:
- It pulls in almost all Star Alliance carriers.
- You can see both economy and premium-class awards in the same space.
- You can see award availability two months at a time.
- You cannot use it to find awards on Singapore Airlines or Shenzen.
- The new website often lists awards seemingly randomly, so be sure to scroll through the entire results and use criteria to narrow your search parameters.
- It’s only really good at pricing out awards of two segments or less.
In my opinion, United’s search engine is probably the easiest to use because you can access it right on the homepage without having to log in by clicking the box that says “Search for award travel.”
In this case, I wanted to pull up a lot of last-minute award availability to show that both United and partner availability on Lufthansa actually show up. I only looked a few days out from the day I was searching on a route with generally good availability — from Washington Dulles to Frankfurt.
As you can see, United populates a calendar with color-coded award availability for two calendar months. Yellow means saver-level economy availability, blue means saver-level premium award availability and green means both economy and premium awards are available at the saver level. You’ll also see other criteria with which to narrow your search, such as travel duration, number of stops and more (outlined in purple).
For this example, I just wanted a simple search when I knew there would be award availability to show you what it would look like. The results here are arranged by what seems to be a mixture of departure time and saver-level availability.
But as you’ll note, there are saver-level awards in all three classes on flights on both Lufthansa and United itself. The only way you can tell the difference here is that Lufthansa flights are denoted as such, whereas there is no such indication for United’s own flights. To pull up the details, such as flight numbers (or connections if there are any), you also have to click on the “Details” link.
To show you what I mean about United not being good with multi-segment itineraries, I threw a little wrench into the search. I kept the date the same because I knew there was plenty of award availability from IAD-FRA on both United and Lufthansa. But I searched from Salt Lake City to Frankfurt instead, and here were the results.
Almost all that award space has gone away, especially on Lufthansa, and United tries to route me through Chicago or San Francisco on the US side, and Brussels on the European side.
I would suggest finding availability on the big flights first (transoceanic and on partners) and then looking segment by segment to connect to those and calling in to book your award in this case.
Jason Steele wrote an excellent post, How To Book Award Flights with Air Canada Aeroplan, so I’ll keep it simple. The things to know about Aeroplan’s search engine are:
- It’s great at pulling in almost all Star Alliance award availability.
- It handles multi-segment itineraries (slightly) better than United and ANA.
- Like with United, you can search one-ways or round-trips.
In order to use Aeroplan’s search engine, you must have an Aeroplan account and be logged in to the site.
Once you do so, you’ll be taken to your account home page. Hover over “Use your miles” with your mouse and select “Travel” to be taken to the search engine.
Once there, you can search one-way or round-trip and by travel class (either economy/premium economy or business/first). Just input your travel cities, dates, the class you want and click “Search.”
If you get lucky, like I did with this itinerary from São Paulo to Johannesburg on South African Airways in business class, the search results will just display your results, but you can also click on “Availability Calendar” to display the rest of the dates in a two-week period.
Dates in yellow have award availability while those in white do not, and the gray dates are outside the search date parameters.
In this case, I changed to new dates that the calendar said would be available, and sure enough, there are awards available.
As I mentioned, Aeroplan is pretty good with itineraries of up to three segments, so I input one I thought might be a bit complicated, from Minneapolis to Osaka. The search engine did a pretty good job at cobbling together an award with three segments on both United and ANA:
And even an award of four segments on United and ANA:
That said, I bet I could have done better by searching segment by segment myself, so don’t trust the search engine too much, and put in a little extra research if you have the time!
One final note: It used to be conventional wisdom that in order to find awards on Singapore Airlines bookable using partner miles, you had to use the ANA site, but Aeroplan also pulls in this award space. For instance, here’s an itinerary from Singapore to Bali with awards in economy:
Though ANA’s award chart has undergone some seismic changes in the past year, its search engine is still good for the following:
- Pulling in all Star Alliance partner availability.
- Searching week by week.
- Searching by class of service.
In order to use the award search tool, you must have an ANA Mileage Plan account, and you must log in at this link. Once you do, you’ll see the following page.
Click on the “ANA International Flight Awards” tab I’ve highlighted above. That takes you to this screen where you can input your dates and choose the class of service.
For a bit more flexibility, click the little box that says, “Compare seat availability +/- 3 days.” Note that this also requires you to search round-trip awards, but you can just input any date you want for the outbound or return, depending what you’re searching.
That should pull up a week-long calendar of availability that you can scan forward or backward week by week. Even if your search isn’t successful on the days you initially choose (i.e., there are no award seats available), you can hit “Confirm,” and the week’s availability should pull up all the same.
The days with open award availability should be denoted by “OK.” Click on the day that you want and then click “Next,” and you should see the specific flight options. In this case, I searched for business-class awards from Tokyo Narita to Bangkok and when I click on the days I want, I’m shown my results — in this example, award seats on both ANA’s own flights and those on Thai Airways.
I just select the ones I want and click “Next” again, and it pulls up the whole itinerary. Note that it tells me I cannot book it because of a lack of miles, but it does still show me the full mileage and taxes that would be required, as well as providing links to the parts of ANA’s award chart that apply.
The one great feature of ANA that you won’t find with United or Aeroplan is that it will actually pull up Singapore Airlines economy and business-class awards that are bookable with partner miles. If you do find this award space on ANA but want to use your United or Aeroplan miles, you must call in to your program of choice with the flights and dates noted and ask an agent to book the award for you. Still, it’s a great tool to have in your back pocket if you’re looking to fly Singapore.
For example, here’s a sample round-trip itinerary in economy from Singapore to Bali in November that I was able to find:
If I put in the same dates on United.com, however, I only see the following:
Itineraries on Thai Airways that involve a stop in Bangkok and travel time of nearly 20 hours! So ANA should be your go-to search engine for finding awards on Singapore Airlines that are bookable using partner miles.
I’m only noting Singapore Airlines’ own site because the airline not only releases more award space to members of its own KrisFlyer program using their own miles to book awards, but it also offers a 15% mileage discount on Singapore Airlines awards booked online.
Singapore KrisFlyer miles are your only option if you want to book those ultra-exclusive First Class Suites (check out this post for a guide to how you can do so), so you should know how to use the airline’s site to search for awards. First, you must have a KrisFlyer account. If you do, go to the homepage and log in to your account.
That pulls up the following login box where you enter your KrisFlyer number and PIN.
When you enter those, you’ll be redirected to your KrisFlyer homepage. From there, click on the “Book a Flight” tab. That takes you to this page.
To book awards, make sure the “Redeem Flights” box is checked. You can also opt for one-way travel, select your dates and the class of service and then click “Search and Book.”
The downside is that you can only search one day at a time. The upside is that you can search day by day without having to input new search information each time. You just click “Next Day” or “Previous Day.” Here’s a sample award I found in first class from Hong Kong to San Francisco in November.
All three of these sites (plus Singapore’s specifically for Singapore awards) are great tools for searching for Star Alliance availability. But one of the most important functions they provide is to back one another up if you get a phone agent who can’t find the flights you want. By cross-referencing the awards you find on one of these sites with the awards on one or two of the others, you can be sure that the seats you’re finding are not “phantom” space and do indeed exist.
Apart from that, which site you use just depends on your search preferences and how you like your results to be displayed, as well as which miles you intend to use for your awards.
Have any additional Star Alliance search tips or strategies? Feel free to share them in the comments below!
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