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The Etihad Guest frequent flyer program offers some great redemption options, especially for some smaller and lesser-known partner carriers. However, booking these awards takes patience and skill — TPG Contributor Michael Spelfogel walks you through the process, complete with examples, below.
Update 8/6/16: Brussels Airlines is currently offering phenomenal award availability between JFK and Brussels, and you can book round-trip business class for just 36,620 Etihad Guest miles + $92, which is exceptional. We’ve found availability through the end of the schedule in 2017, with the exception of Wednesdays between May 1 and July 9, 2017.
It’s no secret that Etihad is one of the top premium airlines in the world. From the Residence and the Apartment on its Airbus A380 to its spectacular lounges across the world, the airline offers some of the highest-quality services both in the air and on the ground. Still, what many travelers don’t know is that the carrier’s award program, Etihad Guest, can also offer highly valuable redemptions — especially with its 20-plus partners.
Why Use the Etihad Guest Program?
From stellar redemptions with American, ANA and Virgin Australia to off-the-beaten-path partnerships with airlines like Royal Air Maroc, Air Serbia and Ukrainian, the Etihad Guest frequent flyer program is one of the broadest reaching — and most frustrating — programs out there.
You can transfer Amex Membership Rewards points and Citi ThankYou Points to Etihad Guest at a 1:1 ratio. You can also transfer Starpoints at a favorable 1:1.25 ratio, taking into account the 5,000-mile bonus for every 20,000 points you move over. Below, I’ll break down how to find and book some of the most hard-to-find, but valuable, redemptions.
HOW TO BOOK AWARDS
As part of this summer’s TPG intern trip, each intern was tasked with using Etihad miles for an international award redemption on a non-alliance carrier. Initially we had planed to fly Royal Air Maroc, Ukrainian and Air Serbia. None of these airlines display award availability through a carrier website or on ExpertFlyer, so you have to call Etihad and check specific dates. After one call with Etihad, I was astounded that not one of the airlines, not one of the dates and not one of the routes had any award space. It was as if these partner airlines did not release any space at all. But that wasn’t exactly the case…
In the nearly dozen calls I made to Etihad, it became clear that you always need to find a very experienced agent who’s familiar with partner award bookings. For the airlines mentioned above, it’s actually necessary for the agents to make a booking to see whether the airline will accept the date and flight.
You have to find an agent who’s patient enough to do that, of course, but after the first couple searches, the agent who helped me was able to return results for a flight in about 30 seconds. The Manchester call center (+443456081225) seemed to have the most competent and consistent agents.
Update 4/30/2017: TPG writer JT Genter was able to easily search and book four Air Serbia award tickets through the standard US phone line, reaching an excellent Abu Dhabi-based agent on the first try. For each of the four dates we wanted (during October and November), there was award availability on our requested flight and cabin.
Testing Your Phone Representative
To ensure you’re speaking to an agent who can help you, you should first do a control test where you ask them to search for availability that you know exists. For example, find any American Airlines saver availability and make sure the Etihad agent acknowledges that that seat is bookable. If they can confirm that, then you can move on to the award tickets you want to book. If you can search for an airline’s award availability online, do that ahead of time so you can feed the agent specific flights and dates.
The following Etihad partners are searchable online:
- Air New Zealand — Use United.com
- Air Berlin — Use American.com
- Air Seychelles — Use ExpertFlyer
- Alitalia — Use Delta.com
- ANA — Use United.com
- American — Use American.com
- Asiana — Use United.com
- Bangkok Airways — Use ExpertFlyer
- Brussels Airlines — Use United.com
- Czech Airlines — Use Delta.com
- Garuda Indonesia — Use Delta.com
- GOL — Use ExpertFlyer
- Hainan Airlines — Use Alaskaair.com
- Korean Air — Use ExpertFlyer
- Malaysia Airlines — Use Britishairways.com
- South African Airways — Use United.com
- SriLankan Airlines — Use Britishairways.com
- Virgin Australia — Use Delta.com
The following Etihad partners cannot be searched online:
- Air Serbia
- Jet Airways
- Oman Air
- Philippine Airlines
- Royal Air Maroc
- Ukrainian International Airlines
I actually found that Royal Air Maroc, Ukrainian and Philippine Airlines had availability about every second or third day for business class, and even more frequently for economy redemptions. Air Serbia seemed to have availability almost daily in the near future. Once you find dates that work, be ready to book right away. Etihad usually won’t hold award tickets, so you must have the sufficient mileage balance in your account to book.
Points Transfers to Etihad
Amex transfers normally occur instantly, although when we tried to transfer points from Amex, a technical bug delayed the transfer by almost a week. Citi transfers take at least 48 hours in our experience, and up to six days or even a week in some cases. Starpoint transfers take the longest: from five days to as long as 1-2 weeks. Because of this, it’s best to plan far in advance. Keep in mind that Etihad regularly has transfer bonuses from partners. It had a 30% bonus from Amex a few months ago, and 25% bonus with Citi just ended.
After the Etihad agent confirms availability, verifies your account and begins the ticketing process, he or she will manually deduct the required mileage from your account. Make sure that the amount is correct according to the charts published online. Etihad will then send you a confirmation email while you’re still on the phone. Make sure the booking details are correct, and then instruct the agent to proceed.
Lastly, the agent will ask for a credit card and billing address to charge any applicable taxes and fees. Etihad does pass on fuel surcharges in some cases (South African, for example, as discussed below). When the booking is complete, make sure you have your Etihad ticket number as well as a confirmation number from the airline partner.
WHAT WE BOOKED
After finalizing our plans and searching award availability, it became apparent that Ukrainian was not going to work. So we decided on South African as an alternative, opting for the fifth-freedom flight from Washington (IAD) to Dakar (DKR) in Senegal. The other two intern trips were to from New York (JFK) to Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc’s new 787 Dreamliner and to Belgrade on Air Serbia’s new service from New York (JFK), operated by an Airbus A330.
After several calls totaling at least four hours cumulatively, we were all booked. For South African, we searched award availability on United’s site, but for the other two tickets we went through the painstaking process of trial and error with Etihad agents.
Trip One: Washington (IAD) to Dakar (DKR) in business class round-trip on South African Airways
Cost: 106,667 Etihad miles + $592 in taxes and fees
Keep in mind that United would charge 160,000 miles for the same exact award, although the taxes and fees would be under $200. Even so, the revenue cost of this ticket is at least $6,918, so this redemption provides an incredible value of about 6.5 cents per mile.
Trip Two: New York (JFK) to Casablanca (CMN) in business class round-trip on Royal Air Maroc
Cost: 88,000 Etihad miles + $311 in taxes and fees
This is one of the only ways to book a Royal Air Maroc award ticket, and the airline is flying its new 787-8 to New York daily. The revenue cost of this ticket is $4,862, so this redemption gets you 5.5 cents per mile in value.
Trip Three: New York (JFK) to Belgrade (BEG) in business class round-trip on Air Serbia
Cost: 128,164 Etihad miles + $86 in taxes and fees
Etihad provides lounge access for Air Serbia customers at JFK, and Etihad miles are one of the only ways to book an Air Serbia award ticket. The revenue cost of the ticket was $4,424, so this redemption offers about 3.5 cents per mile in value.
Update 4/30/2017: Trip Four: Four one-way intra-Europe flights on Air Serbia
Cost: 49,080 Etihad miles + $211 taxes and fees for two passengers
If you’re interested in visiting Belgrade, Serbia while on a European vacation, you can use Etihad Guest Miles to hop from Europe to Belgrade for relatively cheap. The exact cost is going to depend on your specific routing. Here’s what we booked:
- STT-BEG in economy: 5,890 miles
- BEG-SJJ in economy: 5,000 miles
- SJJ-BEG in economy: 5,000 miles
- BEG-TXL in business: 8,650 miles
The revenue cost of these revenue tickets would have bee $2,554 total for the two of us. Factoring in the $211 in taxes and fees, we got 4.77 cents per mile in value.
While European business class products typically aren’t worth much more, Air Serbia proves to be an exception. Rather than simply blocking a middle seat of a standard three-wide row, Air Serbia has dedicated business class seats that are worth the few extra thousand miles.
Booking an Etihad award ticket is quite a challenge. You’ll encounter incompetent agents, long wait times and frustration. But find the best redemption values, and your hard work will pay off in droves. After researching, calling, booking and going through the entire process, it almost felt, dare I say, “fun” to finally see the fruits of my labor in the form of valuable premium-cabin bookings.
Maximize Your Purchase
When paying for taxes and fees on tickets, don’t forget to use a credit card that earns additional points, such as the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card, the Citi Prestige Card (3x on airfare) or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x on all travel purchases). Check out this post for more info on maximizing airfare purchases.
Featured image courtesy of Airbus.
What are your favorite tips for booking a partner award with Etihad Guest?