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Your ultimate guide to searching award availability for the major airlines

Nov. 06, 2022
16 min read
Japan Airlines JAL Boeing 787 Dreamliner Delta
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.


Becoming an advanced award traveler requires you to master two separate skills: earning points and miles and effectively redeeming them for the maximum possible value. By developing a portfolio of the best travel rewards credit cards, you can master the first skill. The second skill is more challenging.

Here at TPG, we’ve devoted countless hours to helping you redeem your transferable Chase, Amex, Citi, Capital One, Marriott and Bilt points at the maximum value. Where most run into issues, however, is finding award space.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a general rule you can follow to make this process easier. Each airline and award search engine has its pros, cons and quirks to be aware of. Luckily, tools like ExpertFlyer and point.me can help you search for award availability across the major programs.

Today we’re going to demystify this process and look at where you should search for award space depending on which airline you want to fly with and how websites like ExpertFlyer and point.me can help make your searches easier.

Before we dive in, let me explain what this chart will look like.

Sometimes, you should search for award space with whatever loyalty program you plan to book with. In that case, I’ll list the options in order of popularity/pricing attractiveness and explain how you can decide which one to use. In some cases, it’s a matter of personal preference. In this case, you’ll see two programs on the same line separated by “OR.”

Let’s dive in!

ExpertFlyer

Today, we'll discuss which airlines offer the best award search engines. But there’s also one all-powerful tool that makes it easy to search for award space on multiple airlines in one place: ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures).

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If you’re unfamiliar with ExpertFlyer, read our beginner’s guide to award searches on ExpertFlyer to get yourself up to speed. ExpertFlyer allows you to search for award inventory from most major airlines on one interface. You can search for up to seven days at a time and search for multiple cabins (i.e., first and business class) in one search.

ExpertFlyer doesn’t support every airline out there (notable absences are Cathay Pacific, Delta and JAL), but if your airline of choice is supported, you should start your search there. The only thing to remember is that the results aren’t always perfectly accurate, so you should double-check with the airline before you transfer points over to book your award.

Related: How to use ExpertFlyer alerts to snag a better seat

Point.me

Point.me is a relatively new website that checks for award space on 33 programs across over 100 airlines. You can search your desired itinerary, the dates and the number of travelers. Point.me will then give you some real-time available award options you can book. In our tests, the platform doesn't always give the most accurate information (e.g., taxes and fees are often inaccurate, and sometimes award space is incorrect), but it's a great place to start your searches.

For example, when I searched for a business class flight from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Munich Airport (MUC), point.me suggested transferring 54,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Air Canada Aeroplan with the current transfer bonus to book.

POINT.ME

The standard plan costs $129 per year.

North American airlines

American Airlines 737-800. ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

To keep this manageable, we’ve split up the guide by geographic region, starting with airlines based in North America.

You’ll notice a few popular airlines are missing from this list. If you plan on flying Southwest, JetBlue or Spirit with points and miles, you have to book directly through their loyalty programs and won’t have to worry about picking which partner to search with. These airlines have limited or no airline partnerships and revenue-based loyalty programs.

U.S. legacy carriers are among the easiest to deal with because they all have relatively robust and comprehensive search engines. More importantly, they’re all tilting toward dynamic pricing, which means if you’re trying to redeem United miles, you should always search through United before checking award availability with a partner.

One of the (many) downsides of dynamic pricing is that there’s less saver-award space available, the lowest pricing band that’s normally required to book awards through partners. Even when there is saver-level award space, it’s not always easy to identify. If you plan on booking your United flights through a partner like Avianca LifeMiles or Aeroplan to take advantage of lower award rates, you should search directly with that partner program.

Air Canada Aeroplan is a fairly attractive loyalty program, too — especially for business class flights to Europe or Asia. Regardless, compare pricing with Avianca LifeMiles before transferring your credit card points.

Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel

European airlines

NATE HOVEE/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
If you want to fly on …You should search for award space with …
Lufthansa
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • United MileagePlus OR Air Canada (Aeroplan)
British Airways
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
Iberia
Air France
KLM
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
  • Delta SkyMiles
Turkish Airlines
  • Aeroplan
  • Avianca LifeMilles
  • United MileagePlus
Swiss
  • Aeroplan
  • Avianca LifeMilles
  • United MileagePlus
Austrian Airlines
  • Avianca LifeMilles
  • United MileagePlus OR Aeroplan
TAP Portugal
  • Aeroplan
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • United MileagePlus

Lufthansa

Lufthansa first class is arguably the best way to fly between the U.S. and Europe with points and miles, but you’ll need to be careful about which program to search for award space and book your ticket. Lufthansa only releases first class award space to its partners 30 days out, so you’ll need some last-minute flexibility to make this happen.

Avianca LifeMiles charges a very reasonable 87,000 miles for the one-way first class award. Alternatively, you can book with Air Canada Aeroplan, but awards start at 100,000 points to/from east coast airports, with longer flights charging more miles. However, one of the upsides to using Aeroplan is that you can add a stopover for 5,000 points on a one-way ticket.

This same pattern applies to other Star Alliance carriers as well. You’ll always want to compare Avianca LifeMiles and Air Canada Aeroplan to see who has the best pricing on any given route or use United as a last resort. The Lufthansa first class ticket sells for 121,000 United miles. Award availability should be similar across all these partners, so you may have an easier time searching with whichever program you book with if you already have miles on hand.

Oneworld flights to Europe

Generally, you’ll have the best luck searching for American, British Airways, Iberia and other Oneworld partner flights to Europe with American AAdvantage. Just note that you’ll want to book Iberia flights with Iberia Plus Avios for the best rates. Likewise, you’ll get a better deal booking connecting tickets with AAdvantage miles over British Airways since BA charges based on distance and per segment.

All Oneworld programs tack on huge fuel surcharges for British Airways flights. You can reduce them if you book with Cathay Pacific Asia Miles. This program consistently charges roughly half the fuel surcharges you’d pay with other Oneworld programs.

SkyTeam woes

The two largest SkyTeam programs — Delta SkyMiles and Air France-KLM Flying Blue — both use dynamic award pricing, so searching for SkyTeam awards has gotten much more complicated.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club still uses award charts, allowing you to book a one-way Delta One flight from the United States to Europe for just 50,000 Flying Club miles.

Related: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first class awards

Asian airlines

JIMMOYHT/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
If you want to fly on …You should search for award space with …
ANA
  • ANA
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • United MileagePlus OR Aeroplan
JAL
  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
Korean Air
Asiana
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • United MileagePlus OR Aeroplan
Cathay Pacific
  • Alaska Mileage Plan
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
Singapore Airlines
EVA Air
  • Avianca LifeMiles OR Aeroplan
  • United MileagePlus
China Airlines
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
Thai Airways
  • Avianca LifeMiles OR Aeroplan
  • United MileagePlus
Garuda Indonesia
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue

Singapore Airlines premium cabin awards

With Asia-based carriers, you’ll mostly want to search for award space based on the alliance you’re flying with, but there are a few notable exceptions. Singapore doesn’t release any long-haul premium-cabin award space to most of its partners, except Alaska Mileage Plan. So as a general rule, always search for Singapore Airlines award space on the Singapore website and check the award price on Alaska Mileage Plan before deciding which program to book with.

Cathay Pacific flights can be confusing

Cathay Pacific is also tricky, as ExpertFlyer does not support the airline. Cathay Pacific awards have recently before bookable using Alaska's website. However, if you book with Asia Miles, search there first, as the program has historically opened more Standard award space to its members.

Make sure you’re getting the best deal on ANA award tickets

You’re generally best booking with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points on the ANA side. First class award tickets start at just 110,000 points round-trip, which is an excellent deal. ANA first class flights departing the U.S. cost 110,000 miles (or more) one-way when booked with United MileagePlus miles. You can’t book these tickets on the Virgin Atlantic website. Find saver award space on the ANA or United website, and call Virgin Atlantic to confirm availability before you transfer miles to book.

You can also book off-peak ANA business class tickets starting at 75,000 miles round-trip from the U.S. to Japan with ANA Mileage Club. These tickets are bookable online on ANA’s website. Plus, you’re entitled to a free stopover elsewhere in Japan so that you can visit two cities for the price of one. Off-peak tickets elsewhere in Asia are a good deal, too but will cost more points.

SkyTeam isn’t any easier

The same SkyTeam woes that apply to searching for flights from the U.S. to Europe apply here too. I recommend searching for flights with Flying Blue and Delta SkyMiles for award space and pricing. Unfortunately, you’ll likely pay a big chunk of points regardless of the route and airline you book with due to the program’s dynamic pricing policies.

Related: The best ways to fly to Asia in business class

Other airlines

If you want to fly on …You should search for award space with …
Avianca
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • United MileagePlus
LATAM
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • LATAM Pass
Emirates
Etihad
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Etihad Guest
El Al
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
Qantas
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
  • British Airways Executive Club
Qatar
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • British Airways Executive Club
South African Airways
  • Avianca LifeMiles OR Aeroplan
  • United MileagePlus

Getting to the Middle East isn’t (too) hard

The Gulf carriers and their opulent premium cabins are a bucket-list item for many award travelers. Unfortunately, you can no longer use Alaska miles to fly Emirates, so if you want to use your miles to travel on Emirates, you're stuck with Emirates Skywards, the program that's infamous for some of the worst fuel surcharges.

While award space is far and few between, you can book the Qatar Qsuite on American's website. Qsuite flights from the U.S. to the Middle East cost just 70,000 AAdvantage miles. Etihad bookings generally do not appear on aa.com, but Etihad award space can be found on Air Canada's website. If you find Etihad “guest first” availability, you can call American Airlines to get it ticketed.

LATAM has left Oneworld

LATAM left Oneworld in 2020 and teamed up with Delta Air Lines. You’re best off looking for award space using the Delta or LATAM website and then calling your partner to book your ticket. The airline has kept non-alliance partnerships with many Oneworld members, like Alaska Airlines.

Related: How to get to (and stay in) Dubai using points and miles

General tips

TONIFLAP/SHUTTERSTOCK

Now that you know where to find award space for your next trip, let's look at a few tricks I use to make the process easier.

Search segment by segment

This is an odd quirk of most award search engines, but you’ll often get different results if you search for your complete itinerary instead of searching for one flight at a time.

For example, let’s say you want to fly Cathay Pacific first class from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD) to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK). If you go to the British Airways website and search for a flight from Chicago to Bangkok, you may not get any availability. If you do, there’s a chance they could be British Airways flights connecting through London with high fuel surcharges.

However, if you break your search into two, one for the Chicago to Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) leg and another for Hong Kong to Bangkok, you can find the flights you need to piece together the itinerary. Then, you can call the airline you’d like to book with and have them book the itinerary for you over the phone.

Another way to think about this is to try and build longer trips from the inside out. I recently helped a friend book a trip from Miami International Airport (MIA) to Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS). We searched for award flights from Miami to Bali at no point in the process. With a minimum of two stops in that itinerary, we’re not going to have much luck relying on the computer to do the work for us.

We searched for flights from New York, Chicago and D.C. to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Once we found space on the longest segment, we looked for positioning flights in the U.S. and Asia.

Take notes and come prepared

Many airline customer service agents are good at their jobs, but you’ll get much better results when you do the work yourself.

So before you call to book an award flight, you should have the exact dates and flight numbers you want. Make that known early in the conversation.

As soon as I tell the agent where I’m trying to go, I’ll throw in, “I have the flight numbers here whenever you’re ready for them,” so they don’t waste any time trying to search on their end. If you’ve done your homework to ensure that there is award space and your routing is valid, these calls will go much easier.

Related: Book this, not that: Star Alliance award tickets

Bottom line

Learning how to find and book award flights is one of the hardest things about award travel — especially when you’re looking to score a coveted first class seat on a long flight. One thing you may have noticed is that despite the dozens of airlines covered in this post, only five or so main frequent flyer programs keep popping up.

Spend some time familiarizing yourself with them and practicing searching for award space. That way, when you’re ready to fly, it will feel like second nature.

Additional reporting by Andrew Kunesh and Kyle Olsen

Featured image by ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
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Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more