Ultimate guide to searching award availability for the major airlines

Apr 16, 2021

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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. The first skill may seem confusing as you learn to navigate the world of travel rewards credit cards; the second skill is more challenging.

Here at TPG, we’ve devoted countless hours to creating guides to help you redeem your Chase, Amex, Citi, Capital One and Marriott points in the best possible ways. 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 own pros and cons and quirks to be aware of. Today we’re going to demystify this process and take a look at where you should search for award space depending on which airline you want to fly with.

Before we dive in, let me explain what this chart is going to 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 with a giant “OR.”

Let’s dive in!

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In This Post

ExpertFlyer

In this post, I’m going to focus on which airlines offer the best award search engines. Still, there’s 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).

If you’re not already familiar 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 with a pretty simple and clean user interface. You can search for up to seven days at a time, and you can 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 and JAL), but if your airline of choice is supported, you should start your search there. The only thing to keep in mind 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 boost your chances of getting a better seat by 91% or more

North American airlines

American Airlines 737-800
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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

You’ll notice a few popular airlines are missing from this list. If you plan on flying Southwest or JetBlue 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. This is because these airlines have limited or no airline partnerships and revenue-based loyalty programs.

If you want to fly on … You should search for award space with …
United Airlines
American Airlines
Delta Airlines
Alaska Airlines
Air Canada
  • United MileagePlus OR Air Canada (Aeroplan)
  • Avianca LifeMiles

U.S. legacy carriers are 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 and not bother with a partner.

One of the (many) downsides of dynamic pricing is that there’s less saver-award space available, the lowest pricing tier 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 on its own, too — especially for business-class flights to Europe or Asia. It also recently removed all fuel surcharges and revamped its award chart. Regardless, make sure to compare pricing with Avianca LifeMiles on shorter routes and mixed-cabin itineraries.

Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel

European airlines

Lufthansa and United planes at the gate in Frankfurt airport
(Photo by 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
Alitalia
TAP Portugal
  • Aeroplan
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • United MileagePlus
Aeroflot
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
  • Delta SkyMiles

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 you use to search for award space and book your ticket. Lufthansa only releases first-class award space to its partners 15 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 90,000 points on short routes, with longer flights charging more miles. However, one of the upsides 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. Award availability should be pretty similar across all these partners, so you may have an easier time searching with whichever program you plan to 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. That said, 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 the act of searching for SkyTeam awards has gotten much more complicated.

If you’re flying on a carrier other than Delta or Air France-KLM (like Aeroflot or Alitalia), I’d recommend searching for award space with both Delta and Flying Blue to make sure you don’t miss anything. Both programs have some blind spots and might not yield any search results even when there is award space available. Flights that show up on either SkyTeam search tool should be bookable with any SkyTeam partner miles.

Related: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first-class awards

Asian airlines

Cathay Pacific A350
(Photo by JIMMOYHT/Shutterstock)
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
  • American Airlines
  • Qantas
Korean Air
Asiana
  • Avianca LifeMiles
  • United MileagePlus OR Aeroplan
Cathay Pacific
  • British Airways
  • Qantas
Singapore Airlines
EVA Air
  • Avianca LifeMiles OR Aeroplan
  • United MileagePlus
China Airlines
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
China Eastern
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue
Air China
  • Avianca LifeMiles OR Aeroplan
  • United MileagePlus
Thai Airways
  • Avianca LifeMiles OR Aeroplan
  • United MileagePlus
Garuda Indonesia
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue

Singapore Airlines premium cabin awards

With Asian airlines, 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, so the United MileagePlus website won’t help you fly Singapore Suites. So as a general rule, always search for Singapore Airlines award space on the Singapore website.

Cathay Pacific flights can be confusing

Cathay Pacific is also quite tricky, as ExpertFlyer does not support it and you can’t book Cathay Pacific awards online through Alaska Airlines (although American Airlines recently added online Cathay Pacific award booking). For most people, the British Airways or Qantas websites are going to be the best search tool. However, if you’re going to book with Asia Miles, search there first, as the program has historically opened more Standard award space to its own members.

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

On the ANA side, you’re generally best booking with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points. First-class award tickets start at just 110,000 points round-trip, which is an excellent deal. In fact, 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 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 highly recommend searching for flights with Flying Blue and Delta SkyMiles for award space and pricing. Unfortunately, you’ll likely pay a pretty big chunk of points regardless of the route and airline you book with due to both of 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
El Al
  • Qantas Frequent Flyer
Qantas
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Qantas
  • British Airways
Qatar
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • British Airways
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. Thankfully you can search for Emirates award space pretty easily with Alaska Airlines. However, if you’re flying a route that isn’t included on Alaska’s award chart, you may need to defer to Qantas or Emirates to find space.

Also, keep in mind that you can no longer book Emirates first class awards with partner miles, so you’ll need to search and book with Emirates Skywards.

While it’s possible to book Etihad and Qatar awards directly through the American Airlines app or website if you’re traveling from somewhere other than the U.S., you might have an easier time searching on the Etihad or British Airways websites, respectively. If Etihad shows “guest first” availability, you can call American Airlines to get it ticketed.

LATAM recently left Oneworld

LATAM used to be in the Oneworld alliance but resigned last year when it 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 of choice to book your ticket. The airline has kept non-alliance partnerships with many Oneworld members, like Alaska Airlines.

Related: TPG readers’ best tips for visiting the Middle East with points and miles

General tips

KLM airplanes at the gate at Amsterdam airport
(Photo by Toniflap/Shutterstock)

Now that you know where to find award space for your next trip, I want to share 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 one flight at a time.

For example, let’s say you want to fly Cathay Pacific first class from Chicago (ORD) to Bangkok (BKK). If you log on to the British Airways website and search for a flight from Chicago to Bangkok, you may not get any valid flights. 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 (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 (MIA) to Bali (DPS) next January. At no point in the process did we search for award flights from Miami to Bali. 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 started by searching 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. You should also 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 make sure 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, there are really only five or so main frequent flyer programs that keep popping up.

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

Additional reporting by Andrew Kunesh

Featured photo by Allen.G/Shutterstock.com

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