Ultimate guide to searching award availability for the major airlines

5d ago

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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. While the first skill might seem confusing as you learn to navigate the world of travel rewards credit cards (possibly for the first time), 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, but the stumbling block that trips most people up is actually finding award space. There isn’t a general rule you can follow to make this process simpler — 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. For some airlines, you should search for award space with whatever loyalty program you want to use to book. 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 dead tie, and it’s really just a matter of personal preference. In this case, you’ll see two programs on the same line separated with a giant “OR.” Now let’s get to it!

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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, but there’s one all-powerful tool that supersedes them in most cases. If you’re not already familiar with ExpertFlyer, stop what you’re doing right now and go 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 include Cathay Pacific and JAL), but if your airline is supported by ExpertFlyer you should absolutely start your search here. The only thing to keep in mind is that the results aren’t always perfectly accurate, so you should double check with the airline itself before you transfer points over to book your award.

North American airlines

In order to keep this manageable, we’re going to split up the list 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 basically have to book directly through their loyalty programs and you don’t have to worry about picking which partner to search with.

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

The U.S. legacy carriers are the easiest ones 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, so 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.

Alaska Airlines is an interesting case: While you can fly from the West Coast to Hawaii on Alaska Airlines for only 13,000 British Airways Avios each way in economy, Alaska Airlines award space doesn’t show up on the British Airways website. Instead, you’ll need to search through Alaska and then call BA to book.

Air Canada is a fairly attractive loyalty program on its own, especially for business-class flights to Europe or Asia. The biggest downfall is that you’ll pay fuel surcharges on Air Canada flights. Nothing too extreme, but expect to shell out $200-$400 depending on the route. Booking through Avianca instead should cost a comparable amount of miles, but drop your taxes to under $100.

Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel

European airlines

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 LifeMilles
  • 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. Aeroplan charges even less, but tacks on $800 or more in fuel surcharges which really eats away at your value. United is more expensive in terms of miles, but also doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges.

Related: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first-class awards

This same pattern applies to other Star Alliance carriers as well. Aeroplan charges the lowest amount of miles, but passes on hefty taxes on select partners. You’ll want to consult our guide to Aeroplan taxes and fees to get an estimate of how much, and if it’s more than you’re willing to pay, book with Avianca instead, or United as a last resort. Since award availability should be pretty similar across all these partners, you might have an easier time just searching with whichever program you plan to book through.

SkyTeam woes

With the two largest SkyTeam programs — Delta SkyMiles and Air France-KLM Flying Blue — both using dynamic award pricing, 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.

Asian airlines

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

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.

Cathay Pacific is also quite tricky, as it’s not supported by ExpertFlyer 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.

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 …
Qantas
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Qantas
  • British Airways
Emirates
Etihad
Qatar
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • British Airways
El Al
  • ExpertFlyer
South African Airways
  • Avianca LifeMiles OR Aeroplan
  • United MileagePlus

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, though 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.

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 is showing “guest first” availability you can call American Airlines to get it ticketed.

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

General tips

Now that you know where to go 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 probably won’t get any results, or if you do they’ll all 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.

Another way to think about this is to try and build longer trips from the inside out. I’m currently helping my girlfriend’s parents book a trip from Miami (MIA) to Bali (DPS) for next summer. At no point in the process are we ever going to 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. Instead, we started by searching for flights from New York, Chicago and D.C. to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Once we find space on the longest segment, we can then tack on the positioning flight in the U.S. and the connection from Hong Kong to Bali. This leads to my next point …

Take notes and come prepared

There are certainly airline customer service agents who are good at their jobs and enjoy it as well, but you’ll get much better results when you do the work yourself. This means before you call to book an award flight you should have the exact dates and flight numbers you want, and you should make that known early in the conversation.

As soon as I tell the agent where I’m trying to go I’ll throw in “and 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.

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.

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.

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