Here’s how to book the flight you want when award space is limited
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I remember my first award booking like it was yesterday. I had saved up a million Delta and American miles and was finally ready to use them in the summer of 2012 … for a trip less than two weeks away. In business class. To Europe and the Middle East. For five people. As you can imagine, it was a complete and utter disaster.
About two weeks before departure, I started looking for award space and found absolutely nothing. In those days, American and Delta didn’t have much partner availability to Europe over the summer and especially not at the saver level. The options were: Pay over $1,000 in fuel surcharges to fly a subpar business-class product on British Airways or redeem all my Delta SkyMiles for one business-class ticket.
My lack of knowledge of award routing rules and airline partnerships almost ruined the trip. However, I kept researching and, by some miracle, managed to book the flights I wanted at the saver level without imploding from stress.
During those few weeks, I learned some valuable lessons in award booking. If you find yourself in the middle of the summer travel season and hitting a wall on award bookings, here are some tips that might help you book your trip using miles.
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Be flexible with your dates
If you can’t find award availability on your preferred travel dates, you can probably find it with a little flexibility. Most airline search tools allow you to generate results within three or more days of travel and some even allow you to search by calendar.
If you want to travel during the summer, you may find saver award space limited but if you’re flexible with your dates, you can make it work.
Book at the last minute
For optimal award space, you should book your flights as far in advance as possible (up to 365 days, depending on the airline). But if you’re a few months away from your trip and still not seeing open seats in your desired cabin, then you may have better luck closer to your travel date.
Airlines like Lufthansa and Alitalia will release premium award space two weeks before departure. Plus, plenty of people change their travel plans two or more weeks before departure, so you could snag those hard-to-come-by seats if you keep an eye open.
If you don’t have time to conduct multiple award searches over the course of two weeks, there is an easy solution: ExpertFlyer.
ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) is an incredibly valuable tool that allows you to set alerts for award space on specific routes. This will save you a lot of time and hassle because you don’t have to keep searching for award inventory on separate websites. ExpertFlyer does the work for you.
Check out our beginner’s guide to ExpertFlyer for detailed advice on how to search for award space and set alerts. Knowing how to leverage tools like these can mean the difference between getting the seat you want on your preferred flight or being stuck at home with a large stash of airline miles you can’t put to good use.
Consider a positioning flight
Whether you’re flying out of a regional airport or a major international hub, sometimes a positioning flight is the only way to make an award ticket work. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a positioning flight is a separate ticket you book to another airport, from which your award flight will depart.
Why would you do this? Because sometimes the airline you’re booking with doesn’t service your home airport and neither do any of its partners. Other times, there are limited flights out of your home airport but if you’re willing to fly a couple of hours to another major hub, you can get much better award space.
I regularly fly out of San Francisco (SFO) for international flights but sometimes travel demand is so high (and flights limited) that I find better availability out of Los Angeles (LAX). A few years ago Etihad stopped operating out of SFO and my only option for an AAdvantage award flight to Abu Dhabi was to depart from LAX. Since there was no American Airlines flight that would get me to LAX in time, I booked my positioning flight through Southwest.
If you’re unable to find summer award space out of your home airport and you can’t be flexible about travel dates or cabin class, a positioning flight to another airport one to two hours away might be worthwhile.
Book a different cabin
It’s great when you can score that cheap domestic economy fare or manage to snag a flatbed seat on a 12-hour flight abroad. But sometimes that’s just not possible at the saver level and you’ll have to settle for a different cabin. Sometimes this works out favorably.
For example, on several occasions, I found American Airlines pricing domestic economy-class awards higher than first class. While I was disappointed at the lack of saver economy tickets, I had an excuse to fly in business class at a reasonable price.
Other times, the reverse will happen: You’ll need to downgrade to economy class in order to redeem miles for the flight you want. It can be disappointing when you’ve saved up miles for months or even years, but keep in mind that when it comes to travel, the destination is more important than the journey there.
Book one-way awards
When you’re searching for paid airfare, it makes sense to search round-trip. After all, most airlines will charge you the same for a one-way versus round-trip ticket. But most frequent flyer programs will allow you to book travel one-way at half the cost of economy. There are exceptions, like All Nippon Mileage Club, but all the major domestic carriers (i.e., American, Delta, United, Alaska, etc.) allow it.
The advantage of searching for one-way fares is that it may open up award opportunities. Not all airlines have round-trip availability and by splitting your itinerary between different programs, you might be able to circumvent limited inventory. You can book one segment of your trip with one loyalty program and then find open availability on the return segment with a different carrier.
For example, say you want to go to Rome for the summer (who doesn’t, really?). If you’re having trouble securing a return segment with your AAdvantage miles, you might have better luck finding an open seat on a Star Alliance carrier by booking through United MileagePlus or Avianca LifeMiles. In this scenario, booking two one-way awards through different programs can get you where you want to go if one of the carriers is limiting award space on either segment.
Pay with points
If you’re having trouble finding saver award space through a frequent flyer program, consider booking your ticket through a flexible rewards program. American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards not only allow you to redeem points through a booking portal, but you’ll be able to do so at a favorable ratio. For example, Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can redeem their points through the Chase travel portal at a rate of 1.5 cents each. Meanwhile, Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders can do so at a rate of 1.25 cents each.
Let’s say you’re looking for a summer flight to Rome. Most loyalty programs will charge you 60,000 miles round-trip in economy class. However, there are some low fares available this summer if you’re flying out of the East Coast.
For example, Air Europa is selling $420 round-trip economy fares between New York-JFK and Rome (FCO). If you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, like I do, this award prices out at just 33,606 Ultimate Rewards. If you have a Sapphire Reserve, this award would price out at a mere 28,005 Ultimate Rewards, since Reserve cardholders get 1.5 cents per point when booking through the Chas travel portal.
Meanwhile, Delta is requiring 33,000 SkyMiles each way for flights between JFK and FCO. In this scenario, you shouldn’t lose sleep over saver award space because the low economy fares mean you can get a much better deal by booking your flight through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.
Amex Membership Rewards has its own travel portal, through which you can book flights and redeem points at a rate of 1 cent each. If you have The Business Platinum Card® from American Express you can receive 35% off business- and first-class travel when redeeming points (up to 500,000 points per calendar year). The caveat here is that this discount only applies to the airline your choose for your annual airline fee credit (enrollment required).
For example, in July there are lots of $2,000 fares between JFK and FCO in American Airlines business class. These flights price out at 207,635 Membership Rewards points. With the 35% discount, the price drops to 134,963 miles.
It’s worth mentioning that American Airlines charges 115,000 miles for the same round-trip itinerary and there is currently plenty of award space open. However, this is a great alternative if American Airlines ends up restricting premium cabin space.
In addition, you’ll earn almost 10,000 redeemable miles from this flight, along with 17,390 elite qualifying miles and 1,950 elite qualifying dollars.
If all this sounds complicated, a really simple alternative is to book any flight you want with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and then redeem miles toward the purchase. The nice thing about this is that Capital One lets you redeem miles up to 90 days after you make a purchase. So even if you don’t have enough miles to pay for a flight now, you have up to 90 days to earn and redeem them.
The Venture card is offering a pretty lucrative sign-up bonus to sweeten the deal further: Earn 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months.
Summer is peak travel season, especially now that vaccinated travelers are looking to get back out there after a year and a half at home. While saver award space hasn’t been affected yet, that may well change as more countries start welcoming American travelers.
If you find yourself unable to secure airfare using your hard-earned frequent flyer miles, hopefully these tips can help you circumvent these challenges.
Featured photo by Olena Yakobchuk/Getty Images.
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