The Critical Points: You should be using these six overlooked travel tools
In order to book the perfect award trip, you need to find several things: saver award availability, seats on the best aircraft type, a flight at a convenient departure time — and (of course) all of this for the lowest number of points or miles. You've probably used the usual — and perfectly adequate — tools like the United, American or Delta award search engines. You may even be at higher level and utilize the Alaska Mileage Plan site, explore ExpertFlyer or delve into a route map or two.
However, if you want to be a pro, there are a number of important travel tools that can do everything from ensure you earn maximum miles on a purchase to ensure your flight is operated by the newest product in the sky.
AwardWallet Merchant Category Lookup Tool
We get asked constantly about whether a specific purchase will earn bonus points in a specific category for a specific credit card. Well, wonder no more, thanks to the AwardWallet Merchant Category Lookup Tool, which pulls real reward data points from users who have linked their cards to their AwardWallet account.
All you have to do is type in the name of the business you are planning to visit, and you will see what earning rates have applied to other AwardWallet users on select credit cards:
The next time you want to know how something codes, head to the free tool and type in the merchant you are going to visit.
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles search engine
Over the last year, I've booked a couple of really outstanding award tickets using the overlooked Asia Miles award search engine. The engine isn't very intuitive, and to piece together exceptional tickets, you need to use the multi-city award search functionality.
Asia Miles prices award tickets in a seemingly-illogical way, but that means you can often fly further for fewer miles if you book a mixed-cabin itinerary. Multi-segment award tickets are priced based on the percentage each leg is of the whole trip, according to class of service. That means if you fly first class for 75% of a trip (based in nautical miles) and 25% in economy, you'll pay 75% of what the standard award chart says (for Cathay Pacific or single partner operated itineraries) for first class and 25% of what the economy chart says.
There really is a lot of fun (and premium-class flying) to be had with this engine, so spend some time exploring. As an example, both of these itineraries are completely in business class:
That's definitely the long way to get from Los Angeles (LAX) to London-Heathrow (LHR) and does involve a connection between Tokyo's two airports, but for fewer miles and a superior in-flight product, it sure can be worth it.
Asia Miles are also readily available to U.S. readers, since you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points or Citi ThankYou Rewards points directly to the program at a 1:1 ratio — occasionally with a transfer bonus as well.
American AAdvantage award map tool
This tool makes it incredibly easy for those who want to explore award availability given a specific set of dates and amount of miles you want to spend. The tool disappeared for a bit but has now returned.
Let's say I want to fly from New York-JFK to Europe but redeem just 20,000 miles for the award ticket. The tool shows me four different destinations I can visit: Dublin (DUB), London-Heathrow (LHR), Amsterdam (AMS) or Munich (MUC).
This tool has been invaluable to me multiple times when I was looking to find destinations on a set mileage budget. It's also great at showing availability and award prices for specific dates that can change based on your point of origin — a great way to get around American's married segment logic that can hide a lot of saver award space.
Asiana Airlines' Star Alliance search engine
Asiana Airlines loyalty program (Asiana Club) has an incredibly-priced award chart for many destinations when you depart from the U.S. Here's a look at round-trip award prices for award flights originating in North America:
That means one-way, business-class award flights from the U.S. to Europe on any Star Alliance carrier is just 40,000 miles. Fuel surcharges can be a pain on some carriers, but I'm willing to fork over a little cash if it only costs 40,000 miles.
The icing on the cake for the program is the online award search engine for partners, a feature that is easily overlooked. In order to find it, you need to log in to your Asiana Club account and navigate to the Korea version of the site (not just the Korean language version, but the actual version as if you were located in Korea):
Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Paris (CDG) for 40,000 miles and $25? Count me in:
Unfortunately, Asiana doesn't partner with any of the major transferable credit card currencies, but you can earn Asiana Club miles via the Asiana Visa Signature® Credit Card from Bank of America or by transferring Marriott Bonvoy points.
EXPERTFLYER Seat Map tool
Airlines are constantly updating their onboard products, and it can quickly become difficult to decipher if you'll be flying a luxurious product with the new plane smell or if you'll be on an old clunker with recliner seats. Even when you think you have it figured out, an airline could swap equipment on your flight. While tools like SeatGuru are good for the one-off traveler, the real pros use ExpertFlyer's seat map tool, which helps you stay updated with the exact equipment for your specific flight.
For me, this has been most helpful in figuring out when Qatar Airlines is going to fly its beloved QSuite product on a certain day versus the old-style recliner still operating on some 777 aircraft. When I input a specific flight number, date and operating carrier, I can see which aircraft is scheduled for that particular day. Here are the standard, business-class seats on a Qatar-operated flight from Doha (DOH) to Atlanta (ATL):
A week later for the same flight, the seat layout changes to indicate that a QSuite-equipped plan will be operating the flight:
Both aircraft are both Boeing 777-200LR, so without the seat map tool, you wouldn't know whether you are getting 15 hours in one of the best seats in the sky or not.
Qantas calendar-view award results
When searching for Oneworld award flights, many travelers will default to AA.com or British Airways' online search engine. However, the Qantas site is the best for a few reasons. You'll find the engine on the Qantas homepage after you log in and select "Use Points":
The key to maximizing the engine is a rather hidden "flexible dates" option when you click on your requested departure date:
The search results will show an entire month of availability as well as all four classes of potential availability for every single date, with each one designated by a different-colored ribbon:
This makes it incredibly easy to see all of the potential availability across Oneworld (and other partners like Fiji Airways) with a single search. Once you click an individual date, flights are clearly displayed by class with availability:
This is my favorite award search engine of any airline given the amount of results you get in one screen from a single search delivered in an easily digestible format. While Qantas' loyalty program likely won't offer the best value for actually booking these awards, it's a great starting point for locating Oneworld award availability.
I've probably written a few dozen times that there's no shortcut to being capable with points and miles. Instead, it simply takes time and studious devotion to a skill that can reap huge rewards. There are plenty of other tools that can make your life easier, but I would certainly become familiar with the above six you want to find award space, save miles and fly the best products possible on your next trip.
Featured Image by Getty Images / Jonathan Kitchen.