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For the next Award Redemption of the Week, I want to share a story from TPG reader Paige, who transferred points to book a long-haul United award:
Last year I heard about the Chase Sapphire Reserve while it was still offering 100,000 bonus points. The thought of taking on a credit card when I had student loans was unnerving, but I wanted to start earning points for everyday spending instead of just using a debit card. I convinced my husband to sign up for the card right before the bonus was reduced to 50,000 points, and we were both able to easily and responsibly meet the spending requirement by using our cards to pay rent — our apartment didn’t charge a fee to pay via credit card at the time.
This year I finished paying off my student loans, and to celebrate the milestone, my husband and I wanted to take a big trip somewhere over Christmas break. We also wanted to take the trip primarily using points and miles (so we wouldn’t replace the debt we just finished paying off with more debt). New Zealand had been on our radar for a while, but we didn’t think such a trip would be affordable unless we could use rewards to cover it. American and United are the only airlines that operate out of our regional airport (CLL), but United is a Chase Ultimate Rewards partner and points transfer at a 1:1 ratio.
I knew from reading TPG that award flights to New Zealand can be difficult to find, so I started my search early. I also learned about the United Excursionist Perk, which gives a free one-way segment on round-trip itineraries between two different regions. I checked for awards on United every day for upwards of five months, including searching for each flight segment individually, until one day there was finally availability. Unfortunately, it came with a catch.
While each individual flight segment showed availability (CLL-ZQN, ZQN-AKL and AKL-CLL), United showed zero availability when I pieced the whole itinerary together. I cleared out my history multiple times and switched browsers to no avail. I was really frustrated, but rather than run the risk of losing out completely, we booked one-way flights to Queenstown and back from Auckland. The total per person was 80,000 miles (40,000 miles each way) plus $76 in taxes and fees. We then bought tickets to get us from ZQN to AKL for $50 per person on Air New Zealand.
Considering our exact itinerary was going for $2,922 per ticket, we feel like we were able to book a great deal by being both flexible (letting go of the Excursionist Perk) and relentless (in our search for award availability). TPG has taught me there are great deals to be had, but many require advanced planning and the effort to search for them. Thanks for all your advice, and we’re looking forward to the trip!
Like any task, finding award availability is easier with the right tools. Airline websites can be fickle about the availability they show, especially with regard to partner flights, so knowing where to look is an important first step. Searching on your own should suffice for most awards so long as you give yourself adequate lead time, but the most coveted ones (in a premium cabin or during peak travel periods) call for a different approach.
Award availability is fleeting; it can appear and disappear in a blink, and hunting daily for seats on a complex or elusive itinerary feels about as productive as building a sand mandala under a ceiling fan. Fortunately, you don’t have to subject yourself to such tedium. ExpertFlyer can help you find award and upgrade space (among other things) with a minimal time commitment.
Once you define your search parameters, the site takes over and notifies you when it gets a hit. ExpertFlyer can’t create availability where there is none, and it takes a little time to get used to the interface, but building an award is much more pleasant when someone else does the heavy lifting. I highly recommend experimenting with the five-day free trial, and I think at least a basic subscription is worthwhile for all serious award travelers.
Paige eventually did find award space on her own, but was unable to book it. TPG Editor-at-Large Nick Ewen deftly summarizes what to do in this scenario: start by confirming the space really exists (through ExpertFlyer or other airlines), and follow up by phone once you’re confident the award should be bookable. A United agent should have been able to coax the system into accepting Paige’s itinerary, and would likely have been willing to waive the $25 phone booking fee (since the award couldn’t be booked online). Even if you can’t confirm award space, a phone call is worth a shot.
To close, I want to commend Paige and her husband for being mindful of their existing debt and deliberate about the decision to apply for their new cards. Rewards credit cards give you an opportunity to earn points quickly, but any gains can be quickly wiped out by late fees and interest if you fail to wield your credit responsibly. Pay your balances on time and in full, and take care in managing your credit card portfolio, and this hobby can pay dividends for a long time.
In appreciation for sharing her story, we’re sending Paige a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and we’d like to do the same for you. Please send your own award redemption stories to email@example.com; be sure to include details about the booking process and what you learned from it, and put “Award Redemption Story” in the subject line. As always, we’d also love to hear your success and mistake stories. If your submission gets published, we’ll send you a gift to spark your next adventure.
Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!
Photo by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images
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