What I value most when picking award flights
Sometimes, the best award flight is the only one available for your destination and dates. I think we've all been there: On some trips, you're lucky to find anything at all at the saver level. Other times, we're lucky enough to find multiple options for flying from point A to point B — and get the privilege of choosing the best one.
Right now, I'm shopping around for a late spring trip and my dates are especially flexible. That, combined with a strong diversity of available points, means that I'm facing all sorts of options and need to find a way to narrow things down somehow to the best choice.
I often go into "analysis paralysis" when I have too much time on my hands — and right now I'm mostly homebound — but at least this is an especially fun problem to have.
"Best" is a very subjective term and often my "best" flight won't be the same as someone else's. However, most travelers consider the same factors when making their decision, even if they weight their importance differently. Here's what I'm considering while deciding which award flight is the best fit for my next redemption.
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Schedule is key
Of all the factors that go into comparing awards, the time spent in transit is a boring but practical way to make a decision.
When I'm flying economy, this is usually my number one factor. In coach, there's no compelling reason to spend longer in transit than you need to, and I'd rather spend extra time at my destination than at the airport or on a plane.
When flying in premium cabins, though, I'm sometimes willing to allow a little extra time to enjoy a specific product. Sometimes going a little out of your way means you'll end up with a more comfortable or memorable experience. My willingness to invest this extra time does have an upper limit, but I know other travelers allow more leeway than I do — that's OK.
Comparing the travel time between options is super easy since almost all award search results will display a total travel duration. If you're seeing options for longer trips, consider how you'd spend that extra time. Are the layovers long enough to pop into a new city for some sightseeing? Will you have access to an awesome lounge? Is the additional air time going to be in a spectacular product or a simply average one?
There's no right or wrong answer, as long as you're happy with the decision.
Related: How I decide when to redeem points for a flight or pay cash
When I first started redeeming miles, I was laser-focused on getting the lowest possible price. In large part, this is because both money and miles were tight for me at the time.
These days, my budget has more wiggle room, so the price isn't a top factor as long as it remains somewhat reasonable. Obviously, I'll avoid astronomically priced awards, but paying 10-15% more for a specific award isn't always the end of the world.
When I compare prices, I look at the all-in cost which includes the mileage itself, taxes, fees and (in some cases) positioning flights. Sometimes tickets that are notorious for being "expensive" — like British Airways tickets and their associated fuel surcharges — end up being in line with everything else if it means I won't have to pay to position to a hub airport. Make sure to run the numbers before making assumptions.
The dollars associated with an award only tell half the story, since not all miles are created equal. 80,000 miles in one program might hold the same value as 65,000 miles in a different program, so you might want to calculate a fair value to help in your comparison shopping. The Points Guy maintains a list of points valuations which is a great starting point, though I always tweak things a little bit for my personal situation.
If you definitely still want the best price possible, look into sweet spot awards for inspiration.
Related: How to save money on Oneworld redemptions to Europe
When talking about flights, the "hard product" typically refers to physical elements of the flight itself, like your seat and any permanent fixtures on board (such as a bar or shower).
The hard product obviously varies by the airline you're flying, but it also varies by the exact aircraft operating your flight. I always make a note of the aircraft type, even though I'm not an #avgeek with a specific bucket list. (But if you want to use miles to fly on an A380, go for it.)
More often than not, the aircraft type is prominently displayed during the reservation process, which makes it easy enough to gather data while choosing between multiple awards. Just be aware that equipment swaps aren't uncommon, so it's always possible that you may end up flying a different plane than the one you originally reserved, especially if your booking is well in the future.
The seat itself
Airlines choose different seating arrangements for different aircraft, so knowing if you're flying on a 787 or 777 can help you research what your seat will be like. This is particularly important for business- and first-class flights.
You can get basic information on seat configurations and features by checking SeatGuru, but you'll get far more information by reading reviews from other travelers. TPG flight reviews always include the aircraft type so you can ensure you're only considering relevant information.
After a few flights of your own, you'll probably also start forming your own opinions. For example, I know that I don't particularly care for reverse herringbone seats when flying with a companion. I can get a feel for the hard product with a quick glance at a photo even without reading the rest of a review.
Knowing the aircraft type also can help you learn more about any special features onboard. Virgin Atlantic has bars for Upper Class passengers on numerous aircraft, like the 787 or A340, but you won't find them on their new A330-200s. You can shower in Emirates First Class A380s but not their 777s.
Frequently, the best place to learn more about these features is directly on airline websites. After all, airlines spent a lot of money installing these features and they want to make sure to tout them. Again, first-hand flight reviews are also a great source (and give you a more authentic take than the airline sales pitch).
If you have your heart set on a specific onboard experience, make sure your award flight is on the right sort of aircraft.
Related: Virgin Atlantic Upper Class on the Boeing 787-9 From London to New York
"Soft product" usually refers to the variable aspects of a flight, such as meal service, drink menus and onboard service. There aren't any central locations for finding information that pertains to a specific trip, but you may deem it an essential part of your decision-making process.
If the soft product is important to you, I recommend reading multiple reviews rather than just one. Some airlines provide a very consistent experience while others are hit-and-miss, making it hard to properly rate and compare what each offers.
Food and drink
For some people, meal service is an important part of the flight while for others it's an afterthought. Over the years, I've learned to set my expectations accordingly. Even in first class, I've never had a meal that can compare to my favorite restaurants on solid ground.
Regardless, I find myself perusing menus ahead of time to get a feel for what I can expect. Airlines rarely publish exact menus more than 30 days in advance (if they post them at all) but past menus provide clues like whether you can dine on demand or if you should expect caviar in first class.
Beverage offerings may also factor into your opinion. Although I've been known to partake in my share of wine and champagne on board, I'm usually more interested in the airline's nonalcoholic beverage list. The big three Middle Eastern airlines — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar — offer fun mocktail lists and several Asian airlines have specialty tea options in business and first class. And, as you may know, Austrian Airlines is renowned for its after-dinner coffee menu.
These are little touches that aren't likely to make or break your trip but still add to the experience.
The problem with rating service is that there are good days and bad days depending on the crew working your specific flight. I still remember my first flight in Iberia business class. It was spectacular. The service was so exceptional that I completely overlooked the airline's downsides and couldn't understand why other people didn't rate it as one of Europe's best airlines. Turns out, that type of service was luck and not a guarantee.
Some of the most-favored first-class awards in the world are due to reliably good service. Lufthansa's first-class cabin doesn't have the bells and whistles of other airlines' hard products, but the airline is known for consistently providing a special experience through its soft product. If service is important to you, make sure you pick an airline known for reliably offering good service rather than playing roulette with the crew.
Related: The 5 best first-class meals in the sky today
I try to spend as little time at the airport as possible, but it's still an important part of weighing your options.
Ease of transit
In previous years, I didn't think too hard about the logistics of where I connected, but now it's an important criterion because of COVID-19. Some countries have banned connecting passengers from certain countries entirely, while others have strict requirements on testing that might be challenging to meet.
In addition to such transit criteria, I'm also keeping my eye on aviation news. Some connecting airports, such as Amsterdam and Hong Kong, change their rules more frequently, which makes me hesitant to choose those options. The rules could very well change between booking and actually flying and lead to a headache later on.
Can a good lounge make or break your trip? Not in my opinion, though I know plenty of other flyers disagree.
Don't get me wrong: if I have a few hours to kill, I'm definitely going to spend it at the best lounge I can access. At the same time, I don't go out of my way to sample amenities.
The Points Guy has a great collection of airport lounge reviews from around the world, including ones you may be able to access to when flying premium class or just by showing a Priority Pass membership. I read these reviews more to build anticipation for my trip than to actually choose a preferred award flight.
Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access
Giving each criterion a ranking
The importance of each factor can change depending on where I'm flying. I wanted a nonstop flight when heading to Australia since the alternatives meant flying hours and hours out of my way. For other ultra-long-haul flights with more options, I look for a careful balance of hard and soft products so I'm comfortable in flight. And for award travel to South America where no airlines truly stand out as exceptional? Price plays a bigger part in my decision.
Plus, let's be real. Sometimes we book awards for no other reason than because the travel will be new or intriguing. I flew Qatar Airways Qsuites a few years ago because many of my peers had hyped up their signature suite and, naturally, I wanted to check it out. When you use miles, that's as valid a reason as any other.
Related: The ultimate guide to Qatar Qsuites
Not all award searches will lead to multiple options, but there are times when you'll have the opportunity to sort through a variety of flights to determine which is the best option for you for that particular trip. This can be a fun exercise as long as you don't let yourself get overwhelmed. Taking the time to compare the pros and cons of each option can help you come to the best conclusion. And remember, miles and points still will be saving you a ton of cash in the process, so you win no matter which flight you ultimately choose.
Feature photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy.