Is there anyone online who does NOT give frequent flyer advice? No, no there is not. And let’s be honest, 98% of what you read about booking airline tickets is utter and complete garbage (Gary and Lucky excepted, of course). I know there are 10 things to be true about booking award tickets and today is the day I’m going to share them with you. I’m that kinda guy.
1) You will probably not get the flights you want the first time you look…but DO NOT give up. I have never not gotten an award ticket that I’ve wanted. Never. Business class seats to Sri Lanka with a stopover in Europe? No problem. Business class seats to Easter Island? No problem. Vietnam? No sweat. The key? Check again. A 4-leg journey from New York to Colombo has many moving parts. The odds on all of that being available the first time you search are slim. But if you look every day (and what’s a few minutes a day for $10,000 worth of tickets?), I guarantee you will not fail. Probably.
2) While you should look every day, I’ve found that 45 days out is a sweet spot. This is not to say that you won’t find tickets further out than that (especially in markets – such as first class seats to Sydney on Qantas – where there are incredibly few seats available and you need to look 330 days ahead). But at 45 days seats seem to open up. In short – don’t give up because your trip is in 6 weeks.
3) Frequent flyer tickets are not free tickets…at least not anymore. You need to get over this: frequent flyer tickets will have fees associated with them. Deal with it. Complex itineraries on partner airlines will require phone calls, and those calls will likely cost you a few dollars in telephone booking fees. Or maybe you’ll need to change the ticket. It’s going to cost you. But in the overall scheme of things, it won’t cost you much. Just accept it.
4) In terms of award availability, Star Alliance and Oneworld are light years ahead of SkyTeam. Usually. In the US, if you are stuck with Delta miles you are probably very unhappy when you go to check for available flights. Why? Because not only is Delta’s award availability horrible, there is no good way to check partner airlines. When searching for a Star Alliance flight, use ANA’s booking tool, which shows most Star carriers (though remember that United will often block award seats that would otherwise be available for other Star Alliance members). For Oneworld, sign up for Qantas’ frequent flyer program and you’ll see most options there. For Skyteam? Good luck.
5) You will need to follow this stuff basically full time to understand the minutia around who is adding exorbitant surcharges onto tickets. But there are a couple of quick rules: Delta adds a ridiculous fee if you are booking intra-Europe Skyteam tickets with Skymiles; British Airways adds a ludicrous fuel surcharge (unless you use BA miles on American or LAN); and Air Canada has fuel surcharges that can be hundreds of dollars. There is an enormous amount of detail around this point, and the blogs I’ve mentioned above have gotten into the details in great, uh, detail. This is not the place for that, but just remember — not every airline charges ridiculous fuel surcharges for international award tickets.
6) Air Canada gives you Star Alliance Gold Status after only 35,000 flown miles. Not only is that the lowest threshold out there, you get Lounge access for that. Nice.
7) Everyone has a different opinion about the best way to use up your miles. Some folks save up for first class tickets to Asia. Those of us with kids may not feel like spending 480,000 miles to go to Tokyo and will use those miles to go to Puerto Rico. None of those is wrong. Don’t let anyone let you think you’re wasting miles by using them. Using miles is good (yes, there are great ways to use them and bad ways to use them…but anything is better than paying).
8) One-way award tickets offered by American and United offer enormous flexibility on routes where they compete. No longer do you have to hope that American has roundtrip seats available if you’re looking for a JFK-LAX award ticket in business class. Fly one way on AA, back on United. Or vice versa. You get my point.
9) If booking an international award ticket, do NOT forget the more obscure partners. There are lots of ways, for example, to fly on Star Alliance from New York to Moscow. Don’t forget that LOT, for example, is an option (albeit not a particularly glamorous one). Before starting the booking process, look on the alliances’ websites to remind yourself of all of your airline options.
10) One of the most valuable features of most international award tickets is the ability to stopover in a city. American has limited this somewhat (by restricting stopovers to gateway cities), but on other tickets you can basically double the value of the award by booking a stopover. A stopover would often add a significant amount to a paid fare, but it’s free with most international tickets. I almost always try to add in a stopover — why not?
I’d love to hear reader tips on this…