I was working with a client of my award ticket booking service on a ticket to Finland last week, and we were able to get her a summer reward ticket to Helsinki via Manchester, England. If you’ve ever called up an airline and asked if there are seats available (especially for trips to Europe or Asia), they’ll only check the most direct connections for an airline (and often come back with a hasty “there’s nothing available.”) Remember, though: you can make connections in cities that are not considered “hub” cities, by combining alliance carriers.
For that trip above using miles from American Airlines, you can fly American from the US to any city that American flies to in Europe, and then grab a connection to Helsinki (assuming Finnair flies from that city in the case of OneWorld). So in this case, we got JFK-Manchester on American, then Manchester – Helsinki on Finnair. That’s the same number of miles as the nonstop flight from JFK to Helsinki. If you’re willing to make a connection, it opens up a world of possibilities.
Star Alliance is especially strong in this regard for travel to Europe, since so many of their partners fly there from the US (Continental, United, Lufthansa, Austrian, SWISS LOT, and so on), giving you many gateway options to connect onward within Europe. You’ll have to check these yourself (using the ANA tool, for the most part, for Star Alliance; or the QANTAS tool for OneWorld), but you can then call and just tell the agent which flights you want. Star Alliance will even allow you a stopover in the connecting city.
Once you consider making your own connections, you’ll find that you’ve got so many more reward ticketing options than you thought possible — even during the difficult summer months.