For whatever reason I’ve been helping a bunch of people book award tickets recently, and I thought I’d share 5 quick tips (there are probably 300 quick tips I could share when I don’t write the book I keep saying I’m going to write) for your next attempt at using those miles:
1) If there’s only 1 tip in the award booking game, it’s that you need to check back every day. Every. Day. I can’t stress this enough. I can’t tell you how many people say something to the effect of, “I checked and there was nothing available.” OK, but did you check the next day? And the day after that? Award inventory changes all the time and it’s going to take a little work. Keeping checking.
2) If you’re going to Europe and you need to connect, avoid London – the fees are higher than if you were to connect just about anywhere else. (Note: See Gary’s comment below – taxes are higher at London if you stopover, not if you connect. Still, Heathrow is a miserable place to connect and I would still avoid it).
NOTE 2: I’ve figured out the confusion around this issue (and I’ll add a separate post about this). Gary is referring to the Air Passenger Duty, which you DO NOT pay if you are connecting through London (there is a 50+ page document that the British government has put out explaining the details of this rule, but let’s just say for the sake of this discussion that you don’t pay it when you connect through London).
However, airlines may still charge a UK Passenger Service Charge (United is charging $51.40, on an Athens-London-Newark award booking). This is basically the same as the $3 Passenger Facilities Charge (PFC) that airlines charge in the US to offset airline fees. Well, it’s the same except instead of $3 it’s $51.40. This is why connecting through London can be more expensive — there is an expensive facilities charged often baked into the ticket. So, because both Gary and I are brilliant, we are both correct. Whew.
3) Check availability leg-by-leg. If you’re flying from New York to Venice and using United miles, there are many, many, many ways to route that. The United website is good, but it’s not perfect. Check each leg on its own and build your connections that way.
4) For whatever reason, many people forget about flying out on one airline (or an airline from one alliance) and flying back on an airline from a different alliance (ie, outbound on United and back on American). This is helpful because sometimes when trying to open credit cards to earn enough points for a trip, you’ll find that you can’t get enough United miles (or whatever) for a roundtrip — but you could easily get enough United miles for a 1-way and American miles for the return one-way. Think flexibly.
5) Use your United miles last if you’re flying on Star Alliance. Meaning: only use your United miles if there are no other options using other Star members’ frequent flyer miles. United is quite flexible, allowing one-ways where US Airways does not, and they do not charge fuel surcharges (unlike, say, Aeroplan – in most cases – and Singapore – in most cases). Recently I was helping someone book an award ticket on United to the Caribbean. I had her transfer her Membership Rewards points to Singapore and use those points on United (no fuel surcharges). Save United points for when you need the flexibility and use US Airways, Singapore (via Membership Rewards) or Aeroplan (via Membership Rewards) for the easy tickets where they don’t charge fuel surcharges.