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5 Quick Tips for Booking Award Tickets

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.

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13 Comments.

  1. “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.”

    This is actually a common misconception. Connecting in London isn’t necessarily any more expensive than CONNECTING in another European city.

    Stopping over in London, or really beginning your journey (or return journey) in the UK is what is expensive.

    That’s because the UK “Airline Passenger Duty” — often referred to as the premium cabin departure tax, but applies to coach travel as well just in a smaller amount — applies only to journeys beginning in the UK and does not apply to connecting itineraries.

    Take a simple economy connection, Washington Dulles – London – Paris, the true ‘taxes’ (not including fuel surcharges, which most US airlines do not levy on most award itineraries) total $56.30.

    Compare that to another connection Washington Dulles – Frankfurt – Paris, the true taxes total $58.80 … i.e. more than connecting through London.

    London can be a beast of an airport for connections. About 10 days ago I arrived at Heathrow from Dusseldorf in Terminal 1 at a bus gate and had to transfer to terminal 5. Note that this was an inline BA-to-BA connection and I had to CHANGE BUSES (and then take the T5 train!).

    But connecting itineraries aren’t taxed heavily enough that London connections without stopovers need be avoided.

    • Haha, I cannot get over how they built a new terminal and still have remote gates and BUSES!!!! its so pathetic.

      • Interesting. I always try to avoid flying back to the US direct from the UK because of their nasty carbon tax, which is distanced base (no tax flying into the UK, so always make it your first stop in Europe).

        But I also thought I’ve seen nasty taxes on connections as well. For example, I recently redeemed Hawaiian Airlines miles for a Virgin coach ticket from the USA to South Africa. I HAD to connect at LHR. The roundtrip “taxes” were $179. That’s not a “normal” amount of int’l tax. And I think I’ve seen similar results in various award searches I’ve done.

  2. When you say check availability (point 3) are you using the airlines’ page or some other resource?

    Last year I successfully booked using the Iceland Air miles to Hawaii using your tips (and am looking forward to going at the end of this month!), and I recall that included using a third party web page to check for seat availability before I called the airline to book.

    • Unfortunately, it depends in the airline. For Star Alliance tickets, I use United’s website. Which airline were you looking to book on? Ill suggest where to look for award inventory.

      • Jared, I’m not looking to book anything right now, I’m just trying to learn the rules of the game! Thanks for the offer to assist.

    • Same here, I’m flying SAN to HNL the last week of March :)

      Thanks Jared.

  3. Hi Jared, for Star Alliance tickets, I’ve read on other travel blogs to try out that ANA search tool. Do you find that is a useful compliment to United or is the United search robust enough in general?

    Thank you.

    • I used to use ANA exclusively, but now I find United to be much more robust (someone correct me, but I don’t believe there are any airlines available on the ANA tool that are not available on United).

      One quirk of the United tool: the calendar may show no availability, but if you click on the date, It may show a Star carrier with availability. Always click on the date you want to fly.

      • Yes, that is an annoying quirk of the United website. The same sort of thing but perhaps more weird is that I have put in my dates and it told me no flights available (tough luck no further options). So I had to try different dates in the initial search. That finally got me to the calendar and when I picked the date I wanted they had flights…

  4. Thanks for sharing these tips, Jared. Very helpful.

    I’d also add a tip that if you’re going to transfer at an airport anyway, run another search to see what would happen if you turned that transfer into a stopover. Sometimes it lowers the amount of frequent flyer miles needed to book the ticket.

    I was looking to fly from Honolulu to Sydney on United. When I checked on United.com as a “round trip,” that ticket would cost 70,000 miles.

    However, I noticed there was a transfer in Seoul, South Korea. So I did another search with “multiple destinations,” using Seoul as a stopover. That trip only cost 50,000 miles.

    If you’re flexible, this could help save miles. For me, that trip works because I’ve wanted to see Seoul anyway.

  5. Can you give a run-down on when you can book United using Singapore Air miles and have no fuel surcharges? You mention in point 5 that you had a client transfer MR to Singapore Air and then booked on United with no fuel surcharges.

    I thought that the recent news that ANA wasn’t charging fuel surcharges on United or US Airways was a big deal because they were the only option for using MR to fly on United without fuel surcharge.

    Thanks for the eduction!

    Anita

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