The Entire Process of Booking Award Travel from Start to Finish
Have a flight destination in mind and a bunch of points and miles to spend? Wondering where to start? Obviously, you don’t want to have to sift through every single airline, that would be insanity. Worry not, there is of course a method to all of this. In the following pages, we will break it all down and provide a detailed instruction on how to find those seats.
Elimination is key, and let's skip Economy Class
This entire process of booking award travel from start to finish is really one of elimination, so the first thing you want to do is to find out which solutions are not available so that you may focus on the ones that are. Note that we generally do not consider award redemptions in economy class to be worthwhile, so we’ll be looking for business class only for the purposes of this exercise.
Here we go!
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The very first step in all award travel is to establish your points balances and consider which alliances are available to you. If you are looking at spending airline miles, we'll make a list of the relevant alliance(s) available to those miles.
When it comes to credit card points, not all credit cards are transfer partners with all airlines, it’s a pretty patchy landscape, so we have devised a cheat sheet to help us get through this step quickly:
Once through with this exercise, you’ll have a list of available award redemption sources (immediately you’ll realize the value of credit card points vs. airline miles when it comes to available choices).
Next, we’ll have a look at checking the actual award seat availability.
Step 2 - Does your airline fly there?
Now that you have a destination and a short list of relevant airline alliances to explore, you’ll need to find out which airlines actually fly to your destination airport, we recommend simply using the Wikipedia page of that airport and scrolling down to Airlines and Destinations. Below is Nadi International as an example, which is in Fiji.
As you can see there are a few local airlines you can ignore, and in this case a very small handful of international airlines to consider. Your mountain of options has already been massively reduced.
And are there any available seats for points?
Once you’ve identified the relevant airlines, you’ll want to check the actual award seat availability. As it turns out, some airlines are better than others at presenting their availability online, and since they include availability on partner airlines, you can simply choose the one that has the best online tool in each alliance.
Each alliance has its quirks and considerations, and we would never be able to capture all the nuances here, but we can give you the basics. With that, we’ll next show you how to consider each alliance separately.
Step 3 - Preference based on price, fees and convenience
In this step, we start to gauge each of the variables for the chosen destination in order to consider our preferred solution. By this, we mean price, fees and overall route convenience.
Star Alliance - Has the most partners
Star Alliance is our go-to, we always start there, simply because it is the alliance with the most destinations in the world, and the most airline partners. Star Alliance also tends to provide good award redemption value. Crucially, it is a great transfer solution for American Express through Air Canada.
If indeed you are looking to redeem credit card points, start by checking the cost of your trip within the alliance to see which airline presents the highest value. You can do this by using the award charts that each airline issues. Below is a list of the most useful ones, which you should use along with Great Circle Mapper to figure out the distance flown.
Check how many points you need in the Star Alliance Award Charts
Next, find your actual trip using United Airlines search engine, this is by far the best one as they present all Star Alliance availability in a useful interface. Enter your trip, choose Business and tick the Book with miles box. We suggest starting with your first leg as a one-way trip.
Once you have your options, you’ll be looking for Business Saver Award, that’s where the value is. If there is no availably, or the options don’t look good (and if your dates are somewhat flexible), click View 30 day calendar and go from there. Booking classes are universal across the entire alliance, these are the ones you're looking for:
X for Economy
I for Business
O for First
So you’ll be looking for I. At this point, if all you have is United Mileage Plus points and the option looks good, then you can use those points and book the trip, done.
If you're using credit card points or something other than United Mileage Plus points
If the option you have found looks good, and you are looking to use credit card points, then make a note of the trip and double check the availability here:
Amex and Capital One: The Air Canada website
Chase and Citibank: Singapore Airlines website
The trip should be available but not always, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article.
Air Canada is preferable because they do not charge fuel surcharges, so you’re better off with Amex or Capital One. If on the other hand you have miles in another Star Alliance partner airline, then go to that airline to book the trip. You can either book online or call the booking office by phone.
SkyTeam - Difficult to find high value solutions
SkyTeam is not generally considered a very good source of redemption, mainly because Delta and Air France/KLM have adopted variable award pricing, making it exceedingly difficult to find high value solutions. The exception is AeroMexico, which can sometimes yield spectacular value.
With that, the only reason to consider SkyTeam is if you have Flying Blue or SkyMiles points, or if you are looking for a destination in Mexico or through AeroMexico specifically.
The process is quite simple with Flying Blue and SkyMiles
Simply go to the corresponding booking site and enter your request there.
In the case of Flying Blue, simply hit Book flights with miles. Note that you’ll need to log on in order to access the availability.
With SkyMiles, go to Delta, tick the Shop with miles box, hit Advanced Search and request Delta One. No login necessary.
What really sets this program apart with Aeromexico is the fact that they still offer round the world redemptions with spectacular value considering the fact that you can add up to 15 stopovers in a maximum of 5 continents, with no limitation on the distance flown. The only condition is that travel is in the same direction, though some backtracking is allowed in order to reach a SkyTeam hub for transfers.
OneWorld - Lower quantity but higher quality
Oneworld doesn’t quite measure up to Star Alliance in terms of sheer size and optionality, but where it lacks in quantity, it shines in quality. The world’s most premium flight experiences are found here, such as Cathay, Qatar and, to a certain extent, British Airways. It is also through OneWorld that you’ll have a decent chance of scoring the increasingly elusive first class experience. OneWorld is our go-to for the Middle East and the Indian Ocean with amazing destinations like the Maldives, etc.
The process is similar to Star Alliance, once you know what your options are (from your gauging of credit card point transfer options and/or your miles accounts), start by checking the cost of your trip within the Alliance to see which airline has the highest value, again using Great Circle Mapper to establish the distance flow, and then checking the airline charts.
Check how many points you need in the OneWorld Award Charts
Cathay: Note that you have two separate tables depending on whether you are flying with Cathay only, partly, or entirely with partner airlines.
British Airways: Note that BA charges for each flight leg, so you need to calculate each individually and then add them together. BA is usually expensive for long haul.
Once you’ve identified the best value, we’ve found American Airline’s search engine to be the most useful, it reflects all the availability of the OneWorld alliance. Once there, simply enter your trip, tick the Redeem miles box and remember that one-way is easier to start. You’ll be given some options but it’s always a good idea to click Calendar view, entering the number of stops based on the route found, and then choosing Business/First in the drop-down for comparison with other dates.
That’s about it, once you’ve found the trip you are looking for, you can simply book it then and there if you are looking to use AAdvantage points, or any of the OneWorld airlines where you have your points, or that have a transfer partnership with the credit card points program you are looking to use.
Emirates and Virgin Atlantic, our independant airlines
We’ve now considered the three global airline alliances, but there are two more places to look before we make our final choice, and those are of course Emirates and Virgin Atlantic, our two independent Blue Chip airlines.
Since we are looking at single airlines in these cases (albeit with partners) rather than an alliance, finding award redemptions with Emirates and Virgin Atlantic are a relatively straight forward affair.
Once you have figured out the cost, Emirates has a very useful and easy-to-use booking tool on their website. In order to search for award availability, you’ll need to be logged into your Skywards account. Searching and booking is a fairly straightforward process, and the results shown will include both saver and advantage level awards, along with taxes and fees, so you’ll get it all in the same place.
Figuring out the cost of a redemption on Virgin and their partners is also rather straightforward, you’ll find the full chart on Virgin’s own operated flights here, just don’t forget to check for seasonality. Virgins partner airline redemption prices are also found on their website, here.
Once you’ve made note of the cost, Virgin Atlantic, Delta, Air France and KLM flights can be searched and booked directly on the Virgin Atlantic website, as previously noted. No account is needed for this, you simply type in the destination and dates, and make sure to tick the box, “book with miles”. This will give you all the search results in miles, including the cost of taxes and fees. If you’ve found what you’re looking for, you can book then and there, or call the Virgin hotline.
For partner airlines, things become slightly trickier as they have to be booked over the phone. What we’re perhaps most interested in is All Nippon Airways which is searched on the United Airlines search engine. The same booking classes apply for awards with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club:
X for Economy
I for Business
O for First
In other words, if you find award availability in O-class using the United search engine, the same seats can be booked by Virgin Atlantic by calling their hotline. This also applies to their other Star Alliance partner airlines Singapore Airlines, Air China, Air New Zealand and South African Airways.
Next article - Diving into Air Canada Aeroplan
This article has given you the tools you need to start booking those seats. But in order to really master the art, you’ll have to dive a little deeper into each of the 6 Blue Chip airlines, which is what we will do in the next 6 articles, starting with Air Canada’s Aeroplan, up next.
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