By Steve Lobell
I spend a good portion of my day booking award travel, both for myself and others, as part of an award booking company I run. I thought it might be useful to provide seven of my favorite tips for getting the seats you want on the dates you want them. Obviously, none of these methods are foolproof, but if you stick to them, I believe they’ll give you your best chance of redeeming your miles for the trips you want to take.
1. Be proactive. Perhaps I’m borrowing from Stephen Covey a bit too liberally here, but proactivity is just as important with award booking as it is in life generally. You need to really go all out when you are trying to redeem miles for those hard-to-find seats. If you can’t find the seats online, call the airline. If one agent doesn’t give you the answer you want, hang up and call again. If you have convertible mileage currency, like Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards points, explore all transfer options and availability before transferring. Don’t just transfer to your favorite airline and hope for the best. Learn when your airline loads award availability, and be ready to call on that day. There is always someone else out there looking for the same seats you are; get out in front of them. It’s a jungle out there.
2. Be creative. Let’s say you are trying to redeem United mileage for a Lufthansa ticket from New York to Copenhagen through Frankfurt. Don’t just check availability for New York to Copenhagen; check availability leg by leg. There might be availability in business class to Frankfurt, but not on the second leg to Copenhagen. Maybe you could just use mileage for that first leg (the more expensive one) then buy an economy revenue ticket for the second one. Similarly, don’t rely on award searches in general. Always be willing to search leg by leg, and come up with your own creative routing ideas, and then call them in. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
3. Be spontaneous. Some of the best award availability opens in the 48 hours prior to a flight. When I’m booking award tickets for clients, there are some routes I just know with certainty will open up—it’s only a matter of when. Armed with this knowledge, I will often advise my clients to just keep waiting, and it hasn’t failed me yet. So go ahead and plan your trip without booking tickets. The uncertainty drives most people crazy, which is what will set you apart from the herd. You know good seats will open, you just have to wait. Feel free to book your entire trip 48 hours out too. I love doing that.
4. Be unique. Just because you’ve heard all of your friends talk about the mystical healing powers of the Lufthansa first class terminal doesn’t mean it’s all that great. Try Air Berlin, which has a great new business class on all of their planes and is a cheap redemption using British Airways Avios, which are a dime a dozen with those massive Chase signup bonuses. Want to stick to Star Alliance? How about Austrian Air or Brussels Airlines, which both have flat beds in business? If you want to use mileage, and you’re not willing to try new things, you very well may be out of luck.
5. Be patient. Airlines talk about having “the most available award seats,” or “the most miles redeemed in the industry.” They might not be lying. And yet, every time you search for a ticket, it just doesn’t seem to be there. That’s because award availability changes constantly. You need to be willing to do a quick search every day of the week. It doesn’t take long, so just do it. And since you know about Habit #3, in a worst case scenario, you’ll book at the last minute. Also, learn to use tools like ExpertFlyer to set alerts for availability, though not all airlines participate in this. Another topic that falls under this heading is patience with the call center reps. They usually do not know what they are talking about. You need to educate yourself, through this site and others, on how to direct them to book the ticket you want. And if you are not getting anywhere with a particular agent, just hang up and call back.
6. Be educated. You can’t possibly expect to get full value for your miles if you don’t know what they are really worth. For example, (and this will seem obvious to most mileage junkies, but not to all individuals) airlines have partners. I would venture to say that the real value of mileage is being able to combine partner airlines on one ticket in a way that would just be totally unreasonable if it were a revenue ticket. If there’s an option to use miles as a substitute for dollars (i.e. Delta’s Pay with Miles), here’s a hint: Don’t do it. Just about every mile is worth more than a penny if used properly, so don’t sell yourself short.
7. Be realistic. Six business class tickets to Israel, on low mileage, during peak holiday times, just won’t happen. Don’t expect it to. Miles were not designed to fill seats that would otherwise be filled through revenue tickets. You can often redeem double or triple miles for tickets like that, but these are rarely a good value. So if you have some miles banked, and are saving them for that perfect trip to Sydney over New Year’s, you should probably use them for something else. Be flexible, though, and magical things can happen.
Anyone think they’ve got a tip that should knock one of my seven habits to eighth place? Hit us up on the Dealspin.com site this week. v