Step-by-Step Guide to Booking Award Tickets
- 1: Decide whether it is worthwhile to even start searching for award space
- 2: Check major alliances / frequent flyer programs for availability
- 3: When you are having trouble finding award availability
- 4: Choose the best program to book the available award space
- 5: Make sure it is still worthwhile to use miles instead of cash
- 6: Transfer your credit card points (if necessary)
- 7: Finalize your reservation
- 1 1: Decide whether it is worthwhile to even start searching for award space
- 2 2: Check major alliances / frequent flyer programs for availability
- 3 3: When you are having trouble finding award availability
- 4 4: Choose the best program to book the available award space
- 5 5: Make sure it is still worthwhile to use miles instead of cash
- 6 6: Transfer your credit card points (if necessary)
- 7 7: Finalize your reservation
1: Decide whether it is worthwhile to even start searching for award space
If regular airfares aren't that expensive, it usually doesn’t make sense to use your points for frequent flyer tickets. You can pay cash for your ticket and save your points for another trip. Alternatively, if you have any points that work like cash, you can use them to "pay" for a regular ticket, without any out-of-pocket expense. With less expensive tickets, it often requires fewer Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, or ThankYou points to buy the tickets through the bank's travel portal than it would to transfer them to a frequent flyer program to book award tickets.
Before you start searching for frequent flyer award space, take the time to do a quick price check and make sure it is likely to be worthwhile to use your points.
- Do a quick search on Google Flights to check the approximate cost of a ticket. Don't bother spending a lot of time trying to find the lowest possible price. You are just looking to get a sense of whether the regular price for the ticket is low enough that it doesn't make sense to use your points. However, it is worthwhile to look at the individual flight results, rather than the absolutely lowest price. Sometimes, the "lowest price" is for some flights with very undesirable times or routes or with an unwanted airline. The actual price you would wind up paying, once you picked acceptable flights, might be considerably higher.
- Then do a quick search on AwardHacker to check the approximate number of miles required for an award ticket. If you don't already have a good sense of how many miles you would need to book an award ticket to your destination, you'll need to find out. The quickest way is to do a quick search on an "Award Pricing" tool like AwardHacker (more details below). Don't count on being able to take advantage of the program that requires the absolutely fewest number of miles. Look for the number of miles associated with a cluster of the less expensive frequent flyer programs.
- For coach tickets, it often isn’t worthwhile to use your points or miles. With the rise of low-cost airlines, ticket prices have dramatically dropped to many locations. At the same time, airlines have increased the number of miles you need to book award travel. If ticket prices are low relative to the number of miles needed for an award ticket, you are usually better off holding onto your points for later, using them for hotels or other redemption options, or simply using your points to pay for the cash fare.
- For business and first-class tickets, it almost always makes sense to use your points when you can. The cash prices for these tickets are almost always high relative to the number of miles that you would typically need for an award ticket. But this advice only holds if you would willingly pay the full cash price for the premium cabin tickets.
- The minimum value per point you should look for depends on the type of points you need to use—but 1.5 cents per point is a good yardstick. We would usually wait for higher values (1.75 cents) for our Ultimate Reward points and use most airline-specific miles at lower values (1.2 cents).
- Even if a cash reservation is a better deal, you can often still use your points for a free flight. Depending on what credit card you have, you can use Ultimate Rewards points at 1.5 cents each and ThankYou points at 1 cent each to buy any ticket through Chase's or Citi's website. If you have the Business Platinum card, you can book some tickets at the equivalent of 1.54 cents per point through Amex's site. Pay for Any Ticket Using Credit Card Points, Regardless of Award Availability.
1.5 cents per point is just a recommended starting value. The true value for your cutoff should be based on a reasonable expectation of how valuable your points will be (in the foreseeable future). You don’t want to hold onto your points forever, in constant search for more valuable redemptions. But you also don’t want to use them today, when you can easily get more value for them at a later time. If you find you are never taking advantage of your points, lower the cutoff value. If you find you never have the points you need, raise the value. For more details see How Much are Points Worth?
2: Check major alliances / frequent flyer programs for availability
If it looks like it might be worthwhile to use your points for an award ticket, start your award search by quickly searching the major frequent flyer programs and see if you can find available award space.
- If you want to make it easier to find award space, consider using Juicy Miles. Unlike the normal method of finding award space, Juicy Miles allows you to avoid searching across multiple airline websites. You just enter your origin and destination and it searches almost all the major airlines. It doesn't always find every possible award seat, but it does a "good enough" job that many people will choose not to bother with a more time-consuming approach.
- Otherwise, you'll need to search on multiple airline websites to check for space on all the award options. If you have transferable credit card points like Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards points, you can book awards on over a hundred different airlines. Each airline's website only searches its partners and often not all of those. To search for space on most of the major airlines, you'll need to search at least one website for each alliance. But if you DON'T have transferable credit card points, you only need to search the alliance where you have available points.
- If you are flying domestically, you should search directly on the website of each US airline that flies where you want to go. Each of the US Airlines has a decent website (at least for their own flights). More importantly, the US Airlines have been aggressively eliminating true "saver" space. However, in many cases, non-saver tickets are available for only a small number of extra miles. If you search through a partner's website, you won't see these options, even though you might be willing to spend a few more points to book them. In addition, United credit cardholders have access to extra "saver" award space which will only show up on their own website.
- But if you are going to use points with a partner program to book the award, you may need to search elsewhere to see what standard award space is available. On American and Alaska airlines, things are relatively straightforward. If tickets are available for the standard price, they should be available through their partners. With United and Delta that isn't that case. Both programs have dynamic pricing that obfuscates whether any given flight is available through partners.
- For international flights, you should just start searching on the best websites for finding award space. Since all partners generally have access to the same award space, you can choose a partner that has the best website. Some program’s websites search all or most partner airlines and other websites will only search a small number of frequent flyer airlines. You want to concentrate on the most comprehensive and convenient websites. After you find availability, you can book your award using any of the airline’s partners, not just the website you used to find it.
- When possible, search one direction at a time. Most frequent flyer programs allow for one-way awards. As with regular airfare searches, searching for one direction at a time makes it much simpler to track the various flight options to and from your destination. You might also find space there with one program, and space back with another. Unfortunately, some websites will require you to do a round-trip search.
- As with searching for regular airfares, make sure to try alternate dates and airports. The more flexibility you have with your travel dates, the easier it is to find award space. Maybe you can leave or return a day or two earlier or later or travel one of several different weeks.
- Look for availability for your long-haul flight and work from there. Award searching sites will check for space on many different combinations of flights to your destination. But they never search all your options. If you are having trouble finding space, you can try to construct your own itinerary by combining available award space on individual flight segments. Perhaps you can find award space that travels through a more out-of-the-way connecting point, which has a longer-than-normal connection time, or that makes an additional stop. Search Segment-by-Segment to Find Hidden Award Space.
- Space might become available later. Airlines can make award space available at any time. For premium cabin seats, airlines often don’t make award space available until close to the departure date, when it is clearer that they won’t be able to sell the seats. If you can’t find tickets now, there is a good chance you might be able to find them later. If you feel you need to lock in your tickets, you can purchase regular tickets now and then if award seats become available, book the award seats and pay any penalties to cancel the seats you purchased earlier.
- If you have transferable credit card points, you usually have the choice of booking your award ticket using several different frequent flyer programs.
- Each frequent flyer program requires a different number of miles for the same flight. The required number of miles depends on the program you are using, not the airline(s) you are flying. For example, Delta charges 45,000 miles for Delta flights to Hawaii, but Korean Airlines only charges 25,000 miles for the same flights. Each program has “sweet spots” where you can use fewer than the normal number of miles to book an award flight.
- Each frequent flyer program also has different routing rules and fees. So, the program that requires the fewest number of miles may not be the best overall deal. For example, you’ll often want to spend more points to avoid fuel surcharges, you sometimes want to spend more points to get a free stopover, take advantage of low-priced change fees, or book a less common itinerary (that is only allowed with some programs). For more details and additional options, see our guide to Find the Least Expensive Award Options for Your Destination.
- At any moment of time, each credit card program may offer a bonus for transfers to one or more of their partners. For example, Membership Rewards may temporarily give you 1,300 miles for every 1,000 points you transfer to British Airways or 1,250 miles for every 1,000 points you transfer to Air France. If you can use miles from one of these programs, it will usually be your lowest cost option. The best listing of current transfer bonuses is Frequent Miler’s Current Transfer Bonuses page..
- Particularly for flights to Europe, several popular programs offer promotional rates for different routes. It can be worthwhile seeing if any of these promotional rates apply to your trip, as the promotional prices usually require the fewest points of any option. Fly to Europe Using Half the Number of Miles Using Promo Awards.
- Normally, you should take advantage of whichever program offers the lowest combination of miles and fees to book your tickets. The fastest way to get some guidance is to check AwardHacker and maybe Milez. If you have been using Juicy Miles to look for award availability, it provides good guidance about which program to use.
- Try to use less flexible points first. Miles from individual frequent flyer programs are less valuable than flexible award points, so you may want to use them first, even if you need to spend a bit more miles on your trip. Similarly, there is an advantage to using up any ThankYou points, before using your Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards points. We would often be willing to use extra points, if it allowed us to use some points we've built-up in a random frequent flyer program, just so that we don't need to worry about the points expiring later.
- Before you started searching, you should have had a preliminary idea of whether an award redemption is likely to be a good value. The first step of our award booking process is to compare the approximate cash price of a ticket with the likely number of miles it would take for an award ticket.
- Adjust your initial estimate based on the details of your trip. Now that you’ve finished looking, you’ll know exactly how many points and dollars are needed to book your award ticket. Maybe the available award ticket has higher fees, requires more miles, or has a more inconvenient routing than you expected. If so, switch back to a regular airline reservation and save your points for later.
- Never use your Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, or ThankYou points to book award tickets when you would be receiving less than their "base values" per point. Below these values, you can spend fewer points by using them to buy tickets through the credit card company's travel booking site, rather than converting them into frequent flyer miles. The normal "base value" is 1.5 cents for Ultimate Rewards points (if you have the Sapphire Reserve), 1 cent for ThankYou and Membership Rewards points, 1.25 cents for Membership Rewards point if you have the Schwab Platinum Card, and 1.54 cents per point if you have the Business Platinum Card. When deciding what is best, you should lower the "cash" ticket price by factoring in the value of the new frequent flyer tickets you would earn. Pay for Any Ticket Using Credit Card Points, Regardless of Award Availability.
- Once you transfer the points, you can’t transfer the back again. For example, once you transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to United airlines, you are pretty much stuck with a bunch of United miles. You can’t transfer them back to Ultimate Rewards, you can’t transfer them to one of the other Ultimate Rewards airline partners, and you can’t transfer them to another of United’s airline partners.
- Before you transfer points, make sure that the award tickets are truly available. You need to call the frequent flyer program and confirm the availability with a sales representative! You don’t want any hiccups that would cause you to transfer your points and then not be able to use them to book your tickets. When you call, be prepared to provide the representative with the information about the individual flights where you found award availability.
- When points will transfer instantly, the safest way to book is to transfer them while you are on the phone with the frequent flyer program. Call in and start booking your trip with the customer service representative. Once they make your reservation, ask them to hold on for a moment, and transfer your points using your computer or phone. When the points show up, you can continue the booking process.
- Not all transfers happen instantaneously. While most Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards transfers happen nearly instantaneously, that isn’t true for every airline partner and there can occasionally be delays. Most ThankYou and Marriott point transfers take days, or even weeks, to conclude. If you are not able to put your award on hold, there is some risk that the award space will disappear before the transfer is completed. If there is award space available on many different flights around the same time, the risk is low; but if award space is scarcer, the risk is high. Even if transfers happen instantaneously, it can still take a few minutes to go through the process of transferring your points and finalizing your award booking and the space can disappear. Point Transfer Waiting Times.
- For non-instantaneous transfers, try to put the reservation on hold. Some frequent flyer programs will do this. Some won’t. Sometimes the longest available hold will be long enough. Sometimes it won't. If the award seats can be placed on hold, you don’t have to worry about them disappearing between the time you called in to check and the time you can make the reservation. When you have the representative on the phone to double-check availability, ask them about holding the tickets.
- To make the actual reservation, you may need to call in. Many frequent flyer programs won't let you book partner award tickets online (at least for some partners). Some don’t even support online booking for their own award flights. Even when online booking is available, you may not be able to book a more complicated routing through the website.
Unfortunately, it costs money to use. An ongoing membership is $30 per month, but you can pay $10 to use the tool for five days. If you are able to find award space and book right away, it can be affordable to sign up for $10 each time you are planning a trip. But if you need to periodically check to see if award inventory has recently become available, the ongoing membership rate is pretty expensive. Easier Award Search Using Premium Award Searching Tools.
For United partner availability, check Air Canada's Air Canada’s Aeroplan. For Delta partner availability, check Virgin Atlantic because they often require far fewer points (or Air France / KLM's Flying Blue).
With SkyTeam, you almost always need to search both Delta and Air France / KLM's Flying Blue. Because both these major airlines have dynamic pricing, when you search on their own website, it is hard to know which flights are available to partners and which are not. You'll need to search on a partner website instead. Conversely, since it is easy to get miles with both of these programs, you are going to want to search directly on the program's website to see if there is any reasonably priced non-partner tickets.
For the other alliances, you would still ideally search two sites. Each site may uncover some options that another site doesn’t.
|American / Oneworld||Delta / SkyTeam||United / Star Alliance|
|American Airlines||Delta Air Lines||Air Canada’s Aeroplan|
|Qantas||Air France||United Airlines|
You'll need to register for accounts on Air Canada, Air France, and Qantas, before you can search for award space.
Checking multiple sites for each alliance. If you are willing to spend a bit more time, check two or three websites for each alliance. You’ll sometimes uncover award options on one site, which doesn't show up on another.
Checking for space on additional airlines. The main websites only search airlines that belong to the big alliances, as well as a subset of additional partner airlines. In many cases, this will cover all the good options to your destination. But sometimes, you might be able to book award tickets on additional non-alliance airlines. To check all your options, you need to determine the different airlines that fly to your destination, see which ones you can book with your points, and (in most cases) check some additional airlines (one-by-one) for award space.
For more details, see
3: When you are having trouble finding award availability
When you are flying internationally, first try to find availability for your transcontinental flight. For example, if you can't find availability from your home airport to Paris, try searching for flights from New York and DC, or even from Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Toronto, and Miami (or if you live on the West Coast: LA, San Francisco, and Vancouver). Then separately try to find award space to that city on a partner airline. You might find a combination that the search tool missed.
Alternatively, try checking for direct flights to some other major city in Europe, like London, Amsterdam, or Frankfurt, and then figure out a way to get from there to Paris.
A few airlines usually only make their premium-cabin seats available (for partner awards) at the last minute. United often makes seats available around a week before departure, Lufthansa starting about two weeks out and continuing right to the flight date, EVA and Cathay Pacific about 5 days, Swiss and JAL about a week. Since they are unloading unsold seats, larger number of seats can sometimes be made available. This is sometimes your only opportunity to book more than two premium cabin seats on the same flight.
Check airlines directly. Some airlines make more award space available to members of their own programs. If you are having trouble finding award space and you have a way to get the type of miles you need, take the extra time to check the airline's own website. For example, if you are looking for flights on Turkish Airlines, you would normally search on United and/or Aeroplan's website, because they are the generally the best options for finding Star Alliance award space. But if you have access to Turkish Airline miles or to ThankYou points, you might have access to additional award space directly through the Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles program. To check for space, you'll need to search on Turkish's own website.
Break your trip into multiple reservations. There may simply be no award space between your home city and your destination. This has become more common as US-based airlines have gotten stingier with domestic award availability, especially for the non-stop flights that are useful for connecting to your international leg. However, it may be possible to book an award ticket for the main part of your trip, such as from a US gateway city to Europe and then purchase an inexpensive additional ticket (or book a separate award ticket) to get to the departure city and/or your final destination.
If you need space for more than two people, you might need to book the tickets in chunks. Especially for business and first class tickets, airlines may only make a limited number of seats available for award booking at any given time, but will add additional award space, once those seats are gone. For example, they may never show more than two available seats, but two additional seats might become available as soon as the existing two seats are booked. Depending on the costs of cancelling the award, you can book the available seats and hope that additional space opens up.
Setup an alert. If you are willing to pay $10 per month for a subscription, you can use ExpertFlyer to set up award availability (or upgrade availability) alerts. About once per day, they'll check to see if award space has become available for your flight. If it has, they'll send you an email. You'll need to set up alerts for each individual flight you are interested in tracking. Keep in mind, that they can't continuously monitor availability information, so a seat may become available and then be claimed by another passenger, without triggering the alert. Nevertheless, availability alerts significantly increase your likelihood of eventually finding space to your destination. Easier Award Search Using Premium Award Searching Tools.
4: Choose the best program to book the available award space
Once you’ve found award space, the next question becomes which program is the best one to book your award.
If you really want to be sure you are using the best program, you'll need to check the various options directly. The comparison sites don't list results for every program, aren't always completely accurate, and don't include fees. Find the Least Expensive Award Options for Your Destination provides more details.
5: Make sure it is still worthwhile to use miles instead of cash
Every time you use your points to book an award ticket, you are giving up an opportunity to use them for another redemption. You want to make sure you are getting reasonable value for your points.
You can also use any point balances you have from fixed-value reward programs.
6: Transfer your credit card points (if necessary)
You may already have enough miles in the desired frequent flyer program to book your award tickets. More commonly, you’ll need to transfer Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, or other points into your desired frequent flyer program first.
If you make a genuine error when transferring your points, you might be able to quickly call in, and get the transfer reversed.
There are several reasons why you might believe that award seats are available, when they are not. Sometimes a website will show available seats, even when there is really no award space (called "phantom availability"). If you used another program’s website to check for space, there is a slim possibility that the program you are planning to use doesn’t have access to the exact same inventory. Or complicated routing rules might preclude the itinerary you expected to book. To avoid all these problems, simply call in to confirm.
You can follow a similar process using two browser tabs. Start booking your award in one window. Once you've selected your flights, transfer the points in another window, and then continue with the reservation. This approach is more convenient, but there is a slight chance that the award space is not really available when you try to complete the booking.
If you might transfer Marriott points, make sure to consider a Hotel + Air package. If you are acquiring 100,000 miles, you can get a 7-night Category 4 certificate for the normal cost of 3 peak-period hotel nights. If you are acquiring 50,000 miles, you can get the certificate at 75% of the normal price for 7 peak-period nights. Discounts are lower on other category hotels or non-peak travel periods. Use Marriott Hotel + Air Packages to Get More Value From Your Points.
When transferring Marriott points, consider transferring exact multiples of 60,000 points. Marriott will give a bonus of 5,000 miles for every 60,000 points you transfer. But you won’t earn the bonus on any additional points above a multiple of 60,000. If you stick to chunks of 60,000 points (25,000 miles), you’ll get the maximum miles from your points. The downside is that you are likely to wind up with extra miles in the frequent flyer program, that you will need to save for later.
7: Finalize your reservation
To avoid fees, book your ticket online (if possible). Many frequent flyer programs charge a small fee if you book your award ticket over the phone. But sometimes online booking is not possible. The frequent flyer program’s website may not support the airline you are flying or may not support more complicated itineraries. In those cases, the phone booking fee is usually waived.
Usually, it is better to book the award as a round trip or multi-destination flight, if you can. If you can book the entire trip with the same award program, you are usually better off booking it as a single award, rather than as separate awards for each direction. That way, if you need to cancel or change the trip, you’ll only need to pay one fee. If there is a “close-in reservation” or phone booking fee, you’d only pay one of those as well. This is just about how you finally book your award; it is always worthwhile to search for award space one direction at a time.
However, when fuel surcharges are high, it can sometime make sense to book as separate trips in each direction. The surcharges FROM a destination can be different than the surcharges TO that destination. When you book a round trip, you usually wind up paying twice the higher surcharge, rather than the total of the surcharges. If you book separate trips, you’ll pay the actual surcharge in each direction. If there are significant surcharges on your tickets, make sure to price the trip as multiple one-ways, compare to the complete trip, and book whichever one is cheaper.
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