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 miles to use to book the award
- 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 miles to use to book the award
- 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 are low enough, it typically doesn’t make sense to use your points for frequent flyer tickets. Instead, you would pay cash for your ticket, and save your points for another trip. Alternatively, if you have any points that work like cash, such as from the Capital One Venture card, you can use them to "pay" for a regular ticket, without any out-of-pocket expense. You can even use your Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and ThankYou points like cash to purchase tickets through the bank's travel portals.
Before you start looking 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 based on 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 about 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 frequently 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 1.25 cents each to purchase 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. Or you can take advantage of cash-like points you earn through cards like the Capital One Venture or Barclays Arrival card. 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?
If you don't want to hold onto your points for future redemptions, just make sure you 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 the to purchase tickets through the credit card company's travel booking site, rather than converting them into frequent flyer miles. The normal "base value" for Ultimate Rewards points is 1.5 cents per point, for ThankYou points is 1.25 cents per point, and for Membership Rewards Points is 1 cent per point. Pay for Any Ticket Using Credit Card Points, Regardless of Award Availability.
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.
- Unfortunately, each website only searches a limited set of airlines. You are almost always going to have to check multiple sites. However, a website called Juicy Miles does a pretty good job of searching a high percentage of your options with every search, but costs $10 for 5 days or $30 per month to use. Easier Award Search Using Premium Award Searching Tools.
- If you have transferable credit card points, you can book award tickets on American, Delta, or United Airlines—and over a hundred foreign airlines. Amex’s Membership Rewards, Chase’s Ultimate Reward, Citi’s ThankYou Rewards, Marriott Rewards, Capital One Miles, and Diner’s Club Reward points can all be transferred to frequent flyer programs that are members of each of the three big alliances. With any of these points, you can book awards on over a hundred different airlines.
- If you DON'T have transferable credit card points, you only need to search the airline or alliance where you have points. For example, if you only have American Airlines miles, you only need to search American Airlines / Oneworld for availability.
- If you are planning to book flights on US-based airlines with the airline's own points, you should just search directly on each airline's website. Each of the US Airlines has a good website (at least for their own flights). Since, the prices for many routes are variable, searching on the airline's own website is the only way to see all your options. You can easily check Alaska’s, American’s, Delta’s, and United’s website, and any other airline for which you have points (such as Frontier).
- If you are planning to use a partner's points for flights on American, Delta or United, you want to search on a foreign airline's website. For anyone collecting transferable reward points, booking with a foreign airline's frequent flyer program is very common. As the US airlines have moved towards dynamic pricing, it can be hard to tell which flights are available to partner programs. Sometimes flights that aren't available at the lowest possible award cost are still available to be booked elsewhere. The best way to be sure is to simply search directly with one of their partners.
- Since all partners generally have access to the same award space, you can choose a partner that has the best website. In general, the same awards are available to every partner programs. But, 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 nicest to use 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.
- For international flights, you should just start searching on the best websites for finding award space (not necessarily the frequent flyer program you want to use or the airline you want to fly). For example, if you are looking for ticket to Japan, are likely to fly on American or Japan Airlines, and are expecting to use your Membership Rewards points, you wouldn't search for award space on American Airline's website or on JAL's. You would typically use British Airway's website, because it does a better job of helping you find award availability across all of Oneworld's airlines.
- When possible, search one direction at a time. Most frequent flyer programs allow for one-way awards. As with regular airfare searches, if you search for one direction at a time, it is much simpler to track your different flight options. You might also find award space to your destination with one program, and space back with another.
- 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.
|American / Oneworld||Delta / SkyTeam||United / Star Alliance|
|British Airways||Air France||Air Canada’s Aeroplan|
For a quick search, use the following sites. Before you can search for award space on British Airways, you will need to be signed in as a member of their program (but you don't need any points in your account).
|American / Oneworld||Delta / SkyTeam||United / Star Alliance|
|British Airways||Delta Air Lines||United Airlines|
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
Even if you search all your airline options, you may not immediately find any award space. If so, you may need to get more creative with your routing options.
- Make sure you are searching separately for each direction. When you are looking for award space, you should never search for round trip travel. You may need to use one program to get there and another program to get back.
- Look for availability for your long-haul flight, and work from there. 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 to get to the departure city and/or your final destination.
- 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.
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 try to find award space to that city, or resign yourself to purchasing a separate domestic ticket.
Alternatively, try checking for direct flights to some other major city in Europe, like New York, Amsterdam, or Frankfurt, and then figure out a way to get from there to Paris.
A few airlines frequently 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.
Search for award space segment-by-segment. 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, that has a longer-than-normal connection time, or that makes an additional stop. Search Segment-by-Segment to Find Hidden Award Space
Check the airline 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.
If you need space for more than two people, you might need to book the tickets in chunks. Especially for business and first class ticket, 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 whatever seats that are available, 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 other passenger, without triggering the alert. Nevertheless, availability alerts significantly increase your likelihood of eventually finding space to your destination.
4: Choose the best miles to use to book the award
Once you’ve found award space, the next question becomes which program is the best one to use to book your award.
- If you have transferable credit card points, you usually have the option 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 require fewer points than if you use a program that normally offers a lower award cost. 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 fewer points than whatever program normally offers the lowest rates. 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.
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 are using 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.
- 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 award trip. Now that you’ve finished looking, you’ll know exactly how many points, and how many 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.
- As described above, if a cash-based reservation is a better deal, you may still want to use your points. Pay for Any Ticket Using Credit Card Points, Regardless of Award Availability.
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.
- 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 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. 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. Sometime's 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.
Technically, you might be able to transfer them to a hotel partner, and then to another airline, but with the various conversion rates, you’d wind up losing much of the value of your points. 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 (this is 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 on using 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 windows. 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 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.
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. Sometimes you need to use a different program to book each part of your trip. But, 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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