Step-by-Step Guide to Booking Award Tickets
For a more in-depth guide to finding award space, determining which frequent flyer program offers the best deal, and finalizing your award reservation, check out each of our guides:
If you are new to this and need some basic information about how frequent flyer programs work, take a look at Award Tickets 101: The Basics.
- 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
Before taking the time to search for frequent flyer tickets, it is worth making a quick check to see if using miles is likely to be worthwhile. 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. Depending on what which credit card you have, you can get up to 1.5 cents per Ultimate Rewards point, 1.1 cents per ThankYou point, or 1.54 cents per Membership Rewards point you use to just pay the cash cost of the ticket. Pay for Any Ticket Using Credit Card Points, Regardless of Award Availability.
- Do a quick search on Google Flights to check the approximate cost of a ticket. Make sure you are using the price of a flight you'd actually be willing to fly, not just the cheapest available price.
- Then do a quick search on AwardHacker to check the approximate number of miles required for an award ticket. 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.
2: Check major alliances / frequent flyer programs for availability
If you want to make it easier to find award space, consider using Juicy Miles. It won't find every option, but it comes close. While it's user experience makes it a little hard to use than it should, it is still much easier than searching a bunch of different sites. 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.
Otherwise, you'll need to search on multiple airline websites to check for space on all the award options.
Checking the US Airlines / Alliances
- If you are flying domestically, you should search directly on the website of each US airline that flies where you want to go. 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).
- But if you are going to use a partner program's points to book a United or Delta award, you may need to search elsewhere. For United partner availability, check 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).
- If you know you want to fly on Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, KLM, United Airlines, or Virgin Atlantic, give Seat Spy a try. This awesome tool will quickly show you availability for an entire year at a time in every class of service, but only for a single direct route on one of a few airlines.
- For international flights, you should search on the best websites for finding award space on each alliance. With SkyTeam, you almost always need to search both Delta and Air France / KLM's Flying Blue, as a result of their dynamic pricing approach. For the other alliances, you would still ideally search two sites. Each site may uncover some options that another site doesn’t.
- When possible, search one direction at a time. 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.
|American / Oneworld||Delta / SkyTeam||United / Star Alliance|
|American Airlines||Delta Air Lines||United Airlines|
|Qantas||Air France||Air Canada’s Aeroplan|
Only Singapore's own site (and sometimes Alaska Airline's) will find business and first-class space on Singapore Airlines (and you'll usually need to book those flights with Singapore miles anyways).
Cathay Pacific availability on other websites is not always comprehensive. If you want to make sure you are seeing all the Cathay Pacific availability, you should check the Japan Airlines website. You will need to be signed in with a JAL Mileage Bank account.
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—this works out to about 60-80 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.
- Find all the airlines that fly where you want to go. You can use several different tools described in our guide to Find All the Flight Options to Your Destination.
- Cross off any alliance airlines and any unaffiliated airlines that you already searched with the key websites above. You can view 1. Search for Frequent Flyer Award Availability Like a Pro to see a list of which unaffiliated partners were already searched by the main airline websites.
- Narrow down the list to just those airlines you can book with your points. Check our List of Which Miles Work for Which Airlines to see which of these airlines can be booked with the types of miles and points that you have.
- Search each remaining airline for availability. Unfortunately, you usually need to search them one-by-one.
- The most convenient way to search some of these additional airlines is to use ExpertFlyer. Easier Award Search Using Premium Award Searching Tools.
- You can usually search for availability on the airline’s own website. In this case, go to the website of the airline you want to fly, not the website of the frequent flyer program you want to use.
- If you don’t see an award searching option on the home page, make sure to check the frequent flyer section of the website. Sometimes you need to go to the part of the site about “using miles” to find the award booking functionality. In most cases, you will also need to join the frequent flyer program before you can search—even though you are eventually going to book with another airline’s program.
- Sometimes, you just need to get on the phone and talk to someone. Theoretically, you can call the airline directly or call any of their partners. We prefer utilizing a partner based in an English-speaking country (if possible) and ideally one where we already have an account.
3: When you are having trouble finding award availability
- Make sure you are checking all your options. Don’t forget to search alternative airports, alternative dates, and alternative airlines.
- Look for availability for your long-haul flight and work from there. If you are having trouble finding space, you can try to construct your own itinerary by combining available award space on individual flight segments. When you are flying internationally, first try to find availability for your transcontinental flight. Then separately try to find award space to that city on a partner airline. 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 dates. 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.
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.
Break your trip into multiple reservations. There may simply be no award space between your home city and your destination. 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. 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. 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 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 and also has different routing rules and fees. And the difference in fees between different programs can be more significant than the difference in miles, especially for flights to Europe.
- Option 1: If you used Juicy Miles to book your flight, they do a good job of helping you figure out which type of points to use. They show the mileage cost and estimated surcharges for many of the possible options for booking your award ticket and even factor in current mileage transfer bonuses. Unfortunately, you need to click through each program option on the left-side to find the lowest cost for booking the flight you want.
- Option 2: Manually check the likely options. Unfortunately, the only way to get complete and accurate information is to check each program directly.
- First, determine the set of programs that can be used to book your tickets. Look up each of the available airlines in our List of Which Miles Work for Which Airlines.
- Eliminate any programs you don't have points for. For example, if you only have Ultimate Rewards points, there may be only a few programs you can use to book a specific ticket
- Check each program directly. Unless you're thinking of using Marriott points for award tickets, the following programs are the mostly likely to offer a good combination of points and fees. But other programs can sometimes be good options.
Air Canada (Aeroplan)
MR UR TY C1 Mar
ANA (All Nippon Airways)
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
Cathay Pacific (Asia Miles)
MR UR TY C1 Mar
MR UR TY C1 Mar
- Option 3: Search the web. An alternative approach (for uncovering which reward program to use) is to search the web using something like “best redemptions to asia” or “best redemptions to japan”. You are likely to find several blog posts that discuss various frequent flyer options. Just bear in mind that they are rarely comprehensive and typically somewhat out of date.
- Option 4: Use an award comparison tool. Several websites attempt to help you compare your award booking options. While they can sometimes help you focus or narrow down your options, they sometimes don't do a good enough job of calculating the required number of miles (especially for distance based programs), checking all the options, and especially calculating fees to properly substitute for a manual search. But they are quick and easy. Use both AwardHacker and Milez.
- Don't forget about transfer bonuses. Any program that currently has a transfer bonus has a good chance of being the best option for your trip. 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 (but typically have hefty fuel surcharges). Fly to Europe Using Half the Number of Miles Using Promo Awards.
- Other considerations. The program that requires the fewest number of miles and the lowest fees 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, book a less common itinerary (that is only allowed with some programs), use up some of your less flexible points, or avoid a difficult-to-use program. For more details and additional options, see our guide to 2. Choose the Least Expensive Frequent Flyer Program for Your Ticket.
You can also check our collection of the best awards "sweet spots" where you can book award tickets for significantly less than the normal amount of miles. Stretch Your Frequent Flyer Miles by Taking Advantage of Great Award Redemption Options.
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.
- 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.
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.
Once you transfer the points, you can’t transfer the back again.
- Before you transfer points, call and make sure that the award tickets are truly available. There are several reasons why you might believe that award seats are available, when they are not. To avoid all these problems, simply call in to confirm.
- 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. Once they make your reservation, ask them to hold on for a moment and transfer your points using your computer or phone. 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. Doing it online is more convenient, but there is a slight chance that the award space is not really available when you try to complete the booking.
- 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. Many ThankYou and Marriott point transfers take days, and a few Marriott transfers can take weeks, to conclude. Points Transfer Times.
- For non-instantaneous transfers, try to put the reservation on hold. When you have the representative on the phone to double-check availability, ask them about holding the tickets.
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. 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. 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.
- 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. 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.
To make the actual reservation, you may need to call in, wait on hold, talk to an phone representative, and give them all the information over the phone. If the flight couldn't be booked online many programs will waive any phone-reservation fee.
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