3. Complete Your Award Booking
Once you've figured out the flight you want to take and the points you want to use, it is time to finalize your award reservation.
It pays to be careful with these final steps to make sure you get the flights you want at the cost you expect.
But it is usually much easier to book your award ticket than it was to find the award space in the first place.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
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?.
You can also use any point balances you have from fixed-value reward programs.
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 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. Many ThankYou and Marriott point transfers take days, and a few Marriott transfers can take 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.
- 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.
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.
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. 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.
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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