1. Search for Frequent Flyer Award Availability Like a Pro (2021)

From Travel Strategies
Jump to: navigation, search

  HomeUsing Your Points for Free Travel


Using frequent flyer miles can be tough. Airlines don't provide much award space, especially on popular routes. And even when award space is available, it can often be difficult to find.

Unfortunately, there is no magical tool that lets you easily search for award availability across every possible airline. You are going to have to search several different websites.

And for some airlines, you’ll have no alternative other than calling in and talking to a phone representative.

Before You Start Searching

Before you start investing a bunch of time looking for award space, it is worth taking he time to do a quick price check and make sure it is likely to be worthwhile to use points for your trip.

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.

  • 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.
  • 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. Just look for the number of miles associated with a cluster of the less expensive frequent flyer programs.
  • 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).
  • 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 {{Link|point values.

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.

Manually searching different websites

Unlike with regular airfares, there is no behind-the-scenes system where airlines post their award availability. Other than a few specialized tools, the airline's own websites are the only the way to check award space and each airline's website only searches for awards on some of their partner airlines.

As a result, you'll need to use multiple websites to search all your available options. And even doing that is more complicated than we wish it would be.

At a minimum, you'll need to separately search each alliance (and often some important non-alliance airlines). The good news is that several airline websites search every airline in their alliance. So you can theoretically search one website for each alliance and find every Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld award option. However, since each website can miss some available award space, even on the airlines they check, it is better to search two sites for each alliance (if you are willing to spend the extra time).

  • 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 good website (especially for their own flights). More importantly, the US Airlines have been aggressively eliminating true "saver" space, but in some 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 extra-cost options, even though you might be willing to spend a few more points to book them. In addition, United credit cardholders and elites have access to extra "saver" award space which will only show up on their own website.
  • 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 the award, you may need to search elsewhere. 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 the case. Both programs have dynamic pricing that obfuscates whether any given flight is available through partners. For example, if you are planning on using Virgin Atlantic miles to book your Delta flight and you search Delta's website for award availability, it can be hard to tell which flights are actually available to book with your Virgin miles.
  • 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, Etihad, 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.
  • SeatSpyResults.png
  • For international flights, you should search on the best websites for finding award space on each alliance. Since all partners generally have access to the same saver-level 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.
  • 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, 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-saver award options.

    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 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.

    If you are interested in a more in-depth comparison of these airline websites see our guide to The Best Websites for Doing Award Searches.

Take the time now, to sign up for the key programs. Many airline websites only allow their frequent flyer members to search for award tickets. You should register for accounts at Air France, British Airways, and Qantas, so that you are ready to search for awards. If you put off signing up, there will be one extra obstacle to conducting a more comprehensive search when it is time to look for award space. You can wait to sign up for other programs until you need them.

And use AwardWallet to easily manage each of your accounts. If you follow our advice, you'll wind up with frequent flyer accounts for a bunch of different programs—the programs you choose to earn miles with, the programs you need to belong to in order to search for award space, and the programs you need to transfer your credit card points to in order to book tickets. Fortunately AwardWallet provides a simple, free, and powerful tool for keeping track of all your loyalty account information, so you don't have to. Use AwardWallet to Easily Manage Your Loyalty Program Information.

Award search tips

  • 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.
  • If you are willing to invest some extra effort, it is a good idea to search multiple sites for each alliance. Each site may uncover some options that another site doesn’t.
  • You can’t entirely trust the award search calendar—search for each date individually. Some websites have calendars that show whether award space is available on other days of the week or month. These seem convenient, but they just aren’t that reliable. Some site’s calendars only show availability on the airline’s own flights. Even when the calendar would show partner availability as well, they don’t always show award availability on all the days where award tickets are really available. And when they do show availability, it may be for some horrible routing. Calendars can give you a rough idea of what to expect in terms of availability, but you really need to check each date one at a time.
  • AmericanAwardSearch.jpg
  • If you are planning on using miles from a partner program, be careful about award space you see on the website's own flights. If a website shows availability on a partner airline, you should be able to book it using any other partner’s frequent flyer miles. However, if it shows availability for its OWN flights, these may not be bookable elsewhere. For example, if you are searching on United Airlines and you see availability on Lufthansa, you should be fine, but if you see availability on United itself, you may not.
  • Only the flights at the regular (saver) level are ever available at partners and not always then. Sometimes airlines make additional award space available to their own members or only allow their own members to book first class tickets. Whenever you see availability on the airline’s own flights and you are planning to book your tickets with another program, you need to use another website to double-check that the award space will really be available.

  • Be careful about award space you see on non-alliance partners. Each of these websites searches a few additional partner airlines, not just the airlines that are part of the alliance. Award space on non-alliance partners may not be able to be booked with miles from another program. For example, if you are searching on Qantas, you may uncover availability on Jetstar that you could book with Qantas miles, but wouldn’t be able to book with most other Oneworld programs.
  • AirBaltic.jpg
  • If you have elite status (or the airline’s credit card), make sure to sign-in before searching for awards. You might have access to additional award space that the general public does not. Remember that this extra space is only available if you are going to be booking with the airline’s own frequent flyer miles.
  • Flights become available for booking at different times with different programs. One program may let you book award tickets 365 days ahead of time and another program may only let you book 330 days ahead of time. However, the underlying airline may not make their award space available as early as a program will let you book them. If you are booking a year ahead of time, you’ll want to search with a program that offers earlier booking of award tickets.

Searching for space on additional airlines

Searching the key airline websites (listed above) WON’T search all the airlines that you can book with your points. They only search the airlines that are part of the big alliances plus a set of additional partner airlines—a total of 60-80 airlines depending on how many sites you use.

Because you can transfer your credit card points to a large number of different frequent flyer programs and each of those programs has a large number of airline partners, there are dozens of additional non-alliance partners which you may be able to use. And many of these aren't being searched by our recommended frequent flyer program websites.

If you want to search unaffiliated airlines that fly where you want to go, you'll need to mostly search them one-by-one.

  1. Find all the airlines that fly where you want to go. There is no sense in searching every single airline that you can book with your points. The first step is to figure out which airlines offer flights to where you want to go. You can use several different tools described in our guide to Find All the Flight Options to Your Destination.
  2. FlightConnectionsNonstops.png
  3. Cross off any unaffiliated airlines that you already searched with the key websites above. If you've started with the major sites, you don't need to search any airlines that belong to the three big alliances. If you already used the listed website, you don’t need to individually check the partner airlines listed below.
    • United Airlines. Aer Lingus, Aeromar, Air Dolomiti, Cape Air, Edelweiss, Germanwings, Hawaiian Intra-Island, Silver Airways.
    • American Airlines. Air Tahiti Nui, Cape Air, Fiji Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Seaborne Virgin Islands.
    • Qantas. Air Vanuatu, El-Al, Emirates, Fiji, Jetstar.
    • British Airways. AerLingus.
    • Delta. China Southern, Hawaiian, Mandarin, Shanghai, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, WestJet.
    • Air France. Transavia.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. It provides a consistent experience for searching for award tickets on many different airlines. Because it only searches one airline at a time, we prefer to start our searches with the key websites discussed above. But when you need to search any remaining individual airlines, it is easier to use ExpertFlyer than it is to use the airline’s own website. The main drawback is that you’ll need to pay to use the service. However, you can always just temporarily subscribe when you need to plan a trip that is hard to book. Easier Award Search Using Premium Award Searching Tools.
    • ExpertFlyerResults.png
    • You can usually search for availability on the airline’s own website. Most airlines let you search for availability for their own flights, even if they don’t do a good job of searching partner airlines. If you aren’t willing to pay for an ExpertFlyer subscription or you need to search an airline that ExpertFlyer doesn’t support, your best bet is usually to go directly to the airline’s website and look for an award search feature.
    • Remember, go to the website of the airline you want to fly, not the website of the frequent flyer program you want to use. Be careful that you only look for regularly priced (saver) awards.

    • 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.

If you are having trouble finding availability

You may not find any award availability on the dates you want to travel. Or you may only find availability for flights which are too inconvenient to be interesting.

  • 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. 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • Make sure to check the available 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 use the Air Canada website to search for awards across the Star Alliance, you will find the Singapore Airlines award space that is made available to partner programs. But when you search on Singapore Airlines’ own website, you might find additional availability that is only available when redeeming Singapore Airline miles.

  • Keep trying. People cancel award tickets. Airlines periodically make new awards space available. Just because you couldn’t find any award availability today, doesn’t mean that you won’t find any tomorrow.
  • 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.
  • Especially if you are looking for premium tickets, you might find availability once it gets close to your departure date. Airlines often postpone making premium award tickets available until they see how many business and first-class tickets they can sell.  It may make sense to book alternative flights and then look again when you get closer to departure. This happens with economy award space as well, but much less often.
  • This happens pretty reliably for Swiss Airline flights to Europe, EVA Air flights to Asia, and is the only way to book Lufthansa first class flights using partner miles. And happens fairly frequently with Cathay Pacific, Japanese Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and United.

  • 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.

Send comments or suggestions to editor@travelstrategies.com or leave a comment below.

blog comments powered by Disqus