Search Segment-by-Segment to Find Hidden Award Space
If you are having trouble finding award space, you might need to search segment-by-segment, rather than as a complete trip.
When basic searching can't find available award space, you can sometimes piece together your own trip by searching for availability on various combinations of individual flights. Even if you can't find a combination that works, you may discover opportunities that can take you “most of the way” to your destination.
For example, basic searches may show no award availability from Denver to Singapore. If so, you can try manually searching for award space to Singapore from different potential gateway cities, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, or even backtracking to Chicago.
If you find availability from San Francisco, you can move on to focusing on getting from Denver to there. Maybe there is no award availability on the same day as your Singapore flight, but you can find space the day before. Maybe you'll simply need to purchase a cheap flight (or use 5,000 Alaska miles) to get between Denver and San Francisco on your own.
If you can't find anything between major US gateways and Singapore, you could continue your search by looking for availability to Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, or another Asian hub, and then to Singapore from there. Or maybe you can find a route to Singapore through Europe rather than through Asia.
The basic segment-by-segment approach
- Award search tools can't check all the possible routes to your destination. The better airline search engines will check for availability on hundreds of different combinations of flights. But for search tools to be fast (and inexpensive to run), they can’t check every possible combination. And they will only show availability for complete trips between your starting and ending airports. In addition, if you are looking for business and first class tickets, they sometimes won't show availability for trips where you would need to fly one of the legs in a lower class of service.
- Sometimes, you can uncover additional options by separately searching for availability for different segments of your trip. Rather than searching for award space for your entire trip (one direction at a time), you would search for availability for different combinations of city pairs that can get you part of the way to your destination. For example, you can search from the beginning of your trip to different possible connecting cities, from various connecting cities to the end of your trip, and sometimes from different possible connecting cities to others.
- Your goal is to uncover a set of flights with available award space that you can piece together as a complete itinerary. Once you've found a combination that works, you can usually call a frequent flyer program, ask for the specific flights, and book the entire trip.
- Ideally, you'll find flights on airlines that are part of the same alliance. To book as a single ticket, each flight needs to be operated by airlines in the same alliance (or sometimes other partner program). For example, you can't use United Airlines to get to San Francisco and then Cathay Pacific to get to Hong Kong, because they aren't partners with each other; but you could combine American Airlines and Cathay Pacific. However, if you can't find a combination that works for the whole journey, it might still be reasonable to combine different awards from different frequent flyer programs. Understanding Airline Alliances.
- Award space may only be available when the segment is part of a larger route. In most cases, an airline either has space available for a flight segment or it doesn't. But a recent trend, particularly for US-based airlines, is to make award space available only on "married segments". In other words, there may be space available for San Francisco to New York via Chicago, but no space on the individual higher demand non-stop flights between San Francisco to Chicago and/or Chicago to New York.
- You need to check with the airline before you book—your custom itinerary may violate the frequent flyer program’s routing restrictions. Each program has a set of obscure restrictions on what itineraries can be booked as a single award ticket. For example, they may limit the maximum number of miles or segments traveled, prohibit connecting in a specific zone when you are travelling between two other zones, block your ability to connect in a city, or otherwise restrict your options. Often these restrictions aren’t even spelled out on their websites.
This has made it much more complicated to piece together your own itineraries. You can't always assume that if you see space on some connecting route that you can take advantage of that space as an individual segment or even as part of another connecting route. Or that if there is no space on an individual segment, that there will be no space on a route that uses one of those segments.
When you use their online booking tool, these rules are automatically enforced. When you are building the itinerary yourself, you may come up with an option that unintentionally breaks the rules. You'll want to call in (or use the online booking tool) to make sure that your planned trip is indeed possible. In rare cases, you might need to inform the airline’s phone agents of some of the rules that you were able to unearth via the web, as they sometimes need encouragement to book a more round-about itinerary.
Uncovering hidden award space
While segment-by-segment searching takes more time, it can uncover routing possibilities that aren't automatically checked during a normal award search.
- Getting a separate ticket to / from a US gateway. Award search tools will only show space that is available for your entire trip. As US carriers have gotten stingier and stingier with domestic award availability, there often isn't any end-to-end award space to your destination, even if there is plenty of space for the expensive long-haul part of your trip. This problem is compounded by the fact that you can usually only combine award flights on a single US airline with any given international flight, so to find a complete award ticket you have to get lucky with availability on a specific combination of airlines.
- Using a separate ticket for the final leg of your trip. If you are travelling to a less well-traveled destination, it may be served by very few airlines. These airlines may not be partners with frequent flyer programs you have access to (or any at all). Or you may not be able to combine flights on that airline with the available flights for the other part of your journey. In many cases, you’ll need to be satisfied with getting an award ticket that gets you into the same “region” as your destination and then booking an additional inexpensive flight for the final leg of your trip.
- Including an extra connection. Award search tools are good at searching for routes that involve a single connection. But they get worse when they need to check multiple connections and often won't bother checking more complicated routes. You can often uncover additional award space by substituting an additional connecting flight for one of the legs of your trip.
- Utilizing an out of the way connection. Award search tools will only search for routes that involve common connecting cities and will stay close to the minimum possible flight distance for your trip. You can sometimes take advantage of a more out-of-the way connecting city that the search tool didn't bother looking at. For example, the tool may not find award space to Texas, but you might find space on a flight to the East Coast and then on a separate flight from the East coast to Texas. Just be aware, some frequent flyer programs will limit the number of segments or the total mileage flown, so you might not be able to take advantage of some of the more extreme options you uncover.
- Making an extended connection. Award search tools will only look for normal connecting flights between cities, where you typically spend less than 4 hours and always less than 24 hours at the connecting airport. For example, if they are checking for a connection through Chicago, they will need to find availability on a flight into and out of Chicago on the same day. They won’t consider an award flight that gets you into Chicago on one day and a separate award flight that leaves a day or two later.
- Flying coach for part of your business or first-class trip. There may be premium cabin availability for your long-haul flight (the main flight(s) between the US and your destination), but not the domestic part of the trip or for the short final flight to your ultimate destination. Depending on the website, the award search engine might not display business or first-class award availability unless it is available for the entire trip. If you want to make sure to find this space, you’ll need to search just for the long-haul sections and then again for other pieces of your trip.
- Visiting two different regions. If you are flying to a distant destination, you’ll often need to connect in different region of the world. For example, your flight to Africa may need to connect in Europe, your flight to Australia may need to connect in East Asia, or your flight to Southeast Asia may need to connect in East Asia. Often the cost of separate award tickets to the connecting region and from the connecting region to the final destination is the same, or not much more than, an award ticket all the way to the destination. If so, you might be able to find award availability for each part of your journey with separate frequent flyer programs, even when there is no availability for the entire trip with a single program..
By separately searching for different parts of your trip, you can see what is available and decide if it makes sense for you to make your own way to and/or from the departure city.
For example, by searching segment-by-segment for your trip, you might be able to find award space to Jakarta, Singapore, Sydney, Hong Kong, or Kuala Lumpur, even if there is no award availability all the way to Bali. Once you’ve found award possibilities that will get you close to where you are going, you can focus on searching for the final leg or you can combine the long-distance award with an inexpensive additional flight or cheap additional award.
In our example, the award search tool may find space San Francisco and Singapore, but not between Denver and San Francisco. But it may not have bothered to check a less desirable route from Denver to San Francisco through Portland. If you know the San Francisco to Singapore space exists, you can focus harder on figuring out a way to get to San Francisco.
Or the search tool may have found space between Seoul and Singapore, but not been able to find connecting non-stop space to Seoul from any US gateway city. By searching segment-to-segment, you might see the space from Seoul to Singapore and then uncover a route to Seoul via Tokyo or Honolulu that the award search tool didn't try.
If you are willing to spend some time in one of the connecting cities, it opens up additional options for your trip. And with many frequent flyer programs, you wouldn't need to pay any more miles to take this stopover. Use Free Stopovers to Visit Two (or More) Places for the Price of One.
Disadvantages of separate reservations
Hopefully, searching segment-by-segment will let you uncover a set of flights you can book as a single award. But sometimes that isn't possible or would require a route that is too inconvenient.
If so, you can settle for an award ticket that covers as much ground as possible and make a separate reservation for the rest of your trip. For example, you can book an award ticket from a US gateway to your destination and then book a separate cash or award "positioning" ticket to the gateway city.
There are some downsides to this approach, other than just any extra booking costs.
- You won't be able to check luggage all the way through to your final destination. If you need to check bags, you will need to head to the baggage claim at the connecting city, wait for your bags, re-check them, and go back through security. At an international airport, you may need to go through customs and immigration both ways.
- If your flight is delayed and you miss your next flight, you may be out of luck. The airline from your first ticket isn't responsible for getting you to your next destination and the airline from the flight you missed isn't responsible for you being late. Unless they take pity on you, you may need to buy a last minute replacement ticket or find a last minute award flight.
- You will need to add extra connecting time to deal with both of these issues and it might not be enough. Then if everything goes as it should, you'll wind up needing to spend a bunch of extra time waiting around the airport.
If you can carry-on your bags, it makes the process much simpler.
One approach for dealing with the risk is to purchase a backup flight. Until recently, this was usually an expensive option. But with the major US airlines introducing free cancellation, it can be a sensible option. Just to be sure that you get to your main flight, you buy a second positioning flight that leaves a little later than your main flight. If everything is going as planned, you cancel the backup flight at the last minute. If not, you cancel the original flight and use your backup.
If you do this with paid tickets, rather than award tickets, you are probably going to wind up with a flight credit (rather than a real refund). So make sure you are using airlines that you are likely to fly again within the year. And don't forget to cancel one of the flights.
Another alternative is to stay a day or more and visit the city you are connecting in. That greatly reduces the risk you'll miss your flight and avoids excessive time but adds days to the total length of your trip.
Searching for your long-haul flight
If you are flying internationally, the first goal is to find award availability for your long-haul flights. In other words, look for availability from the US to the country or region you are travelling to, without worrying about how you are going to get to the US gateway city. This is usually the most important and expensive part of your journey.
- You’ll need to take advantage of some convenient tools that help you find the various flight options to/from a given city. Find All the Flight Options to Your Destination.
- The first flights to check are the direct flights between the US and your destination. These flights are usually, but not always, the most convenient. If you want to fly to Rome, you can start with flights that go directly from the US to Rome. If you want to fly to Hanoi, you can start with flights that go directly from the US to Hanoi.
- If you want to travel to a less-connected destination, you may need to search for nearby hub There aren’t many long-haul flights into smaller cities, or even the largest city, in many countries. You’ll typically have to connect through the country’s capital, major city, or major tourist destination. So, if you are trying to fly to a minor destination, you should focus most of your effort on figuring out how to get to a more connected nearby destination. Then you can figure out the way to travel the final leg.
- If you can’t find availability on nonstops between the US and your destination (or a nearby city), you may need to check for connecting flights through major hubs. This is always going to be the case for destinations that are too far away or that don’t generate enough traffic to justify a nonstop flight. Even if some flights are available that go directly to your destination, flying through an international hub can vastly increase the routing possibilities.
- To reduce the number of combinations, start with the most convenient US gateways. If there are flights from a nearby airport, start with those. If not, start with US cities that you can fly to cheaply and/or that are in your general direction of travel. For example, if you live in Ohio and want to fly to Europe, it is less useful to look for routes out of San Francisco and Los Angeles than for routes out of Chicago or New York. Start with most convenient connecting cities, if you can’t find space, move on to less convenient options.
For example, if you want to fly to Queensland Australia and the Great Barrier Reef, you are mostly likely going to fly through Sydney and perhaps Melbourne, which have many more international flights. However, sometimes you can connect through a neighboring country instead. For example, there are flights to the Queensland area of Australia from Auckland, New Zealand.
In another example, you can easily connect to smaller cities in Malaysia via Singapore or Hong Kong, rather than Kuala Lumpur.
For example, if you are flying to Asia, you are going to want to search for availability to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Beijing, and Shanghai, and then from those cities to your destination. You might even wind up having to add in flights through smaller cities that are directly served from the US such as Guangzhou. Or if you are flying to Africa, you need to search for availability to London, other European cities, and the UAE, and then from those cities to your destination.
Unfortunately, as your search for availability expands, the number of different combinations that you need to search dramatically increases. You’ll need to search for several different hubs from each of the convenient gateway cities.
Booking the final leg(s)
Once you've uncovered your different long-haul possibilities, you can try to find availability on any missing segments, such as the initial trip to a gateway airport, and/or the final hop to your ending destination. You’ll want to focus on the same alliance as the long-haul route, for whichever days work to connect you to your long-haul flight.
If you can’t find a flight, you might see if there is something available with a stopover of a day or two. For example, if you need to get to San Francisco for an international flight on Friday and you can’t find any award availability, there might be availability on a flight that gets there on Wednesday or Thursday and you can extend your trip with a couple of days in San Francisco. Similarly, if you can’t find availability to your final destination on the right day, you might be able to leave a couple of days later and enjoy a stopover in the regional hub.
With some frequent-flyer programs, you won’t pay any extra to make the stopover. With others, you’ll have to pay a mileage premium, but it will often be low enough that the trip will still make sense. Learn more in our Use Free Stopovers to Visit Two (or More) Places for the Price of One.
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