Award Booking Day

I only accomplished a limited amount of ‘work’ yesterday, spending more time than I should have developing award tickets for co-workers.

  • One colleague is traveling to Bangkok and Singapore. It’s a first class award booked with Air Canada Aeroplan points. But the outbound was especially arduous — the only transpacific flight we could find on the needed day was Asiana’s Los Angeles – Seoul flight, but to connect to it from DC required a 6am departure connecting through Chicago — the early morning LA non-stop flight didn’t provide enough connecting time at LAX. (Asiana’s LA-Seoul flights, to some extent their LA-Chicago flights, and Air China’s flights are perhaps the most available Star Alliance transpac awards in premium classes, just a tip…)As the trip approached, United’s Dulles-Beijing flight opened up. Granted it’s United (and their old seat, to boot), which is clearly not as nice an experience as Asiana’s new first class, but it allowed for a connection to EgyptAir’s Beijing-Bangkok flight in first — making a one-stop trip to Bangkok from DC. So we booked it, paying CAD$55 for the change.
  • Two co-workers are getting married in late spring, and they’ve been building up their mileage accounts, mostly by churning American Airlines co-branded credit cards. They each have enough points for a first class award to Europe or Asia, and plenty of Starwood hotel points. So I built two itineraries for them to choose from.
    1. South Asia. Cathay Pacific had two first class award seats for Toronto-Hong Kong on their preferred departure date. Cathay Pacific first class awards are notoriously difficult to get, let alone two seats, and let alone their new first class product which has only six seats in the cabin. But the Toronto-Hong Kong flight is the easiest, and business class had seven open award seats as well on the flight. Then the itinerary, which was really just a discussion document (thank goodness American still allows for holding an award for 5 days, which is not as nice as the old 14 days but still works), took them in first class to Bangkok, and eventually back home in first class through Tokyo.
    2. Greece. That’s the trip they really wanted, and despite my strong Asia biad the one they ultimately picked. American had absolutely nothing available on its own metal in business or first class across the Atlantic — from any gateway to any destination — within a several day span. Neither did Iberia. British Airways had plenty of premium class availability from across all of their US East Coast cities, as I find they almost always do, but you can’t claim those flights with American miles (very frustrating rule!). Ultimately I grabbed Toronto – London, connecting to Athens, with the overwater segments in first class. Canadian flights are permitted for redemption under American AAdvantage rules, just not the US flights.
  • Yet another colleague is getting married, and we started brainstorming award ideas. I think I may have them sold on South Asia, and Air Canada’s ability to offer both transatlantic and transpacific crossings on the same award really opens things up. And it lets me give them both first class arrivals and departures on Thai Airways to and from Bangkok. I’m just a huge fan of Thai’s first class ground experience at their home airport, I find it superior to Lufthansa’s first class terminal experience at Frankfurt, for instance. The onboard service can be a mixed back, and the airline is well known for aircraft substitution (new first class for old first class on their 747’s especially).Even with the strengthening dollar against the euro, I really do prefer South Asia as a destination for its affordability. Not to mention the incredible service levels. I like Thai service, but love Indonesian hospitality. And connecting through Japan, well, I tend to believe though much more formal that the service levels there probably exceed anywhere else in the world.

One lesson from doing much award searching is that on the whole, American is a great program for award availability on its own metal in the US and Carribean. Premium class awards were difficult to find across the Atlantic, though several first class awards come up in my searches for Tokyo and South America. British Airways is a great partner for transatlantic availability in my experience, at least departing the US East Coast. But Cathay Pacific, Japan Air Lines, and Qantas awards are notoriously difficult to get in premium classes.

While American is much better than United when it comes to awards on its own planes, especially in the US and on transcons (anecdotally), the Star Alliance is much better for transatlantic and transpacific awards than is oneworld (and, quite obviously for those in the know, than is Skyteam).

Another lesson is how much I’ve come to love the Air Canada Aeroplan program for award booking. British Midland’s is still an even better value with their one-way awards with stopovers and thier cash and points chart, but the general feeling is that the generosity of that program may not be long-lived. Changes do happen across all programs, and the value inherent in Aeroplan could well dissipate but for now I am a huge fan…

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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