Lessons from Scores of Recent Premium Class International Mileage Award Bookings

As many folks know, I probably book more award tickets than anyone else in the world. And I develop a really good sense for the value and ease of using different sorts of mileage and what routes offer the best availability.

So for those looking to do it themselves, or just thinking about what’s possible and wanting to set expectations accordingly, I thought I’d offer a bit of stream of consciousness on award availability.

It occurred to me yesterday that the conventional wisdom changes frequently, at least in terms of available routes. That’s because I noticed first class award seats available on Thai almost every day during the summer from Zurich to Bangkok and back. I assume this will tighten up quickly, but it really struck me because the Zurich route was perhaps the most difficult one to secure just three or four months ago. Meanwhile, London Heathrow and Paris used to be available almost daily, but those have tightened considerably.

And routing from the US to Asia via Zurich has become much easier now that the ANA award search website displays Swiss inventory, so piecing together flights in and out of Zurich is a breeze. Previously one might check Swiss availability as offered to Miles & More members and hope it was also available to partners. Now one has a much better sense before calling whether a given set of flights will be open as partner awards.

  • United domestic award availability is the pits. Randy Petersen has riffed on the limited award inventory offered by US Airways, but I’ve actually found that domestically their premium cabin award space is readily available more often than not and much more so than partners United or Continental. Sure, international business class on US Airways is tough but who wants to fly US Airways in business until they completely roll out their new product? United is almost impossible to use for domestic connections. If I want to grab Lufthansa flights out of Chicago, I find I can’t get to Chicago. Or Denver. Or San Francisco. From many cities, for days at a time. And heaven forbid I’m trying to fly hub-to-hub, say Los Angeles or San Francisco to Chicago, or to Denver. I might have just a single flight a day with award space, more often than not in coach, and at inconvenient times for connections. Contrast that to US Airways, if I need to grab Munich-Charlotte on Lufthansa, I can usually get back Charlotte to the West Coast in US Airways first class, or Philadelphia to Wherever in US Airways first. Not so with United (and not so with Continental out of Houston, just try Houston to Los Angeles or San Francisco where both United and Continental have tons of flights rarely is anything available, but US Airways will offer me plenty of connecting options through Phoenix).
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  • Star Alliance Premium Cabin West Coast award availability to Europe is tough. I love the Star Alliance for its myriad options to get wherever I’m looking to go. But generally speaking flying out of Los Angeles or San Francisco to Europe it’s very hard to find non-stop availability. Granted there aren’t that many flights, especially compared to flying out of Chicago, but those flights with award space are few and far between, especially during high and shoulder season. (Around Christmas I’m seeing tons of Lufthansa award inventory from Los Angeles to Frankfurt.) Award availability to Asia is much better. No big deal, it’s easy to get transatlantic premium cabin space from the middle of the country and the East Coast. But then of course you have to find the domestic segments to match up to those premium cabin flights, and that’s much harder than getting the premium cabin flights themselves. And even Swiss, whom I love for their generous award inventory, is pretty tight-fisted on San Francisco – Zurich in particular and Los Angeles – Zurich only to a slightly lesser extent.
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  • American is Great for South America Award Availability. Check out Dallas, Miami, or New York to Buenos Aires in First Class, most days that I check I can find 4 first class seats. Out of Miami, LAN Argentina is great for business class award availability. Sometimes American will offer good business inventory on these flights as well. Of course they offer much more lift to South America than United and even Continental. Their award offerings are just excellent.
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  • American is tough for business class to Europe. Planning in advance, finding two business class seats transatlantic on American metal is pretty hard. Sometimes the flights into Frankfurt or Spain come up. But rarely do they release seats early to most destinations. British Airways award inventory is great, but you can’t redeem that from the US to London, you have to fly from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean per AAdvantage rules. If you want to fly non-stop from the US, your best bet is Iberia. (But then you’re stuck flying Iberia. Hah!)
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  • If you want lots of premium seats on the same flight, your friends are Lufthansa, Swiss, and British Airways. Those three carriers are in my experience the most generous when you’re looking for four or more seats on a given long-haul flight. I’ve seen as many as 8 business and first class seats on Lufthansa at the same time, as many as eight in business on Swiss (though rarely more than 2 in first), and as many as seven in First on British Airways with quite some regularlity.
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  • If you want Cathay Pacific First Class Awards to Asia, search from San Francisco. The Toronto flights have decent availability. Sometimes JFK, with three flights a day (one via Vancouver). But the best and most consistent gateway for first class awards is San Francisco. I assume this is because there are two daily flights and because their partners don’t hub in San Francisco. Presumably Cathay relies on local San Francisco traffic to drive these flights, rather than having the additional connecting traffic that American brings to the JFK and LAX operations.
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  • British Airways miles are great… for use on partners. BA imposes crazy fuel surcharges on its own metal flights, and of course if you’re flying in a premium cabin out of Heathrow there’s the UK luxury tax as well. But their award chart isn’t terrible for partner flying, they don’t impose fuel surcharges on partner flights, and their change fees are only $70.
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  • United miles are a pain. The Star Alliance is great for award redemption. Give me Continental or Air Canada Aeroplan or US Airways miles any day of the week. But United is just too unpredictable. Since they ‘block’ seats that their partners are offering for awards because they don’t want to pay for those seats (while you could book the seats with any other Star carrier’s miles), even when you do your research in advance via the All Nippon Airways website you won’t know until you’re on the phone whether United will actually let you book a given award seat. Very frustrating, especially for folks who are not 100,000-mile flyers that have their phone calls answered right away (imagine waiting on hold for an hour to find that seats you know are available you’re told you can’t book) and who can make unlimited free changes to their awards.
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  • Delta miles are useless. Not completely useless, but certainly comparatively useless. If you want to fly premium class international, especially to Asia, and you have more than one person flying you’re in a really bad spot with Skymiles. And compounding the problem is their award pricing engine — not just the award calendar on the website displaying incorrect information about when seats are available, but the pricing engine itself overcharging when seats are in fact available. I am confident in saying that Skymiles are worth far less than any other major North American mileage currency.
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  • I love working with US Airways the best. I probably like Aeroplan miles the most, but I like working with US Airways the best because not only do they have access to inventory of the whole Star Alliance, but they also offer 3-day award holds — even without the miles in your account. They rarely enforce much in the way of routing rules (though it’s pretty much call center roulette, if you don’t like the answer you get, hang up and call back). I also do like talking with Continental, those calls go pretty quickly, whereas US Airways calls can take awhile when an agent has to hold interminably for their rate desk to properly price taxes.
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  • Star Alliance to Asia, Asiana availability is good. But Los Angeles – Seoul is no longer nearly as easy as it used to be. You used to be able to find 2 to 4 premium class award seats nearly every day on this route, but no longer. The easiest from the US to Asia is to route via Europe (Lufthansa and Swiss with their excellent availability) and then Europe to Bangkok and beyond on Thai or Frankfurt (and to a lesser extent Munich) to Asian destinations on Lufthansa.

  • I could keep riffing on this stuff for days, the difficulty finding availability on Singapore and how to accomplish it, tips on fiding space to Africa, let me know what y’all are interested in and I’m happy to expand…

    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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    Comments

    1. Gary,
      You love writing it, I love reading it. I would like to hear a Singapore riff for sure. Also the deal with NZ on LAX-LHR using Alliance points. I myself have been frustrated with domestic UA awards to east coast hubs for LH connections etc. Why??? And as good as BA is with seats, not sure if you noticed the complete lack of LHR-LAX in F (more than say 1 or possibly 2 seats if lucky) the months of July and August? Getting back to LAX from Europe this summer looks rough right now. Yet the flights we speak of (LH, BA, LX) all show F9 daily. Do you think things will loosen closer in? If so, amen to those of us who can make last minute plans. And oh yeah, the lack of UA one-way awards on partners must be killing more folks than just me… How can you get anywhere in Europe?? Buy the cheap intra flights I guess…

    2. United is great in one respect: they offer one-way rewards and there is no close in ticketing fee (i.e., expedite fee). So, if you need a last minute seat (which is often when seats pop up), there is no outrageous fee. American does one way seats but charge crazy last minute fees.

    3. A really useful package of distilled wisdom based on your stack of experience — thanks, and keep it up!

    4. Very useful and practical information. Please do expand on SQ awards and awards to Africa. These are topics not frequently covered on flyertalk. Would also like your opinion on scoring awards from North America to Down Under. Thanks and keep up the great work.

    5. Gary-insightful as usual. What do you find with carribean rewards? I agree about US F awards, always avaiable in multiples.

    6. Thanks for the great info. Could you talk more about redeeming to DXB and DAR (from YYZ, avoiding transiting in the US)?

      I know to DXB usually KL/AF has decent availability, as does BA. Sometimes you can use AC/LX/LH to get there as well. But I haven’t been able to find any good options to DAR.

    7. Hi Gary,

      To quasi-echo Jeremy, do you have a guess as to when UA will allow booking on partner airlines when using one-way awards? Last I’ve heard was “summer”. Any other info floating around out there?

      Thanks!

    8. Thanks Gary,

      I know from personal experience Delta is awful, but there are so many of us with a ton of skymiles. Any tips or tricks on how to best use those would be great! How to find any availability!? Anything!

      Or should I just get a ton of magazines 🙂

    9. great article but since when did BA stop charging fuel surcharges on partner awards? I certainly paid a year ago.

    10. John: BA didn’t stop charging them, they’re just relatively low compared to BA metal. Also, AA and LA don’t charge fuel surcharges at all, so awards on their metal have no fuel surcharge.

    11. Hi Gary,

      Great info! Just a quick question, wouldn’t routing through europe to get to asia trigger a RTW ticket or is that the beauty of US airways? Would love to hear more about Singapore.

    12. Gary,

      Great info! One thing I’d be interested in learning more about is the obscure routing/MPM/maximum # of segments rules associated with award tickets. I can find out whether open jaws/stopovers are allowed but the other restrictions don’t seem to be published. Specifically, I’m thinking of booking an AC award to Asia via Europe and want to know how MPM rules limit my options.

    13. Gary:

      Great info and very timely as I am in the process of booking a trip for my son to NRT this summer, trying to add in stopovers to some interesting spots with creative routing.

      And please do let us know what to do with all those SkyMiles. Booking my son’s trip on DL to NRT would have cost 135K miles in coach. I can get it on *A carriers for 105K…..in Biz!

      Keep up the great work. I really enjoy your blog.

    14. Yes, more on Singapore please. I travel there often and it’s always tough finding awards, apart from using KF miles of course. SQ take care of their own but no one else!

    15. This was one of the best posts I’ve read about airline programs, gives a good snapshot of the good and bad of programs.

    16. Gary: Thanks I would love for you to keep opining in this direction. Really curious about ways to get to accomplish trips to JRO and IPC.

    17. Hey, great report — really helpful, just wanted to share that US Airways can book awards on all the star alliance partners BUT Shanghai Air. I’ve confirmed with more than 3 agents/supervisors, and was told that it’s not possible to book on Shanghai Air for a Dividend Miles Star Alliance Award ticket. One may accumulate miles when taking FM flights, but to redeem miles for FM is not possible for US. (Aeroplan/United have access to the inventories for FM)

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