Though I have an upcoming trip to the Maldives, I don’t have a ton of exciting travel to look forward to beyond that, at least exciting by the standard of flying international first class on a premium airline to an exotic destination, hopefully one I haven’t been to before. So this weekend I decided to start playing around with future trips.
First I put an award on hold to the United Arab Emirates — American miles to fly Etihad first class (suites with doors!) to Abu Dhabi, then a business class hop over to Delhi and back, the though was to stay either at the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi and/or Park Hyatt Dubai while in the U.A.E.
I wasn’t sure if that especially appealed, but the ability to hold the award without committing was nice. Then I got to work on some other options.
I held a Cathay Pacific first class award to Bali (the Hong Kong – Bali segments sell as business class only, though the 747s flying the route are equipped with first and you can get seated in that cabin on day of departure).
And I held another Cathay Pacific first class award to Malaysia.
I was playing with American miles largely because Lufthansa first class has become so elusive for first class bookings. So has Swiss first, though it’s still occasionally possible to get that in advance on the Montreal – Zurich route. Which means that for transatlantic, the only option for advance first class award bookings seems to be United which I’m not all that keen on. For transpacific crossings, All Nippon only releases advance first class award inventory during the Winter months. Asiana will usually only release first class on JFK – Seoul once a week or thereabouts, though the Los Angeles – Seoul flight is a bit easier to get (not as easy as it was a couple of years ago when it was possible to get four first class seats several days a week on that route). Singapore doesn’t release first class award seats as a matter of policy, except to their own members spending double miles on the Boeing 777 or close to a million miles on the A380.
Right now, for advance bookings and US departures, United/Continental and US Airways miles are tough to use for better first class products. Whereas American miles can be used on easy to get Cathay first (a good quality product though I may be flying it a bit too much these days) and Etihad has many days where their JFK – Abu Dhabi flight offers the entire first class cabin on points.
With three different award options on hold through American, it seemed like a good time to go through the various hold policies of the different airline mileage programs. Holds are useful when you’re not certain what you want to do, when you’re trying to coordinate awards or revenue hotel bookings or tours, and when you’re working hard to get an itinerary just right and the seats aren’t coming together easily.
Holds are far more important on award tickets than on revenue tickets. Revenue tickets you buy the flights that you want, some flights may be more expensive than others but you can construct an itinerary and pay the relevant price. Whereas with award inventory you’re at the mercy of what’s available. You’re at the mercy of the agents you’re working with, how creative and knowledgeable they are (does the Delta agent you get even know who their partners are, let alone which inventory bucket they need to be searching for?). Sometimes it’s really helpful to grab award space on a flight you want and then even hang up and call back and improve or finish the itinerary. Constructing award trips can be much more complicated and time consuming than booking revenue travel. So generous hold policies are, in my opinion, an integral part of the value of a mileage program.
- American. The most generous hold policy I’m aware of among major frequent flyer programs, you can hold an award for five days and they don’t require you to have the miles in your account in order to secure the hold. Purchased points, for which there’s currently a bonus, take about 48 hours to post — well within the hold time — though you’re usually limited to purchasing 40,000 miles per account per year so that alone won’t get you most premium cabin international awards. The hold time is sometimes even long enough to transfer points in from Starwood, SPG transfers generally post on Wednesdays so if you hold an award on Friday and then transfer Starpoints things usually work out in my experience. A decent way to overcome the biggest drawback of the SPG points (As opposed to elite) program which is the length of time it takes to transfer points into airline miles.
- US Airways 72 hour holds are permitted, subject to the ticketing rules of the partners included in the award. They’ll hold the award without deducting miles, and you don’t have to have the miles in your account in order to get the award held. This is especially useful with US Airways’ frequent 100% bonuses on purchased miles — they become no risk propositions. You hold the award you want, so you know that it will be available, and then and only then do you buy the miles. Purchased miles generally post instantly, in contrast to purchased of miles with American and United which tend to take a couple of days to post.
- United. They’ll hold an award for 72 hours (subject to the ticketing policies of the partners included in the award) but only if the miles are in your account, and they generally deduct the times from your account at the time the award is held. If the award isn’t ticketed by the deadline, miles should re-credit to your account automatically. I remember the days of 14 day holds, and 30 day holds before that, still three day holds are sufficient for most purposes. You’re limited of course to the amount of awards that can be held simultaneously by the number of miles in your account since you have to have sufficient miles to hold each award.
- Continental. Will hold awards for three days only if you don’t have sufficient miles in your account to issue the award ticket. (Some airline partners have more stringent ticketing rules, Air China requires instant ticketing for instance.) That’s ok, if you want to hold an award with Continental, but your mileage balance is enough to cover the award, just transfer your points over to United and you can get it held. Then transfer the points back to Continental. I am curious what the new hold rule is going to be for the combined program starting in a few months. Most policies have followed the Continental model, this is one time when I’m really hoping we get to retain United’s policy.
- Delta. Officially only holds awards that are booked on the website, and only for 24 hours. That’s extremely limiting because the website’s functionality is poor, it’s frequently not possible to construct itineraries online, and also because only a handful of Delta partners can be booked online. Sometimes an agent will hold an award over the phone, though technically it is against policy to do so. When I want to hold an award that cannot be booked online, my strategy is to book something on the website and then call Delta. I get the agent to make changes to the reservation, adding flights on partners not available on the web, and then 7 out of 10 times the agent is willing to leave the reservation on hold. If I do have to ticket instantly, I can do so on the website even while still on the phone with the agent in order to avoid the telephone ticketing fee. And while I’ve seen some agents enforce a rule that Delta accounts must be open for 10 days before issuing awards, I’ve never had that issue ticketing online — so as long as a reservation was initially created online, it can be seen online, and thus ticketed online. Hold times for international awards are generally two days rather than one, and if I recall correctly awards originating in Asia can usually be held for seven.
- Alaska. Used to hold awards but moved to a policy of instant ticketing back in the spring of 2010. They’ll give you a grace period to cancel without penalty though. And one of the neat things about the program is that even though Alaska Airlines doesn’t load its own schedules until 330 days out, they will allow you to book awards on partners whenever those partners load their schedule. This is in contrast to American Airlines, you cannot book partner awards until the American Airlines schedule opens — which means that Qantas, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific flights have been open for booking by members of other programs for more than three weeks when American members get first crack. Alaska lets you get access to those Qantas award seats which, when loaded into inventory right at the beginning of the schedule, can go quite quickly. What’s more, Alaska will let you call back later to add Alaska Airlines segments to get to your international gateway city, and make the change with no fee, e.g. book Los Angeles – Melbourne in Qantas first class on the A380 and then call back later to add Pasco – Seattle – Los Angeles without change fee.
- Aeroplan. No award holds, instant ticketing only. Although when a transfer to Aeroplan from American Express Membership Rewards didn’t go through instantly on one occasion (a brand new Aeroplan account, it was flagged for security), the agent did hold the award pending the points becoming available to spend. So it is technically possible to hold an award through Aeroplan, even though the policy is that award holds are not permitted.
- British Airways. No holds at all as a matter of policy, and yet I’ve on rare occasion managed to hold awards for two weeks even (!) and on a partner airline. As with everything British Airways, your mileage may vary, the US call center agents are highly variable and many are quite awful plus the technology they’re working with is bad and few of the agents know how to use it. So to get what you want, hang up and call back. Which is perhaps a more annoying strategy with British Airways than with most programs because the hold times tend to be long for non-status members, frequently 20 minutes or more. But technically and 95% of the time, no award holds at all.
Ultimately I shouldn’t be too concerned with issuing awards rather than ticketing using my American miles, I can even make a speculative booking, because as an Executive Platinum (or at least I expect to be in less than two weeks) I’ll have free award redeposits. That’s a nice feature of top tier elite levels with several of the programs, the ability to make changes to awards later. On my Malaysia itinerary I have everything except the last segment as part of the award — the reservation brings me back to New York but not to DC, which is unsurprising given that it’s over a holiday weekend, American expects to sell the seats. I’ll stick an automatic seat search on Expert Flyer in case the inventory opens up later. And if it doesn’t I’ll buy the flight. But given the ability to make changes to the award, I’ll be in no hurry for the purchase.
What’s been your experience holding awards? Is this an important feature for you in your planning? Are there any other programs whose hold policies you’re specifically interested in where I might be able to offer some insight?