Securing Premium Class Awards with Star Alliance

For all the complaints about award travel, and this is something I’ve written about before (and by no means to brag), I really don’t have too much trouble finding award seats.

That’s partly because I have a critical mass account balance with several different airlines and major alliances, so when I go to redeem if there isn’t availability with one I simply query another.

But it’s also because I redeem nmostly for premium class international travel, and while those tickets aren’t always available on all routes by any means, I’ve often seen the biggest complaints – with a few notable exceptions – to be about the old fashioned 25,000 mile domestic awards. And those are hardly the best value anyway.

I’d just assume pay my $250 – $400 for a flight between DC and California, earn miles on those flights, and use the miles for a much greater return: the $10,000+ ticket I could never afford to purchase but that makes travel more than just an uncomfortable means to get from A to B.

Plus, there are a few tricks to the process.

Recently I used United Mileage Plus miles for two international first class awards from DC to Phuket, Thailand, with a stopover in Hong Kong on the return. That’s not the kind of award that the United website lets you search for, so it requires a phone call.

    “Hello, I’d like two tickets from DC to Phuket in First Class, please.”

    “Sorry, nothing’s available.”

    “Are you sure? Is there availability on the Dulles-Tokyo non-stop, either with United or ANA, on my preferred date?”


    “How about Tokyo to Bangkok?”


    “And Bangkok to Phuket?”


    “Great! Let’s look at the return. Can I go from Phuket to Bangkok and on to Hong Kong?”


    “Great. Let’s hang out there for a few days, it’ll be interesting to see all the events surrounding the anniversary of Great Britain’s handover to mainland China. Now I need to get home. Can I go from Hong Kong to Seoul?”


    “How about Seoul to Chicago, on Asiana?”


    “Great! I bet we can even find seats from Chicago to DC, right?”


    “Great! I think we’ve found an award itinerary. Now, I still may want to work on the routing, so I’m not quite ready to ticket. But let’s put this baby on hold!”

    “Have I met all your travel needs today, sir?”

Customers call and get told nothing’s available. But that doesn’t mean nothing’s available. Agents may be poorly trained. It may take work, the computer systems they’re working with aren’t perfect by any means and may only check a limited number of simple routings. And they may not want to go through all the work of testing segments one at a time, even if it occurs to them that they could.

So I’ve found one big secret to booking award travel is to do the legwork yourself. That’s hard to do on the phone with testy agents. But it’s much easier to do by yourself. But most airlines don’t let you do it! On their own websites, anyway.

The first thing to do is know the routings. Know the partners. Who flies where you’re trying to go? And especially if you’re looking for a premium class seat (and you really should be…), but even for coach, start with the hardest part of the trip to get. In this case it was the transpacific segmetns. Look, I know I can get from DC to Chicago or the West Coast and back. The hard part is going to be finding first class seats across the Pacific.

So before I call United I write out United’s partners that fly across the Pacific and the routes that they fly. Then I check for availability on those specific flights. And once I find availability, I work forwards and backwards from there, in order to (1) get to the transpacific gateway city, and (2) get from the destination of the flight I’ve found to the city I’m actually trying to get to, if necessary.

The way I do this when redeeming United miles is that I’ve signed up for an ANA Mileage Plan account. And ANA Mileage Plan members can use that program’s website to check availability on most of their Star Alliance partner’s flights. (Swissair seems not to come up as an option on the ANA site.) Air Canada offers something similar, though the ANA site performs better for me.

Working with other airlines it is often the case that you’ll need to sign up with frequent flyer accounts with many of the carrier’s partners and check each partner individually. A pain, perhaps, but worth the payoff when looking for the elusive three-cabin first seats to Asia.

Now it should be said that the results found on the ANA website are not going to be a perfect match for what United will let you book. ANA does a good job telling you what seats a Star Allaince carrier is making available as an award. But United then filters availability with some parnters on certain routes. So while Thai Airways might be offering an award seat from London to Bangkok, United might reply “not available.” They make it sound like Thai isn’t offering it, when in reality United just refuses to pay for it.

United uses a system called StarNet for booking these awards, and agents are only supposed to book what comes up there. Used to be that you could still grab an available seat via a ‘manual sell’… The agent sends a message to the partner carrier asking them for the award seat, and then it would come back confirmed, bypassing United’s filtering in StarNet entirely. But that’s exceedingly rare these days, as customer service reps are no longer supposed to do it.

I find the biggest problems with United’s filtering to be on Lufthansa, especially routes within Europe, and also premium class long-haul on Thai. They really don’t need to do much filtering with Singapre, as those seats are hard enough to come by on their own! (Although I’m always surprised by how much business class availability on Singapore is out there, and how frequently I can find a single seat in First… It’s that second seat on the same flights that’s so often vexxing.)

Still, the ANA tool is an excellent starting place, and tells you what flights to ask for when calling United. Doing the work for the agent on the other end of the phone is one of the absolute keys to finding the award seats you want.

It’s also helpful to know when to look for seats. United in particular releases seats both early and late. Check 5+ months out, check a couple weeks before departure, check 2-3 days before departure. Now, if you’re like me you look obsessively more often. And revenue management will release seats at various times. The idea for the airline is to offer as awards those seats they’re confident won’t be sold, and at the same time ensure that customers don’t book award seats that they’d otherwise purchase with cash.

Some seats get released when schedules are loaded 330 days out. But the ‘I called 330 days out and the seats were already gone!’ complaint misses the point. There may not have been any seats released yet. And just because seats aren’t available, doesn’t mean that they won’t become available.

At least until United’s premium cabin availability shrinks dramatically (and perhaps even then) with the introduction of their new business and first class cabins, it’s pretty much a lock to be able to find premium class transpacific flights days before departure.

This isn’t true with all airlines. In some cases, once seats have been booked, no more will be released, even in the case of an empty cabin. But United definitely dumps unsold seats into award inventory very frequently in the days leading up to a flight.

Check it yourself — search for international first and business class 2-3 days forward on various transpacific routes and you’ll be shocked at how easy they are to get.

Ok, fair enough, you don’t want to wait to plan a spur of the moment vacation. But you don’t have to. Just plan the best itinerary you possibly can when you’re doing your initial booking and “trade up.” Look for better seats. Maybe you found an undesireable routing, or you only found coach. Book it, lock in your trip, and then call back to make a change. Unless you’re a United 1K you’ll have to pay $100 per ticket, but it’s a fee I’d find worth it to go from coach to 3-cabin first for a day of flying in each direction.

A co-worker recently came to me for help on a transpacific trip. He was having no luck talking to United. We found some coach seats (what he was looking for) for a transpacific trip, on his preferred carrier even. Then I said “you’re so close to enough miles for business class, consider booking the coach ticket and go earn the difference in miles then re-ticket later.” He signed up for a United Visa (see here and here regarding the business visa), will soon have the points he needs from the signup bonus, and will be in a position to trade up later.

With 60,000 points for coach and 90,000 for business to Asia (just 15k more each way, and that gets you all the way from the US East Coast to just about anywhere in Asia!), the premium cabin represents one of the best values out there in award redemption.

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, 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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  1. Nice post. Does ANA provide any bonuses for registering with them – and if not now, is it worth holding out for a bonus?

  2. Yes, doing the legwork is essential for almost any reward reservation these days. I get annoyed by airlines that do not put full (preferably interactive) route maps on their websites so I can check all their nonstop routes. I’m not sure if Delta has recently reformed, but I recall it being surprisingly difficult to figure out all their nonstop Hawaii flights last year (I, of course, was looking for the most obscure ones!). Recently, I got a family member an almost impossible 25000 mile coach award from AA to Alaska this month by combing the flights on Alaska’s website, and then trying to mesh them with available AA seats.

    I personally hate the airlines that dump award inventory at the last minute. Planning leisure travel — especially summer or holiday travel — at the last minute simply sucks. Prices are usually high, and it can take 5 times as much time to find something you want available. It’s ridiculous, but I’d rather get it over with 330 days in advance.

  3. What about one world? what would be the best way to work around that, specially between AA and BA from North America to South Asia?

  4. On One World sign up to Qantas Frequent Flyer (free unless resident in Australia or New Zealand) and use in the same way as ANA, explained above by gleff. Note that Qantas online tool does not have every One World destination listed, and like ANA tool there are some quirks to be aware of (multi-city award search works best but for complex itineraries break it down into small sections of no more than 2 flights each).

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