Frugal Travel Guy offers his basic tips on award redemption, which start with being friendly to the agent on the other end of the phone (make them a friend willing to spend the time and do the work necessary to find you your award), be flexible in cities and dates, and be willing to overnight if necessary — plus know your possible partners and routes and suggest them to the agent you’re working with.
All good tips, to be sure. But especially since I’ve been getting several requests for award booking assistance since the October 2008 issue of Conde Nast Traveler reprinted a comment I made on Wendy Perrin’s blog offering award booking help, let me outline my own award booking tips…
Whose miles do you need, and how many?
First, what miles are you collecting? It really does make a difference. I find the best options and available come from Star Alliance carriers but that’s partly a function of where I’m looking to go (most frequently Asia, where Star has a ton of partners). If I were primarily interested in flying US to South America I’d probably be a oneworld guy and find myself redeeming miles on American on LAN. (On the other hand, TAM’s entry into the Star Alliance will help shore up its Latin American deficiency somewhat, largely created by the exit of Mexicana and collapse of Varig.)
Second, having miles across programs is hugely helpful. Obviously you first need to build up a single account to the point where you have a big enough pool of miles to achieve your desired redemption, but once you get there it’s hugely helpful to build up miles in other accounts as well. That way when it comes time to redeem you multiply your chances of finding the seats you want. No availability with American miles? Try your Delta account. No availability there either, try United.
Third, make sure you plan ahead to have the miles you’re going to need, the most frustrating thing for me is when someone comes to me for help with an award booking right before they want to travel and are short the needed miles or they have just enough in one account and almost enough in a second without the time to efficiently earn the balance. Sometimes that means signing up for credit cards, other times just a simple Netflix promotion, or making sure that you just earn miles for the online shopping you’re going to do anyway.
Fourth, consider whose miles you want to spend if you have more than one option. If you have less valuable miles like Delta’s and that program has availability, you probably want to use those miles and conserve your more valuable currencies. If you have multiple accounts that can be used to redeem for the same flight, consider using the account whose award chart requires fewer miles. For example if you have American Express Membership Rewards points and can transfer them into a Continental, Virgin, or All Nippon Airways account to redeem for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class pay attention to the reward charts — Continental requires 100,000 miles, Virgin requires 90,000 miles plus a ton of taxes and surcharges, and depending on the distance of the flight ANA might require only 63,000 or 68,000 miles plus some surcharges but in my experience only half the amount charged by the Virgin program for the very same flight.
Once you have enough miles in your account — and if you’re close it can sometimes even be worth buying the needed miles, I recently helped a co-worker with a first class flight to New Zealand over New Year’s and they had to buy 30,000 miles but they still spent less than a coach ticket and wound up booking international first — it’s time to figure out how to claim your award. And that starts before you ever call up the agent to make friends.
Build your award itinerary yourself, and then call to book.
I do find that most of my redemptions are done over the phone, and that’s because websites frequently don’t access all partners and don’t allow booking stopovers or all possible combinations of flights. They won’t offer all flight options. But then again, the options you’ll get offered by agents won’t either, the software they’re using tends to be pretty unsophisticated. And in my experience that’s the biggest reason people fail to secure the awards they’re after, they are simply told “nothing’s available” and they believe it. Frequently that’s just a function of the software online or that the agents are using, typing in an origin and destination and dates and not seeing anything but not realizing (or in some agents’ cases, not caring) that it’s possible to construct all sorts of options that don’t come up automatically.
You need to figure out what’s likely available before you even get on the phone with an agent. While websites are fairly lacking in the needed functionality, there are several manual workarounds and tricks you can employ to construct your own award and then direct the agent in finding your seats.
Take as the simplest example awards using miles on a Star Alliance carrier. Say that I have US Airways miles and I want to go to Asia or Europe. I have an All Nippon Airways frequent flyer account, which is an indispensable tool because ANA offers online access to award inventory on most Star Alliance airlines (notably absent are Swiss and Air China, but Swiss can be checked online using a Lufthansa account even if you don’t have any miles in that account).
The ANA award booking engine is powerful, but limited. It won’t come up with every available option, it will only check a few possibilities for any given city pair and it will only check single connections. So it’s a bit of a cumbersome process, you need to check pretty much every segment on its own. Start with the hardest to obtain, usually the overwater segments. If I am looking to fly from the US to Asia, I’ll check each North American departure gateway (eg Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, Seattle, New York-JFK, Vancouver to name many but not all). And on the other end I’ll check each arrival city one at a time for each (e.g. Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Tapei, Beijing, Shanghai, Osaka, Ho Chi Minh City to again name many but not all). Once you’ve found the key overwater segments then just work backwards and forwards from there to build your connections from your departure city and to your preferred destination.
I actually find the easiest way to search using the ANA award booking site is via a paid program called the KVS Availability Tool, for which I pay ~ $60 a year but also includes lots of other nifty features including detailed inventory from several different computer reservation ssytems, one-click access to seat maps and flight information, and one-click access to many itineraries. But this is by no means required.
Checking for oneworld inventory can be accomplished with a Qantas frequent flyer account (though you won’t find Cathay Pacific inventory that way) or a British Airways account. The former is incorporated into the KVS Availability tool. Oneworld flyers find the best paid service to be Expert Flyer which is useful for searching awards and upgrades and which will even email you when specific inventory you’ve flagged becomes available.
If you’re trying to redeem Delta or Northwest miles, my suggestion is to find another program. (Hah!) At least with their partner Continental, you’ll soon be able to use those miles on Star Alliance carriers. So their miles are going to become much more valuable. But Delta and Northwest offer very poor redemption possibilities relative to other major carriers, and they’re members of the stingiest alliance for awards, Skyteam. Still, there are some awards which are possible and one place to start is Northwest’s Japanese site which offers several partners (but notably absent from online availability are Korean and China Southern so you’ll have to call for those in most cases).
Working with your phone agent
Frugal Travel Guy suggests putting a hold on a ticket once you find one you want, even if you’re looking for more than one seat. I actually suggest putting a hold on a ticket long before that. Once I find a key segment I want I’ll put a hold on it, construct whatever else I can even if it’s far off anything I’m willing to accept. There comes a point in a phone call with an agent, perhaps after 30 or 45 minutes, where there’s only so much more patience I or that agent have. It’s time to lock in the gains and start again on improving it later.
Of course this strategy does not work with Delta, they will no longer hold an award over the phone. But it certainly works when I redeem my United (72 hour holds most of the time, but in a few cases such as when including Singapore on the itinerary only 24 hours, boy I long for the days of 30-day extendable holds!) or American (5 days, recently cut from 14).
The real key to working with your phone agent is to be pleasant, not to be pushy (or sound too knowledgeable too quickly), and recognize when to bail. Some agents are just unhelpful. I recently spoke to one who claimed that they had checked a full 6 weeks of availability on Asiana between Seoul and every US gateway and found nothing but coach. I knew this was impossible in a matter of 30 seconds, but I couldn’t very well call them a liar. It wouldn’t have done me much good. So I thanked them for their time, hung up, and called back and got a better agent that was able to help me.
Some agents will go to the ends of the earth and back for you, and with some airlines that’s necessary — especially United. While the Star Alliance offers amazing redemption possibilities, United is alone among its partner carriers in denying their members access to award seats being offered by other Star carriers. This is frequently referred to as StarNet blocking. I once checked 51 days where Thai Airways was offering two53 separate flights, and United wouldn’t book a single one of them.
This isn’t nearly as easy at it used to be, but it was once possible to get agents to do a ‘manual sell’ — basically sending a message to the operating carrier asking if award availability existed, and if it did it would come back confirmed. The simple clue to whether this would work was when the United agent didn’t see the flight as existing — that generally meant that they were blocking the flight in their system from being booked, but if the agent manually requested that flight it would come back as confirmed.
As I say, it used to be relatively easy. You couldn’t just ask for a manual sell, you’d start by building the award flight by flight with segments that actually showed availability in United’s system and in so doing both build credibility with the agent and get them on your side wanting your quest to succeed. Then say something like, “I found this flight available before but had to check with my spouse, the agent I was talking to said they were having some strange computer problems and had to type in the flight number in order to get it to come up.” Then bingo.
Now that really doesn’t work very well, United agents have been put clearly on notice that they’re not permitted to manually sell and award, in fact it’s a firing offense.
But the broader point is true that you can get an agent on your side by having early success with segments (“wow – that is available!”) and they will want to help you close out the award successfully nad be more willing to try alternate routes and work with you over a long call. Agents usually want to succeed rather than disappoint you when it seems like it’s within their power to do so.
Of course this whole Starnet filtering fiasco points out again that whose miles you’re trying to redeem matters a good bit. While US Airways is unfriendly towards its customers, and elites in particular, in many dimensions when it comes time to redeem Star Alliance awards it’s much easier than using United miles. The same holds true for Air Canada, for example.
Victory is almost as sweet as the trip!
There’s an amazing feeling of accomplishment after going through the arduous exercise of finding the ideal award itinerary, redeeming your miles for a $20,000 international first class ticket when most of the world believes it’s impossible to use miles (on that $300 hop down to Florida, usually).