Mileage Award Booking Tips, or Stories of Some of This Week’s Successes and Frustrations

I book a lot of award travel and I much love doing it. But since I’ve started offering it as a service I’ve had a whole bunch more people to do it for, and that means that I’m getting more even more experience and seeing real-time what’s going on in award and revenue management across a whole variety of ariliens.

(Plus it helps when people like Wendy Perrin say such kind things about my service — seriously I don’t think I’ve ever been called anything quite like “the answer to many a Condé Nast Traveler reader’s prayers” before.)

Booking award travel for myself I’ve had a chance to see first hand just how erratic award availability on Cathay Pacific can be. It changes day by day, and as you approach departure of a given flight it can even change hour by hour. I’ve watched flights open up in first class, while not a single seat gets sold but the next day that seat is gone and a business seat pops up. And this week I had the fortune of finding first class seats on Hong Kong – Manila – Hong Kong segments after equipment changes in their schedule meant that the flights I had been booked on changed to two class. I checked each morning diligently and nothing, and then all of a sudden first class on that route was wide open on most days all month surriounding my trip.

If you book far enough in advance and can either keep your routing and carrier the same, or you have the benefit of a top tier elite status that lets you make changes to your reservation without a fee (or you’re willing to pay a change fee…!) then you can have most any award you want. If you keep checking and have just a little bit of flexibility, first class cabins rarely completely sell out and so award inventory more likely than not becomes availability at some point before your travels.

That’s not comforting. It’s not “book it and forget it.” But diligence usually pays off in my experience.

Recently I helped someone book a first class award trip to New Zealand (US-Australia flights in United ifrst and trans-tasman in New Zealand business). The outbound DC – Los Angeles flight was only available in business, it was a 3-cabin Boeing 777. I kept checking daily as part of my morning coffee regimen, and a first class seat just wouldn’t open up. Even the day before departure there were still 5 available seats in first, finally one seat available as an upgrade, but not as an award. Now the available upgrade seat one day out meant that there wasn’t even anyone in business trying to upgrade. It sure looked like those seats would be filed by United employees. Finally, the morning of the flight (and not even first thing in the a.m. — sometime around 8 am or 9 am) one lone first class award seat opened, and we grabbed it. Then there were foiur first class seats open, and not a one available even as an upgrade. There’s United revenue management, protecting the employee class cabin from riff raff who pay for business and might want an upgrade to first!

This morning I had the pleasure of booking a couple of business class seats non-stop to Paris on Delta. The only trick involved was that miles were coming from a Delta account for one seat, and an Alaska account for the other. The passengers really wanted first class, but you can’t use Delta (or Alaska) miles for first class on Air France, one of the options they suggested. They also had Amex points, and hoped to use those, but even general members of the Air France program can’t redeem for international first class awards. You have to be a Gold member to do so. What a shame.

Booking the Delta flight online was easy with Delta miles, it was amazing how much Atlanta-Paris availability there was. I still sneer at Skyteam, but today Delta came through. The interesting thing was booking with Alaska. Fortunately their website now has the functionality to book partner awards such as on Delta online, which saved the day. Initially, for reasons unique to the folks I was booking for, I called Alaska. They told me there was nothing available on Delta that day, but offered a connection trhough Chicago on American. I hung up and called the partner desk back. They told me that the Delta flight I wanted wasn’t available for a business award, but the other Delta flight that day was. Stranger still! In the end I booked the flights I was looking for online, but I don’t understand the problems that the Alaska partner desk was facing. I’ll need to dig into that some more.

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. Hi, Gary,

    According to AA website and agent I spoke to, they all told me as long as Origin and destination are same, you can change routing.

  2. Even if the IAD-LAX F award space hadn’t opened up prior to day before departure, your client would have been on FFCC since F award miles were already deducted and been very likely to clear anyways.

  3. sounds like your booking experience is absolutely the norm for hunting down premium seats. your expertise…and your PERSEVERANCE are the formula.

  4. @Troy I was making a fairly general point so abstracting away from a particular carrier. If you’re not a United 1K, for instance, you can’t change routing without a change fee.

    And even with American, if it’s a oneworld award you can’t change routing PERIOD, you would have to cancel and redeposit the miles…

  5. @Iceman, on a pure United award I’d agree with you, but they weren’t waitlisted for F because this was a Star Alliance award — as a result of the Air New Zealand trans-tasman segments.

  6. Ah, good point. I had neglected the trans-Tasman segments. I guess that’s why you get the big bucks! 🙂

  7. wow , you’re good! You’ll definitely be hearing from me ..I have about 1 million miles spread out between amex , american , us airways and Starwood ( though I just used a bunch for a hotel stay.
    The most glaring thing i’ve noticed is the disparity of domestic and international service for the same and even more miles ..especially on crappy delta domestic fights

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