Answering Your Award Booking Questions

This morning’s post on award bookings generated several questions and interesting comments in just a couple of hours.

I thought I’d pull out a few and offer some followup.

Jeremy asks several questions:

I would like to hear a Singapore riff for sure. Also the deal with NZ on LAX-LHR using Alliance points. [T]he lack of UA one-way awards on partners must be killing more folks than just me…

That’s a lot of questions!

Singapore Airlines rarely offers more than a single premium cabin seat long-haul as an award at the same time. Sometimes once a seat is booked a second seat will immediately appear, than usually not. Long-haul that’s true for both business and first class. Intra-Asia that’s usually only true for first, it’s certainly possible to find multiple business class award seats at the same time.

When Singapore introduced their new first class onboard Boeing 777 aircraft (the “77W” designated planes) they decided not to release any award seats to partners and to charge their own members a huge premium for the redemption in both business and first. They continued the practice with the introduction of the Airbus 380 with suites class and business, in fact they won’t even let their own members or partners redeem for suites at all, and require a huge premium for business.

The only way it’s been possible for members of partner programs to get award seats on these flights has been to reserve those seats prior to the introduction of new aircraft. When the aircraft type changes, Singapore — after a rocky start — has been good at honoring the reservation for premium cabins on these aircraft. Most recently, Munich-Singapore went 77W in the schedule but partners could still book the award seats since Singapore hadn’t caught on that they needed to shut down the inventory.

The problem is that there are very few long-haul routes left operated by the older configuration aircraft (Boeing 747s). From the US it’s only Los Angeles – Narita – Singapore and JFK – Frankfurt – Singapore. The Houston flight, the two San Francisco flights, and the Newark and Los Angeles non-stops are completely out of the running unless you want a coach seat (and the non-stops don’t offer coach).

One thing to keep in mind is that while the All Nippon Airways award seats website pretty much never shows any premium cabin availability for US departures (the LA and New York flights I mentioned) that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth calling, members have had luck especially with Continental miles securing the seats. You need to hunt and peck with an agent, though.

If you really do want to fly Singapore, the best bet is with their own miles — they release many more seats to their own members than to their partners, including more than one premium class seat at the same time. And Singapore remains an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner, so if you have tons of Amex points this is a possibility.

Just bear in mind that Singapore miles expire after three years. That’s not three years of inactivity, that’s three years from the time a given mile was earned. So you can’t just park miles in your account and build them up slowly.

Air New Zealand’s Los Angles – London flight is really great, Air New Zealand offers excellent seats and service. It’s one of those flights you might not expect to exist, but it’s a great option and I’ve found it to offer decent award availability in business class. Not great, but better than say United’s Los Angeles – London flights.

United will never let you book this flight with Mileage Plus miles. I have never seen Mileage Plus allow it, even when seats are being offered. It was blocked from the very beginning of blocking as far as I know, and it’s never not blocked. If you can convince an agent to do a long sell (requesting the I class seats from Air New Zealand) it’ll come back as confirmed, but agents aren’t supposed to do long sells and it’s become much harder to get them to do it than it used to be.

But it’s certainly possible to book this flight with miles from any and every other Star Alliance carrier.

Ok, what was the third question? Oh yeah — United one-way awards on partners.

The problem supposedly is IT. Their agents and the website use a totally different system. They brought one-way awards onboard online first. The website doesn’t do partners, and that’s pretty far down the IT development queue as far as I know. So they’re tackling the agent booking IT process next, and when it becomes possible to book one-way awards by phone you should be able to do so on partners, at least that’s been United’s suggestion. Of course once that happens there’s a real risk that they get rid of stopovers on awards. We’ll have to see how this all plays out. I haven’t heard anything more about a timetable besides summer, United IT projects rarely happen in real-time except when it comes to fixing fuel surcharge pricing glitches… (And yes, I can confirm that I was mistaken to be skeptical that the fuel surcharge fix got triggered by a blog post on another blog, it turns out that indeed it was.)

mark says:

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.

Agreed 100%.

John asks:

[W]hen did BA stop charging fuel surcharges on partner awards? I certainly paid a year ago.

They certainly don’t impose fuel surcharges on American Airlines awards, I booked four first class seats to Buenos Aires yesterday… taxes were no more than $80 per ticket.

Many European programs add fuel surcharges even redeeming on carriers that don’t have such surcharges of their own (e.g. british midland). Not so BA. I have other frustrations with BA, I hate their website and I wish they’d offer award holds. Their award chart gets pricey for premium class international awards, though it’s not entirely crazy using their one-partner award chart.

But it is nice that though they whack you hard when redeeming on BA metal (Aeroplan does the same on Air Canada metal), they aren’t so bad with partners.

Mark H wonders:

[W]ouldn’t routing through europe to get to asia trigger a RTW ticket or is that the beauty of US airways?

Many carriers let you cross either the Atlantic or the Pacific between the US and Asia, with the requirement that you return across the same ocean. From the US East Coast to many parts of South Asia, the most direct routing in either direction differs in distance by only a couple of hundred miles. If you cross the same ocean twice, it’s not ’round-the-world’.

Even Continental which used to require US to Asia via the Pacific has loosened up and I’ve had success securing Atlantic routings.

United will charge more miles (sometimes, when they realize they’re supposed to) for it, Europe to Asia is more expensive than North America to Asia under their award chart and they charge the higher Europe to Asia price when transiting Europe.

Alex requests:

Please do expand on .. awards to Africa. Would also like your opinion on scoring awards from North America to Down Under.

North America to Africa can be a tough award. With oneworld I’ve had good luck on British Airways. With Star there are a ton of options, some with better availability than others.

The South African Airways direct flights from New York and Washington-Dulles are notoriously difficult to get business class awards on, though I’ve found much better award inventory with the JFK flight (and occasionally Dulles on the return to the US but much less with the outbound).

Otherwise it’s connecting through Europe. There’s Lufthansa from Frankfurt and Munich, South African from London, Frankfurt, and Munich; TAP Air Portugal from Lisbon; Swiss from Zurich; Turkish from Istanbul. Not Europe but there’s also EgyptAir from Cairo.

I’ve found pretty good availability on Swiss, but United usually blocks it. Other partners are better. EgyptAir from Cairo offers good availability (and excellent space from JFK to Cairo in First) but of course then you’re flying EgyptAir. Turkish offers good inventory in business class from Istanbul to Johannesburg and the flight continues to Capetown. But it’s Turkish business, and there are frequent reports that their ex-Air Jamaica Airbus flies the route and it’s less comfortable than even their standard business offering. But in a pinch it’ll work!

I’ve also managed to work returns South Africa from Johannesburg to Nairobi and then continuing to Zurich on Swiss. Availability there has been generally very good.

I’ve also seen folks use US Airways miles to route via Asia with Singapore Airlines inventory to Johannesburg being surprisingly good.

Just a few thoughts.

As far as North America to Australia, in a pinch there’s always routing via Asia or Europe. But we’ll get to that in a minute. United won’t let you do that.

Let’s start with American miles, Qantas has tons of flights to Australia but availability can be tough. I’ve grabbed multiple first class seats using American miles on Qantas before, but it’s not an easy task. Qantas releases seats to their own members for almost a month before partners get a shot, and Qantas is notoriously stingy. Seats do trickle out over time, but this is one of the toughest awards out there. Especially in high season. But I did find some first class seats down and business back recently over the Christmas and New Years period. Make sure to check all the routings, such as both San Francisco and Los Angeles departure cities, and arrivals in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Auckland (then onto Australia). American miles also can be used on Air Pacific via Fiji and Air Tahiti Nui via Tahiti to Auckland, then connecting onto Australia on Qantas.

With United miles you can fly from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Sydney, Air Canada from Vancouver to Sydney, and Air New Zealand from San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Vancouver to Auckland and then onto Australia. You can stop in Hawaii as well, or take one of the Air New Zealand flights that make island stops before heading to Auckland.

If you have Air Canada or US Airways miles, you can try routing via Asia (Bangkok-Sydney on Thai has excellent availability) or even Europe to Asia (the long way!).

But Down Under is among the tougher awards out there, there’s not that much lift.. it’s one of the routes that actually does attract paid premium class traffic (it’s a long way in coach).. and there’s really heavy demand.

One tip is to check out Air New Zealand about 60 days out, and especially in the April through October period.

Any more questions?

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. Thanks for answering my question! Does US air charge to route TATL to get to North Asia? I’ve heard (via the upgrd podcast) that their routing rules are non-existent. They have that 100% transfer promo going right now and I have some starwood points I was thinking about transferring and by bouncing between me and say my brother’s account after we get the complimentary silver status I can get over 190k miles for $1625 + fees.

  2. @Mark H — potentially you could be charged the higher Europe price (100k vs 90k for business, 125k vs 120k for first) but this usually only happens when you STOPOVER in Europe rather than just connecting in Europe. But with US Airways, everything really is ‘your mileage may vary’.

  3. Thanks for the reply. I should know this but I haven’t booked an award in several years. Could you review which US FF programs charge fuel surcharges on their own metal as well as on their partner awards? My impression is that most (all?) US carriers do not charge the partner fuel surcharges on awards. Does Aeroplan? Thanks in advance.

  4. @John, only Delta has fuel surcharges (or fees that approximate such) on non-US originating itineraries. US programs don’t otherwise hit you that way. Aeroplan only imposes fuel surcharges on Air Canada flights, not partners.

  5. I know you focus a lot of redeeming for premium cabins, but can you say a bit about how things have been looking for the economy cabin? I know it’s a pretty general inquiry, but would you say that redeeming for economy is generally easier? Any carriers (especially Star) that release a lot of economy availability?

  6. Yes, PLEASE share wisdom on booking intl economy awards and which programs you recommend. I use miles to allow family to join me on intl biz trips, and econ is all I book. Also, if ANA is best for Star Alliance award search, what tools are best for Skyteam and OneWorld?

  7. Would still really love to hear some wisdom on Delta–both how to best search awards (I’ve heard maybe expert flyer shows Air France and Alitalia) and how to book. I’m regretting having built up all these DL miles over the years!! Its awful!

  8. Also, what about from other skyteam carriers? I have a lot of American Express points and I know I can transfer them to Alitlia or Airfrance instead of Delta too! I’m DTW based and I fly Delta a lot. Maybe I should accrue to someone else in SkyTeam?

  9. I ditto Phil’s question, what are the best sources for the other two alliances and what is the best FF plan if eventually I would like to build and redeem miles to a location which is only served by a Skyteam airline given Delta’s stinginess?

  10. Gary, I really appreciate the answers and the time you’re taking with all of us. You do a great service and reading this post today has been like candy for the soul. There’s really nowhere else to go to soak up so much information so quickly (even Flyertalk) in one sitting than your blog. It is… in a word, gold.
    And yes, I shall pose another question to you! Since the Starwood Card is arguably the best bang for your buck– and instant transfers aren’t an option like the Amex Rewards card– which airline program(s) would you recommend people occasionally dump and stockpile points into for that rainy day or huge trip down the road? Certainly not the 2:1 bunch… which throws CO out the window… and Aeroplan points expire relatively quickly… That leaves mainly BA, AA, US, ANA and M&M. What’s your opinion?

  11. Gary-

    As a followup to your original award booking article, what is a DL flyer supposed to do? In my situation, I’m looking for a business class award to NRT in September. From your article you say it would suck to be me if I were looking for more than 1 ticket to Asia in J, but I’m presently only looking for me in J. The DL website only shows “medium” (240K) tickets for the entire month of September.

    Do I just give up on the website and try calling periodically?


  12. Do you have any experience with Air China awards via *alliance? For numerous dates I see no availability for example in Biz on JFK-PEK on CA on from the Ana Tool or Expertflyer. However checking Continental’s website shows 4 Biz class seats on the same dates. I’ve noticed this quite a bit a few weeks back when I was originally searching for Europe-PEK seats. Ana and Expertflyer agree but CO’s site showed award seats.

    Since I’m booking with US points a CO direct booking isn’t available – but I thought I’d ask if you’ve run into this discrepancy and if you have a sense of who tends to be ‘right’ – rather than my calling US and getting frustrated through numerous calls.


  13. More an upgrade question. How can I determine upgrade availability? Using myself as an example, I have tons of AS, UA, US and AA miles and I’d like to upgrade using miles on a transcon from Seattle to any cities on the East coast. What would be the easiest way to find out which flight has mileage upgrade availability?

  14. On your recommendation to join the KF program if you want to redeem *A miles on SQ- this may be true for F/C tickets, but not Y tickets. I’ve been able to find Y saver tickets on SQ using my MP miles much more easily than using my KF miles.

    MP also doesn’t charge you fuel surcharges when redeeming on SQ, unlike KF, which will run ~$400 on a transpacific flight. All in all, my 96K “orphan” miles on SQ are looking less attractive than my Delta miles- at least they don’t expire (with minimal activity)!

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