Last month I booked an award flight to Beijing to run a marathon on the Great Wall of China.
The final price of the ticket was 60,000 American Airlines miles and $60 in taxes and fees. But I nearly spent 110,000 miles and paid $450 in fees. Why? Because I almost booked it with Delta instead.
Important lesson: Airlines often charge a wildly different price for the same award ticket, and the only way you’d know if you’re getting ripped off or not is to shop around.
This is the last installment of a four-part series about the secrets of earning and redeeming frequent flyer miles. Here are the three previous installments:
- Part I – 6 Frequent Flyer Tactics to See the World For Free
- Part II – Advanced Travel Hacking: The Credit Card Blitzkrieg
- Part III – Little Work, Big Results: The Secrets of Online Surveys & Frequent Flyer Miles
Today we’ll go over the 3-step method you can use to make sure you don’t just get a chance to use the miles you’ve earned, but also get the best deal when you redeem them.
The Problem with Frequent Flyer Miles
It’s no secret: airlines make it relatively easy to gain miles and sometimes extraordinarily difficult to spend them.
I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but airlines make a lot of money from their frequent flyer programs because people who earn miles are quick to give up when they can’t easily get the ticket they want, so it’s in their interest to make it hard.
Their miles expire, they miss their trip (or pay for it with cash), and end up with a bad taste in their mouth, swearing off frequent flyer miles forever.
Don’t let this be you!
You’ve worked hard to earn the miles you did, and they have real world value, so don’t let them go to waste just because the airlines are betting you’ll give up rather than try harder.
When it comes to redeeming miles, it’s you vs. the airlines; a true David vs. Goliath story. But the 3-step process below will be your slingshot. Wind it up, aim true, and slay your adversary.
Or… you know… get an award ticket to somewhere neat.
Step 1: Do Your Research
To get the best award flight possible, your first job is to do your due diligence. Basically, you need to know exactly where you want to go, when you want to go there, and an estimate of how many miles it will take to make it happen.
The first two are easy, but you’ll be more successful if you’re a little flexible with your dates and relative locations. Airlines only allow a certain number of award tickets per flight, and if they’re all gone for the one you want, you’re not getting one unless someone else cancels—not something you normally want to wait for.
Most airlines start opening up award tickets 330 days from departure, so it pays to plan ahead. You don’t normally have to be a year early, but the sooner the better.
A common travel myth is that you can wait till the last second and get a great deal. This is not actually likely. You’re effectively playing “chicken” with the airline, and they care far less about your trip than you do.
You should do your research for multiple airlines—as many as you have enough miles to travel with. Here are the award charts for a few of the biggest U.S. carriers:
These charts will tell you roughly how much a trip should cost, but you’ll usually have to start the booking process to find out for sure because airlines have different tiers of awards that may be available depending on the flight, the time of year you’re traveling, or other criteria.
Step 2: Don’t Take No for an Answer
Once you have a good idea of where you want to go, when you want to be there, and how much it should cost, it’s time to start the booking process.
The best way to go about this is to put together your ideal itinerary and dates, and then start your search online. Trying to book any type of interesting award ticket online will almost always result in failure, but it’s important to start there because 1) sometimes it will give you an idea of what the real price of the ticket will be, and 2) it’ll give you a little bargaining power when you end up having to book over the phone (more on this in the next section).
If you’re like most travelers, you’ll find yourself frustrated with the online booking system and have to call to get the award ticket you want. Go about this the same way you did with your online search:
Pick your preferred airline, call them first, and try to book your ticket on your ideal dates and with your ideal itinerary.
If you’re lucky, you might strike gold on the first try. More likely, though, you’ll have to aid the booking agent through different options. Here are a few concessions you can make to get the ticket you want:
Try different dates.
If your travel dates are flexible (they almost always need to be for award tickets), then this is the easiest way to get the ticket you want. Ask your agent to check for availability a few days before and a few days after your preferred dates.
Try different departure/arrival airports.
If there are other major airports around where you’re departing from or going to, this can be a good option. Where I live in Portland, Oregon, it’s a short train trip to Seattle, Washington where there’s another major airport. If everything fails in Portland, I can often find a ticket out of Seattle.
Try different connection cities.
Most agents know their airline’s major routes and default to them for any ticket search they help you with. There are usually other options, but you have to ask for them.
If you’re flying out of the East Coast of the U.S. make sure your agent searches for connections in all the major hubs like JFK, Washington Dulles, and Atlanta. If you’re transiting through Europe, be sure you exhaust all your options: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Munich, Istanbul, etc.
Ask about partner airlines.
Any half-decent phone agent will do this for you without asking, but it’s very important to know that just because you have miles in an airline’s program doesn’t mean you have to fly on that airline only.
Every major airline is in some type of alliance with others, and miles are good on any partner airlines. Be sure your agent is checking for availability with all of them.
Ask for a stop-over.
This tip deserves its own exhaustive article for the many possibilities it comes with, but when all else fails (or you want an extended vacation at no extra cost, ask if there’s a possibility to stop over at any connection airports.
This means you’ll spend anywhere from one day to a year in the middle of your itinerary. If you don’t mind spending a few days in another city, this is a great option, and it’s how I was able to get from The U.S. to Africa and Europe on the same ticket last year. Here’s an article that does this strategy more justice.
Hang up and call again!
Just like in any business, there are people who do their job better than others. If you run into an agent that gives you a flat-out “no” or isn’t willing to help search for more complicated tickets, politely hang up and call again.
This is called “agent roulette,” and it’s surprisingly effective. Just keep calling back until you get someone who gives you the answer you’re looking for!
Remember: You shouldn’t depend on the phone agent to do all of this research for you; be ready ahead of time with a few solutions.
How do you do that? I use Award Nexus. It’s an award flight search engine that’s incredibly helpful with finding available award segments for the airline alliances you have miles with.
Step 3: Shop Different Airlines
Very important: Just because you find a good ticket doesn’t mean you have to buy it then and there.
You worked hard for your miles, and the worst thing you can do is take the first offer that comes your way. Luckily, you can save any good ticket you find without committing to it.
Once you’ve got the itinerary worked out, just ask the agent to place it on a “courtesy hold.” They’ll give you a code to redeem that’s good for anywhere from two to five days depending on the airline.
Once you’ve got one itinerary sorted out, spend 15 minutes trying again if you have miles in another program. This is how I saved many, many miles and dollars on my recent booking to China.
- Call #1 to Delta: 140,000 miles + $450 for a sub par itinerary
- Call #2 to Delta: 110,000 miles + $450 for the same itinerary
- Call #3 to American: 60,000 miles + $80 for the exact itinerary I wanted!
This strategy pays off! Don’t spend your miles or your money until you know what’s really available to you.
This scenario is exactly why I prefer to accumulate miles in a hotel program like Starwood and not a specific airline. Starwood allows you to convert your points to miles (with a bonus) to many major airlines. So what I do is call a few major airlines, place courtesy holds, and then pick the best one and transfer my miles to that program. Once the transfer goes through, I call back and book the ticket.
Money saving tip: Most airlines charge a fee of anywhere from $20 – $50 to book your ticket over the phone. This is because they want you to use their online portal instead. Remember when you started your search online? This is why! Since there’s no way for you to book the ticket online, you now have a good case for why you shouldn’t have to pay the fee.
Always ask the ticketing agent to waive this fee before booking the ticket. It won’t always happen, but my success rate is around 50%. This is also another good time to play agent roulette. If one agent won’t waive the phone-booking fee, call back and try again!
The Bottom Line: Don’t Waste Your Hard Earned Miles
Earning miles is fun, but it’s a lot more fun to actually use them. And since you worked so hard to get them, you probably shouldn’t waste them.
When you book your award ticket, do your research, shop around, and be polite, but don’t give up when you don’t get exactly what you want, either. Exercise good judgment, and remember that it’s much more fun to go adventuring about than to sit at home with a pile of aging miles.
Have any questions about redeeming miles for rewards? Ask in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to help. Or, share another tip that you’ve found in your own travels.
Image by: DerekSteen