This is the Debbie Downer part of the points game.
Unfortunately, earning and transferring credit card points is the easy part. The most frustrating part of redeeming points is finding award space when you actually want to travel.
It’s not quite as simple as picking dates and destinations, then assuming the ideal flights will be available. Have you ever seen the Jennifer Garner CapitalOne credit card commercials? The company’s whole sales pitch is based on people’s frustration when trying to spend frequent flyer miles (the CapitalOne “points” are really a form of cash back; but that’s for another post).
There really isn’t an easy answer; finding award availability is difficult, especially for business class flights. Below are a handful of tips to help as you search.
This is the golden rule of points. You will be sorely disappointed if you expect to redeem your points on specific dates for specific destinations.
Searching for award space in June to Europe to no avail? Try looking for award flights to South America instead. Nothing for New Year Eve? Try a random week in January. But let’s not forget that there are three main airline alliances and numerous other travel partners, so there are more options than just a simple search on Delta.com.
Search for long-haul flights (transatlantic or transpacific) first, then find the in-between flights
The long-haul flight is often the limiting factor when trying to find award space. If you can find available business class seats on the transoceanic flight, then search segment-by-segment to piece together the rest of your award ticket itinerary.
And along these same lines…
Award space is often most plentiful at large international airports
Since award space can be hard to come by, it’s more advantageous to have as few segments as possible. Also, foreign airlines tend to release more award space than U.S.-based airlines, so airline hubs are more likely to have award flight availability.
For example, growing up, my home airport was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Let’s say I wanted to book a week-long trip to Munich from Grand Rapids for a summer vacation. I would probably want to fly out on a Friday or Saturday, but a simple search for business class awards on United.com from Gerald R. Ford International Airport reveals only three possible days at the “Saver” level (70k miles each way) over a 30-day period:
Definitely not ideal. I could depart on a Monday evening, but that’d leave me with a much shorter vacation.
Instead, I could look up award flight availability from Chicago instead of Grand Rapids. Chicago is roughly a 3.5 hour drive from Grand Rapids, and O’Hare International Airport is a hub for United Airlines, which is a member of the Star Alliance.
As luck would have it, there’s award space from Chicago to Munich on Saturday, June 30. Even better, the business class seat is on Lufthansa Airlines, which has a fantastic business class product. There’s also additional options from either Detroit (1.5 hours away) or Toronto, also a Star Alliance hub (though a bit longer drive… roughly 5 hours away).
This is just one example. So rather than being discouraged from a simple search from Grand Rapids on United.com, there are MANY other options.
But some search results can also be deceiving
I was helping a friend spend his stockpile of American Airlines frequent flyer miles and found what seemed like wide open business class award space from Philadelphia to Prague in July.
So many options. However, almost all of those days with business class award availability are on British Airways. While British Airways is a great airline and their frequent flyer program has many advantages… they also charge exorbitant fuel surcharges on award longhaul flight redemptions for British Airways-operated flights. Instead of paying $5.60 in taxes on the non-stop American Airlines award ticket to Prague, British Airways would charge $526.70 each way for each person. I mentioned that award tickets aren’t free, but that’s a lot of money out of pocket.
So let’s try to avoid British Airways altogether. You can also search only for non-stop flights from your origin to your destination. In the award space calendar, you’ll see a dropdown menu for “Number of Stops” just under the yellow box on the left side of the screen. If you change your number of stops to “Non-stop only,” you’ll see only the award space for American Airlines business class redemptions, since they are the only airline that flies non-stop between Philadelphia and Prague. This avoids seeing the British Airways award options, since they would require a stop in London. After making this change, there’s not nearly as much award space as we initially thought.
Book award travel either months in advance or a few days prior
All airlines have their own patterns of releasing award space. Many have a seat or two available when they first release their schedule (often 11 months in advance). Then, airlines release more award space when they have a better sense of how many unsold seats they still have for a given flight (seven days in advance). Is there award space in between? Of course. The award flights referenced above were found only four months in advance. But generally speaking, airlines reward those who are able to plan very far in advance or who have the flexibility to book flights with very short notice.
Certain airlines release more award space than others…
Korean Air, Aer Lingus, Austrian Airlines, Air China, Copa Airlines – based on my experience, all of these airlines reliably release award space on many of their flights. And with credit card points, you can more easily transfer points to the appropriate frequent flyer program to maximize the value of your award ticket redemption. In general, Asia-based airlines are more generous with business class award space than other airlines, especially U.S.-based airlines.
However, some airlines only open up business and first class award space to those redeeming from their own airline’s frequent flyer program. In other words, you can’t redeem your million Delta SkyMiles for a first class award seat with SkyTeam partner Korean Air, and the same is true for United frequent flyer miles and first class redemptions on Singapore Airlines.
…but only if you know where to look
To add an extra layer of complexity, some airlines’ bookable award space does not show up in a standard award flight search.
For example, LATAM Airlines is a Chilean-based member of the Oneworld airline alliance. This means that they are a partner airline with American Airlines. However, if you conduct a search on the American Airlines website for award space to Latin America, you won’t find any options with LATAM Airlines. For whatever reason, even though the LATAM award space is bookable with AA miles, you won’t know it’s there from a simple search through AA.com. Instead, you need to look up LATAM Airlines award space via another airline’s website, such as LATAM’s own website or (my personal preference) British Airways’ award flight finder. Using BA.com is advantageous because it will show you award availability on LATAM airlines as well as other Oneworld partners. Once you find your desired flight with award availability, you can then call American Airlines to book the flight over the phone.
Another example is Aer Lingus. When I booked two roundtrip tickets on Aer Lingus with British Airways frequent flyer miles, the BA.com website didn’t actual show any Aer Lingus award availability. Instead, I searched on United.com for award space on Aer Lingus and then called British Airways to spend my Avios on the flight.
Confusing? It sure is. But the opportunity to book a first class seat that costs $10,000+ by only signing up for a few credit cards makes it worth it.
So now we’ve broken down the ground rules, the basic credit card strategy, and a few tips on how to search for award availability. Of course, there is A LOT more to discuss. If you’d like to keep learning, be sure to follow our blog and Facebook/Instagram/Twitter pages for updates.
Also take a took at my suggested credit card combinations for beginners and a breakdown of how we were able to use credit card points to book our around-the-world trip in business class.
1) Ground Rules
5) Award Availability