I like to say that there are two major parts of the points/miles game: earning the points/miles and using them. The question of how to book award flights with miles and points often gets delayed until after you have enough to go somewhere, and while that’s not the worst thing in the world, it certainly isn’t the best either.
This guide, written for a beginner that doesn’t have much experience booking award flights, will explain to you what process you should go through to book flights with miles and points. I’ll go through an example at the end to show you how to put this into practice.
Where are you going, and from where?
This sounds like a very basic and maybe even a dumb question, but it’s very important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked the generic question “Which miles/points are the best?” That depends on quite a few things, but the most important is where you want those miles/points to take you.
Is your destination domestic or international? Is it a big city like Paris or a small one like Pamplona? The answer will make a big difference in how you determine which miles to use and how to search.
Aside from determining your home airport, you should also look at what others are around you. For example, those that fly from Los Angeles have not just LAX at their disposal, but also Burbank, Long Beach, Orange County, and Ontario to use if necessary. Beyond that, airports like San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Phoenix can prove to be useful since they’re relatively easy to get to. Maybe LAX to Paris isn’t available for an award flight, but San Francisco to Paris is. It’s worth knowing how far you’re willing to go.
What airlines fly there?
Not every airline flies to every airport. You’ll have to do some research to figure out which airlines actually fly to your origin and destination. The best way to do so, surprisingly, is by using Wikipedia. Each airport has a Wikipedia page that details what airlines fly to that airport from which cities, and this information is located in the “Airlines and Destinations” section. Check out the LAX Wikipedia page as an example. Simply google the airport code followed by “airport” (“LAX Airport” for example) and the result will be in the first few results.
Make note of the major airlines and what alliance that airline is part of, and if those airlines have any other partners. It becomes easy to eliminate airlines once you start practicing. For example, you will not be flying Etihad from the US to Tokyo in almost all circumstances. Etihad is based in Abu Dhabi, and flying East from the US to the Middle East to East Asia is far more flying than just going West to Tokyo. You can eliminate quite a few domestic airlines as well.
The obvious item to check is whether there are any nonstop flights from your home airport to your destination (using the “find” function on your browser can do this quickly). If there are none, it then becomes about prioritizing what options are best. For example, if you’re trying to get to a small city like Pamplona, there’s only three airlines that fly there. It makes sense then to search for flights to Madrid and Barcelona, two larger airports that are nearby.
What miles/points can be used for those airlines?
If you already have some miles/points, you’ll want to do an accounting of them at this point to see what you’re working with. Make note of what alliance these airlines are part of as well. For those that don’t know (or as a reminder):
- American Airlines/US Airways – oneworld Alliance
- United Airlines (Ultimate Rewards Points) – Star Alliance
- Delta – SkyTeam Alliance
- American Express – transfers to members of all alliances (not necessarily the ones listed above)
- Chase – also transfers to Korean Air and Virgin Atlantic
- Alaska – a wide range of partners including Emirates and Cathay Pacific
You will need to study and constantly reference award charts until you get a good idea of the best values of each chart. Flying to Asia is generally cheaper using AA miles; Alaska miles allow stopovers on one way flights, etc. These are tips that are learned by reading up on those specific programs.
If you’re starting from scratch and don’t have any points/miles, you don’t necessarily need to make a decision on which ones to accumulate just yet. I recommend waiting one more step before jumping in.
Search Award Availability
Make no mistake – this is by far the hardest and most frustrating part of this game, and that goes for whether you’re a beginner or used points/miles for years. There are so many different considerations to make, one of which is knowing where to search.
This is also one of those skills that comes with experience/practice. Here are some of the basics to get you started (it’s certainly not comprehensive list). To search for:
- Star Alliance awards, search on United.com and Air Canada Aeroplan.
- Oneworld awards, search on AA.com, the British Airways website, or the Qantas website.
- Skyteam awards, search on Delta.com or the Air France website.
These will cover a significant portion of award flights, though not all of them. If you need to figure out how to search for a specific airline, simply googling “How to search *insert airline* award space,” for example, will direct you to posts that will get you the answer you need.
I recommend searching in terms of one-way flights to make it easier. There’s usually no point in searching the return segment if you can’t find the outbound one, plus one-way searches are easier to run.
In nearly all cases, your first award search will be entering your origin and destination into the search box and hoping a suitable itinerary is available. If that doesn’t yield any good options (it usually does not on the first try), the next best thing to do is to search the longest flight segment by itself, then once you find it you can look for the shorter flights that connect to it. You can piece together an itinerary one flight at a time by doing this.
It sounds simple enough but believe me when I say this can be extremely frustrating. If one option/alliance doesn’t work, you move on to the next, then the next. There are so many different routes possible to get from one airport to another, so that means there’s a lot of award options to search for.
You’ll find some airlines/routes have better availability than others on a regular basis. Here’s a quick list of flights/routes that generally have good availability, but again, it’s not comprehensive. Note that getting to Africa usually requires flying via one of these regions.
Star Alliance from US to:
- Asia – Asiana (Seoul)
- Europe – Lufthansa (Frankfurt)
Oneworld from US to:
- Asia – Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong)
- Europe – Air Berlin (Berlin/Dusseldorf)
- Middle East – Etihad (Abu Dhabi – using AA miles only)
Skyteam from US to:
- Asia – Korean Air (Seoul)
- Europe – KLM (Amsterdam)
- Middle East – Saudia (Jeddah, Riyadh)
Collect Enough Miles/Points and Book!
If you don’t have the miles/points yet, you should now have a better idea of which ones you want to collect since you now have a general idea of award availability after conducting the searches in Step 4. Start working on earning enough of those particular miles/points to book the award you’re looking for. Once you have enough, do your searches again and find an itinerary that works for you and once you have one, go ahead and book it.
If your itinerary wasn’t searchable online from the airline whose miles you’re using, you’ll need to call them. Make sure you write down the important flight information for your itinerary: departure date, flight number, origin/destination, and arrival date. This will make the phone booking a lot easier.
I’m a visual learner, so let’s use an example to put this into practice. Let’s say your home airport is Los Angeles and you want to get to Singapore, and you already have some American Airlines miles you’d like to use for the trip. You’ve already got Step 1 completed!
Step 2 is to find out what airlines fly to Singapore by going to the Wikipedia page for SIN. Since you already have AA miles, you can see from Step 3 that there’s a few members of the Oneworld Alliance that fly to Singapore: Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines (there are others as well, but these two are convenient when flying from the US). These airlines fly to Singapore from Hong Kong and Tokyo, respectively.
Also from Step 2, you’ll know that those same two airlines fly from your home airport of Los Angeles to those same airports in Hong Kong and Tokyo. That means that a perfect itinerary would be from Los Angeles to Hong Kong/Tokyo to Singapore.
From Step 4 you’ll know you should begin your award flight search starting with the longest flight first. That means the Los Angeles to Hong Kong/Tokyo flights are what you’re looking for, and you should search for these flights on the British Airways or Qantas frequent flyer websites. Once you find a suitable flight, find a connecting flight (connections generally have to be under 24 hours) from Hong Kong/Tokyo to Singapore. Write availability down as you find flights (I keep track of every flight by writing it down in Microsoft Excel). You can connect the flights once you know the available award options.
Now that you know what flights you want, you’ll have to call American Airlines to book it since these flights were not searchable on AA.com. It should be a relatively straightforward booking after that, but book ASAP because availability can change quickly.
You can tell by the length of this post that booking award flights is not necessarily an easy thing to do. I talk to so many beginners that get frustrated when I start explaining this process, and they decide they’d rather just buy the ticket with cash or subsidize their trip by signing up for cash back credit cards instead of earning miles/points and dealing with this booking process. I certainly understand that frustration, but as they say, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” It won’t cost you much money to fly this way, but you will have to spend time and learn about it.
If you’re willing to do it, there will be so many travel opportunities available to you. Experiences like flying Business or First Class will no longer be out of reach, but you have to invest some time in learning how to do it properly. As as with most things, practice makes perfect. The knowledge you will gain from this practice will stay with you for every future award booking, and the process will get that much easier for each subsequent trip you take.
If you ask me and most other people who do this, we’ll say it’s absolutely worth it.