Sometimes you aren’t trying to search for a fare, let alone book it. You just want to scout your options. Here are some websites and services that I use to collect information on traveling.
OpenFlights is a great resource for planning an award trip. Generally ITA does all I need when I want to optimize the price-per-mile on a revenue ticket, but if I need to figure out all the options for getting from A to B, OpenFlights will tell me which airports have direct flights and which carriers operate them. That makes it much simpler to learn, for example, that if SFO-ZRH doesn’t work out I can still fly on Swiss if I try for MIA-ZRH instead. Finding award space is all about piecing together itineraries leg-by-leg, so look for all of your long-haul options first, find one, and then fill in the rest.
OpenFlights maintains a blog page with downloadable datasets that they use to populate their results. As I right this I’m having trouble bringing up anything except the main OpenFlights.org page, so hopefully this is just a temporary glitch. I’ve used these data files to create lists of airports and city-pairs for fuel dumping, but it does require a bit of experience using Excel. Consider using their donation buttons if you find the information useful.
This site isn’t especially up-to-date. For example, there is no combined map of United and Continental routes, nor does it include some United routes that were added since the merger was announced. (I’m looking at you, DEN-AMA!) However, that does’t make it a bad resource. If you want to take a quick look at the route network for your preferred carrier, this is probably good for a first-glance and may be easier than finding and downloading a fresh copy. OpenFlights can do the same thing for you, but it uses a dynamic interface that you won’t be able to save as easily on your phone or computer for times when you don’t have an internet connection.
If you’re looking for Star Alliance partner awards, KVS Tool is great to have. It operates as a kind of web browser, using your own login details (if necessary) to access information from various free sources on the internet. The interface is a little clunky and dated, but it really helps when you are trying to search multiple dates for a particular award and filter the results to show a particular cabin. Well, it sort of helps. You still have to search one day at a time, but you only need to press one button to advance a day instead of re-entering all the search information on an airline’s website. There are many other kinds of information you can look up, too, such as interline agreements between carriers and fare availability. Again, in theory all this information is already freely accessible, but KVS Tool makes it much easier to find. I recommend Diamond membership, which is $75 per year, but your choice will depend on your needs.
ExpertFlyer accesses the same reservation databases as travel agencies to provide you information on fares, availability, seats, and award space. It is more user friendly than KVS Tool but the difference between how they acquire their information means that you may need to think about which service will provide you more benefits. For example, ExpertFlyer does not have access to Star Alliance partner award space (it will return space restricted to members of Lufthansa’s Miles & More program, for example, but not what Lufthansa offers to United MileagePlus members). ExpertFlyer also costs more, but it does have some free features, a five-day cancellation policy, and a couple of neat tricks like seat and flight alerts that tell you when space has opened up for a trip you want to book.
ANA is the ultimate arbiter of Star Alliance partner award space since they don’t perform any kind of blocking to hide flights that actually exist. United’s own site is particularly awful since it will only display United, Continental, US Airways, and Lufthansa flights. Continental is improving, but still misses a few like Swiss. Unfortunately you can’t just go to the website for Lufthansa or Swiss (or any other carrier) because they usually only display the awards they offer to their own members, which may be more than what they offer to partners.
Unfortunately, ANA’s website is particularly clunky and cluttered, making it difficult to use. I suggest opting for KVSTool if you can afford it. You also need to be a member of ANA’s Mileage Club and have a certain minimum number of miles to search for partner awards. Unless you know the tricks, however! Sign up for ANA Mileage Club. Do a dummy booking for an ANA-operated flight (e.g., TYO-SFO), and then a new button will appear at the bottom to search Star Alliance flights instead. This will give you the opportunity to change the route you are searching and continue on from there. It is all very well hidden, so I have provided brief instructions:
Step 1: Find the award search portal on the lower left after you log in on the home page.
Step 2: Search for an ANA award. Note that the link to search for a Star Alliance award is currently unavailable.
Step 3: After a dummy booking for TYO-SFO, a new button appears at the bottom of the search results to search again for Star Alliance flights.
Air Canada’s Aeroplan program also provides decent award search data and is another source of information for KVS Tool. Aeroplan, like Continental, provides a calendar of results. It also requires that you create an Aeroplan account but is much easier to use than ANA’s website. However, its results are sometimes spotty if you search for anything other than a direct flight. I will generally ask KVS Tool to search Aeroplan for award space availability because I like the result format better, but it’s up to you.