You’ve joined airline loyalty programs, applied for credit cards, signed up for dining programs, and used shopping portals. The airline miles are beginning to flow in! When it’s time to book a flight, you’ll need to know a few award flight basics.
This is the part I love the most. It’s where you actually get to see your efforts pay off…for less! I’ve booked a ton of flights with miles and points and still get pumped by the thrill of only paying a small amount in taxes and fees.
When you’re just starting, this can feel both exciting and overwhelming. Where should you search for availability? How many miles will it “cost” to book that flight? How do I know I’ve gotten the best value for my miles?
It’s unlikely your first award flight booking will be your best booking. You’ll look back and think, “Why did I do that? I could’ve booked it this way and saved X number of miles!” There’s always something to learn about travel hacking. Loyalty program rules change. Award charts change. That’s why it’s important to stay current and read the latest travel hacking blogs for news, tips, and tricks. 😉
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Award Flight Basics
Step One- Understand Basic Flight Terminology
The difference between roundtrip flights and one-way flights is self-explanatory. However, not all roundtrip and one-way itineraries are the same. Let’s first take a look at some basic airline lingo to understand better.
A nonstop flight is a direct flight to your next point. A layover is when your flight is broken up with minutes or hours (up to 24 hours) until your next flight. Often, you’ll need to change planes during a layover.
A stopover is different from a layover. A stopover is a stop that lasts longer than 24 hours and up to a year in between flights. Not all loyalty programs allow stopovers for award flights, but the ones that do, like United, can offer an incredible value by getting 2 destinations for the same “price.” We’ll be talking in-depth about stopovers because they’re an excellent way to maximize your miles on award flight redemptions.
The map above shows an itinerary departing from New York’s JFK airport, with a stopover in Barcelona, before arriving at the final destination, Rome. If you booked this itinerary with United, for example, it would take the same number of miles as just flying directly into Rome. By making the most of the stopover, you could spend some time in Barcelona and Rome, getting 2 cities for the price of 1. Exciting, right?!
An open-jaw is a variation on a typical roundtrip flight. A typical open-jaw itinerary allows you to fly to or from one airport and depart to or from another airport.
The above example is a classic open-jaw. The flight departs from JFK in New York City and arrives into Santiago, Chile. The return flight departs from Buenos Aires and returns to JFK. On the map, this routing looks like an “open jaw.” It’s still considered a roundtrip itinerary and, for most award tickets, won’t require any additional miles. This type of itinerary is great when you plan to travel around and don’t want to waste time and money returning to your arrival city just to make a flight.
Step Two- Airline Alliances & Search Tools
We talked about airline alliances in the Getting Started post of this travel hacking guide. Airline alliances can be used to get even greater value from your miles and points by coming together to offer numerous partners, routes, and destinations around the globe.
United Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance. When you search for award flights on United, results will show for alliance partner flights as well. You can use your United miles for these flights, too.
If you search flights on United from Chicago to Geneva for a Switzerland ski trip, below the flight times you’ll see “Includes travel operated by SWISS International Airlines.” You’ll use your United miles, but you’ll fly on their partner SWISS Airlines.
The key is to know which airlines and their partners fly which routes and how to search for availability.
To find this information, use the Wiki page for the airport you’d like to fly to and scroll to the chart showing the airlines and the routes they fly into that particular airport.
The chart above shows all the flights going to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Travelers from JFK Airport in New York City can fly American Airlines, Delta, and JetBlue. This useful information shows which miles you could use to fly from JFK to Phoenix. If you have miles with American and JetBlue, you could compare the number of miles needed between the two airlines. You might also consider saving American miles for an international destination, as most of JetBlue’s routes are domestic.
1. Practice looking for an airport Wiki page.
Google your home city/airport with the term Wiki at the end. For example, if you want to find the wiki page for Denver’s airport, type “Denver Airport Wiki.” Take a look at the chart to see which airlines fly routes into your home airport and from where they’re coming. Practice searching again with your travel goal destination.
Once you know which airline(s) fly the route you need, you can search for award availability. United, American, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest all have useful search tools on their websites. If the route you need is flown by a different carrier, step 1 is to determine which airline alliance they’re in. If the airline isn’t a part of any alliance, you’ll likely need to search that airline’s website directly.
Once you know which airline alliance the airline is in, you can search the airline’s website which has the best tool for that alliance.
- For Star Alliance partners, use United’s search tool.
- OneWorld Alliance partners can be searched for on both the American Airlines and British Airways websites.
- For SkyTeam partners, KLM and Delta are your best search options.
Keep in mind, when it comes to booking award flights, you need miles and points with whichever airline your booking. This may be different than the airline operating your flight. For example, the wiki chart might show Thai Airways operating the flight you need to Bangkok. After checking, you learn Thai Airways is a Star Alliance member so you search for flights on United’s website. You’ll need United miles to book any award flights you find, even though they’re operated by Thai Airways.
There are also tools that try to simplify this process. Expertflyer is a paid service that lets you see how many award seats are available and will also alert you when award seats open up. This tool can be helpful, especially if you’re looking for harder to get award tickets (from the U.S.) like flights to Australia and New Zealand.
Award Hacker helps you search routes, which airlines fly them, and how many miles it will take for an award ticket. It’s free to use. Once you generate your search results, you can head over to that airline or best alliance search website as mentioned above to check availability. This tool works best with basic round-trip itineraries. For travel plans with stops or complex routings, you’re best using the wiki charts and working backward from your destination.
2. Practice searching for award flights and availability.
Visit the airline websites mentioned above and do an award flight search to see which, if any, partner results show. Check out Expertflyer and Award Hacker. Bookmark the pages so you can go back to them anytime you need.
- Review basic flight terminology.
- Go back to the Getting Started post to review information about Airline alliances.
- Practice! Check out airline wiki pages and practice searching for award availability with the websites and tools discussed.
- Pin the Basic Flight Terminology Infographic to your Travel Hacking Pinterest Board.
Start a travel hacking Pinterest board and keep all your resources in one place!
Have you booked an award flight with a stopover or as an open-jaw roundtrip?
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