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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!
But, when it’s time to redeem air miles and other flexible points, you’ll need to know a few award flight basics.
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?
- And, what about maximizing those airline alliance partnerships?
First off, knowing airline routes, which miles to use, and finding award space is much harder than earning miles and points.
If you’re feeling frustrated, you’re not alone! There’s a huge learning curve that’ll get easier the more you learn.
But, this is 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.
Before diving in, let’s just put it out there.
It’s unlikely your first award flight booking(s) will be your best.
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.
Start slowly and learn little by little.
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Award Flight Basics
Once you understand the basics of airline alliances, it’s time to move on to finding routes, to learn where to search for award flights, and to compare award pricing by using what you know about airline partnerships.
In general (and despite recent changes both positive & negative), when searching for award availability, use:
- United or Air Canada’s Aeroplan website to search for Star Alliance awards,
- American Airlines, Qantas, or British Airways, to search for Oneworld awards. (AA doesn’t show all partners but has added many to their search capabilities.), and
- Delta or Air France/KLM’s Flying Blue websites to search for SkyTeam awards.
When you search on these websites, you’ll see flights operated by AA, Delta, or United, as well as flights operated by their respective partners.
For example, Scandinavian Airlines might be operating the flight you need to Stockholm, which you may see while searching for flights on United’s website since they’re both Star Alliance airlines.
There are free and paid tools like Google Flights, AwardHacker, and Expert Flyer that can help you in your award flight search. A bit more on these below.
But, I’m going to focus on a more manual way to search in this guide because this is how I began and the method that helped me really gain a deeper understanding of booking award flights.
What’s the golden rule when searching this way?
Start with your destination and search for award flights working backward to your home airport.
Using this rule, first, you’ll need to know which airlines fly to where you want to go.
The easiest manual way to do this is by searching Google for the airport you want to fly to followed by the words “airport wiki.” For example, search “Minneapolis airport wiki” or “Hong Kong airport wiki.”
The result you need should be #1 in the search results.
Open the airport’s wiki page and scroll down to the “Airlines and Destinations” section where you’ll find a table listing all of the airlines that fly to this destination and from where.
If I was flying TO Minneapolis, I can now see all the airlines that fly there and from where.
For example, can you see that American Airlines and Delta fly direct from Charlotte to Minneapolis?
Now, I know to search for award flights operated by AA or Delta. But, notice I didn’t necessarily say you should search on AA or Delta for those flights…
What if you don’t have AA or Delta miles? Does this mean all hope is lost?
Sometimes the award flight you need will be even CHEAPER with an alliance partner than booking an award flight through a legacy carrier, like American or Delta.
Thinking back to what you know about airline alliances, American Airlines is part of the Oneworld Alliance and Delta is part of the Skyteam Alliance.
Using this information:
- think about which airline miles you have,
- think about which flexible currencies you have and who their airline transfer partners are.
With Amex Membership Rewards points, you have these, as well as Delta miles. This is because these airlines are transfer partners of these flexible point programs.
Whether you already know or need to check out the airlines who partner with American Airlines or Delta, you’ll see that British Airways and Iberia are both in Oneworld with AA. You’ll also discover that Flying Blue and Virgin Atlantic partner with Delta.
Let’s revisit the domestic flight from above going from Charlotte to Minneapolis. The Wiki chart showed that AA and Delta have a direct flight between these 2 cities.
If you started by searching for an award flight on AA, you’d see a round trip economy SAAver seat from Charlotte to Minneapolis will cost 25k AA miles.
But, using what you know about airline alliances, you know British Airways and Iberia Avios can be used to book award flights operated by American Airlines.
You also know Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards transfer to British Airways and Iberia.
If you search the same dates as you did on the AA website on British Airways and Iberia, you’d see:
- British Airways will charge 15k Avios for a round trip economy seat from Charlotte to Minneapolis.
- Iberia will charge 17k Avios for a round trip economy seat from Charlotte to Minneapolis.
Why the award price difference?
Despite their partnerships, each airline has its own award pricing and/or award charts, as well as its own award routing rules.
It comes back to the all-important golden rule of travel hacking.
You follow the award chart rules of the airline whose miles you’re using, not the airline you’re flying.
British Airways and Iberia don’t fly between Charlotte and Minneapolis, but luckily their alliance partner American Airlines does!
If you book this flight through British Airways (the cheapest option in this case!) or Iberia, you’ll spend 10k fewer miles but still fly on the same exact American Airlines flights had you booked through American!
Now, repeat the process with Delta. Search on Delta and with their partners, Virgin Atlantic, and Flying Blue, using each airline’s own website for the award flight between Charlotte and Minneapolis.
Given Delta’s fluctuating award pricing, Virgin Atlantic and Flying Blue may have better pricing, depending on your dates, but you won’t know until you check.
In this case, Delta proved to be the cheapest.
But remember, the award flight screenshots above from Virgin Atlantic and below from Flying Blue are flights operated by Delta on the same dates as those in the Delta search.
Virgin Atlantic and Flying Blue don’t fly between Charlotte and Minneapolis…but their partner Delta does.
It’s so important to compare award pricing to see where you’ll get the most value from your miles.
As we saw above, American Airlines flies between Charlotte and Minneapolis but that doesn’t mean using AA miles to book the award flight is best.
How to Get Started with Award Flight Searches
Today, you can begin to improve your understanding of award chart basics. How?
Practice! I cannot stress this enough!
You want to familiarize yourself with the process and the airline websites, which can be quite quirky! Don’t wait until you’re ready to book an actual award flight.
Practice now to hone your skills!
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.
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. (If you’re booking through United’s website, you need United miles.)
Think about which airlines are partners and to which airline transfer partners you have access to with your flexible points.
2. Practice searching for award flights and availability.
Visit the legacy airline (American, United, Delta) websites and do an award flight search to see which, if any, partner results show.
Then, search for that route using the website of the applicable partners.
Search with the partners that are associated with your flexible currency. These are the transfer partners to which you have access.
3. Still feeling confused about where to search?
Try out some tools that try to simplify this process. Expertflyer is a paid tool that lets you see how many award seats are available and will also alert you when award seats open up.
Google Flights lets you search for the route you want. Take note of which airlines show in the search results and begin your award flight search and comparison as discussed above.
Award Hacker is a free tool that helps you search routes, which airlines fly them, and how many miles it will take for an award ticket.
Once you generate your search results, you can head over to that airline or best alliance search website as mentioned above to check availability.
Keep in mind, Award Hacker works best with basic round-trip itineraries. It’s a helpful starting point but isn’t the Rosetta Stone for award flights.
For travel plans with stops or complex routings, you’re best using the wiki charts and working backward from your destination.
Ready to practice? Good luck!
What are your award flight basics questions?
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