As you can see from our previous post, it’s possible to use your frequent flyer miles to go almost anywhere you want, all around the globe! I’d been planning to write a post about booking a multi-segment international award ticket, but amazingly, my sister decided to do most of the heavy lifting for me! She has put together the excellent 8 step process she uses to book her tickets, which I’ve tweaked minimally. You can follow along here.
Booking international award travel isn’t hard, if you just know how to connect the dots! Here are a few tips to get you started on your artistic ticket-creating adventure:
1. Decide where you want to go
This may be the hardest part of booking your award travel as there are infinite possibilities with award miles, if you use them wisely. Many people wrongly assume that they can only go to the destinations served directly by the airline their miles are on, but the reality today is that most airlines are part of alliances, which means you can typically fly anywhere the alliance flies. If you have a specific dream location, then with a little attention and research, you can make it there! Think of booking the ticket as the first step of your journey, as you will learn a lot about the region just by finding the airports, seeing which areas have many flights, what other airports connect there, and so on. Start by visualizing the global network of connections.
Action step: List where you want to start, where you want to end up, and any in-between stopovers or open jaws you would like, along with approximate dates. Be open to your plan changing when you see what flights are available!
2. See how many miles you have in which alliance, check for sweet spots
The main groups of airlines are Star Alliance, One World, and Sky Team. Most award flights are within these three. Each alliance has certain extra-sweet spots for award redemptions. Here are some advanced examples I learned from a few excellent sites, just to give you an idea. Aurelien would be happy to help you book these if reading through them makes your head spin:
• AA free one ways
• AA off peak 20K to Europe
• US Airways 90K business North America to North Asia with possibility to stopover in Europe
• United free stopover and open jaws on international roundtrips.
Award travel charts:
• Million Mile Secrets has an excellent post covering the major US based airlines
• News about the United Mileage Plus chart devaluation: This is happening for tickets booked after Jan 31, 2014. Europe in economy is still the same, flights to Asia definitely going up.
• Delta Skymiles: Personally, Delta Skymiles are not really worth collecting because a decent redemption tends to be very difficult to put together.
By utilizing the strengths of each alliance, you can maximize your return on investment and travel more with less miles—meaning you’ll have extra left for the next trip!
Action step: List the number of miles needed for your planned destinations from each alliance you have miles in, to see which one is best to use for your trip. Note that, sometimes, adding a different destination and using your actual destination as a stopover can open up more possibilities, including a cheaper award ticket.
3. Start connecting the dots using the route map and/or kayak.com
Think of each city/destination as a dot—you need to draw lines (flights) between them. Sometimes there isn’t a direct flight, but there may be a connection not far away. In this case, you add an extra dot in between and look for lines to and from there. Sometimes, you want to break up the journey by adding extra dots as stopovers or open jaws. Note that different airlines have rules about which way you can route to a location, for example on American Airlines N. America to SE Asia, you MUST route over the Pacific, whereas on United and US Airways, you can route via Europe, and stopover on the way there or back without paying more. A stopover is generally defined as any layover more than 24 hours long, but you can choose to “stopover” for 3 months, 6 months, etc as long as all the travel is completed within one year.
I usually use kayak.com as a first resort to get a sense of what flights and routes exist between my departure and destination. It is useful because you can choose to search by Alliance, so you see flights from only Star Alliance or Oneworld displayed.
You can also search by number of stops (nonstop, one stop, etc) if you want to minimize your connections.
This helps because there are lots of partner airlines that you can make use of, but you have to first know what flights they operate between your dots. At this stage, I usually search by “duration shortest” or “time of departure” as cost is irrelevant for these purposes. That’s the beauty of award travel; you can get on flights that would be ridiculously expensive for a set number of miles, if they have award availability. Kayak does not always show all international flights to obscure locations, so sometimes I also use the route map for this part of the research.
The Star Alliance route map is a great tool for connecting the dots, especially for obscure or out-of-the-way airports. You can pick any city and choose to see which destinations are available from there, which usually also means there is a reciprocal flight to there.
You can then choose “see all flights between these two cities”, pick one and zero in on “flights for today” to get specifics: the flight number, departure time, aircraft type, carrier, etc. By compiling that information, you start connecting the dots. Route maps are a great visual way to brush up on your geography, and much easier to grasp quickly than text-based search systems.
Action step: Identify your dots (cities) and the lines (flights) between them. There may be many lines in some cases=more options.
4. Create a system to organize your research
Due to the infinite possibilities of the route map, I like to organize the information I come across in a spreadsheet, so when coming back to it I can see at a glance what travel options are available and also update the changing award flight availability easily (If booking an award over time, the availability can change, open up, etc). Screengrabs are only so useful when comparing many flights.
Here is an Award-Spreadsheet-Example that you can download and adapt for your trip. Categories include important variables like flight number (you’ll need this when you call the airlines to book), origin and destination airports, carrier, duration of the flight, miles traveled, cost of tax for the ticket, and what type of plane (so if you are in the lucky situation of picking between 2 similar flights, you can see which airplane has better seats!).
Fill in whatever info works for you; one way to save time when entering multiple flights between the same cities is to copy and paste whole rows, and then just change the relevant info like flight number, times, and carrier.
Action step: Fill in your basic info (departure and arrival cities, and any other major dots) and then start searching!
5. Plug and chug- Search and fill out your form
Once you have the basics in place, search online and fill in your spreadsheet with the available award travel options for your desired dates.
• Here is a great post about using the ANA tool for searching Star Alliance availability, even without ANA miles; see point 2 here specifically
• Finding Oneworld Availability (note, Aurelien will be doing a more specific post about this soon, as he used all the tools in setting up his amazing award ticket)
The spreadsheet includes one column for Economy availability and another for Business class, as sometimes with complicated routings, you may not have business class on all flights, but you can add an economy flight as part of the ticket without extra cost. (This helps buffer the “sorry, no flights are available” answer you get from agents, as some flights don’t even have business, only first class). Having flexibility in mixing cabins can make a big difference in getting to where you want, especially if you want to fly business class! Having the duration time of the flight on the spreadsheet makes it easy to decide if, for example, a 2 hour flight only has economy or a 10 hour flight has business.
Action step: Search online and enter the data you find into your spreadsheet. Don’t enter every single flight, just ones that seem decent to you in terms of timing.
6. Pick which dates work for you: flexibility helps!
I insert the available award dates as a range (ie April 2, 3-5, 7, 8, etc) so when looking back I can quickly see which flights had more availability, if for some reason my dates change while planning. For complicated routings, it is important to see that the timings and dates line up, for example, a flight arriving at 11pm will probably need a connection the next day. Having the departure and arrival times in your spreadsheet makes this much easier. I usually bold/highlight in another color the flights I am getting serious about, then double-check that the times/connections between them work. I also enter all the times in 24 hour format as otherwise it can get very confusing—1:10 vs 13:10, for example.
Action step: Highlight the best flights and double-check that the dates/connections are ok.
7. Call and book it directly
This part is very straightforward if you’ve done your research properly. It is very fulfilling to just tell the agent what you want, give them the details, and see it manifest. If possible to book online, you will save a bit in phone booking fees, but if you can’t find the options you had in direct flights on the computer, then calling in may make all the difference as agents can “string together” flights that don’t always display in the online search tools. The key when calling in is to nicely let the agent know that you’ve done your homework and would simply like them to complete the booking for you. Let them search for the flights numbers and dates one by one as you feed them all the information, and the process should be very easy if you lead the call.
Action step: Call the airline, tell them what your ticket is upfront (Round trip, Chicago to Nepal, stopover in BKK, 65K economy, 90K Business class, or whatever), read them all the flights you found, hope they still have them all available, and book your ticket!
8. Enjoy your trip! and look forward to the next one. Once you have tried out this system once, you can “Save As” and edit your spreadsheet for future similar trips to save a lot of time. Let us know if you have any questions!
A parting note from Aurelien:
As you can see, my sister has done a great job laying out the general process we use to plan and book some pretty amazing trips with the frequent flyer miles we collect. While this process is reasonably simple for us at this point, I realize that it probably seems extremely complicated for many of you reading it. If you don’t have the time or desire to go through this, but still want to use your miles as efficiently as possible, then you’ll be interested in the award booking service I’m launching. I hope to be able to help many of you book amazing tickets so you can enjoy your travel more!